Saggio da San Frediano # 8 – Lost in Translation – Strike at Amazon in Italia

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Even though there is no Thanksgiving in Italy, the lack of a “Giorno di Ringraziamento” does not mean that there is no Black Friday. In fact for many years now Italian merchants have celebrated the last Friday in November with discounts that fill their stores with the same bargain hungry masses as in the United States. So Black Friday this year was the day that the three Italian trade union Federations chose as a strategic day to strike Amazon’s million square foot distribution center in Castel San Giovanni near Piacenza in Northern Italy. This was the first strike in Amazon’s history in Italy. There have been some job actions at Amazon in Germany. Italy is a growth market for Amazon and two more warehouses have opened in Northern Italy in Vercelli (mid-way between Milan and Turin) and Passo Corese in the region of Lazio in Central Italy.

The warehouse in San Giovanni is the size of 11 football/soccer fields. The facility opened in 2015. At 5 AM on Friday, November 24 about 50% of the 1600 “Blue Badge” permanent employees stayed off of work and struck. There are however another 2000 temporary “Green Badge”, short term and seasonal employees, most all of whom came to work. Amazon spokespersons insisted that the strike was only 10% of the workforce because of course they were factoring in the temporary employees. Amazon had agreed to sit down with the unions on the Monday following the strike (November 27) but subsequently canceled that meeting. and unilaterally moved it to January 18th. The unions warned that if there were not substantive face-to-face discussions by December 6th that there would be more actions. Amazon on December 5 agreed to meet on December 11th! On December 6th the pressure on Amazon was heightened by a ruling by AGCOM (Autoria’ per Le Garanzie nelle Comunicazioni) the Italian authority charged with regulating all communications. AGCOM ruled that the operations of Amazon were substantially similar to Le Poste Italiane and therefore Amazon was warned that within 15 days they would have to comply with the collective labor contract negotiated for Italian postal workers! Talk about tightening the noose….!

The strike of course received widespread coverage in the world business press. In the United States an excellent article from the left daily Il Manifesto by Massimo Franchi was translated and circulated in progressive labor circles. The issues that led to the strike are certainly universal: pay, health and safety and arbitrary treatment. It is estimated that Amazon workers walk about 20 kilometers on average per day without coffee breaks and with a miserable 30 minute lunch break that is consumed by travel time from one’s work post to the cafeteria: often about 8 minutes. What gets lost in translation are the differences in the industrial relations systems in the two countries.

Sectoral bargaining happens because of the historical power of the largely Communist led labor movement (coming out of the anti-fascist struggle for liberation) which included large scale strikes against the Nazi Fascists.

Three labor federations with their particular sectoral affiliates all calling and leading a strike of their members in one company? Striking without winning certified majority support among the workers? What are we on the moon here? Italy in the aftermath of WW II and mandated by Article 39 of the Constitution has a national system of sectoral negotiations coupled with a very detailed and complicated system of labor jurisprudence. Labor is even sanctified in Article 1 of the post WW II Constitution that states: “L’Italia e’ una Repubblica democratica fondata sul lavoro”! Sectoral bargaining happens because of the historical power of the largely Communist led labor movement (coming out of the anti-fascist struggle for liberation) which included large scale strikes against the Nazi Fascists. Originally in 1947 there was one labor federation, but the interests of the Christian Democrats and the Western capital led to the founding of an additional two major federations (CISL and UIL) in the late 40’s. The employer associations in different sectors meet with the unions and establish a national contract that regulates basic wages and conditions for all the workers in a particular industry. Such is true for warehousing and logistics, and Amazon is not exempt from such basic provisions even if not one Amazon worker is a member of one of the unions in that sector. Our US system of course is enterprise based, and it is a ferocious struggle particularly in the private sector to win a union in one location and apply the basic terms of a contract. It can often take years and much grief and heartbreak for a union to prevail even with the support of 100 % of the workforce. Conceptually the idea of sectoral bargaining resonates with many American trade unionists looking for a way out of the isolation and powerlessness of company specific organization. The Italian sectoral agreements apply to 85% of all Italian workers in companies large and small. Our private sector contracts only cover 6.7% % of the workforce down from 35% in 1955. Such sectoral agreements of course don’t come out of a “good idea” or “an enterprising thought”, these agreements and this system are the product of some of the most violent and militant struggle in the Western world. Thinking doesn’t make it so…

However the Italians while representing most of the workforce in their national agreements only have 30% of the workforce signed up as members (all 3 Federations). This is not good news as the Amazon case illustrates. The unions are free to demand meetings with Amazon to discuss improving on the national agreement. Such improvements are needed. For instance Amazon has basically instituted a permanent Sunday shift. The national agreement calls for a 5% shift premium, but given that this is a permanent shift not an occasional interference with the Sabbath, the unions are demanding a 40% differential for those who regularly work that day. But Amazon feels no compulsion to meet, let alone agree to such conditions unless the workers can flex their muscles in strikes, slowdowns etc. So when the Piacenza facility first opened about three years ago there were initially 23 members of the CGIL. Through patient organizing meetings at work and away from work etc.; all tactics American organizers would recognize, the membership has grown and the strike can go forward. The Vercelli warehouse has just opened and there are only a handful of members among the 500 employees, and there is no capacity to strike, but the organizing continues there and at Passo Corese.

Italian law does not permit the firing or “permanent replacement” of strikers that US law allows in many situations, but nevertheless on the job retaliation and favoritism are not unheard of even for employees who have “permanent” employment under Italian labor law. For instance often employees prefer to pay their union fees on a monthly basis direct to the union rather than having the employer deduct them from their checks. This is protective anonymity in workplaces where the union is still nascent and struggling to build power.

Amazon has become a symbol of the new economy in Italy and the unions are determined to make these new workplaces, union fortresses. While the Italian system has many advantages and represents a far more developed system than our own, patient worker based organizing remains the fundamental building block of any “sectoral strategy”.

Stay tuned, negotiations and maybe more strikes and job actions to come; good organizing permitting….

Links of interest:
Amazon, dipendenti in sciopero durante il black friday: “lavoro usurante. vogliamo condizioni migli – YouTube

Sciopero ad Amazon nel giorno del Black Friday: fischi a chi non ha aderito – YouTube

News photos

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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.

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Saggio da San Frediano #7 – Construction Unionism Italian Style

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Tourists marvel at Italian construction from ancient times to the Renaissance. Thousands flock the streets of Florence fawning over miracles of construction like the Duomo, the Baptistry and the Belltower. But I am more interested in another side of the construction equation; the workers themselves and the structure of their unions and their practices. I know little of the early guild structure in Italy although I suspect it is similar to the craft structures of England and our own colonial America with young men apprenticed to a master craftsman to learn a trade. In Rome Mercedes Landolfi, the International Affairs Director of FILLEA, graciously offered to discuss Italian construction unionism. FILLEA is the construction section of the CGIL, which, with more than five million members, is Italy’s largest trade union confederation.

Gramsci house

FILLEA’s headquarters building was once a hospital and, in 1925-1926, the residence of Antonio Gramsci just prior to his arrest and imprisonment by Mussolini. As a union headquarters, it is modest by American standards—small, cramped rooms, and few staff. But the staff was warm and immediately welcoming. Our informal discussion was capped off by lunch at the Limonaia in Villa Torlonia up the street.

