Olney Odyssey # 14 – Advent Corporation – “On the Line”


When Mass Machine closed and ran to Nashua, New Hampshire in 1975 I assumed new duties as the District Organizer for the political organization that I was a member of. The duties of the “DO” included travel throughout New England meeting with comrades in Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Every month I would Greyhound to the Big Apple and huddle with leaders of the organization from throughout the Northeast. Those regional meetings usually consisted of the leaders from NYC barking signals at the rest of us about how to carry out the work. I felt a little of the Red Sox -Yankees rivalry polluting my perspective on the imperial directions from the New York comrades whose work had seemingly more scale and grandeur than ours.

When our organization fractured and split in 1977 it was time for me to stop being an “organizational man” subsisting on cheesesteaks and glazed donuts, smoking two packs of Marlboros per day and ballooning to almost 300 pounds. It was time to get in shape and go back to work in the factory. To get in shape I remember going to the gym in East Boston where I was living and using the upstairs balcony, which circled the basketball court as my jogging spot in the winter. To run a mile you had to do 22 laps. My first time out I could barely walk one lap without huffing and puffing and exhausting my 26-year-old body. As for work…..

My friend and comrade Bruce had been working at the Advent Corporation since 1974. Advent was the creation of Henry Kloss of Cambridge Sound Works, AR and KLH fame. The company produced quality loud speakers for stereo systems and was a pioneer in the development and manufacture of the first big screen TV’s. In fact, in the fall of 1978 I watched on a big screen, with the rest of the Advent work force, as Carl Yastrzemski popped out to end the one-day play-off with the Yankees that entombed the Red Sox season that year.

Advent was located on Albany Street in Central Square, Cambridge Massachusetts, right down the street from my first employer, NECCO candies. Advent had been “salted” “industrialized” or “colonized” by almost every stripe of Maoists and non-Maoist political organization. In short, the place was full of young Reds working side by side with the largely immigrant Italian, Haitian, Puerto Rica, Azorean, African American and ethnic white work force. That made for some sharp political engagement. Did African-Americans constitute a “Nation of a New Type”? Which Eritrean revolutionary organization had the correct line? The correct position on the Angolan liberation struggle was debated in the lunchroom and dueling newspapers were sold at the entrances to the facility. Interestingly however as I was to discover there were several workers who had actually fought in the Portuguese imperial army whose defeat in Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea Bissau led to the end of the Salazar dictatorship in Lisbon in 1975. So beyond the paper intellectual wars there were real discussions with real combatants who had been shaped, as were Vietnam vets, by their experiences on the ground.

While it may seem obvious that the stage of struggle in a non-union plant is to organize the workers into a union, …”

Another comrade, Barbara, needed work also, and we wanted to see if we could build on Bruce’s base and stature in the facility. We started work in the late spring of 1978. Bruce had been there long enough and won friendships to the extent that he had his own “apodo” in Spanish. His nickname was “Gallo” or rooster because of his physical bearing and his aggressiveness in dealing with supervisors. Steadfast in his defense of fellow workers Bruce was suspended by the general supervisor of the loudspeaker division for 5 days, April 27 – May 1 1978, for speaking up for a woman injured on the assembly line. 21 workers walked out in support of Bruce and were also suspended for three days. While Bruce and the 21 would later recoup their lost pay in an NLRB settlement in November later that year, the working conditions were steadily deteriorating. Many pointed to the fact that Henry Kloss, viewed as a beneficent and brilliant owner, had sold out control of the company to industrialist Peter Sprague of Sprague Electric in 1976. Sprague had made a name for himself by acquiring National Semiconductor and the British firm Aston Martin of James Bond 007 car fame.

When Barbara and I arrived at Advent we immediately formed a strategic collective with Bruce to guide our work. Looking back I am both impressed and astonished at the deliberate and meticulous approach we took to our work together. This is almost 20 years before the widespread use of word processing, and we typed a 6 page legal sized, single spaced sum-up of 4-5 months of work. This “Sum-Up of Advent Work” included the following sections:

1. Key points from the past history of the Company
2. Present stage of struggle – Organize the Unorganized
3. Task of this Stage
4. Advances in the Period
5. Key Questions for the Future.

While it may seem obvious that the stage of struggle in a non-union plant is to organize the workers into a union, this was not always the “center of gravity” for young Reds. Sometimes a campaign to stop a death sentence in Louisiana was made primary over the ongoing issues of economic exploitation and injustice in the factory itself. We sought to correct that approach which we characterized as “left infantilism” and projected our tasks as the following:

1. Expose the Company’s nature
2. Build struggle against the company
3. Tighten up the advanced as organizers

In our sum-up we said that; “To accomplish these things we set a line that we would bring out a workers’ newsletter, On the Line. This would be a militant and hard hitting graffiti and gossip sheet”

On the Line was a monthly publication, which carried news of the goings on among the 600 workers at Advent. We even published worker’s poetry like these prophetic lines:


The first day you start
They treat you so pleasant
If you last out the week
You are considered a peasant

You work so hard
To make ends meet
And all you have to show
Are two blistered feet

So you ask for paid sick days
And all you get is a laugh
They give you an excuse
That would make you baugh

If you let them do this
Without a fight
Then you don’t know the difference
Between wrong or right!

The poem was a set-up piece for a battle for sick days launched in October of 1978.

We need sick days

Our strategy and tactics took into account the need to ratchet up the pressure, and we employed a company-wide ballot to poll the workforce about their wishes. The ballot was published in Portuguese, English, French, Spanish and Italian. The balloting result was 237 Yes and 3 No. The results were presented to Personnel Manager Art Stewart by a delegation that marched on his office on December 15th. He declined to receive the results telling the workers to go through channels by talking to their supervisors. As a result department-by-department delegations were organized. Even without a union the workers at Advent, partially because of their home country experience, were ready to engage in militant actions. Marching on the boss was not an uncommon practice whether as a whole plant or by departments. Perhaps the most militant workers were the Haitians who had emigrated from the most impoverished country in Latin America and were only too conscious of imperialism and the comprador role of the brutal Baby Doc Duvalier dictatorship. Our focus and activity was on tapping these revolutionary spirits and, with them leading, building broad unity around the “center of gravity”, day to day battles on the shop floor.


We also set out to ally with the community struggle against styrene poisoning. Styrene was the substance that was used in the building on Emily Street where the big screen TV screens were manufactured. For a longtime the community, led by the Cambridge port Alliance and resident Bill Cavellini, had been agitating against the styrene effluent, which was polluting their neighborhood. We met with Bill and began to communicate the concerns of the community in the pages of On the Line.

What care and effort was spent on the minutest of details! In summing up a party we held prior to the launch of the sick day campaign, we noted that, “Even Carmela Calhoun of the fascist caucus brought her hot peppers to work the day before the party. Talk in the shop flew around Santos’ salsa tapes and to who was going to get first dibs on Ernie’s ham hocks. Big Nick, the Hitter, came forward to tend bar and personally sold 20 tickets in advance for the party.” This is the richness of real face to face, “mano a mano” organizing that is required to move groups of workers. Our conscious deliberate approach was beginning to reap benefits.

But in an ominous development both Barbara and I were laid off in November of 1978 along with fifteen other workers. At the time this was seen as a seasonal occurrence and did not affect our battle plan around sick days. We were wrong; it was a warning sign of big doings afoot.

Olney Odyssey #15 – New Hampshire Strikes Again!

About the author

Peter Olney

Peter Olney is retired Organizing Director of the ILWU. He has been a labor organizer for 40 years in Massachusetts and California. He has worked for multiple unions before landing at the ILWU in 1997. For three years he was the Associate Director of the Institute for Labor and Employment at the University of California. View all posts by Peter Olney →

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An open letter to Congress Members Ros-Lehtinen, Rubio, Cruz, and other concerned Conservatives


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Dear Congress Members Ros-Lehtinen, Rubio, Cruz, and other concerned Conservatives,

About the renewal of US-Cuba relations, you really mustn’t fret so much, honestly. On the contrary, there are many fine reasons for Conservatives to support normalized relations between the two countries. I will give you only three.

First of all, opening an embassy in Havana will be the best thing that ever happened to the cause of overthrowing the Cuban government. An embassy comes with a Political Officer and fulltime CIA staffers. Have you forgotten all the victories our embassies have scored over the years in ridding Latin American countries of leftist governments? Remember Guatemala ’54, Chile ’73, and Nicaragua ’90? In all three cases our embassies were extremely successful: organizing, funding, and directing opposition groups until they ousted the socialists. The Women in White will multiply in droves with an embassy!

Secondly, ending the embargo, an excellent policy option. Why? Because, as we all know, Cuba is a poor country that does not feed itself. If US farmers begin selling foodstuffs to Cubans, in no time we will accomplish a couple of objectives. One, Cuban agriculture, such as it is, will be overwhelmed by the sheer flood of American rice, beans, wheat, and other staples, just as Mexican corn was under NAFTA. In no time Cubans will be dependent on us for their most basic meals. Who can dispute that having a lock on a country’s food supply is not leverage to influence their politics? Furthermore, selling grains to Cuba will mean that the island will have to borrow money to pay for them. Who will make those loans? American banks, of course. You know full well what happens when any country becomes indebted to foreign banks – we don’t have to review the history of the 1980s to figure that one out: just look Greece and what’s coming to Puerto Rico. If we both lend money to Cuba and then get that same money back in food purchases, our banks and our farmers win. And the Cubans owe us more. When they cannot make payments, we can impose conditions on them, like privatization of anything we want, starting with the Cuban banking system. Well, Cuba has no banking system, which will make it even easier for us to own it. In no time, a pile of our t-shirts will bear the “Made in Cuba” label and they will cost, what, five dollars? Because a job that pays one-dollar-a-day is better than no job at all. Just ask the Haitians next door.

Third, allowing free travel between the US and Cuba will also be good. Who can resist American culture? Imagine the island flooded with US movies, music, clothing styles, fast food (there goes the much touted Cuban national health system), sports (every Cuban baseball player will be swinging for one of our teams!). And for all you young Conservatives: can you say Spring Break??? Cuba has the healthiest coral reef in the Western Hemisphere, why stop at Varadero? Unfortunately, there will be some downsides to normal relations with Cuba, including prostitution, drugs, and money laundering. But even these will provide new opportunities and markets for our public safety private sector. When all the above is in place, how long before Cubans take to the streets, protesting and staging strikes and the rest? And guess who will be out there to repress the mobilized? The Cuban army, of course! Anyone ready to sell rubber bullets, water houses, personnel carriers, and tear gas? When the Cuban army turns on the people, what Democrat or liberal anywhere in the United States will defend the Cuban government? How long after that do you think anyone remotely related to the Cuban Communist Party will be ruling anything?

