Why Jesus “Chuy” Garcia Should Look to Anton Cermak’s Chicago Mayoral Campaign for Inspiration

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The parallels between Cermak and Garcia—and Chicago’s political moment in the 1930s and now—are striking.

During his campaign, in 1931, Cermak was told he could not win because of his background. Instead, he turned his heritage into an advantage by effectively organizing the city’s many ethnic groups including Poles, East European Jews, Italians and African Americans—a kind of “Rainbow Coalition” long before similar efforts by Washington and Rev. Jesse Jackson.

When considering Jesus “Chuy” Garcia’s impressive run to become Chicago’s next mayor, many cannot help but make historical comparisons. Understandably, Harold Washington’s historic victory in 1983 springs to mind—not the least because Garcia served as a key Washington ally during those years. However, Washington did not run against a seemingly unbeatable incumbent, nor was he an immigrant.

Perhaps a better comparison is to 1931, when Anton Cermak built the original multiethnic coalition, shook up the city’s entrenched politics and won the mayor’s race. Cermak asserted that the government needed to help ordinary people rather than corrupt business elites and sought to reduce the violence then plaguing the city. Sound familiar?

During his campaign, in 1931, Cermak was told he could not win because of his background. Instead, he turned his heritage into an advantage by effectively organizing the city’s many ethnic groups

Cermak—yes, there’s a street, formerly 22nd, named after him—pulled off an incredible victory by defeating William “Big Bill” Thompson. The parallels to the current election are striking.

Cermak arrived in the United States as an infant with his Czech parents from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Like most immigrants, they came with next to nothing. First, they lived in a small town south of Joliet where Cermak, just a child, worked with his father in a coalmine. When Cermak was 12, his family moved to Chicago’s South Lawndale neighborhood, home to a large and thriving Czech community—the same neighborhood Garcia lives in today, more commonly referred to as Little Village and the heart of the city’s Mexican population.

As a teen, Cermak worked as a railroad brakeman and teamster, earning the nickname “Pushcart Tony,” before entering politics. He was elected to the state House of Representatives, City Council and Cook County Board of Commissioners before announcing his intention to become mayor. Incredibly, Garcia also was elected to the state legislature, City Council and County Board.

During his campaign, in 1931, Cermak was told he could not win because of his background. Instead, he turned his heritage into an advantage by effectively organizing the city’s many ethnic groups including Poles, East European Jews, Italians and African Americans—a kind of “Rainbow Coalition” long before similar efforts by Washington and Rev. Jesse Jackson. Among Chicago’s diverse working people, Cermak saw himself: fellow immigrants and Americans not represented by entrenched and rich political elites.

Rahm Emanuel looks a lot like an earlier incumbent, “Big Bill” Thompson, who ignored the needs of the people he was elected to serve. Thompson’s reign was so awful that even the Republican Chicago Tribune described his time as mayor as filled with “filth, corruption, obscenity, idiocy and bankruptcy.”

In 1928’s “Pineapple Primary,” for instance, Thompson supporters used hand grenades (“pineapples”) and other violent means to intimidate and literally kill political opponents. After Thompson’s 1928 re-election, gangsters like Al Capone made a mockery of the city and its police—most notoriously in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Meanwhile, most Chicagoans suffered hard times during the Great Depression and became fed up with a mayor who ignored the needs of the people and failed to reduce crime.

While Cermak ran against an actual Republican, the current mayor brazenly acts like one: privatizing schools and parking meters, turning school teachers and unions into villains, serving the interests of big finance and earning the nickname Mayor 1%.

When Cermak challenged Thompson, he disparaged Cermak and, by extension, all immigrants and poor people: “I won’t take a back seat to that Bohunk, Chairmock, Chermack or whatever his name it. Tony, Tony, where’s your pushcart at? Can you picture a World’s Fair mayor? With a name like that?” Cermak’s famous response epitomized many Chicagoans’ feelings: “It’s true I didn’t come over on the Mayflower. But I came as soon as I could.”