American and European unionists often talk past each other because our labor relations systems are so different. In the United States, 13% of construction workers are represented by unions, particularly in public works, heavy highway and big commercial jobs. In Italy all constructions workers — over one million in all — are covered by national union agreements. There are three major union federations, the CGIL, the CISL and the UIL, all of whom have construction affiliates. They represent building trades workers under master national contracts that all three federations sign. There are about 1,404,000 construction workers in Italy. The CGIL has approximately 25% (353,975) of constructions workers signed up as members, but that figure is more impressive when you recognize that membership is voluntary. There are no “agency” or “union shops” in Italy where membership is a “term and condition” of employment by contract. Workers join the union based on agreement with its mission, presumably with certain clarity and consciousness. This is true throughout the system of Italian industrial relations whether manufacturing or service or construction. Overall union membership in Italy as a percentage of the total workforce is 35%. In the US we are at about 6.7% in the private sector.

The other distinguishing feature of Italian construction unionism, compared to the United States, is that the unions are industrial and not craft-based. All constructions workers regardless of skill, be they electricians or laborers, are in the same union organization. Their skill differences are recognized in their pay categories but not by having a separate union. Mercedes explained that to deal with seasonality a “Cassa Edile” (Construction Fund) exists, financed by the employers, to deal with out of work stipends and medical leaves. Training is done in the same joint fashion as stateside with labor/management training funds and institutes.

C linea construction in Rome

In the United States, protecting the rights of immigrant workers, often used as a low wage pool to undermine the unionized crafts, is a vital issue. In the Italian agreements, specific articles protect the rights of immigrant workers. The day after our meeting, Mercedes was headed to Milano to meet with a giant Italian-owned construction multinational that is part of the consortium building the soccer stadiums in Qatar for the 2022 World Cup. She said the FILLEA was pushing that company to sign an international accord to protect the rights of the workforce in Qatar. How does FILLEA convince Italian union members of their interest in such work? She said it was all about raising the floor worldwide for construction workers. Unspoken were the rich, underlying left-wing traditions of internationalism that permeate Italian unionism and transcend workers’ immediate material self-interest.

We discussed women in the trades. In the United States, the numbers are widely recognized to be low—typically below 10%. She said Italy’s numbers are similarly low. However, she mentioned that the majority of the workers on archeology crews are women, and that every major construction company has an archeology staff. Often in Rome, and elsewhere, ground is broken but projects have to halt when invaluable archaeological sites are unearthed. For instance, when construction of a third major subway line in Rome, the Linea C, was stopped when ruins dating from ancient times were found and the archaeology team swung into action. These are workers represented by FILLEA. Women Archeologists of the World Unite!

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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.

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Wobblies of the World

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Pluto Press recently published an anthology I co-edited examining the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), whose members frequently were nicknamed and still proudly declare themselves “Wobblies.” In recent years, it may seem that any and all challengers to neo-liberalism have been utterly decimated as its grasp on the world economy continues to tighten. We created this book with that in mind, as we believe the history of the IWW provides lessons necessary for people today. That does not mean to say that we, historians who claim to know History’s trajectory, could have predicted how chaotic and horrid the present moment would be: Donald Trump’s presidency unleashing all sorts of fascist, racist, homophobic, and other hateful forces; a narrow majority of British voters supporting Brexit to divorce themselves from fellow Europeans; Turkey’s leader, Recep Erdogan, doing as best as he can to turn his nation into an authoritarian regime. With Jacob Zuma, in South Africa, utterly betraying the revolutionary potential of the struggle against apartheid; with Venezuela teetering and unrepentant sympathizers of fascism rising in Japan. With economic inequality soaring, union density plummeting, the list of troubles and trouble spots the world over can spin one’s head around and make one wonder if we are, to quote AC/DC, “on a highway to hell”.

“Pyramid of Capitalism” poster from the IWW shop

The early 20th century, when a few hundred committed radicals founded the IWW, also was a time of great economic suffering and political conflict. As industrial capitalism ascended, hundreds of millions were pulled into its system but the great majority of workers struggled to make ends meet. Inequality on a scale previously unimaginable was unleashed into the world—what the IWW soon called the “Pyramid of Capitalism” in a famous 1911 poster. At that time, reformist labor unions and social democratic parties did not seem capable of challenging the ever-growing power of corporations and their tightening grips over governments. Already, of course, governments had proved ready and willing to dispatch police forces and armies to suppress radical dissent, labor unions, and strikes.

Enter the IWW which, along with anarchist and syndicalist organizations, quickly became a massive and influential presence the world over. The IWW was founded in 1905, in Chicago, Illinois—the United States’ greatest industrial city. Chicago also was the site of the infamous Haymarket Massacre of 1886 in which the reasonable demand for an 8-hour workday died on the gallows along with Albert Parsons and three other working-class activists and anarchists. Not coincidentally, Lucy Gonzalez Parsons, Albert’s widow, was among the several hundred who launched the 20th century’s first great labor union, the IWW. Wobblies quickly fanned out across the United States, northwards to Canada and southwards into Mexico. Down into Central and South America and into the West Indies they went. They sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to the British Isles and then to continental Europe. Wobblies found their way to southern Africa, across the Indian Ocean to Australia and New Zealand, up to Japan, and back again to the America’s Pacific Coast.

Not a socialist nation surrounded by capitalist ones. The IWW always has been internationalist in its vision

Within a decade, the IWW had become a global phenomenon with members and branches in dozens of countries. Wobblies brought with them their fierce commitment to a better world—one in which the benefits of industrialization and technology helped the many rather than just the precious few. To build “a new society out of the ashes of the old,” Wobblies believed the best and only option was organizing on the job. The rich controlled the government and courts despite the hope that, in a democracy, the masses of working people would be able to elect representatives to serve the majority.

On the job, by contrast, workers held tremendous power if only they did the simplest of things—stopping work—for then the entire economy literally would stop. Before radical transformation, Wobblies organized strikes and initiated other tactics “at the point of production” to “get the goods,” i.e. more money, fewer hours, and safer conditions. In the long term, Wobblies hoped to engineer a General Strike that would put workers in the proverbial driver’s seat with the next stop being a socialist world. Not a socialist nation surrounded by capitalist ones. The IWW always has been internationalist in its vision. And not Soviet-style socialism. Before and after the formation of the Soviet Union, Wobblies—along with millions of other syndicalists and anarchists—were skeptical, to put it kindly, of bestowing too much power on a single political party, even one committed to the working class. Hindsight seems to have confirmed their fears of an aptly-named dictatorship of the proletariat.

Although IWW members, literature, and ideas spread to the far corners of the earth, historians and other scholars have had a hard time comprehending that seemingly simple fact. Of course, the union’s name—Industrial Workers of the World—should have been a clear signal but, alas, it was not. Historians are hardly the only ones of course, to fixate on (their own) individual nation-states. And, so, for the better part of a century, historians, workers, students and others interested in the IWW generally focused upon narrow slices of this organization’s history. The IWW in Chile or Oklahoma were studied but not in tandem, not via comparison, and quite rarely considering transnational connections.

Fortunately, historians—forever looking backward—do have the ability to change the present and, possibly, future. This book signals the dawning of a new era in the study of the IWW. While this statement may seem overly audacious, we believe it true. This anthology includes contributions from twenty people who live around the world and have researched the IWW in countries across the globe. Never before have so many different Wobbly histories been told in the same volume. Some chapters focus upon a single individual or group of Wobblies in a specific place. However, what quickly becomes apparent to a reader is how global the IWW truly was. Wobblies were footloose, as Americans sometimes said in the 1910s. That is, they moved around. They rode the rails (often without paying for their tickets) looking for work or to support an IWW strike, free speech fight, or other causes. They also boarded ships and sailed the seven seas. As they did so, they brought with them Wobbly newspapers published in more than a dozen languages (and contributors to this anthology read many of those).