So, you see, the normalization of relations with Cuba really is a Conservative dream come true.

Myrna Santiago


Obama and Castro traded letters confirming plans to reopen permanent diplomatic missions on July 20

(Photo/Poster Source)

About the author

Myrna Santiago

Myrna Santiago grew up in Tijuana and moved to Los Angeles when she was twelve years old.  She attended Stevenson Junior High in Boyle Heights before going to Phillips Academy, Andover on an ABC Scholarship.  She graduated from Princeton University with a BA in Latin American Studies in 1982 and left for Mexico City on a Fulbright Scholarship after that.  Between 1985 and 1990, she did human rights work in Nicaragua, returning to the United States to start the PhD in History at UC Berkeley.  She currently teaches Latin American history at Saint Mary's College of California. View all posts by Myrna Santiago →

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A blindspot that crippled


“The New Voices campaign of 1995 was one of the most important efforts within organized labor to respond to the crisis afflicting the movement. There are two issues that are regularly ignored in analyses of this effort, specifically, the Left and the issue of the union/community relationship. The following is a modest note on these and a suggestion that there is need for further exploration of these issues.”

The New Voices reform effort was very significant in many ways. There was a deep commitment to building a revitalized trade union movement. But one feature of this was a strange and select view of labor history and its lessons for contemporary labor. A classic example of this was the recognition that unions needed to place more resources into organizing. It was noted how much–in terms of resources–the United Mine Workers had devoted to organizing. While this was true, and while it was also true that the contemporary union movement needed to redirect resources toward organizing, what was ignored was the role of the Left in helping to move the resurgence of organized labor.

The Congress of Industrial Organizations was built through a combination of factors. One of those factors was the role that the Left had played in building the union movement in the 1920s and 1930s. Communists, Trotskyists, Independent socialists, and Muste-ites all played a major role, in part through the dedication of cadre who were deployed to build various movements within the working class. Leaders of the CIO were willing to admit their need for the Left, at least during the 1930s. The Left played a major role in sustaining efforts, e.g., the unemployed movements, providing leadership as well as leadership training.

In the 1990s the much weaker US Left did not exist as such a force. Additionally, the leaders of the New Voice movement placed no attention on playing any role in rebuilding the Left. While, in many cases, leftists were hired as staff and/or tolerated in certain elected positions, there was little effort to acknowledge a role for the Left, let alone to advance a discourse shaped by the Left. Thus, the history of labor’s various efforts at resistance and resurgence almost never mentioned the significance there was to the existence of a Left in the building of a trade union movement.

The second, but related factor that was largely ignored by the New Voices movement was the question of the role of the union/community alliances. Although in the early 1990s there was renewed attention to building ties with community-based organizations and movements, such relationships continued to be dominated by a transactional and tactical approach. Specifically, unions would turn to community-based organizations when they felt that they–unions–were in trouble but there was no sense of building strategic ties between the two sectors. This contrasted with efforts that could be found in the 1930s where there was a more open recognition of the need for such relationships, at least on the part of a segment of the union movements. The ties built between segments of the CIO and the National Negro Congress, for instance, were very significant and played a major role in the successful unionization of Ford Motors. Yet this history has been largely forgotten or, when remembered, ignored.

The New Voices ignored or dismissed these two very important legacies. In doing so they operated with a blindspot that crippled, if not doomed their reform efforts. This does not mean that the other factors were of no or little importance. Rather, these points noted here are more aimed at completing the circle.

About the author

Bill Fletcher, Jr.

"Host of The Global African on Telesur-English", Bill Fletcher Jr has been an activist since his teen years. Upon graduating from college he went to work as a welder in a shipyard, thereby entering the labor movement. Over the years he has been active in workplace and community struggles as well as electoral campaigns. He has worked for several labor unions in addition to serving as a senior staffperson in the national AFL-CIO. Fletcher is the former president of TransAfrica Forum; a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies; an editorial board member of BlackCommentator.com. Fletcher is the co-author (with Peter Agard) of “The Indispensable Ally: Black Workers and the Formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, 1934-1941″; the co-author (with Dr. Fernando Gapasin) of “Solidarity Divided: The crisis in organized labor and a new path toward social justice“; and the author of “‘They’re Bankrupting Us’ – And Twenty other myths about unions.” Fletcher is a syndicated columnist and a regular media commentator on television, radio and the Web. He regularly posts to Facebook and Twitter pages. View all posts by Bill Fletcher, Jr. →

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Justice for Janitors: A Misunderstood Success

By and

Part two of a series looking back on the 20th anniversary the AFL-CIO’s New Voice movement

John Sweeney, his officers, and their staff team came into office with high expectations and great optimism. A good part of their inspiration was drawn from SEIU’s Justice for Janitors campaign that many had directly participated in or saw as a model of success. After all, Justice for Janitors had succeeded in mobilizing members, winning better contracts and organizing thousands of new, mostly Latino members while garnering broad public support.(1)

Founded in 1921, the Building Service Workers was a Chicago-based janitors, window washer and doormen’s union. George Hardy, the predecessor to John Sweeney as International President, was a San Francisco native and organizer who took his comrades from Hayes Valley to Southern California after World War II to organize janitors in Los Angeles. From his base at Local 399 in Los Angeles, Hardy launched the campaign to organize Kaiser and health care that would transform the Building Service Workers into the Service Employees International Union.(2)

By the 1980s, much of the union’s market power among urban janitors had eroded as the industry restructured to a cleaning model that relied on outsourced contract cleaners instead of permanent staff. When Justice for Janitors was launched in the late 1980s however, the union still retained tremendous power and thousands of members in its traditional strongholds of New York City, Chicago and San Francisco.

Union janitors NYC

In these cities, the union had excellent contracts with good wages and benefits for doormen and cleaners. These were the “fortresses” that played such a crucial role in the success of the janitor’s campaigns in Los Angeles, San Jose, Oakland, Denver and San Diego where the battle was to reorganize weak and degraded bargaining units and organize thousands of new members.

The early janitor organizers in Los Angeles recognized the importance of first rebuilding and re-energizing their base. One of the first campaigns undertaken was the contract campaign for downtown janitors. Cecile Richards(3) skillfully directed a winning contract fight for the approximately 1,000 janitors in the core market of LA. The contract struggle gave the union a new core group of supporters; many of whom became the front line soldiers in the campaign to organize the vast non-union market outside of downtown.

A key to the membership mobilization was “market triggers” that Local 399 inserted into its collectively bargained agreements. The triggers provided for automatic increases in wages and benefits if the janitors union succeeded in organizing 50 percent or more of the commercial buildings in mutually agreed upon geographic areas. Thus, when rank and file union janitors marched for “justice for the unorganized janitors” it meant marching to increase their own wages and benefits and to gain a more secure future.

In Los Angeles long-time union signatory contractors like International Service Systems (ISS) were operating non-union or in the case of American Building Maintenance (ABM) double breasting by creating new entities like “Bradford Building Services” to clean non-union in LA.(4) On May 29, 1990 the SEIU janitors boldly struck non-union ISS buildings in the entertainment high rise complex called Century City. When the Daryl Gates-led police department brutally attacked the striking Los Angeles janitors on June 15, the shocking news footage traveled around the country.(5) With some prompting, SEIU Local 32 B-J leader Gus Bevona threatened ISS with a shutdown in New York City if the company didn’t settle in LA. That strategic solidarity contributed to victory and the nearly immediate organization of thousands of new members for SEIU Local 399.

Most successful organizing is not done in a vacuum, existing members have to be front line apostles.


The campaign even had a movie made about it; “Bread and Roses” directed by the Scottish filmmaker Ken Loach.(6) It did a fine job of presenting SEIU’s strategy to organize industry-wide and build a campaign that resonated broadly in the community particularly among Latinos. It also portrayed the challenges organizers always face in holding the unity of the working class. The deep divisions and contradictions among workers are often the biggest obstacle that needs to be overcome in order to have a shot at beating the boss.(7)

The Justice for Janitors campaign was often showcased by New Voice supporters as a premier example of “new” organizing. But what many union leaders and key staff strategists have missed is the fact it was not a “blank slate” campaign disconnected from the sources of SEIU’s membership and contract power. As we have shown above, it was a campaign (as William Finnegan also pointed out in an excellent New Yorker article) deeply rooted in the existing power, base and history of SEIU.(8)

Herein lies an important lesson: It takes members to organize members! While obvious and hardly a new concept, it was embraced as part of the New Voice strategy of “bargaining to organize” in 1996. But sadly the importance of worker-to-worker organizing, building strong committees and using our bargaining power with employers got lost. As a result, we’ve seen a multitude of costly “Hail Mary” passes being thrown in the labor movement with little chance of success because there is not the power of the market or the members in play.

Justice for Janitors was a brilliant campaign that wisely by-passed the NLRB election process and leveraged better contracts and growth through an industry-wide strategy that relied heavily on creative confrontation and community alliances. It was not however a campaign out of whole cloth. It had the power of the existing membership in major markets, leverage with many of the employers who were operating non-union in new markets and the loyalty of many members who had seen the union’s power in making a better life for themselves and their families. Bargain to organize remains a successful starting point for real organizing, member-to-member.

Most successful organizing is not done in a vacuum, existing members have to be front line apostles. Can United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) supermarket members be expected to support the organization of Wal-Mart workers if national supermarket chains are weakening their labor contracts, and the union is not responding with a national bargaining strategy?

This is the dilemma so often faced by trade unionists in thinking about bold new initiatives. For example, in the aftermath of the success of the Janitors campaign in Los Angeles the union succeeded in organizing many new janitors, raising their wages and in some markets, winning health insurance. The contractors responded by cutting staffing to recoup their margins. SEIU Local 399 engaged in several dramatic strikes against staffing cuts. These were strikes by workers under contract. One strike led to the arrest of all 55 janitors in the largest office building in Los Angeles in 1993. While the strike led to victory in the staffing conflict in that building, it created tension with the external organizers who saw any deviation from focus on new organizing as problematic and any disruption of union signatories as a problem. Never an easy dilemma, but if existing members are not confident in the union’s power to deal with their lives then their support for external campaigns becomes more limited.

