Peter Dreier

Peter Dreier is the E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics and founding chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. 

Recent Articles

The Man Who Put Public-Employee Unions on the Map

Saturday is the 100th birthday of Jerry Wurf, who turned AFSCME into a powerhouse and a champion of equal rights.

Jim Bourdier/AP Photo Joining hands and singing in tribute at a 1968 memorial service for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., are Jerry Wurf, Coretta Scott King, Bernard Lee, and Reverend Ralph Abernathy. In early 1968, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. flew to Memphis three times to support African American sanitation workers who had gone on strike not only to protest unsafe conditions, abusive white supervisors, and low wages, but also to gain recognition for their union. “One day our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive,” King said in his March 18 speech to an overflow crowd of 15,000 people at a Memphis church. If Americans don’t offer that respect, King continued, they “are reminding not only Memphis, but … the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich country and receive starvation wages.” On the platform with King that night was Jerry Wurf, president of the American Federation of State, County, and...

The Highlander Center Won’t Let an Arsonist Extinguish Its Flame of Justice

The Tennessee training center has been a hub of the civil rights movement and progressive organizing since 1932. It appears that hatemongers have again tried to shut it down.

Sammy Solomon/New Market Fire and Rescue Team via AP
In 1959, segregationist law enforcement officials in Tennessee raided the Highlander Folk School, a controversial interracial training center for labor and civil rights activists, for selling liquor without a license. The pretense: A workshop participant took a beer from a cooler and left behind a quarter. The state confiscated the property and shut Highlander down. Myles Horton, who had founded Highlander in 1932, pledged that its work would continue. “Highlander is an idea,” Horton said. “You can’t padlock an idea.” Horton soon re-opened Highlander in another part of Tennessee, continuing its mission as a catalyst for the civil rights movement and, more recently, environmental justice and other progressive movements. It appears that hatemongers have again tried to shut down Highlander . On March 29, a fire destroyed the main administrative building on its 100-acre campus near Knoxville. Nobody was hurt, but state authorities announced that they...

The College Admissions Scandal: Graft By Any Other Name

Outright bribery may be the exception, but favoring the rich is the rule. 

At the turn of the 20th century, a flamboyant New York City politician named George Washington Plunkitt justified his influence peddling by explaining that what he did was “honest graft,” which was not to be confused with “dishonest graft.” The current scandal over college admissions—triggered by an FBI investigation that led to charging 50 people, including 33 wealthy parents, with participating in a bribery scheme to help get unqualified students into Yale, the University of Southern California, Stanford, Georgetown, the University of Texas, UCLA, and other prestigious schools—reminded me of Plunkitt’s distinction. The parents and college staffers who are now in the headlines are getting the opprobrium they deserve. They are guilty of committing dishonest graft. At the center of the scandal is a college admissions consultant named William “Rick” Singer who set up a phony charity to launder the parents’ money. Singer, who...

Jackie Robinson: A Legacy of Activism

January 31 is the 100th birthday of the great ballplayer who set the standard for athletes who protest social injustice.

Before there was Rosa Parks, there was Jackie Robinson. On July 6, 1944, Robinson—a 25-year army lieutenant—boarded a military bus at Fort Hood, Texas with the light-skinned wife of another black officer and sat down next to her in the middle of the vehicle. “Hey you, sittin’ beside that woman,” the driver yelled. “Get to the back of the bus.” Robinson refused, knowing that buses had been officially desegregated on military bases. When the driver threatened to have him arrested, Robinson shook his finger in the driver’s face and told him, “quit fucking with me.” Two military policemen soon arrived and escorted Robinson away. He faced trumped-up charges of insubordination, disturbing the peace, drunkenness, conduct unbecoming an officer, insulting a civilian woman, and refusing to obey the lawful orders of a superior officer. Unlike the routine mistreatment of many black soldiers in the Jim Crow military, Robinson’s...

The Last President of the Old Ruling Class

George H.W. Bush, 1924-2018

One of the more annoying aspects of Donald Trump’s presidency is that he makes every previous occupant of the White House seem reasonable by comparison. Most of the obituaries about and tributes to George H.W. Bush, who died on Friday at 94, focused on the former president’s basic decency. As many journalists and historians have described him, Bush was a courteous and well-mannered individual. Their focus on Bush’s patrician reserve and quiet self-assurance is understandable in comparison to Trump’s thin-skinned temperament, arrogance, and megalomania. Yet lost in those remembrances is a distinction between Bush the private man and Bush the politician. Looking more closely, the claim that Bush’s decency characterized his presidency falls apart. On that score, perhaps only the Americans with Disabilities Act, a landmark civil rights bill which Bush signed into law in 1990, qualifies for the decency Hall of Fame. In deeper ways, however, Bush helped lay the...

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