Wobblies and Wobbly publications delivered Wobbly ideals to fellow workers, men and women, in many lands. How else to explain the popularity of the IWW motto, “An injury to one is an injury to all”? This most basic explanation of the Wobblies’ core value, solidarity, is in direct opposition to capitalism which preaches individualism and encourages people to think of each other as competitors rather than fellow workers or even brothers and sisters. It’s true, 112 years after the birth of the IWW, capitalism is still here—perhaps stronger than ever. But, then, so are the hopes and dreams of billions of people who want to share in the wealth they produce rather than allow it to be accumulated by the privileged class. For those people, the Wobblies offer both cautionary tales and useful lessons.

This essay originally appeared on the website of Pluto Press. Thanks to Pluto for agreeing to reprint.

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Saggio da San Frediano #6 – Elezioni Regionali – Sicilia – Bellwether for Italia – 2018?

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Progressive USA is abuzz over the elections that took place on November 8th. Do the victories in New Jersey and particularly Virginia point the way towards a massive reallocation of House of Representative seats in favor of Democrats in 2018? Let’s hope so, and I will be returning from Italy in early 2018 to do my little part in trying to make that happen. But in the meantime ever since we got to Italy in September, the talk has been that the Sicilian regional elections will be indicative of what happens in the national parliamentary elections in 2018. Most of my Italian comrades and particularly the Florentines say that “Sicilia non e’ Italia” (Sicily is not Italy) but nevertheless some of the things that happened in the regionals while we were in the capital city of Sicily, Palermo, are instructive and revealing.

A sign outside of a voting site in Sicily.

Sunday, November 5, was Election Day in Sicily. All elections in Italy are on Sunday, a very civilized practice, but probably one that has its origins in the Christian Democrats wanting to have a final word with the voters in Mass before they headed to the urns. Sicily is one of 21 Italian regions which elects a President and a regional parliament. The Sicilian Regional Assembly (ARS) meets at the Palazzo dei Normanni, as its name suggests the home of the Norman conquerors of the 1100’s, but also the home (1130) of the first parliament in European history. The Sicilian post war and post fascist parliamentary system of 1947 actually predates the parliament of the Italian 1st Republic (1948) and has its own features, one of which provides for the election of a regional President (Governor) separate from the parliamentary majority.

These elections were seen as the first big battle between the two forces that are predicted by the national polls to battle for power in 2018 on a national level – Centro Destra (Center Right) and Movimento 5 Stelle (Five Star Movement). The Sicilian and national governing party the Center-left Pd is struggling with internal divisions and those too were on display in Sicily. While Sicily is seen as a right-wing region historically, The Pd has governed in Sicily for 5 years since the elections of 2012 brought it to power because of divisions in the Center Right.

The final results were the following after vote counting was completed on Monday, November 6:

· Nello Musumeci of the Center Right – 40% of the vote for President – He himself is from a small Sicilian party but ran in alliance with Forza Italia, Berlusconi’s national party so he was the candidate of five parties.

· Giancarlo Cancelleri of M5S – 34.6% of the vote and all the votes were for his M5S, which as a single party was the largest vote getter in Sicilia.

· Fabrizio Micari – CenterLeft and a member of the Partito Democratico which was the top vote getter in his coalition of 4 parties

· Claudio Fava – Candidate of the Left 6.20% enough to get over the 5% threshold and get a deputy in the Assembly.

In the end because the Presidential vote is not synonymous with the parliamentary vote (people can split their tickets), the Center Right ended up with at least 35 seats out of 70 in the Regional Assembly, enough to cobble together a ruling legislative coalition.

Many in the Western press saw Musumeci’s victory as the reemergence of Mr. “B”, or Il Cavaliere as Silvio Berlusconi is referred to in the Italian press. While he is barred by a 2013 court decision from serving in government, he is seen as a kingmaker and is still the de facto leader of Forza Italia, the party he founded in the 1990’s in the wake of the bribery scandals that rocked Italian politics.

In looking at the leading candidates we can get a flavor of the race and the features particular to Sicily.

The winner is Sebastiano “Nello” Musumeci, an ally of Berlusconi who served in his last cabinet. A very polished politician with a past that would be disturbing even in the United States of Donald Trump and the candidacy of Roy Moore in Alabama. Musumeci came up in Giovane Italia, the youth group of the Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI), the post war fascist party led by Giorgio Almirante. Musumeci named one of his sons after Almirante and wrote a book in 1991, entitled “Return of the Flame” that celebrated fascism and declared his pride in the culture of Catania, known as the “blackest” (most fascist) city in Italy. Now he speaks of himself as “Fascista per Bene”, a fascist for the good.

The M5S candidate – Gian Carlo Cancelleri – He highlighted his history as a businessman and in grass roots organizing although it appears that his first such grass roots activity was to rally citizen opposition to mandated recycling programs. Cancelleri’s M5S was projected by many to win outright in Sicily, and his party got the single largest number of votes but was beaten by the Center Right coalition. The defeat was stunning because the mercurial leader of the M5S, the Italian comedian Beppe Grillo, had promised victory in Sicily. Because the M5S defines itself as a non-party citizens movement it cannot ally with parties, therefore it is left with the most number of seats (21) in the Sicilian Regional parliament but is resigned to being in the opposition. This scenario could well play out in 2018 on a national scale because again the M5S will not be in coalition or shared electoral lists with other parties and therefore triumph at the polls, but be left out of government

Fabrizio Micari, the candidate of the Center Left was lifted out of the ranks of the Academy with no experience in elected office. He is the rector of the University of Palermo and was chosen as a sacrificial lamb for whom none of the “bigs” of the Partito Democratico were willing to come and campaign. His defeat and ignominious third place finish is more a reflection of the challenges of the left than of his own personal failings as a candidate. The left in Sicily, as in the rest of Italy, is split. This is a dangerous, but not new development, that signals big challenges in 2018.

Claudio Fava, who ran as the left candidate in Sicily and who will matriculate into the Parliament as the one deputy of the left, is part of the national left that split off from the Pd in February, 2016, taking 43 formerly Pd deputies out of the party’s parliamentary constellation. These forces, allied with some of the historic leaders of the old Partito Communista Italiano, (PCI) and the largest Italian Labor Federation, the CGIL, remain critical of ex Premier Matteo Renzi and his 1000 days in office. A time that saw passage of Article 18 of the Jobs Act, which gave employers more flexibility in hiring in small firms but according to the CGIL increased the ranks of the precarious. Fava, himself an accomplished water polo player and excellent speaker, ran a valiant race in Sicily but was doomed from the start to the 6-7% of the vote he ended up getting.

Finally, as with elections in many western countries, those who abstained among registered voters outnumbered the voting electorate. Less than 47% voted in Sicily. This in the context of a 72% turnout in the last national election, a stunning number in light of our low turnout but concerning because between 1948-1976 the Italian turnout was about 92%.

•••

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.

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Weinsteins in the Workplace: Will Unions Be Part of the Solution Or the Problem?

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1982: Auto mechanic. New York. Photo: Robert Gumpert

The exploding national debate about workplace harassment of women by powerful bosses or male co-workers is a great opening for unions to demonstrate their importance as one form of protection against such abuse.

Unfortunately, when unions are not pro-active on this front in their dealings with management or, worse yet, allow bullying or sexual harassment among staff or members, their credibility and appeal as a sword and shield for women (or anybody else) is greatly reduced.

Unions don’t exist in a vacuum. They reflect the workplace or occupational cultures of their members, and the latter are a product of social conditioning often unsupportive of solidarity on the job, collective activity, or sensitivity toward women and minorities.

So the task of forging a united front, for purposes of mutual aid and protection in the workplace, is easily hindered by union dysfunction and internal divisions based on race, gender, ethnicity, age, and other membership differences.

It takes continuous organizational effort—in the form of training and recruitment, new leadership development, and structural change–to insure that the bullying, harassing, divide-and-conquer behavior of bosses, big and small, doesn’t infect and weaken the “house of labor” too.