Several years ago, the new “Our Walmart” campaign was rolled out and previewed at a strategic organizers retreat in California with an impressive power point presentation on Walmart’s markets, finance and vulnerabilities. The presentation projected the organization of one percent of Walmart’s workforce by the end of the campaign’s first year: 12,000 workers. As the presentation came to a close, a veteran organizer from the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE) very respectfully made two points with respect to his organizing experience:

•It has taken HERE 20 to 25 years to build an organizing culture in some of its locals among its existing membership base
•In the hotel industry the “big dog” is Marriot and the union did not think it had the power and resources at this moment to take that company on.

The HERE organizer had just effectively deconstructed the Our Walmart effort. This from an organizer with a union that successfully waged a “bargain-to-organize” campaign with the Hyatt Hotel chain that resulted in organizing rights in new Hyatt’s in selected markets. This is another example of the effective use of the “union fortress” to grow.

The urgency of organizing millions of workers to reclaim the union density levels of post-World War II led the ambitious “New Voice” apostles to steer the labor movement away from emphasis on long, patient organizing drives and deep worker-based organizing. What an irony that a campaign whose very success was based on the strength of its existing membership base was — and continues to be — misconstrued into an example of how large scale organizing can take place without the fundamental imperative of engagement with our existing membership.

(1) “Justice For Janitors: A look back and a look forward: 24 years of organizing janitors”
(2) For information about George Hardy and for the history of the Building Service Workers
(3) Richards is the daughter of Texas Governor Anne Richards and now director of Planned Parenthood.
(4) International Service Systems and American Building Maintenance
(5) “Janitors Suit Settled,” Sonia Nazario, Los Angeles Times, September 4, 1993
(6) “Bread and Roses
(7) Scottish screenwriter Paul Laverty came to Los Angeles in the early nineties to march and hang out with the janitors and their organizers. His screenplay was made into “Bread and Roses” staring a young unknown actor named Adrien Brody cast as the SEIU organizer. George Lopez, later of TV sitcom fame, played a vicious cleaning company supervisor.
(8) Finnegan’s showed remarkable insight in his article, “Dignity” about the “Fight for $15″ in the September 15, 2014 issue of The New Yorker where he points out the fundamental difference between the Justice for Janitors campaign and Fast Food organizing: “The Justice for Janitors campaign of the nineteen-nineties offers a good precedent for the current fast-food campaign, [SEIU President Mary Kay] Henry said. The janitors were fissured by the broad move of commercial property owners to subcontracting, much as fast-food workplaces are fissured by franchising. Their nominal employers, small cleaning companies, had no power and thin profit margins. The tactics of the janitors were unorthodox, and included mass civil disobedience: closing freeways in Los Angeles; blocking bridges into Washington, D.C. Their goal was to get building owners to the table, and in time they succeeded, in some cases nearly doubling with their first contract the compensation they had been earning. The movement was largely Latino, and crucially strengthened by undocumented immigrants who stepped up, risking deportation. But big-city janitors had been unionized, historically—and in some cities, like New York, still were—so the fight was really to reorganize and rebuild. There is no comparable history in fast food. More important, the fast-food workforce is just under four million and growing, and the main companies are so rich and powerful that the stakes are higher than in any labor struggle in recent memory.” (Emphasis added)


Previously in the series looking back on the 20th anniversary the AFL-CIO’s New Voice movement
Part One: Just a whisper now: a look back at the AFL-CIO New Voice after 20 years



About the author

Peter Olney

Peter Olney is retired Organizing Director of the ILWU. He has been a labor organizer for 40 years in Massachusetts and California. He has worked for multiple unions before landing at the ILWU in 1997. For three years he was the Associate Director of the Institute for Labor and Employment at the University of California. View all posts by Peter Olney →

Rand Wilson

Rand Wilson has worked as a union organizer and labor communicator for more than twenty five years and is  currently an organizer with SEIU Local 888 in Boston. Wilson was the founding director of Massachusetts Jobs with Justice.  Active in electoral politics, he ran for state Auditor in a campaign to win cross-endorsement (or fusion) voting reform and establish a Massachusetts Working Families Party.  He is President of the Center for Labor Education and Research, and is on the board of directors of the ICA Group, the Local Enterprise Assistance Fund and the Center for the Study of Public Policy. View all posts by Rand Wilson →

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The Elections in Chicago – A View From Chuy’s Base Area


Chicago hasn’t seen such electoral contention since the days of Dick and Jane – and Harold. Even in defeat, the Jesus “Chuy” Garcia challenge brought a familiar spirit back to the city by the lake. No one expected the immigrant from Durango to challenge the abrasive Rahm in a run off. Nor could we have predicted the surprising synergy that would result from over a dozen insurgent ward campaigns and Chuy’s crusade. In the 12th ward on the Southwest side, we learned that politics is local.

Following a spontaneous and wildly successful petition drive which netted 62,000 names in less than a month, passion in wards north, south and west threatened to ignite a city-wide blaze.

To our chagrin, the wind in our city could not propel enough burning embers across the Dan Ryan and the Eisenhower. In the posh areas of the new economy, condo dwellers stamped out the sparks with their tony boots. They rushed to the polls as if panicking in a lakefront fire drill. Municipal employees and pensioners tried to nurture the flame out southwest and northwest. But suspicious property owners turned on their sprinklers in spite of distaste for mayor’s one percent. Constant TV attack ads paid for with Rahm’s millions were the showers that fell harder on some neighborhoods than others.

Jesus “Chuy” Garcia awoke long dormant alliances. Young activists stepped forward and exchanged skills with veteran organizers. Hundreds worked to create new mechanisms for electoral struggle. Aldermanic candidates emerged to give leadership to progressive ward organizations. Terms like “privatization”, “community policing”, “progressive taxation”, “participatory budgeting”, and “the neighborhoods” became familiar topics.

When the votes were all counted, we were not the kind of movement that could topple Rahm Emanuel’s coterie of global power brokers. We are a populace fragmented by the cunning of the one percent. We rose up to fight back. We lost. And yet we gained a lot.

At the risk of over simplification, the mayor’s tactic was to arouse suspicion of a Mexican American populist. To whites, the message, encoded in “dog whistles”, was that Chuy is a “nice”, but “naïve”, Mexican “boy”. His call for audits of city corruption was spun as an evasion of fiscal responsibility. At a more sinister level, the unspoken message called for unity to keep the burgeoning Latino community in its place – at the precarious margins of progress. Fearful of dire warnings of municipal bankruptcy, many white voters sided with the one percent. Chuy’s biggest strength is his unapologetic compassion and his defense of the undocumented. In the minds of a beleaguered middle class, this roughly translated as “keep them in their place, scrambling at the bottom alongside the blacks”.

And to African Americans, many of whom have been pushed even beyond the margin, there was not a deep enough reservoir of solidarity. Competition for jobs and economic opportunity between blacks and Latinos has created a divide. The rivalry, often downplayed in polite discussion, is nonetheless real. It’s the most recent iteration of the age-old scenario – not unlike the divisions set up at the turn of the previous century when southern sharecroppers were imported as replacement workers in the stockyards.

More than anything else, the race hinged on race.

Significantly the Latino community in Chicago supports a relatively vibrant commercial class.

Yet we gave them a scare, flexed some political muscle, won a handful of new aldermanic seats, learned a lot, increased our numbers, and projected an example for similar coalitions and struggles nationwide.

The key was a grass roots approach. Some purists missed this important dynamic. They stood on the sidelines calling Chuy a corporate neo-liberal in disguise. They predicted that Chuy would enact austerity budgets. They feared that his campaign was not radical enough to energize those who have lost hope. They jumped on weaknesses in outreach to African American communities as a deal breaker. The campaign’s call for hiring of 1000 police officers was cited as an indication of treachery.

In the near southwest 12th ward, we didn’t even try to influence the citywide campaign over which we had little control. We felt that, if everything fell into place, we might be able to replicate the minority-led Harold Washington inter-regnum of thirty years ago. But, more realistically, we were fighting for power at the ward level and to defend our people. As things stand, neo-liberal schemes define the political landscape. Rahm Emanuel personifies this perfidy along the predominantly Latino Archer corridor. Transfer of wealth proceeds apace.

The elevation of Commissioner Garcia as our standard bearer at first seemed accidental – driven, as it was, by Karen Lewis’ brain tumor and County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s refusal to accept the challenge.

But it is not random chance that reform’s most credible and trustworthy candidate arose from the Latino political movement. Commissioner Garcia has positioned himself as an honest independent. He has been steady in opposition to each successive re-incarnation of machine politics. He got his start as a pioneer for Chicano empowerment in the late seventies. The ward organization, which he helped form in Little Village, is the only opposition precinct apparatus which has stayed intact over this span. The man has displayed courage several times in his career – from his willingness to stand in for his assassinated compadre, Rudy Lozano, to his recent acceptance of the torch from Ms. Lewis, the outspoken leader of the teacher’s union.

Chuy’s campaign meme was that Rahm takes from the neighborhoods and rewards the rich. The gleaming center versus decaying ghettos and barrios was a fundamental metaphor. Specifics in regards to safety, education, revenue generation, and services were plentiful. Problems with the mix of issues, the way they were broadcast, difficulties in creating a citywide campaign, and missed alliances do not alter the key point – Chuy was articulating a broad populist message.

With regard to Chuy’s strongest base of support, critics should own up to their own blind spot. He unapologetically spoke for a large, multi-class base in a Latino community that is marginalized and becoming more so. It is almost too obvious to state that Latinos are overwhelmingly members of the working class. The dynamism of the Latino fabric in Chicago is hard to ignore.

Correctly and in keeping with his longstanding approach, Chuy subsumed his Chicano politics within a call for class justice. Unions were his financial bedrock. Class was a unifying blanket. Good government was a broad appeal. But the speakers of Spanish, the people whose names end in “ez” and “ño”, the Latinos of Chicago, were his reliable electoral base.