There’s telling comparisons, as well, assuming Garcia wins the runoff. After his victory, Cermak faced concerted opposition from the city’s wealthier elements, who fiercely resisted any hikes to property taxes, making it that much harder for the local government to help those most in need during the depression. Along with assistance from the federal government, however, the city was able to reduce economic hardship and put Capone behind bars. (What else Cermak might have done remains a mystery as he was murdered at an event in Miami, Florida when an assassin’s bullets missed their intended mark, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and killed Cermak instead.)

Of course, there are differences between the 1931 mayor’s race and this one. Most importantly, FDR supported Cermak whereas, as Chicagoans know all too well, Obama repeatedly has stumped for Emanuel. And, in 1931, the race pitted a Democrat against a Republican unlike the non-partisan election now, in which both contenders belong to the Democratic Party—even if Garcia, to quote Paul Wellstone, “represents the democratic wing of the Democratic Party” and Emanuel’s endorsements include Republicans Sen. Mark Kirk and Gov. Bruce Rauner.

Let’s face it: With Democrats like Emanuel—who the entire business and media elite along with the Republican Party openly support—Chicago has the most pro-finance, anti-union mayor that Republicans and rich Democrats could hope for. Garcia can inspire Chicago’s many demographic groups that largely have been disenfranchised and taken for granted by Emanuel—who, ironically, inherited the machine that Cermak built.

So what does this history lesson on Cermak offer Garcia and Chicagoans today?

First, Chicago is a wonderfully diverse and cosmopolitan city—a city of immigrants, especially of Mexicans and other Latinos. Garcia should model his campaign after Cermak’s, widely credited with creating the coalition that became the hallmark of Chicago’s Democratic Party. Cermak proved that a multiethnic coalition can win the Chicago’s mayor race, even against a powerful incumbent with the backing of the city’s economic elite. Garcia seems to have pursued such a strategy, uniting many of the city’s grassroots movements and drawing a growing number of endorsements by prominent African-American leaders.

Second and even more importantly, Cermak reminds us that this election is not primarily about electing Chicago’s first Latino mayor. Rather, Garcia—as Cermak (and Washington) did before—must (re)build a cross-class, multiethnic alliance of the working poor and middle classes to shake up a deeply entrenched and corrupt machine.

Whoever wins the mayor’s race will owe a debt to Cermak. If Emanuel wins, he will have had the good fortune of inheriting the political machine built by Cermak. But if Garcia can pull out a victory, then this city’s first Mexican-born mayor will be walking in the footsteps of a now-largely forgotten Czech mayor elected against the odds.

This is a reprint, with permission, which ran in In These Times on 18 March 2015

About the author

Peter Cole

Peter Cole is a Professor of History at Western Illinois University. He is the author of Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive Era Philadelphia and is currently at work on a book entitled Dockworker Power: Struggles in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area. He has published extensively on labor history and politics. View all posts by Peter Cole →

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Olney Odyssey #13. Stay or Pay – Fighting the Runaway Shop

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In November of 1974 when we met with the Company’s management team and their attorney, Alan Tepper, we had a sense of something ominous. Tepper was a tall slender man with a huge head of silver hair. UE Organizer, Michael Eisenscher was accustomed to call him the “Silver Fox”. Wily fox he was indeed, because while we thought we had got the best of the company in our collective bargaining for a first contract, Tepper had skillfully protected his client’s ultimate interests. Our labor agreement provided that if the Company moved within a 30-mile radius of the Roxbury site that the union and its agreement would be honored. Tepper announced the company’s impending move at the end of the year to Nashua, New Hampshire exactly 45 miles away.

The New England area had been racked by capital flight. Lawrence and Lowell had been decimated post WW II by the desertion of the textile industry to the South. Lawrence has never recovered, and Lowell only experienced a renaissance because of the growth of the University of Massachusetts-Lowell and the federal largess of hometown boy, US Senator Paul Tsongas.

“… but I do know that the question of my own agency has tempered my approach to organizing ever since.”

And New Hampshire shouldn’t have surprised us as the destination. It was the “South of the North” for runaways. Lots of Massachusetts manufacturing capital was seeking low taxes, no unions and cheaper real estate in New Hampshire cities like Nashua, Keene and Portsmouth-Dover. The threat or actual closure can paralyze and incapacitate the will, but our reaction to the company’s announcement was our program of “Stay or Pay”, either stay on Albany Street or within the 30-mile radius or pay dearly in wage and benefit severance. Eisenscher, our resourceful UE Rep immediately began working the politics of the City and the State in seeking locational assistance offers ¬¬and tax packages that would force the Company to reconsider and stay. I took charge of the public pressure campaign and pulled together a committee to Fight the Runaway of Mass Machine, and of course in keeping with the revolutionary fervor of the times to Fight all Runaways!