Locker Room Talkers

One of my local union assignments, in a 27-year career representing the Communications Worker of America, illustrates some of the complexities, and ironies, of this challenge at the micro level.

The CWA unit in question had several hundred members, all factory workers in a depressed mill town in central Massachusetts. The union “brothers” greatly outnumbered the “sisters” in this blue-collar workplace. What President Trump calls “locker room talk” was fairly widespread; the culture was rough, definitely not PC, and, in fact, included some vocal Republicans more in love with their guns than the liberal causes or candidates championed by their national union.

When I inherited this local in the early 1990s, I was struck by how many people in the shop seemed to have been bickering with or picking on each other since grade school. The rank-and-file was dispirited, divided, and prone to self-blame, for lagging wages and pension coverage. The union leadership was seen as a do-nothing little club, with no women in it, either as elected officers or appointed stewards.

Members resented their local president for spending dues money on trips to CWA meetings and conferences that benefitted no one else. If workers had a problem or complaint, grievances might be filed on their behalf. But there wouldn’t be any follow-up pressure on management to secure favorable settlements. Everything took place behind closed doors.

The local union president, whose nickname since high school was “Pinky,” sang in the choir of a local church. He was a Navy veteran who acted superior to his blue-collar workmates, and often displayed a hostile attitude toward female co-workers. He believed in issuing orders, tightly controlling information, and liked to end poorly attended membership meetings as quickly as possible, due to “lack of a quorum.”

“Jewing Us Down”?

Since we had begun wage negotiations with the company, I pressured President Pinky to call a meeting, with or without a quorum, to highlight our lack of progress. I entertained the hope that this rare bargaining update might spark some rank-and-file activity he would be unable to quell.

The company’s HR director at the time was a non-gentile from out-of town named Sheldon. And Pinky, despite his own aspirations for a salaried position (which he later got) did not like this particular management negotiator. So Pinky began his bargaining report with the news that Sheldon was “trying to Jew us down” at the bargaining table. The head nodding and muttering throughout the gloomy VFW hall suggested that Pinky, for all his leadership flaws, did know his local audience.

I was a newly assigned union rep not yet known or trusted by anyone in the room, but felt compelled to call Pinky out on this. My interruption began with a reminder that everyone present worked for a big corporation. Local management’s lack of enthusiasm for paying them better had nothing to do with Sheldon’s ethnicity or religion, I explained. Furthermore, as someone married to a Jew, I was not a fan of the phrase Pinky had used because it was part of evil stereotyping that helped murder millions of people during World War II, a slaughter of innocents not ended until VFW members and others helped defeat the Nazis responsible.

Since there were no Jews (or African-Americans) present, I asked how many other people had ever been offended at some point in their life by the slurring of Italians as “Wops,” Puerto Ricans as “Spics,” Irish-Americans as “Micks,” French-Canadian New Englanders as “Frogs,” women as “sluts,” or gay people as “fags”—all in the context of attributing some unflattering characteristic or behavior to everyone in the group so labeled.

A few hands went up. I then noted that talking about other people like this—even if they were in management—did not help us address the problem of how to build the internal unity necessary to win a good contract. Nobody would be getting a decent raise unless everyone in the shop pulled together, stood up, and fought back.

Pinky did not welcome this personal reproach, my related call for collective action, or reality check on where negotiations were headed without it. True to form, the meeting was gaveled to a close quickly. Members left with the assurance that their local officers would handle everything.

Unwanted Personal Contact

Not long afterwards, I got my first opening to help plant the seeds of a better approach, which took another decade to flower. An hourly worker I’ll call Sally—a single-mother, mistreated by men in her past—was threatened with disciplinary action by the company because of her alleged “sexual harassment” of a supervisor! In her version of their interaction, confirmed by co-workers, the married manager who complained about her was actually the initiator of unwanted personal contact.

With the local leadership’s grudging assent, we not only filed a grievance, but also circulated a petition throughout the shop to support Sally. A special meeting was called to discuss her case, an unprecedented approach to “grievance handling” in the local.

Women never active in the union but sympathetic to Sally got the petition signed in every department and shift. Nearly half the membership showed up on a Sunday morning to show solidarity with the grievant. At her first union meeting ever, Sally got a big round of supportive applause, from men and women alike.

Management grumbled, of course, about the creation of such an unexpected and unwelcome ruckus. Despite the murky details of Sally’s actual relationship with the supervisor, disciplinary action against her was dropped. One of the female leaders of the petition drive volunteered to become a union steward and, a few years later, in the post-Pinky era, Peggy was elected vice-president of the local.

She and others became part of a new, younger, more militant leadership of the local, which restored rank-and-file confidence in CWA. This union revival occurred just in time because, by 2001, the company was owned by the Pritzker family, billionaires from Chicago, who were seeking health care give-backs. (Fortunately, Pinky wasn’t still around to link that all-too-common management objective to the ethnicity of the new owners.)

By now, a once sullen, isolated, and dispirited union body was filing group grievances, calling in OSHA inspectors, conducting informational picketing, making allies in the community, and defending good medical benefits in the local media. During contract talks, any member could attend, as an observer, and written reports were distributed, plant-wide, after every bargaining session.

To resist concessions, the local responded with its first strike in 37 years. During that month-long work stoppage, no one crossed the picket-line and women played prominent roles on the strike and bargaining committees.

Left: Leadville, CO., 1984: Moly miners waiting to start work. Right: Long Beach, CA., 1983 Workers at the Long Beach McDonnel-Douglas plant. UAW members. Photos: Robert Gumpert

SAG & SEIU: “Zero Tolerance?

The lessons of this story are several, and hopefully relevant to unions facing virtual extinction today, due to mounting legal and political attacks. A big part of labor’s comeback strategy must involve bottom-up rebuilding of local unions. Greater militancy, internal democracy, and transparency are key elements of that strategy, plus new, more diverse leadership. Challenging retrograde attitudes about women, blacks, Jews, Muslims, Latinos, or any foreign-born workers is an essential part of that task. Replacing labor officials who are obstacles to inclusion is a necessary, if not always sufficient, step toward real union reform.

Among the many job-related concerns that can help build unity–among union members and workers seeking collective bargaining rights –is bosses who bully and harass people. However, unions can best stop such behavior and hold repeat offenders accountable if they have their own act together and avoid complicity with similar misconduct.

In the Toronto Globe And Mail last month, one outspoken Harvey Weinstein victim—Canadian actress Mia Kirshner—accused both of her unions, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television, and Radio Artists (ACTRA) of offering “inadequate protection” against “sexual harassment and abuse in the film industry.”

Kirshner’s blistering critique was seconded in Jacobin by Morgan Spector, a New York-based television, film, and theater actor. He also faulted SAG, which has a female president, for not being aggressive enough on behalf of aggrieved members– despite an official union policy of “zero tolerance” for sexual harassment.

Worse yet, in Bloomberg News, a former hotel union staffer-turned-journalist, Josh Eidelson, just blew the whistle on misconduct by a top Service Employees International Union (SEIU) leader, in charge of its “Fight for 15” campaign among fast food workers. The career of Scott Courtney, Executive Vice President of SEIU, had previously been promoted by Mary Kay Henry, the union’s national president. But, in mid-October Henry suspended him from his $250,000 a year position because, as Eidelson reported, “people working for Courtney had been rewarded or reassigned based on romantic relationships with him.”

Courtney has since resigned, before he could be fired, as demanded by UltraViolet, a women’s group which called his conduct “wholly unacceptable.” And, as Buzzfeed News has reported, two male SEIU staffers who reported to Courtney have also been fired or put on administrative leave in Chicago, based on allegations that he protected them, despite co-worker complaints about their bullying behavior involving women.