In our work in McKinley Park, we were struck by the Latino solidarity. Every precinct produced vote percentages coinciding almost exactly with the percent of Latino voters. Of course there are small remnants of the discredited Hispanic Democratic Organization (HDO). In my own precinct, there are four reliable Rahm votes in the household of machine-backed State Senator Tony Muñoz. And, of course, we know white and Chinese voters who went with Chuy. But the general pattern holds.

Significantly the Latino community in Chicago supports a relatively vibrant commercial class. Their interest is strongly with the economic well-being and the secure residency status of all Spanish speakers. They along with Latino professionals – both public and private — were totally on board. It was never hard to solicit botanas and comidas for Garcia events. Rahm Emanuel photo ops with Latino elected officials, who called themselves the Rahmtinos, elicited derision in all Southwest side barrios.

In the run off, Latino turnout, while elevated and enthusiastic, did not cascade to the mighty levels that we experienced with African Americans voting for Harold Washington or Barak Obama. Social and historical reasons prevail. A huge cohort of noncitizens intermingles with many who are not registered or feel culturally and linguistically alienated.

Similarly, the hoped for re-unification of the Black-Brown alliance of the 1980s, was not spectacular. Emanuel’s money produced saturation attack ads, street level pay offs, misleading promises, and appeals to racial divisions by proxy publicists. Some lingering loyalty to Rahm as an emissary from President Obama depressed the African American turnout significantly. Rahm pulled down majorities in the mid-50s to mid-60s in African American precincts.

Long known as a united voting bloc, African Americans were divided and confused. Could the Garcia campaign have said the magic words and repaired a historic divide? Weaknesses in the commissioner’s campaign were a reflection of something broader. He could not create on-the-ground leadership and proof of good faith for such an alliance in a matter of weeks. Stubborn realities of segregation, alternating tactics of favoritism and neglect, gerrymandering, and economic competition have chilled the dialogue among the two communities.

Chuy’s history is replete with efforts to reach out and champion the black agenda. He was a swing vote for Harold Washington in council wars. He has stood against discriminatory landlords and segregated high school boundaries. More so than any current elected official in Chicago, he has worked to create working multi-ethnic and multi-issue coalitions. When he was in the Illinois Senate, he was a member of the Black caucus. In contrast, the incumbent one percenter used guile to fashion relatively cheap and insignificant gestures as a lifeline to African Americans.

… we had such a large base of volunteers that we were able to approximate the old style machine structure

Several African American leaders and activists were prominent and instrumental. For every compromised clergyman there was a Jesse Jackson. For each Bobby Rush there was a Danny Davis. For every charter hustler there was an education activist like Kenwood’s Jitu Brown.

In the 12th ward, Pete DeMay’s aldermanic campaign intermingled with Chuy’s mayoral crusade. Like Chuy, Pete stepped forward when no one else was willing. He entered a one-on-one bout with machine regular, George Cardenas.

Pete was an anomaly – a white guy with credibility as a United Autoworkers organizer, fluent in Spanish and with organizing experience in Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Tennessee. He was a hard-working and combative campaigner. He united with an existing core of activists in the McKinley Park neighborhood and attracted an expanded following. His platform centered on education, end to regressive revenue measures, as well as more equitable public safety and ward services.

It is here, at the deepest level of political activity, that the elections of 2015 are interesting and instructive. In the precincts, we mixed the battle for local accountability with the broader, city-wide effort. We went toe to toe against a well-funded, entrenched machine. We stood upright in the middle of the ring. We were surprised to see a Latino cheering section for the güero against a man who has a surname evocative of Mexican radicalism. So effective was the challenge, that Cardenas appealed to a hometown referee – Rahm’s Chicago Board of Elections. Ruling on preposterous legal pretexts, the board declared a technical knockout. Pete was stricken from the ballot. We were down for the count before we could finish the first round.

We’ll never know if Pete’s aggressive campaign could have ridden Chuy’s coat tails to victory against a Latino apologist for neo-liberalism. His spunk and organization touched a nerve. Even without his name on the ballot, we netted an unprecedented 20 to 25 percent write-in count in the municipal general election.

The use of legal shenanigans to derail Pete’s challenge was as obvious as it was odious. The required number of nominating signatures was 473. We collected over 2100. Of these, 1400 were invalidated in challenges. The majority were stricken based on overly precise requirements that the signatures match exactly with their original applications. One hundred and fifty names were ruled “out of district” by a computer program that was obviously flawed. Each in-district address that was rejected was clearly within the boundaries.

Then, with a remaining cushion of 300 above the needed level, Cardenas’ election lawyer submitted witnesses and affidavits supposedly proving a pattern of fraud. The alderman’s staff had gone around the ward during work hours to badger signers into recanting their names on Pete’s petitions. On the basis of 47 coerced affidavits and 3 suspect witnesses, the hearing examiner declared all sheets turned in by Pete himself to be inadmissible. Our signature total fell to 407 and we were off the ballot.

Activists and constituents understood the cynical use of a municipal board to protect a favorite of Mayor Emanuel. The commissioner is a lawyer who has received over $200 million in municipal fees for billable hours in recent years. We made common cause with other campaigns who had suffered similarly egregious rulings. We rallied voters who saw these maneuvers as a sign of weakness by the incumbent and an affront to democracy. The commitment of the core tightened and the drive for write-in votes picked up steam.

Chuy had surpassed all expectations and held Rahm to only 45%. With none of the five candidates receiving more than half, the mood at our 12th ward election night gathering was mixed. We had brought home landslide numbers in all our precincts for Chuy. We knew that write-in votes were accumulating in astonishing numbers but Pete’s defeat was seen as unavoidable. The obstacles were too great.

Looking around the banquet room, the majority of Pete’s active campaigners where Latinos. They were union members. They were young people gaining their first taste of politics. They were from each section of a gerrymandered district. We all saw this cause as inseparable from the city wide crusade to “Take Back Chicago”.

Precincts were the critical unit of geography. The goal was to staff each precinct with people who live there. Typically in our southwest campaigns, the stability of such teams has been uneven. Most often – especially when the turf is larger than a ward — volunteers show up for canvassing. They are handed walk sheets based solely on the areas that have not yet been covered. In Pete’s campaign – because we had the added dynamism of working in concert with the Chuy mobilization – we had such a large base of volunteers that we were able to approximate the old style machine structure.

Democratic ward armies of the past have been based on captain and patronage loyalists. These teams are in decline nowadays because of a shift from hiring clout to sub-contracting and privatizing. Our home grown teams were able to match up favorably with the diehards. We held precinct meetings, put out specific flyers by neighborhood, and were able to allocate crews of watchers, passers, and runners at every polling place. Just as our ward was a battleground in the mayoral, the precincts were key for Pete’s challenge.

To grab and hold some power even at the ward level, this must be a continuing emphasis. We forged cooperation by local people of good will – from recreation and cultural leaders, to teachers and librarians, to retired and current union people, to the youth and the unemployed. Links to citywide issues and to the concerns of other neighborhoods are a priority. Of particular importance will be creating unity with African American communities.

Here in the Latino southwest side, the progressives fought five aldermanic battles in addition to the overarching Garcia effort. Though they were not arrayed as an official slate, there was an informal alliance which benefited each local race and contributed to Chuy’s organizing.The various teams picked up tips from each other. Those which didn’t survive the first round joined in to help out those still in the field and to work side by side in the mayoral. Marching bands from two of our high schools led parades to early voting.

The teams from various ward struggles and from the Chuy field offices now have an opportunity to forge tighter working unity. We face stiff challenges as Rahm begins his next four year reign. We expect renewed attacks in ever changing forms. That’s what it’s all about — learning from electoral efforts, gearing up for the next one, and directing a united front against inevitable attacks.

About the author

Bill Drew

Bill Drew is an activist in Chicago's Southwest side.  He has years of experience in labor, civil rights, and anti-war organizing. In the past 5 years he has been building a progressive electoral movement.  You can read his memoirs at Fortunate Son | Redemption of a '70s Radical View all posts by Bill Drew →

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Baltimore’s Implosions


“A city wakes up in pain amidst the billowing smoke of deceit and dreams incinerated.”

How many times have I heard it? “I just love what they have done to Baltimore—the stadium and the inner harbor.” No doubt, many of same folks would say they love The Wire, too. But if they were asked to match the devastation of deindustrialization with a single city, Detroit would win hands down.

Baltimoreans share these bifurcated allegiances. Who doesn’t love a coliseum that so ably represents a city’s history of industry and hard work, even as one wonders how the metropolis will survive its gentrification?

I should have known my Facebook musing on a smoldering city would be touched by our schizophrenia about the cause of Baltimore’s troubles.

I listed a chain of legendary industrial workplaces that have long been shuttered, beginning with Bethlehem Steel’s Sparrows Point Plant, where I spent 30 years, most of them as an activist and representative of the United Steelworkers.

The plant, which, after Bethlehem’s bankruptcy in 2002, had been traded off in a corporate poker game between several owners, has been shut down for two years, idling more than 2,000 workers.

Just a few weeks ago, the 3,200-acre facility’s towering blast furnace –one of the world’s largest when it was built, a landmark that carried a star seen for miles each Christmas, one I memorialized in a poem–was imploded, spreading as much pain as finality.

So, I asked my Facebook friends what happens when dozens of legendary plants that employed hundreds of thousands, workplaces like General Motors, Western Electric, Armco Steel and Lever Brothers shut down.

I asked what happens when apologists for the outsourcers and “free” traders and financiers say not to worry. Good, clean jobs will open up. Young people locked out of opportunity will find bright futures. A rusty city will gleam. What happens?

My answer: “A city wakes up in pain amidst the billowing smoke of deceit and dreams incinerated.”

The “likes” poured in. In the narcissist vein of Facebook, I felt important and persuasive.

It took a former co-worker only a few seconds to burst my boast. Rob accused me of “making excuses” for rioting groups of inner city residents who “won’t take accountability for their own lives.”

I responded to him civilly. I said accountability for a polarized, suffering city should be expansive, encompassing the decisions not just of the folks at the bottom, but those of the wealthy and powerful, with a bit of introspection on the part of the rest of us.

“Accountability for their own lives.” I thought back on the struggle that had already been raging in the courts over discrimination in the steel industry when I was hired in 1973, one brilliantly preserved in a video, “Struggles in Steel,” by Braddock, Pa., steelworker sons Tony Buba and Ray Henderson.