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The shocking announcement of the relocation so soon after our union vote and first contract gave me pause to reflect on a couple of bigger questions. Was the company moving in response to our frequent and militant actions over everything from health and safety to management’s right to employ temps? If we had been a little less active, would they have made the move? Bottom line, were they moving because of me?!! After all here I was a young college educated kid raising hell and Cain in line with my ideological commitment to radical revolutionary change often with no regard to personal consequences. Was that admirable courage and commitment, or rather a sense of entitlement that meant I could always do something else if the job got eliminated? The same wasn’t true for Ernesto from Benevento, Campania, Italia and Juan from Ponce, Puerto Rico, or Eddie Murphy from Southie. I’ll never know the answer to these questions, but I do know that the question of my own agency has tempered my approach to organizing ever since. I’m always trying to check my self out and evaluate whether the strategy and tactics I am proposing are more about my subjective needs than that of the workers I am working with either as a comrade in the shop or as a staff organizer.

Fighting the Mass Machine move became a minor cause celeb in the left labor community that had grown up around UE Local 262. On October 23 we held a rally at the loading dock in the company parking lot in Roxbury. We were joined by a large contingent from the newly organized Cambridge Thermionic Corporation (Cambion). 400 manufacturing workers from this facility had voted UE in July earlier that year. They brought with them signs in English and Portuguese because there was a particularly large Cape Verdean and Azorean workforce. I emceed the rally and Charles Lowell, a UE Vice President and leader of the GE production facility in Ashland, Massachusetts was the featured speaker. Things moved fast after the rally. On November 6 the company announced that the move would happen in January 1975, and later in November they began to lay off the least senior workers. When those lay-offs happened the workers informed us that they had not received the contractually agreed upon Supplementary Unemployment Benefits. We gathered the small group of workers together with our stewards and barged into the executive offices to confront Vice President Jim McGrath about the payment of the differential to the layed off workers. We met with McGrath in his office and demanded the payments that would bridge the difference between unemployment and a worker’s regular take-home. McGrath was so flustered that he panicked and turned to the company safe behind him and pulled out a wad of cash that he proceeded to dole out to the layed-off and anyone else who stuck their hand out, if only we would leave his office immediately.

“I’ll never forget watching a health and safety … explain to a room full of punch press operators that machine oil … could eventually cause sterility in males.”

On January 8th, in the dead of a Boston winter, we rallied on Albany Street at the company’s main entrance. The public pressure was mounting and Eisenscher had successfully gotten the State of Massachusetts to weigh in and show the company several vacant facilities nearby that could be used for manufacturing. The City of Boston even prepared plans, which would provide the Company with land and a new factory built to specification, which then would be sold to the Company and financed with low interest bonds or leased by the City to them. On February 12 the company informed us that they had decided to postpone indefinitely its move. Our mood was one of cautious celebration, but on April 18th, 1975 the company announced that the final day of production at Mass Machine in Roxbury would be July 1, 1975. We held one final rally against the shutdown on June 17th and we did receive a considerable severance package, but the deed was done and the factory moved to New Hampshire. Some of the workers relocated, particularly the Italian immigrants, but most of the workforce had to look for new jobs.

I know that in the final months we openly discussed the tactic of occupying the factory and seizing the equipment ala Flint, Michigan 1936-1937 as a way to deter the runaway. I am not sure why we didn’t. Certainly factory occupations run in the UE gene. In light of Republic Doors and Windows campaign in Chicago in December of 2008 I wish we had. The UE membership in that facility, facing an impending closure, barricaded themselves inside the factory demanding that the company remain open. Their battle became a national story and captured the support of then President-elect Barrack Obama. They were able to find another buyer for the company and keep the plant open. The tactic can resonate and garner broad worker and public support.