Press coverage of this union scandal is tainting SEIU’s reputation and credibility as a defender of fast food workers, who are often subjected to similar harassment by low-level managers in their industry. It’s a propaganda gift to anti-union employers everywhere, from McDonalds to your local manufacturer. Already, neo-liberal media outlets like The New York Times are writing unions off as a contributor to any “real and lasting transformation” of American workplaces, “in the wake of Harvey Weinstein’s expulsion from Hollywood” and the outing or toppling of other high-profile predators.

In a lengthy October 29 editorial about next steps toward “lasting change,” The Times called for safer work environments, more enlightened and transparent management, and stronger anti-discrimination protection. While marveling at “what a difference it can make when women join together—and men join with them—to confront harassers openly,” the editors failed to note that collective action, of this sort, is best organized and sustained by a well-functioning union.

When labor organizations like SAG or SEIU don’t quickly confront Weinsteins in the workplace, particularly in the situations referenced above, they’re just confirming management claims that unions are weak, irrelevant, and hypocritical as well.

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About the author

Steve Early

Steve Early is a member of the Richmond Progressive Alliance and a supporter of Tom Butt for mayor of Richmond. He is the author of Save Our Unions: Dispatches From A Movement in Distress and other books. Early is currently working on a book about political change and public policy controversies in Richmond. He can be reached at Lsuport@aol.com. For more on his writing about labor and politics, see: www.steveearly.org

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Mass Murder in a Culture of Vengeance

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Photo: Robert Gumpert 2017

Mass murders like the massacre at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, on Sunday give us pause. Long pause. What is causing all of these atrocities? In this case, the murderer had a history of domestic violence.

There certainly is a connection between domestic violence and gun violence. Could that connection help us understand the violence?

Or there are extraordinary weapons like the bump stocks Stephen Paddock used to kill 58 people in Las Vegas a few weeks prior.

Is it the easy availability of rapid-fire military-grade armaments that lead to mass murders?

Do we need laws restricting gun possession by perpetrators of domestic violence, and laws restricting the purchase and ownership of military grade rapid-fire weapons? Of course we do. But there is something else about the Texas church massacre that deserves attention. Vengeance. The shooter did not have a rational target, and like most mass murderers killed randomly. But he was clearly acting out of vengeance, as was Stephen Paddock and others.

Vengeance is a quintessential human sentiment. It is one of our capacities, just as generosity and forgiveness are human capacities.

It’s much easier to draft laws prohibiting certain gun sales, such as giving guns to men who beat women, than it is to come to grips with the social problem of vengeance. I have arrived at a very simple formulation about vengeance and problems like gun violence. A backdrop of heightened vengeance in our mass culture is almost a prerequisite for large scale gun violence. I’d better explain. I will begin with a parallel in sexual assault within women’s prisons – stay with me, the relevance will become apparent. Generally, in men’s prisons rape is prisoner-on-prisoner, but in women’s facilities it is more often staff who perpetrate sexual abuse and rape. When I testify as a psychiatric expert witness in court on behalf of women who have been sexually abused by staff, I point out that the sexual abuse would not be so pervasive absent a culture of misogyny in the women’s prisons. Women prisoners, some of whom are older than officers, are regularly called “girls” and are disrespected at every turn. They are searched frequently by male officers who linger over their breasts and crotch. The misogyny is so commonplace it becomes “normalized,” and women feel that unless they are actually raped there is no use reporting the daily sexual harassment. This culture of misogyny is a necessary backdrop for the actual rapes and serious sexual abuse that occur all too often.

Similarly, where it is quite obvious how much vengeance is a part of the picture when a man picks up military weapons and opens fire on a crowd – he is getting back for some past episode that sticks in his craw even if his targets are not rationally connected to those who previously did him harm – but we rarely give a thought to the way a culture of heightened vengeance constitutes the necessary backdrop. Vengeance is a quintessential human sentiment. It is one of our capacities, just as generosity and forgiveness are human capacities. But certain experiences bring vengeance to the fore, for example unfair treatment at work, gross disrespect, the murder of a loved one, or the very high-profile murder of someone else’s child. We have the impulse to kill the murderer in revenge, or in more legal fashion, we may feel driven to seek the worst punishment possible in court, even death. In other words, the pervasiveness of vengeance in our mass culture and the media varies with historical events and the times. I think it’s clear that mass murders, though they remain relatively infrequent occurrences, are on the upswing. Could the upswing have something to do with the fact that vengeance is increasingly prominent in our social interactions and sensibilities today? We have a President who brags about groping women. We have hate crimes on the rise, with less and less effort from the federal government to do anything about their causes. We have openly anti-immigrant, xenophobic and homophobic statements emanating from the President and other leaders in Washington. All of this fuels a culture permeated by vengeance. I often feel I am even seeing it on the freeway. During more friendly and less vengeful times, if I near an exit and need to change lanes the drivers in that lane will slow and let me pass, but today they seem more often to speed up and cut me off, even when they know it means I will miss my exit. This is a very subtle form of vengeance, but it is one tiny reflection of increased vengeance in our culture, and there are many others. It is not only immigrants who are suffering in our vengeful society, there is simply less kindness around; for example there is little will in government to consign funds for programs disadvantaged people need to keep their heads above water. Our President is so vengeful that when a politician criticizes him he ups the ante in crude counter-attacks, and after a mass murder he immediately calls for the murderer to be executed. Of course he errs by disrespecting the separation of branches in our federal government, but also the reflex call for state-sponsored murder of the murderer feeds the general sense of vengeance in our culture today.

•••

For more thoughts on an American way of death:

The Guardian of 6 November 2017: “The heartbreaking stupidity of America’s gun laws” by Richard Wolffe

The New York Times of 6 November 2017: “What Explains U.S. Mass Shootings? International Comparisons Suggest an Answer” by Max Fisher and Josh Keller

Saggio #5 – “Kap e Berni” – Poltica e Lo Sport

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It would require full time attention to English language media to keep up with all the controversy surrounding Donald Trump’s attacks on NFL players. My heart is warmed to see players from America’s most popular game standing up against the Trumpster and in support of justice not only for African-Americans but all those being abused and left behind. It was heartening to see some white players finally speak out. Meanwhile Colin Kapernick remains on the “blacklist” for his courageous acts. I decided that it was time to find out a little of the political history of sports resistance to Mussolini in Italia. Italy’s biggest sport of course is “Calcio”, what the world calls Futbol and we call soccer.

I rode my bike on September 29 to the neighborhood of Coverciano where the Italian national team has its lavish training center. In the same location there is the National Calcio Museum dedicated to the history of Italian soccer and particularly Italian triumphs in the World Cup – 4 in all. I parked my bike outside the gate and pressed the doorbell as instructed. I was buzzed into a small ticket office where an elderly gentleman in a three-piece suit sold me a ticket and then led me into the museum. I was the only customer, and he spent time with me explaining what was in the museum and how to find different exhibits on its three floors. Turns out this gentleman is Dottor Fino Fini and he was the national team physician from 1962-82. Of course 1982 was the first World Cup post WW II and post fascism. I made the mistake of asking Dottor Fini his name, and I think he was truly offended to think that a calcio fan visiting that museum would not know who he was.

The museum was very extensive with historical exhibits tracing the game’s origins back to the 19th century when Brits brought the game to the seaport of Genova. The early Italian teams were in the industrial north and were often linked to manufacturers like the giant FIAT automobile plant, which sponsored and later owned the Club Team Juventus. (Juventus is a bit like the NY Yankees having won 33 “scudetti” or championships.)