Black workers had always been assigned to the dirtiest, most dangerous jobs in the mills. And they would lose their seniority if they transferred out to majority white departments, starting out at the bottom again, at the beck and call of the boom and the bust.

Years of lawsuits, rallies and lobbying had finally resulted in a consent decree that provided for reforming seniority systems and opening up trade and craft jobs to minority workers and women.

The Civil Rights Movement had spread into basic industries.

Black steelworkers from Birmingham, Ala. to Lackawanna, N.Y. and Baltimore took “accountability for their own lives.”

They didn’t always fight alone. One of my proudest recollections was accompanying 300 coke oven workers, mostly senior black workers from the hell hole of the mill, but accompanied by a notable infusion of more recent hires, many of them white guys who had come home from Vietnam.

Decked out in overalls and safety shoes, they blew through the doors and security of the Shoreham Hotel in Washington where their union leaders were meeting to demand support in winning cleaner conditions and higher incentive pay. And, after a brief wildcat strike when they returned home, they won.

Skilled jobs had been off limits to black workers for decades. For a time, while attending the local community college, I interviewed some of these co-workers as part of a co-op curriculum toward my paralegal degree.

Their stories were heart-rending. A Korean War veteran related how he worked as a plane mechanic in the Air Force, but was flunked when he took the millwright’s test at the Point, even while less-qualified whites entered that department.

So he became a laborer, stacking up ungodly hours of overtime on man-killing assignments to equal and surpass the paychecks he could have made had he been able to move into a skilled position.

I’ll never forget the words of Francis Brown, one of the leaders of Steel and Shipyard Workers for Equality, a leading organization of black workers at the Point:

“When a white guy needs an electrician or a plumber, he calls his brother or brother-in-law,” said Brown. “Black workers call the white contractor.”

But the consent decree mandate on integrating the skilled trades came too late for many as the U.S. steel industry went into decline in the 1980s. Overseas competitors targeted this nation’s market and our trade and tax policy compromised U.S. workers and producers.

The damage from steel’s decline was inequitably apportioned.

At Sparrows Point and the other mills, the legacy of Jim Crow, of white workers threatening to strike if black workers moved into skilled positions, of supervisors and managers who relished and help perpetuate the divisions between the races, persisted.

So the skilled trades remained overwhelmingly white even as the crisis within the industry intensified.

Today, as former steelworkers fan out looking for work—some traveling as far as Texas—the more skilled are recovering upwards of 65 to 75 percent of their former salaries, while their peers in production jobs lag far, far behind, leaving them less able to hang onto their homes or send their children to college. Their family wealth is sinking.

Surely my white co-worker would think it’s preposterous to suggest any link between Baltimore’s industrial and housing segregation and the fiery streets of 2015 after the death of Freddie Gray. Despite his own bout with unemployment, he would think it equally preposterous to attribute the 37 percent unemployment among black youth to anything other than their parents’ bad choices.

The power of a job, not just as a means to a living, but also as a bond between people, a space of solidarity, dialogue and action

But life forever reminds us that inequality has consequences. Its damage survives until it is uprooted by the formidable claws of legal and moral pressure, recognition and activism.

Here, in the home of The Wire, a hollowed out, deindustrialized city that never came to terms with its own legacy of racism in its workplaces, housing and communities has reached its inevitable breaking point.

I remember attending meetings of black steelworkers at a social club off North Avenue in northeast Baltimore, not far from Johns Hopkins Hospital. The club was in a row house in a stable, clean neighborhood full of workers from local industries.

Fast forward 40 years—only a few blocks from the place where tough men and their lawyers plotted a strategy to challenge a Fortune 500 corporation is a corner that lays claim to one of the highest homicide rates in the U.S.

A mayor and a U.S. president denounce the “thugs” and criminals who burn and loot.

I’m appalled when my ears resonate with “thug,” but my eyes take in TV images of young high school students, in their khaki uniforms taking to the streets.

I can’t blame Mayor Rawlings-Blake or President Obama for their thug talk.

African-Americans only survive in political office when they are perceived by whites as the best carriers of the stern rod of discipline, as the enforcers of accountability.

I think about what the future will hold for the young folks who are taking their passion to the streets of Baltimore. And I recall a poignant conversation years ago between two co-workers in the mill.

One had been in the streets after the assassination of Dr. King in 1968. His white co-worker was out there, too—as a member of the Maryland National Guard.

After 1968, they each started families and found decent-paying union jobs at Bethlehem Steel with benefits and security.

They became active in their communities as coaches and PTA officers. And they became friends.

I think about these two co-workers as I watch proud citizens and courageous leaders like U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings and local pastors working to heal their communities. I wonder how many neighborhood elders who are sweeping up the glass and exhorting the young to protest non-violently have their roots in steel and auto and can manufacturing, shipbuilding, and unions.

And I consider the power of a job, not just as a means to a living, but also as a bond between people, as a space of solidarity, dialogue and action.

Where are the jobs for the young people some so swiftly label “thugs?”

Where is our accountability to the legacy of the men and women who came to Baltimore from North and South Carolina and Virginia and sacrificed to build a future where the economic playing field was level and dreams could be nurtured?

Where is our accountability to the young people, from Baltimore and across America who, today, mourn Freddie Gray and demand our attention and our answers?

Just a whisper now: a look back at the AFL-CIO New Voice after 20 years

By and

01 AFL Con NYC 1995 #1835

In November 2014, Teamsters Local 25 succeeded in uniting more than 1,500 parking lot attendants in Boston. As reported by the Boston Globe, the workers were almost all immigrants, many from Africa. As organizers, we believe that when thousands of immigrant workers win collective bargaining rights and rise out of the lowest tier of the working class it’s important news. Yet their organizing victory was virtually unknown to most of Boston’s labor community because it was quietly brought about over several years of patient organizing. It was not part of the “Fight for $15″ or the OUR Wal-Mart mobilizations, and had none of the bold, public ambition of organizing millions of fast food workers or the 1.3 million workers employed by Wal-Mart.(1)

The parking lot attendants’ victory — and hundreds of similar organizing and collective bargaining achievements — are too often ignored by pundits, academic observers and labor movement insiders. Their mantra seems to be that with membership plummeting in both the private and public sectors labor faces “an existential crisis” and needs “bold new approaches and initiatives.”(2)

However, the “crisis” is hardly new. Twenty years ago, in 1995, labor was also in crisis. In 1994, Newt Gingrich had led the Republicans to victory and seized control of the House of Representatives, just two years into Bill Clinton’s first term. Even sleepy old Vice Presidents of the AFL-CIO woke up in the Executive Council meeting to ask long-time President Lane Kirkland, “What’s going on?”

Then as now, labor was indeed in crisis. Union density was lower than any time in the postwar period at 17 percent and Gingrich’s “Take Back America” movement meant that the AFL-CIO’s political program was stymied.

What was to be done? Kirkland was increasingly seen by union leaders as having no answers. Rank and file local union leaders were openly restless. National union leaders were worried too, and for the first time since the formation of the AFL-CIO in 1955, an active challenge to the incumbent president was launched, led by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the Teamsters.

Teamsters?? Weren’t they on the cutting edge of the Cosa Nostra, not the labor movement? The union that always endorses Republicans? Those stodgy old, mobbed up Teamsters weren’t so stodgy anymore. In 1991, Ron Carey, a reformer from the big New York City UPS local, joined a slate led by Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) reformers and beat a divided old guard in the first one member, one vote election. At his January 1992 inauguration as new International President at the Teamster’s “marble palace” in Washington DC, he was surrounded by newly elected Teamster leaders, progressives from throughout the labor movement, and hundreds of long time, dedicated TDUers. Overnight the Teamsters went from reactionary to the leading edge of the labor movement. The Carey election was the “game changer” for the restless forces growing in opposition to Lane Kirkland and his chosen successor, Tom Donahue.

Hope — and the promise of significant change — was in the air. A year earlier, the Justice for Janitors blockade of the 14th Street Bridge in Washington, DC became the revitalizing metaphor for the New Voice movement. A movement that envisioned a more active “street heat” unionism, mobilizing at the grassroots to organize the millions necessary to return labor to its 35 percent postwar membership in the private sector.(3)

The New Voice wasn’t just about growth, it envisioned a labor movement that reclaimed its place as a powerful force for justice in the community and strongly allied with the country’s progressive intelligentsia. But organizing was the magic word.

SEIU President John Sweeney, at the time head of the most aggressive and successful organizing union in the country was the consensus choice to lead the New Voice slate. The Teamster reformers infused the coalition with enough votes to make the election a foregone conclusion in November of 1995.

After the votes were counted, over 500 organizers (many of them old comrades and student radicals from the New Left who had cast their lot with labor) celebrated in a raucous dancing and drinking party that lasted until the wee hours. A sense of promise and rebirth was in the air. As the refrain from the labor anthem, Solidarity Forever goes, “We would bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old!”

02 AFL Con NYC 1995 #1836

After the party was over, it was time to get to the task of organizing millions of new members. To its enduring credit the New Voice program highlighted many of the elements necessary to launch successful large scale organizing. To re-energize support for organizing and collective bargaining with members and leaders, the New Voice launched an ambitious agenda to:

• Increase AFL-CIO affiliates’ budgets for organizing to 20-30 percent of union resources with the objective to organize millions of new members(4)

• Adopt policies that were more inclusive of the immigrant labor force(5)

• Commitment to diversify the leadership of the AFL-CIO with a more prominent role for women and people of color(6)

• Engage community and civil rights groups, academics and intellectuals to support organizing, collective bargaining and the mission of the labor movement(7)

• Assist with coordinated campaigns and cooperative organizing between affiliates (and increase resources from the Federation for affiliates to engage in strategic organizing campaigns)(8)

• Deploy more research assistance to affiliates to “bargain-to-organize” and “organize-to-bargain” campaigns(9)

• Transform politics by electing thousands of union members to political office(10)

• Engage members and supporters in grassroots “Street Heat” mobilizations led by local labor councils to support workers’ organizing(11)

• Recruit and train thousands of new organizers to build strong worker-led committees and deal with aggressive interference by management(12)

• Launch a broad “America Needs a Raise” campaign to raise wages for all workers.(13)

Then as now, a very ambitious program. Using the Stansbury Forum, the authors plan to provide a “look back” at the New Voice program on its twentieth anniversary. We want to ask what was accomplished and what went wrong? What were the obstacles and impediments to progress?

Finally, what have we learned from the New Voice experience and what lessons from those twenty years can be applied to the “crisis” today(14).

While many well-meaning progressives repeatedly say “we can’t organize,” “we can’t strike,” and “we can’t win”; they haven’t convinced us. Despite the sharp attacks against organized labor, there are still over 15 million members and considerable resources. We intend our “look back” to stimulate debate and discussion on what, in concert with the remaining membership, should be done with those considerable resources going forward. We believe it is the cardinal question for union leaders, organizers and labor activists today.

(1) “Boston’s parking attendants unionizing,” by Katie Johnston, Boston Globe, November 10, 2014 http://www.bostonglobe.com/business/2014/11/09/teamsters-organizing-parking-attendants/8HXoKxbdwcWzWN1qgbE6NO/story.html
(2) “Why Workers Won’t Unite,” by Kim Phillips-Fein, The Atlantic, March 16, 2015
Phillips-Fein writes, “Labor has grown so weak by now that whatever form of organizing might come next will have to start almost from scratch anyway, to build something entirely new… What that something might be—what it will look like, and how it might help us remake our society together—is an unavoidable question of the 21st century.”
(3) “Justice For Janitors: A look back and a look forward: 24 years of organizing janitors,” http://www.seiu.org/a/justice-for-janitors/justice-for-janitors-20-years-of-organizing.php
(4) In April of 1997, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), at its International Convention in Honolulu adopted a resolution mandating that the union would spend 30% of its budget on organizing. This was a direct result of the New Voice program.
(5) Spurred by the Bay Area Labor Immigrant Organizing Network (LION) the AFL-CIO at its convention in Los Angeles in 1999 voted to reverse its position in support of Employer Sanctions and the 1985 Immigration Reform and Control Act.
(6) This commitment was reflected in the selection of Linda Chavez Thompson of AFSCME as Executive Vice President of the Federation, the first female executive officer in the history of the AFL-CIO.
(7) Falling in Love Again? Intellectuals and the Labor Movement in Post-War America, Nelson Lichtenstein, New Labor Forum, No. 4 (Spring – Summer, 1999) http://www.jstor.org/stable/40342220
(8) Examples: AFL-CIO Capital Stewardship and Center for Strategic Research
(9) “Bargain to Organize, Organize to Bargain,” Matt Luskin, Labor Notes, September 22, 2010,
http://labornotes.org/2010/09/bargain-organize-organize-bargain and Bargain to Organize: From Boon to Embarrassment, Steve Early http://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/13710/bargain_to_organize_from_boon_to_embarrassment
(10) McEntee said unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO began pooling resources in the 1996 election cycle and did so again for the 1998 and 2000 elections. He said that as a result, 4.8 million more union household members turned out to vote in 2000 than in 1992. Union household members represented 26 percent of the vote in 2000, up from 19 percent in 1992. He said the AFL-CIO program also resulted in 2539 union members now holding elective office and that the labor movement’s goal is now to elect 5,000 union members.
(11) “John Sweeney’s New-Old AFL-CIO,” Jane Slaughter, http://www.solidarity-us.org/node/801
(12) About the Organizing Institute
(13) AFL-CIO “America Needs a Raise” Campaign Builds Pressure Around Country on Minimum Wage
(14) Richard Sullivan’s retrospective on the 15th anniversary of the AFL-CIO’s New Voice campaign in New Labor Forum (Spring 2010) titled, “Why the Labor Movement is not a Movement,” merits re-reading in the 20th anniversary year.

About the author

Peter Olney

Peter Olney is retired Organizing Director of the ILWU. He has been a labor organizer for 40 years in Massachusetts and California. He has worked for multiple unions before landing at the ILWU in 1997. For three years he was the Associate Director of the Institute for Labor and Employment at the University of California. View all posts by Peter Olney →

Rand Wilson

Rand Wilson has worked as a union organizer and labor communicator for more than twenty five years and is  currently an organizer with SEIU Local 888 in Boston. Wilson was the founding director of Massachusetts Jobs with Justice.  Active in electoral politics, he ran for state Auditor in a campaign to win cross-endorsement (or fusion) voting reform and establish a Massachusetts Working Families Party.  He is President of the Center for Labor Education and Research, and is on the board of directors of the ICA Group, the Local Enterprise Assistance Fund and the Center for the Study of Public Policy. View all posts by Rand Wilson →

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Grounded in the Movement: Developing a Mindful Orientation Toward Social Justice Work


The following article first appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Tikkun

I recently received an infuriating email from a man I used to organize with in my labor union. The email had all the hallmarks of his habitual way of interacting with other organizers (and especially women organizers): arrogance, condescension, and a steadfast belief in the superiority of his own opinions. This time, I simply clicked the delete button and moved on with my day. But it got me thinking about how, a few years ago, an email or interaction of this kind would have set me off on a cycle of intense anger, frustration, and exhaustion that sometimes verged on burnout, before I became more committed to developing a mindfulness practice.

Mindfulness as a secular practice draws from Buddhist teachings and encompasses a range of activities—from meditation to breathing exercises to therapy—meant to help practitioners develop greater insight into themselves and the world around them. In the San Francisco Bay Area, mindfulness practice has become very popular among a wide range of left movement activists, helped in no small part by the work of organizations like the East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland and the Buddhist Peace Fellowship in Berkeley, which share an explicit commitment to radical social justice work.

While mindfulness practice has recently received media attention for its increasing use in corporate and military circles to sharpen concentration, far less mainstream attention has been paid to its use by radical social justice activists seeking ways to make their movement work more personally sustainable. What follows is a short and by no means comprehensive list of some key mindfulness concepts that have helped me develop a more sustainable relationship to movement work over the past ten years.

1. Don’t turn away from suffering.
Many social justice activists have already taken on one of the central tenets of Buddhist mindfulness practice: a willingness to recognize the enormous amount of pain and suffering in the world and a refusal to turn away from it. Rather than distract ourselves with all of the sensate pleasures that surround us in this intensely materialistic society, we’ve chosen to sit with realities that are deeply painful and disturbing—realities of economic inequality, racism, misogyny, heterosexism, xenophobia, war, imperialism, transphobia, ecological disaster, and more. This is not an easy thing to do, and so the other aspects of mindfulness practice can serve to help sustain activists through the difficulties that arise from our refusal to turn away from pain and suffering in this world.

2. As much as possible, try not to let anger consume you.
It almost goes without saying that anger is a healthy emotional response to all of the systemic injustices we encounter on a daily basis. We feel angry when our dignity or the dignity of people we care about is affronted or when those we care about are harmed; this anger is often the initial spark that leads us to become involved in social justice struggles in the first place. Anger can also be a healthy self-protective measure to make us feel a bit more powerful when we are being made to feel vulnerable, as we so often are when we confront systems of entrenched power and privilege.

At twenty-one, in my first job as a young organizer, I was responsible for organizing direct actions to confront the CEO, board members, and top managers of a factory where the workers were trying to unionize. My work week moved between meetings with workers, at which I listened to their stories of harassment on the job and struggles to make ends meet, and visits to the affluent communities where the people responsible for the workers’ oppression and exploitation enjoyed privileged lives. Key worker activists who publicly supported the union were illegally disciplined or fired. Many others lived on the brink of poverty.

The anger I felt at their treatment by the company and at the fact that this is permissible in our society was palpable, fierce, and constant. Ultimately my anger came from a place of fear and guilt that I would not be able to do enough to improve their situation. This propelled me to push myself harder than I ever had before, in ways that helped the campaign and helped me grow in the process. But we were in a losing battle against a powerful and intractable opponent. No amount of greater effort on my part alone would have been enough to turn the tide. I’m grateful for the experience, which profoundly shaped my life trajectory, but I can see in retrospect that I did not make enough room to deal with my anger, fear, and guilt in difficult organizing situations. As a result, I ultimately suffered severe anxiety and physical health problems—in other words, burnout.

At the time, I thought that righteous anger and a willingness to give everything one had to the work were what made an organizer great. Now, nearly a decade after my first experiences working in the labor movement, I can see how limited and damaging this view was. I’ve come to see that, though I believe we have every right to be angry—for the systems and individuals we’re fighting certainly deserve our righteous anger—we ourselves don’t deserve to be consumed with anger all the time.

Finding the right balance with anger is not easy, but I’ve learned over time to simply let myself be angry when I’m angry, and then let go of anger when it’s ready to pass. When I was younger and anger was my only shield against feelings of fear, powerlessness, and guilt, I used to try to hold on to it, as I think many young people in social justice work do. But though feelings of fear, powerlessness, and guilt no doubt will always recur for activists, no matter how long they’ve been in the movement, I’ve observed over the years that the best organizers I know and the ones who are least susceptible to burnout—are also the least angry. The remainder of this essay focuses on some of best methods I’ve found for getting beyond anger as an activist to develop a healthier and more sustainable orientation toward movement work.

3. Make space for the pain underneath the anger and make care work central.
Too often in activist circles, we cultivate an ethos that makes righteous anger acceptable but doesn’t provide space for individual and collective healing and care to address pain and suffering. This is a point that has been made many times over by feminists doing social justice work, but it always bears repeating. Movement work can be intensely painful and even traumatizing (for example, when it involves confrontations with the police or the law) and is often motivated in the first place by experiences of oppression, exploitation, and trauma. Of course, personal healing is not “enough” to transform systems of oppression, but if we don’t make the time and space to care for ourselves and our comrades, it’s very difficult to find the strength to continue doing the work of confronting injustice. We don’t need to choose between interpersonal work and broader structural transformation: we must do both.

4. Learn to be less reactive and accept impermanence in order to cultivate a sense of equanimity.
Doing social justice work often requires dealing with a nearly uninterrupted series of urgent or emergency situations. The normal human response to emergencies is fight or flight—our adrenaline spikes, providing us with short-lived extra powers to deal with the situation at hand. But we’re not built to experience this sustainably, on a regular basis—afterward, we feel depleted, off-balance, and in need of rest. So doing this work for the long term requires finding more sustainable ways of responding physically and emotionally to intensely stressful situations.

Mindfulness practitioners often refer to this kind of adrenaline-driven response as being “reactive.” The answer is not failure to react when a situation arises—as activists, we have no choice but to respond to injustice—but finding a way to react that does not so deplete us such that we’re unable to sustain ourselves in the work.