In 1938 Italy won its second World Cup and Mussolini welcomed the whole team to Rome

Mussolini and the Fascist party took power in 1922 and realized the potential of calcio as a national unifying force. In fact Italy’s premier league, Serie A, was created under Mussolini’s reign. Italy’s first two world championships, in 1934 at home in Italy against Czechoslovakia, and in 1938 in France with a victory against Hungary. The museum has a grainy photo of Mussolini welcoming the whole team to Rome in 1938 dressed in military uniforms.

1931: Before the opening whistle it was the custom for the players to salute the dignitaries seated in the “tribuna” with “il saluto Romano” the fascist salute. Bruno Neri refused.

I am not sure that this tradition of political leaders welcoming teams to the capital began with Mussolini, but it has certainly become a point of controversy in he United States as a focal point for protest against administration policies. There is the famous case of Craig Hodges, a journeyman member of the NBA champion Chicago Bulls, who went to the White House of President George HW Bush in 1992 wearing a dashiki. He presented the President with a statement asking him to do more to end discrimination against African Americans and was subsequently blacklisted ala Kapernick. He never again played in the NBA. During the twenty plus years of fascism in Italy there were many examples of political courage and protest by athletes, principally in Italy’s most popular sport of “calcio”. One of the best examples of athletic courage and principle were the defiant acts, and the ultimate sacrifice to the Partisan cause, of one Bruno Neri. This midfielder, who played from 1929-1936 on the squadra la Fiorentina, made a statement ala Kapernick when the new stadium in Florence was inaugurated in 1931 with a friendly between Fiorentina and Admiral from Vienna. Before the opening whistle it was the custom for the players to salute the dignitaries seated in the “tribuna” with “il saluto Romano” the fascist salute. Neri did not raise his arm. He was not the only player to refuse to salute, but he was unusual in that he later went on to become a Vice Commander of the Battalion Ravenna of the Italian Resistance.

Bruno Neri not only player refused to salute, he later fought with Italian Resistance and was killed in 1944

“Berni” (his nom di guerre) was killed by a German bayonet in 1944. In Italy modern on field protests have mainly taken the form of solidarity with African players who reactionary, racist, and fascist fans have pelted with bananas. Games have been stopped and players from the home teams have made direct appeals to their own home fans to knock it off.

I closed out my visit to Coverciano with a stop as at the exhibit case that celebrated Italy’s amazing World Cup 4 overtime win in the semi-finals against West Germany, in Mexico. That was in 1970 and I happened to be in Italy for the first time that summer, and I have never seen such a sports mad country. Every fountain in every public square in Italy was filled with fans carrying the Tri-Colore in the aftermath of the dramatic semi-final. For the final against Pele and Brazil it seemed like a neutron bomb had hit; all of Italy was indoors watching and cheering on “Gli Azzurri” (the Blues, the color of the Italian team jersey). Italy succumbed in the final 4-1.

I finished my tour of the Museo del Calcio and closed the door behind me. I walked to the “biglieterria” and said goodbye to Dottore Fini and pedaled home.

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Postscript:

On Monday, October 23, the politics of racism and anti-Semitism took a bizarre and alarming twist in Italy. Sixteen super fans, or “Ultras”, of the Roman squad Lazio were caught on tape affixing stickers onto the South Curve of the Olympic Stadium that bore a picture of Anne Frank photo-shopped wearing a jersey of their arch rivals, AS Roma. This along with other stickers that said “Romanista Ebreo” was a sick and twisted way of slamming the fans of the other major team from the capital city; a team long associated with the left. The reaction of Serie A, the league, was swift, and a passage of the Diary of Anne Frank was read aloud before the opening of all subsequent matches throughout Italy. Many teams wore jerseys inscribed with “Noi siamo tutti Anna Frank”, “We are all Anne Frank”. I have often vigorously argued that you can’t understand politics or connect with a people, especially the male species without understanding their sports. I must admit however that I was confounded by this incident and had to read the Italian newspapers over and over again to figure out what the Diary of Anne Frank had to do with Serie A. Many of the “Ultras” have long been associated throughout Europe with right-wing, proto fascist politics, but I was pretty stunned by the evil “creativity” of the Lazio fans.

•••

Saggio #4 – Pracchia e Lorenzo il Magnifico – September 14, 2017

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Our friend Giuliana Milanese from Bernal Heights in San Francisco arrived in Florence on September 12th as part of her month long family and friends tour of northern and central Italy. Giuliana was raised in Oakland by two Italian immigrant parents, and she has maintained her deep ties with family in Liguria, Toscana and Lombardia. Her visit to Firenze was predicated on my willingness to accompany her to Pracchia in the Province of Pistoia, northwest of Firenze bordering on the region of Emilia Romagna. Why Pracchia? My Italian friends for the most part had never heard of this little mountain town, but Giuliana had a dear uncle who lived there for many years, and she was accustomed to visit him on her Italian sojourns before his passing a few years ago.

On September 14th we left for Pracchia. Christina was in her intensive Italian class so Giuliana and I were joined by her two dear friends, Lorella Di Vuono and Viviana Morgante. They are a couple in their thirties who Giuliana had befriended in Bernal. She heard two women speaking Italian, and she chimed in and invited them to spend Christmas with her and her family. LoLo is from Piemonte and Viviana is Palermitana from La Sicilia. They are accomplished world travelers, researchers and raconteurs. LoLo has written a fascinating analysis of the language used in the right-wing appeals of Berlusconi and political groups like Forza Italia and Lega del Nord. This analysis is on a par with the work of George Lakoff, the Berkeley professor who has made deconstructing the strong leader patriarchal appeals of Donald Trump the subject of his linguistic skills.

Left: LoLo, Giuliana and Viviana in the Pistoia train station. Right: An abandoned train station in Pracchia

To get to Pracchia you travel to Pistoia and then change trains. A short ride and you get off at the tiny station. We were the only travelers to get off, and found a deserted waiting room with the exception of two young workers waiting for the train back to Pistoia. They explained to us that now there were only 154 residents of Pracchia, many of them living in a residential home for the aged. They expressed skepticism that we would be able to find anywhere to eat in Pracchia, but off we went for a hike up into Pracchia Alta looking for the old home of Giuliana’s uncle. Giuliana wasn’t able to locate the house, and we hungry hikers were unable to find a restaurant to eat at. In fact there was no commercial establishment open. The only office with public access was the Poste Italiane, and La Postina explained that for food we were in the wrong place. Back to the train station and the next train to Pistoia. However upon arriving at the station the timetable wasn’t accommodating our alimentary needs. There would be no train for another 4 hours!

We saw the COPIT BluBus sitting opposite the train station and climbed on board and asked the driver where we could get some food. He patiently explained that we would have to go to the next town down the road at PontePetri for a meal. He also explained that he would honor our train tickets and get us there. He also explained much of the amazing history of Pracchia and the train system. He told us that the old abandoned station opposite the one where we had got off a couple hours earlier was one of the first RR stations in Italy, on one of the first RR lines in the world, inaugurated in 1864 to connect Pistoia in Tuscany with the major city in Emilia Romagna, Bologna. In 1926 a narrow gauge fully electric service was initiated to connect Pracchia with the small mountain towns of the Lima river valley. This service was under the authority of the La Ferrovia Alto Pistoiese, meaning the railroad serving upper Pistoia, or F.A.P. The service continued until 1965 when it was dismantled, but the old train station where Lorenzo’s bus was parked still carries the initials of the electric railway.

I have been working as a consultant to the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way (BMW), one of the original US railroad craft unions established in the 1880’s to represent the workers who lay the tracks and maintain them for all the big freight railroads and commuter lines. I have become, in the parlance of the railroad, a “foamer”, that is someone who foams at the mouth over all things railroad. So I saw a railroad yard next to the station and immediately went over to inspect the “binari” and transversini” (the rails and ties) and the track maintenance equipment, the same materials and gear that I would encounter in a train yard in the Bay Area.