A whole series of mindfulness exercises focused on becoming more attuned to our bodies and the physical connection to our emotional state are particularly helpful for learning to become less reactive (as well as becoming more attuned to, and able to sit with, feelings like anger and pain.)

Perhaps inevitably, we also develop a greater sense of equanimity in movement work simply through accumulating more experience as activists. Over time, what I’ve come to see is that, even though things are difficult much of the time in movement work, the worst-case scenario usually doesn’t pan out, and even when it does, we have no choice but to find new ways to organize around it. Learning to respond to difficulty without a supercharged shot of adrenaline is critical, not just for sustaining ourselves as activists but also for finding the best solutions to evolving problems.

Conversely, even when things are going well in the movement, we never reach the end of the work. There is always more to do, and dynamics are constantly changing. Movements are called movements for a reason: they are constantly in motion, and whatever the current situation may be, for good or for bad, it is impermanent. Accepting this central truth about the work (and about everything in life, of course) makes it easier to develop a greater sense of equanimity in charged and constantly changing situations. Resisting the temptation to fuel ourselves on the highs that come from wins is the flipside to resisting the temptation to fuel ourselves on anger.

5. Foster a sense of community with comrades and others who support the work you do.
An absolutely critical aspect of learning to be less reactive in movement work is developing a strong activist community. For those of us who are seeking to make social justice work sustainable, there is no better thing we can do than to cultivate a sense of community with our comrades. The work itself can be incredibly intense—anxiety-provoking, depression-inducing, and isolating. Without a like-minded group of caring people around us to offer mutual support, it may be nearly impossible to sustain our work in the long term.

Social justice groups are, of course, not immune to the problems of the larger society, and highly toxic dynamics can develop. Sometimes we need to take a break or leave altogether when faced with an unchangeably toxic situation in an activist setting. If leaving is not an option (for example, in the context of workplace or neighborhood-based organizing), we can still find new people within the same community to organize with.

On a related note, wherever possible, it’s important to hold on to relationships with non-activists who support the work we do and to maintain some interests outside the movement. When things are not going well in the movement, these non-movement friends can help keep activist struggles in perspective.

6. As much as possible, try to keep your ego out of the equation.
Being a social justice activist means accepting that things will go badly as often as, or more often than, they go well. As a result, we can’t count on getting a lot of external approval or even recognition for the work we do. Even when things are going well, there are still many people who disagree with us: that’s the whole point. So in order to make movement work sustainable, we have to find a way to really make it about the movement and not about our own egos. This doesn’t mean being a martyr, but it also doesn’t mean doing the work in order to feel important or be praised.

It helps me to start with the following premise: on one hand, I am just one person and I’m not responsible for fixing everything, but on the other hand, I am still one person with something to contribute—because everyone has something to contribute. The trick is to figure out just what that thing is and to balance it with other people’s contributions. We don’t need everyone to be in the spotlight to make a big impact, and in fact, the most important movement work always happens outside the spotlight. It’s the day-in, day-out stuff that makes the difference in the long run. It’s very unlikely that everything will just fall apart if one person needs to step back. And, in fact, if things were to fall apart just because of one person’s absence, there’s a much deeper problem there that’s bigger than one individual’s ability to solve it.

7. Remember that it’s all connected and that you always have more to learn.
Because of the way that social justice work is often organized, along single-issue lines, it’s easy to forget that all our struggles are connected. Intersectionality, which recognizes the multiple, overlapping layers of oppression and privilege that each of us experiences, is a helpful tool for thinking through our connectedness. Divide and conquer is the oldest trick in the book, and unless we can find ways to deal with internal oppression and divisions in our movements, the forces of oppression and exploitation will keep winning. It’s a question of the pragmatic realities of organizing as much as it is a question of principle.

This is yet another reason it’s so important to keep our egos in check in movement work and to learn to really listen to comrades with different backgrounds and experiences. Assuming that any individual can have all the answers is both damaging and wrong. More fundamentally, the really liberating thing about doing movement work is not just fighting for liberation itself but also the experiences we have along the way: collective process and collective action can be powerful antidotes to the alienation we experience, individually and collectively, in our daily lives.

Ultimately, both movement work and mindfulness practice share not only a commitment to stringent intellectual honesty when it comes to the nature of our lived reality but also a profound commitment to radical love and compassion for the people around us. Together these values can provide us with a great deal of meaning and purpose in a world that too often leaves us feeling empty and alone. In other words, social justice work, when done in a healthy and sustainable way, can be profoundly therapeutic, not only for our communities but also for ourselves.

Two Rubes in Gotham in ‘67 – Extra Innings Revisited


On Friday night I got home at 10 PM Pacific Time to my house in San Francisco. Just in time to dial up my beloved Red Sox playing the Yankees in the Bronx in the top of the 17th inning. The Sox didn’t score and I went to bed. I googled Red Sox Nation next morning and found that they had won in 19 innings on a dynamite double play initiated by Red Sox stellar second baseman Dustin Pedroia from Woodland, California. This game was the longest, 6 hours and 49 minutes in the very long rivalry between the Bronx Bombers and the Bo Sox. But it is not the longest game in innings between the two teams. I was at the longest game; a twenty-inning marathon on August 29 and the following wee AM hours of August 30, 1967.

We were after all both suburban boys, and not real attuned to rustic customs and mores. We were able to bond with Jack over the Sox however.

First though a little background for non-fans and Sox die hards alike. I will always remember the summer of 67 as the “Impossible Dream” season when the Sox climbed out of mediocrity and against all odds won the American League pennant. It was also the summer between my sophomore and junior year in high school. To make some summer money and to prepare my self physically for football season, I worked on Earl Foster’s dairy farm in North Andover, Massachusetts. Mr. Foster had 150 head of Ayrshire milking cows and he and his wife Bea managed the farm and employed two year round hired hands, Earl and Jack. Earl Woods was a wizened old Down-easter who spoke in gruff barely discernible tones and smoked a smelly pipe. Jack Hamill was a young Vermonter who had grown up on a farm and had been indentured to the Fosters. I worked on the farm picking up bales of freshly cut grass and loading them on a truck to be delivered to the cow barn. Then I sat up in the boiling hot barn receiving the bales on the conveyor and dovetailing them together into neatly packed rows to be stored for winter consumption.

Earl Foster needed more help that summer so I recruited my older cousin Mark to work with me. We worked as hard as we ever have, and we were covered with sweat and hayseed at the end of the day. Foster regaled us with barnyard tales and used a lot of animal metaphors to describe common human activity. Bea fed us steak with killer potatoes. My cousin sheepishly asked one day to gales of laughter from all the hands, “What do the bulls do?”

We were after all both suburban boys, and not real attuned to rustic customs and mores. We were able to bond with Jack over the Sox however. He was a huge Sox fan, but had never been to the bandbox of a stadium in the Fens. My cousin Mark and I were big sports nuts and had been to Fenway Park before so we invited Jack Hamill to join us in seeing a game. We decided that we would go to Fenway for a night game on Friday, August 19th. Earl Foster agreed to milk the cows that evening so Jack could escape early and drive in to Boston with Mark and I.

Back Camera

Turns out we picked a very historic game. Jack Hamilton of the Los Angeles Angels beaned the Red Sox slugger Tony Conigliaro, Tony “C” to the Fenway faithful. Conigliaro was a local hero from the North Shore and had played at Swampscott High School and signed with the Sox upon graduating. He was what we call today a “four-tool player”: hit, slug, field and run the base paths. He had led the league in homers with 32 in his second season in 65 and was an All Star in 1967. That night a Hamilton fastball caught him high and tight and his cheek was shattered. While he would return and play again for the Sox and the Los Angeles Angels he never regained his all-star form. Tony C would die young from the kind of head trauma after effects that so many pro-football players are experiencing in the 21st century. The beaning put a big damper on the evening, but Jack was still happy to have been there, and Mark and I felt pretty worldly for having taken him to the Hub.

Later that summer after finishing our work at Fosters farm, my cousin and I decided it was our turn to go to Gotham, New York City, home of the hated Yankees to see the Sox play in the closing days of a wonderful season. We chose Monday August 29th to see the Yankees at the “House that Ruth built” in the Bronx. My Uncle John and Aunt Fran hosted us at their apartment in Tompkins Square in the East Village, and we trained out to the game, a day night doubleheader, on the IRT, the New York inter borough subway. Day night doubleheaders are extinct in this day and age, but we got to the ballpark ready for a full day and evening of baseball.

Gentleman Jim Lonborg, the brilliant Stanford educated pitcher who would win the Cy Young in 1967 pitched for the Sox in game 1. He won 2-1 and completed the game striking out two in the ninth, throwing as hard as he had in the first. The second game made history. It went on and on into the evening and the night. Around midnight my cousin and I started to sweat it. In Boston the MTA closes down at around 12:30 so we figured we were stranded in the Bronx if the game continued, but we decided to stay and were comforted by watching the IRT elevated train zip by beyond the center field fence throughout the game. We didn’t know the NYC system ran all night. The Yankees broke through in the 20th inning on a single by Yankee center fielder Horace Clark off Red Sox pitcher Jose Santiago and won the game 5-4. We got back to Tompkins Square circa 4: 00 AM.

The record of time duration was shattered on Friday April 10-11, 2015, but the inning totals from 1967 remains a record and my memory of the old Yankee Stadium and watching that IRT train is clear. The magical season of 1967 went from summer into late fall. On Saturday, September 30, my high school football team was playing the Tufts College Freshman team in Medford, Massachusetts. I was standing in the huddle listening to our quarterback call the next offensive play when the spectators filling the bleachers on both sides of the field exploded into clapping and uproar. Wow, we hadn’t even run a play, and they were going bonkers. But there was no gridiron action to observe. The Sox had beaten the Minnesota Twins. All the football fans were glued to their transistor radios and listening to the Red Sox broadcast. The Sox would beat the Twins again on Sunday (There were no divisions then) and moved on to the World Series against the St Louis Cardinals.

That was a summer of resurgence for the lowly Sox who despite losing to the Bob Gibson redbirds in the World Series would go on to great heights and great disappointments in 1975, 1978 and 1986 before finally breaking through and busting the curse of the Bambino in 2004. Who knows what would have happened if the brilliant Tony Conigliaro had not been beaned on that Friday night that my cousin and I took a Vermont farmhand to the park?