Then Lorenzo drove us in his empty bus down to PontePetri where we ate a wonderful lunch at his favorite restaurant, Quarteroni, a Macelerai e Alimentari (butcher shop and food service). He explained that he would pick us up after lunch on his regular run and take us back to Pistoia where we could get a train to Firenze. Like clockwork, he showed up across from Quarteroni and we were in Pistoia within 45 minutes. He insisted on escorting us personally to our track in Pistoia. We thanked him as he left to drive home to his young family in Agliana. We dubbed him Lorenzo il Magnifico, no Medici he, just a big hearted Italian bus driver. I made sure to gift him a lapel pin from the BMW, which he proudly affixed to his BluBus uniform when we said goodbye.

•••

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.

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Saggio da San Frediano #3 Poeta Romagnolo – Arnaldo Morelli

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On the first weekend of September we were privileged to travel to the Camugnano region half way between Florence and Bologna where we were hosted by our dear friends Franco and Marinella at their “Casa in Campagna”. This is a beautiful foothill area in the Italian region of Emilia Romagna, and is north of Tuscany where we are situated. They bought half of an old farm house 14 years ago and transformed it into a beautiful hide away. They are in the village of Carpineta and their neighborhood is called Le Piazze. In Le Piazze they have gotten to know all their neighbors and pass many hours eating, drinking and conversing with a diverse set of friends some of who have roots back generations in Carpineta.

On our first night we met Anna Montanari and Arnaldo Morelli, both very engaging human beings. Anna is over 80 and has led a fascinating life of struggle and commitment to the working class and the left. She has worked in the rice fields of Emilia Romagna (Here and Here), among many other jobs. In her latest job she made tagliatelle and we hope to see her again for a taste of this wonderful homemade pasta. While we were with her over the weekend she made “Friggione”, a mysterious but delicious mixture of onions, tomatoes and a small amount of lard with sale-e-pepe.

Arnaldo Morelli, a retired cement mason and active poet. He writes in the regional dialect of Emilia Romagna – Romagnolo. Photo: Peter Olney

Anna’s companion is Arnaldo Morelli, a retired cement mason and active poet. He is a poet in the regional dialect of Emilia Romagna – Romagnolo – His work has been recently published in a book entitled Vosi Da E Bur or in Italiano Voci dal buio (Voices from the darkness). The poems are in Romagnolo with side by side translations in Italian. The translations are necessary for Italian speakers because except for a few words, “non si capisce niente di Romagnolo” (One doesn’t understand anything of Romagnolo) These are beautiful sensual poems that describe natural wonder and are inspired by everyday events. For example, Arnaldo was inspired by Christina’s exotic appearance to write a poem the evening he met her. We would later learn from Arnaldo that Romagnolo is best read aloud because of its natural rhythmic cadence.

The phenomenon of dialects or distinct regional languages within Italy is important to understand. It wasn’t until 1871 that Italy became Italy with the capital in Rome http://www.italianlegacy.com/brief-history-of-italy.html. Until then the peninsula and Sicily and Sardegna were city states with their own language and culture. While national government, commerce and especially TV, radio and newspapers have homogenized language, dialects still remain important and are spoken often, although not exclusively, by the older generation.

Although how old is old? I remember vividly my trip during Christmas of 1971-72 to the region of Puglia in the southeast on the heel of the boot. I was accompanying a fellow student at the Universita di Firenze, Joseph “Pepino” Scarola who was from Dumont, New Jersey. Pepino was born in the village of Grumo in Puglia and at the age of 12 had moved with his family to Dumont. Therefore at the age when he would have begun to study Italian “standard” he was wrested from his village in Italy and began studying English in the schools in the United States. When I met him both English and Italian challenged him. He spoke both well but haltingly with accents, and spoke his dialect, Grumese in the home. Sometimes he found himself the target of jokes and barbs because of his language skills, but when we arrived in Grumo, I saw a man transformed. Whe got out of our VW bus to talk with his welcoming relatives, he spoke perfectly, and with great confidence in Grumese, his home dialect. And if we had gone 10 kilometers down the road, the locals wouldn’t understand Grumese!

Certainly such regional differences in speech exist in the US in Appalachia, the bijous of Louisiana and some islands of the southeastern coast being examples. Not to mention the language variations spoken in different urban areas. However usually there is a common understanding, at least on one side of the conversation.

I will never forget attending a memorial for my dear friend Jim Trammel, who died too young in 2002. Jim was a native of Nashville, Tennessee. I went to a service at his hometown church. I met four of his country cousins, white guys from the hills outside Nashville. I spoke with each one of them individually fine, but when they spoke with each other I was unable to understand a word they said.

On the road to Camugnano in Emilia Romagna. A sign in 5 languages (Italian, French, English, German, Arabic) warning of high water danger. Photo: Peter Olney

While common language remains an important indicator of national unity, the acceptance of different languages is an indicator of societal tolerance and advancement. On our trip to Camugnano in Emilia Romagna I was pleased to see that warning signs of high water dangers were translated not only into four European languages (Italian, French, English and German) but also into Arabic, an acknowledgment of the increased presence of immigrants from Northern Africa and the Middle East.

On our last night in Carpineta, Arnaldo insisted on reading Christina’s poem in Romagnolo which was quite musical and charming. It told of a longing admirer passing below a mysterious woman’s window, inspired by her billowing bloomers drying in the wind… Our adventures continue.

•••

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.

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Report from Greece: Preliminary Thoughts 30 September 2017

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Preface
What I know about Greece and Greek politics can be put in a thimble, and probably a small one at that. So these observations and questions need that preface. As further preface, it is very difficult to apply lessons learned in the United States to anyplace else without contextualizing them in the new setting. That requires intimate knowledge of what is happening on the ground—so what follows are friendly speculations.

All the political Greek people we’ve met have been warm and hospitable in their welcome to us, Americans whose political and economic structures (government, financial and corporate), along with the European Union, European Bank and International Monetary Fund are largely responsible for the mess in which their country now finds itself. To be sure, there is complicity in past behavior and decisions made in Greece. But it’s not these macro questions that I want to consider here.

“Their struggle is your struggle too! Everyone to the streets!”

Local People
We (my partner Kathy Lipscomb* and I) have now met with a public school teacher, taxi driver, waiter (who is also a university graduate in political science), tour guide, night shift security guard and a well known Greek actress ALL of whom blame Syriza (“Who we are” – Syriza) for the current mess, are fed up with politics and politicians (“they are all alike”), and think Syriza (has done nothing for the Greek people or, even worse, point to things Syriza (Here) did (ignore the referendum results), or is doing (see below), that are making things worse.

We have also met with an internationally known political scientist who is active in Syriza, and who is interviewed regularly in various English language left journals, and a Syriza political appointee who is the national coordinator of municipal mayors. The two of them have elaborate explanations for everything Syriza has done or not done. The bad things, in their views, are for the most part the result of constraints imposed upon them by The Troika. They note good things that are done quietly, with no fanfare, under the radar. However, these seem to be so under the radar that none of the other people with whom we spoke mentioned them; indeed they said things that contradicted the claims. Our pro-Syriza informants also indicate that mistakes were made, but they believe these had more to do with Syriza strategy than with decisions that hurt the Greek people.

The clearest example of a bad thing is the story we were told about home foreclosures. There is a high percent of homeownership in Greece. Until recently, we were told, there was an ‘umbrella” that protected a home owner in his/her residence, though it didn’t protect additional property from foreclosure. Syriza, we were told, is responsible for removing the umbrella. Not only that, when the protection was first removed demonstrators appeared at the foreclosure proceedings making it impossible for judgment to be rendered. In response, Syriza made the procedure an electronic one. You now receive an e-mail informing you of the foreclosure as a “done deal”.

Another example we were given, Syriza is further eroding the pensions for which people paid during their work lives. That is a disaster for Greek retirees: there is only a public retirement system. Workers paid 18% of their wage into this system; employers paid 28%. The government has now more than once cut retiree payments.

What is the truth? We are in absolutely no position to tell. I can say with some confidence that not one of these informants was disingenuous; they firmly believe what they told us; none had a pre-disposition against Syriza and, in fact, most of them had been Syriza supporters, and voted for Syriza in the last election. Now, they told us, they either will not, or do not know if they will, vote. And, if they decide to vote, they have no idea for whom that will be.

Is there a way to understand these apparently opposing views of the same facts? There is clearly a participation and perception gap between people we met who were Syriza supporters and those now actively engaged in Syriza. In what follows, I use a framework that I apply in my understanding of what’s going on in the United States. Does the application work? Is it appropriate? I’ll leave that for the reader to decide.

What’s Up?
In a democratic and participatory union, workers may decide to strike because the offer being placed on the table by their employer is inadequate. They might conduct an effective strike, and still be stonewalled as far as any improvement in the employer’s offer. At some point, the workers might decide they’ve put up as good a fight as can be waged, and their own economic circumstances are such, or the increasing presence of scabs is such, that they have to end the strike, return to work, build their strike fund again (if they have one), and wait until the next round of contract negotiations to return to the negotiating table from a position of strength. These workers are not likely to blame their leadership for the failure of the strike. The 1948 Packinghouse Workers Union strike is probably a good example of what I’m talking about.

As every American trade unionist who cares about the future of the labor movement knows, what I just described is, for the most part, a memory of the past. It has been replaced by what people call “insurance policy unions”. You buy your insurance policy (pay your dues) and expect your benefits (advocacy—contract negotiations, and services—grievance representation). Thus the common phrase, “What’s the union going to do about ‘x’?” as if the union is a third party—separate from the member asking the question.

What’s all that got to do with Greece, Syriza, and electoral politics in general? It seems to me in the nature of politicians and political parties in formally democratic systems that the party adopts a program, selects its candidates, and then determines a strategy by which to convince citizens to vote for it and them. But “convince” in the modern era is a tricky word because what it really means is to sell buyers (voters) a product (candidates and their program—which might have little to do with what they actually do if elected). At best, during an election a door-to-door mobilization takes place in which the candidate’s volunteers ask voters to support their candidate. Reasoning is not what takes place at the door because the canvassers are instructed not to waste time with opposition and, at best, to spend limited time with the undecided. Campaign imperatives demand this kind of behavior: there is an election that will take place on an already specified date and a majority of voters is required if the candidate is going to win. This imperative makes mobilization necessary and organization unlikely once campaign season has begun.

It is not by accident that this kind of campaigning takes place. The gap between the political parties and their candidates, on the one hand, and the voters, on the other, is huge. More likely than canvassing, it is direct mail, social media and television advertising that are used to reach the voters (the market). In national campaigns this approach is built into campaign structures: campaign consultants, who are the principal operators of campaigns, are paid by a percentage commission on the cost of the medium used for reaching to voters. Door-to-door work gets almost no money because most of the workers are volunteers!

Even in a campaign that is heavily dependent upon volunteer effort, the contact with the citizen is a fleeting one, and the follow-up is typically electronic, not personal except for election-day when the favorable voter is contacted to insure his or her turnout.

Potential voters do not say about the candidates they support, “What are we going to do about ‘x’ (unemployment, student debt, immigration, etc)?” They want to know what the candidate is going to do about ‘x’. The very nature of the campaign process tends toward the separation of “the campaign”—candidates and their inner-circle, donors, leaders of key interest groups (whose members already think of their organizations as third parties), and activists.

The question then becomes, “How deeply rooted are these activists in the day-to-day lives of the various constituencies addressed by the candidate?”

My friend Herb Mills was chairman of a “stewards’ council” in the International Longshoremen’s & Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU). There developed under his leadership a widespread system of elected stewards at worksites. The stewards worked alongside other workers. There was little-to-no gap between them. They were the point of connection between a worker or a “gang” (a working group that unloaded cargo) and “the union”. There was no gap, no “what’s the union going to do about ‘x’?” question.

In my experience as an organizer, “the activists” typically lack the rootedness in constituencies in whose behalf they believe their candidate will, if elected, act. Frequently they are sociologically very different: young, instead of spread across the age spectrum; “Anglo”, rather then reflecting the racial/ethnic diversity of the constituency; college educated, etc. They are people with whom I might agree on a very high percentage of things they believe. But they aren’t people upon whom I would rely to engage in a continuing conversation with the voters after the election, especially if the person elected had to make a compromise that appeared to violate the platform on which s/he had run as a candidate. Thus the activist isn’t likely to be able, over the long haul, to “deliver” at the base.

Greece Application
Is any of this applicable in Greece? People who know that situation far better than I will have to draw those conclusions. I hope the questions and observations are useful.

I suspect that Syriza and its activists lack the kind of rootedness that is required for everyday voters to say about their plight, “What are we going to do to solve the mess we are now in?” Both our Syriza informants told us nuanced examples of how the organization is now supporting things like soup kitchens, community gardens, homeless shelters and other programs and activities to solve the problems of poverty. They also claimed that Syriza had expanded funding for education, and stopped some bad things from happening to pensions. They see Syriza as having an organic connection with the “social movements”. Yet the school teacher and her security guard husband made no connection between their volunteer time spent in a soup kitchen and Syriza. Similarly, other activities we heard about from our other Syriza-critics (retiree organizations and mobilizations, campaigns to save peoples’ homes, worker strikes, etc) do not seem to be viewed as an aspect of a larger movement of which Syriza is a part. Quite the contrary, Syriza is seen as part of the problem, not the solution.

In the U.S. I think there needs to be a vehicle for “we”, and it is not a political party because the dynamics of parties don’t lend themselves to the effective creation of “us”. Is that idea relevant in Greece?

One of our informants said that when her son arrived at the university to begin his studies there, nine different political parties had registration desks where he could join one of them. But there was no registration desk for a student union that enlisted the vast majority of students around a lowest significant common denominator program that represented their values and interests—for example their indebtedness and the almost 50% unemployment rate their age group faces. Similarly, there is no organization in the community that includes mothers’ clubs, soccer teams, retiree organizations, unions, interest groups of various types and others, and new groups that could be formed among the marginalized. Various interest groups engage in protest demonstrations, but only political parties seek to bring them together. Thus there is nothing outside the electoral politics process capable of defending and advancing a program, and effectively demanding of politicians that they implement it.

Is something like that possible and/or desirable in Greece? I’ll wait to hear from them on that question.

•••


*Disclaimer: My partner Kathy doesn’t agree with all that’s said above. These are my views alone.

Readers of Stansbury Forum might want to look at my earlier post, “Syriza Prompted Musings”. For readers who would like to dive further into Mike’s thinking about Greece, write him @ mikeotcmiller@gmail.com and ask for “Reflections on Greece”.

About the author

Mike Miller

Mike Miller’s organizing background includes the early student movement at UC Berkeley, field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (1962-end of 1966), directorship of a Saul Alinsky community organizing project (1967-68), and a number of subsequent organizing projects. His articles on organizing have appeared in Social Policy, CounterPunch, Dissent, Socialist Review, International Journal of Urban Planning and Reseearch, Organizing, and The Organizer. He is author of Community Organizing: A Brief Introduction, A Community Organizer’s Tale: People and Power in San Francisco, co-author of The People Fight Back, and co-editor of the recently published People Power: The Organizing Tradition of Saul Alinsky. He directs ORGANIZE Training Center, www.organizetrainingcenter.org

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