About the author

Peter Olney

Peter Olney is retired Organizing Director of the ILWU. He has been a labor organizer for 40 years in Massachusetts and California. He has worked for multiple unions before landing at the ILWU in 1997. For three years he was the Associate Director of the Institute for Labor and Employment at the University of California. View all posts by Peter Olney →

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Cataloging as political practice


“Looking back, immediately behind us is dead ground. We don’t see it, and because we don’t see it, there is no period so remote as the recent past. The historian’s job is to anticipate what our perspective of that period will be.” Professor Irwin in The History Boys, 2006.


The “recent past” that has occupied my own current work is the long 1960s. I came of age in Washington, D.C. between 1968 and 1972, diving deep into a profound social movement as only a naïve and invincible high school student can. I went to major demonstrations and fought with riot police. I went to Mobe Marshal trainings with my sister. I helped put out our underground student newspaper. I counseled students about draft resistance, saw grainy films about Vietnam, and made my own poster about the generation gap. I lived it, I knew it – right?


I began to realize how shaky our historical foundation was when I was visiting Cuba in 1989. I was with some other artist friends visiting OSPAAAL, the legendary Organization in Solidarity with the People of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. I knew of them as the publishers of fantastic political posters, and I asked them how many different titles they had produced. I was shocked when they said they didn’t know. That got me motivated, so I began to work with a colleague in the U.S. and we tracked down all known OSPAAAL posters, shot high-quality slides of them, then proceeded to research who made them and when. After several trips to Cuba, lots of faxes and late night calls, and countless hours of work, by 1996 I finally compiled the first catalogue raisonné of OSPAAAL’s output. I shared this with the Cubans in the then-new digital format of CD’s. For the first time, a poster image could be immediately paired with artist name, date of publication, country represented, and other major data points.

The value of this research was evident several times over; at one point I was asked to provide digital prints of Che Guevara posters from U.S. collections that the Cubans themselves no longer had. I realized that I was onto something.

As I became a politicized human being I adopted the practice that part of daily life includes “political work.” That can mean staffing a bookstore, or running a printing press, or writing an essay. I’ve done all of those, but my primary contribution now is as a professional archivist.

In the old days – e.g., over 20 years ago – an archive was usually a staid institution that was responsible for stuff – books, photos, correspondence, videotapes, and such. Access to that stuff for research was often tedious, the result of a meticulous and expensive set of processes involving many library and technical professionals.

That scenario has changed considerably, and it’s transforming what an archive is, how it’s run, and how it’s accessed. The OSPAAAL catalog described above is an early example of that shift, with important implications for scholarship in social justice studies. A democratization is taking place in archival practice.

Here are some of the key elements of this archival revolution:

1. Inexpensive digitization. Images beg to be seen as clearly and completely as possible. When I first started this kind of work the archival standard for 35mm slides was Kodachrome 25. It was very stable, had good color balance, and most importantly, had very fine grain. That’s important when you blow up a poster with tiny type. But just as silver-based film began to slip from the scene, it also became clear that simply having good slides wasn’t enough. At some point they needed to be digitized, and that additional step also took a toll on resolution. Big institutions were able to jump on the high-resolution digital bandwagon early, but at a high price. The cameras were expensive and slow, and a good image would cost as much as $25. Around 2002 affordable consumer cameras became available that produced digital images as sharp as the scans I could get from scanned slides. I bought one and never looked back. I now shoot thousands of crisp images and don’t worry about the cost.

High-resolution scans fulfill several functions in this new archival world. First, a really good image can be used to make very acceptable and affordable digital surrogates that can be passed around a classroom table or mounted for an exhibition. Second, and perhaps more revolutionary, the images can be easily shared globally. I can send an image or a Web link to a scholar instantly anywhere in the world for free, asking if they’ve seen it.

2. Embedded metadata. Geeky enough for you? All this means is that it’s easy to add content information to a digital photo. You already do this now and don’t know it – your cellphone photos are time stamped, and some settings even record location. Ramp that up when you are scanning a conventional print on a flatbed scanner – who shot it, where was it, where is the original photo. These are all vital parts of the puzzle, and are best captured at the moment of digitization.

3. Consumer-grade image databases. For the past 15 years I’ve used an off-the-shelf, cheap, powerful digital asset management system that was originally designed for stock photographers. I can keep track of thousands of images, create galleries based on research requests, add data (and import the data along with images I import, taking advantage of item #2 above), export images at smaller sizes, and produce mini catalogs. Major institutions use very big, expensive databases that are way beyond the range or skill level of ordinary civilians, but that gap is vanishing.

4. Efficient processes for cataloging. Here’s an example of how what I do could not have happened a short time ago. I’m handling a long-term project of building out good catalog records for a huge collection of social justice posters at the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA). First, I shot all 24,000 of them, before the collection even was turned over to the museum. The next step was a crew of initial staff entered basic obvious information about each item as they were physically processing each poster – size, medium, full text, and so forth. My job involves pulling up those records and correcting/amplifying them – when was it made, who made it, why should one care about the ten-year community struggle for the International Hotel – all without looking at an actual poster. This is a process that goes a lot faster when you don’t have large and fragile sheets of paper all over your desk. At some point I’ll be able to do it remotely. One could even have an offsite team doing this.

And – here’s where I feel like I’m living in the future – as I’m cataloging each item I can readily use the enormous power of the World Wide Web. Having trouble nailing down when it was printed? (You’d be surprised how often we don’t know the date of publication, and in the historical record, that matters). Between a reverse calendar for day/date concordance and some event searching, I can usually draw a year. Who was that obscure labor leader, or in what year did Patty Hearst rob that bank? Keystrokes.

5. Community building. The best part is asking questions. Sometimes during a single cataloging session I can identify a person connected to the poster, track down an email address, send them a query with a link to an image, and get a reply. Here are a few examples:

Your question of the year the Bread and Roses poster was printed has sent me down memory lane (not that it is very clear anymore).  I started reading many interesting histories of the period that have refreshed my memory a little.  I think you are right that it was 1977; probably for the Women's Day celebration that year.  I think I used the graphic in our newspaper, Common Sense so I will see if I can locate a past issue to verify. Best regards, John Jernegan  Oakland, California

Your question of the year the Bread and Roses poster was printed has sent me down memory lane (not that it is very clear anymore). I started reading many interesting histories of the period that have refreshed my memory a little. I think you are right that it was 1977; probably for the Women’s Day celebration that year. I think I used the graphic in our newspaper, Common Sense so I will see if I can locate a past issue to verify.
Best regards,
John Jernegan
Oakland, California

Query to Jess Baines [a British poster scholar I know]  Reply: “I'll ask the model!” Reply from her contact: (Pru Stevenson): From the 'wife': "1981 it was in response to the Prince Charles and Diana wedding we also did Don't Do It Di stickers."

Query to Jess Baines [a British poster scholar I know]
Reply: “I’ll ask the model!”
Reply from her contact: (Pru Stevenson):
From the ‘wife': “1981 it was in response to the Prince Charles and Diana wedding we also did Don’t Do It Di stickers.”

What an interesting email.   I don't exactly remember the details but what I can remember from that far off time that might be of interest: The play was written by an ex-convict from San Quentin. It was based on George Jackson, and 1974 was what I remember. It was performed at a time of heightened racial tension in SF; specifically, the "Zebra" killings. The cast was roughly half white, half African American and we did various exercises to capture the feeling inside the prison within the rehearsal process; it became uncomfortable at times because the outside world felt just as racially charged when you walked out of the theater. George White, I think I have his name, was one of the leads and became a successful actor in SF; an excellent actor. That's more than I thought I could remember; hope this helps. David Feldshuh, professor, Theater Cornell University

What an interesting email.
I don’t exactly remember the details but what I can remember from that far off time that might be of interest:
The play was written by an ex-convict from San Quentin. It was based on George Jackson, and 1974 was what I remember.
It was performed at a time of heightened racial tension in SF; specifically, the “Zebra” killings. The cast was roughly half white, half African American and we did various exercises to capture the feeling inside the prison within the rehearsal process; it became uncomfortable at times because the outside world felt just as racially charged when you walked out of the theater. George White, I think I have his name, was one of the leads and became a successful actor in SF; an excellent actor.
That’s more than I thought I could remember; hope this helps.
David Feldshuh, professor, Theater
Cornell University

6. Improved access to collection content. It’s very hard to share physical collection content with researchers. Not only does it have to be seen on site, but it usually requires the work of several staff and the exposure takes a toll on the object itself. Digital representations of content, however, have none of those limitations. Researchers from the public can usually find what they want through searching the database and retrieving usable items. This does not replace the skill and expertise of a professional archivist, but in most cases it’s good enough. OMCA has put almost all of the posters I’m processing online, some with incomplete or inaccurate records, under the policy that “best is the enemy of good.” Digital records can be easily fixed, and several important facts about posters have resulted from the public seeing items online.

So, how does this affect our own knowledge of our own history, much less help share it with the world? Hugely.

In the course of my cataloging research I’m digging into events that, in most cases, have not entered the digital domain yet – and perhaps never entered the analog one either. I’m turning up artists of previously anonymous posters, compiling complete collections of digital items that do not exist together in real space, and confirming production dates so that we know which event happened before or after that one. I’m assembling facts that are the building blocks of our history. These online catalogs are used by artists, academics, and activists for inspiration, confirmation, and validation.

I’ll end with one of my favorite posters about social justice self-expression, “Speak! You have the tools,” the first poster printed by the San Francisco’s Noe Valley Silkscreen Collective, 1972. The graphic was by Carol Mirman, a student at Kent State who was present during the tragic 1970 National Guard shooting. The people have spoken, and now we finally have the tools to really share those messages with the world.


About the author

Lincoln Cushing

Lincoln Cushing is a Berkeley-based archivist and author who documents, catalogs, and disseminates oppositional political culture of the late 20th century. His books include Revolucion! Cuban Poster Art and Agitate! Educate! Organize! - American Labor Posters. He was curator for the All Of Us Or None — Poster Art of the San Francisco Bay Area 2012 exhibition at the Oakland Museum of California. His research and publishing projects can be seen at www.docspopuli.org View all posts by Lincoln Cushing →

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