Mass Machine was a great learning laboratory for me. Among other things I learned the power of the health and safety issue to motivate workers. I’ll never forget watching a health and safety expert from Urban Planning Aid in Cambridge, Massachusetts explain to a room full of punch press operators that machine oil, if not prevented from splattering on our laps by oil guards, could eventually cause sterility in males. When that was translated into Spanish and Italian the room groaned, and all were immediately united on the need to fight for the UE’s health and safety platform.

Next: Organizing at Advent Corporation in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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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International Day of the Recyclers – Convention March 1

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Manila, Philippines 1987: Recyclers working on Manila's Smoking Mountain dump collecting material to be recycled.

Manila, Philippines 1987: Recyclers working on Manila’s Smoking Mountain dump collecting material to be recycled.

May 1 has long been celebrated by the working class world wide as International Workers Day in honor of the Haymarket martyrs executed in Chicago in the aftermath of the national strike for the 8-hour day of 1886. However on March 1 at the union hall of ILWU Local 6 in Oakland, a new International holiday is a specter haunting the emerging “green” economy. March 1 has been proclaimed International Day of the Recycler and was inaugurated in 2008 at a gathering of recyclers from 34 countries in Bogota, Colombia to memorialize the brutal slaying of 10 recyclers in Barranquilla in 1992.

Portraits - Worker

Recycling is the essential green component of the effort to get to Zero Waste, meaning no more landfills. The basic work of the recycler is sorting along conveyor belts extracting different materials like plastic, wood, paper and metals for recycling and often encountering waste, syringes and even human skulls.

Local 6’s recycling membership first met in convention on February 3, 2013 to affirm their commitment to creating a new “standard” for recycling workers in Alameda County. At that convention, 142 workers employed by three different companies, BLT in Fremont, Waste Management Inc.(WM Inc.) in San Leandro, and California Waste Solutions(CWS) in Oakland, united in their resolve to get to $20.00 per hour by 2016. The workers at a fourth company, RockTenn (which has since gone out of business), were also present and inspired their co-recyclers at the other companies with their unfair labor practice strikes that led to a new contract in the summer and fall of 2012

At the time hourly rates at CWS, WMInc. and BLT hovered around $12-13 per hour for the sorter work. Pundits, policy experts, union “leaders” openly derided the $20 per hour goal as unwinnable. Yet after over 2 years of street demonstrations, strikes, political maneuvering, and building alliances in the community, a new standard of 20.94 by 2019 was achieved at WM Inc., BLT and CWS and Local 6 is on the verge of signing an agreement to reach the standard for the newly organized Alameda County Industries (ACI) in San Leandro.

“The political victories were all driven by worker action.”

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In the interim the campaign’s leaders, almost exclusively Latina immigrant women, were inspired by the work of the Associacion de Recicladores de Bogota, Colombia and their charismatic leader, Norah Padilla, the 2013 recipient of the Goldman environmental prize. A solidarity greeting was read at the convention from the Colombian recyclers. Shouts of “Si Se Pudo'”(Yes we did!) resonated throughout the cavernous Local 6 hall on Hegenberger Road as workers celebrated their advances. The convention honored politicians from Oakland, San Leandro, Fremont and Alameda who stood with the campaign and mandated franchise increases to cover the tiny marginal costs of advancing the hourly rates to the Alameda standard. Other honorees included Valeria Velasquez, Suzanne Teran and Dinorah Barton-Antonio from the Cal Berkeley based Labor Occupational and Health Program who provided the invaluable health and safety training that liberated the workers to fight for better conditions.

The political victories were all driven by worker action. When BLT balked at approaching the City Council of Fremont to boost franchise fees to cover the standard, workers struck at BLT. When it was time to pressure the Oakland City Council to do the right thing, workers at CWS and WM Inc. struck for a day and camped out in front of City Hall. When WM Inc. workers, the largest group of 130 workers tired of years of delay, they struck WM Inc. for a week despite the Teamster’s official refusal to respect their picket lines.

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ACI workers, the newly organized group, braved immigration firings and IBT strong-arming to join the ILWU. All these workers and their families packed Local 6 on the first Sunday in March for International Recyclers Day.

It is refreshing to see a campaign that relies on the united strength of the workers, organized on masse to drive policy and contract changes of significant benefit to them and their families. The Campaign for Sustainable Recycling is worker driven and its power lies beyond any narrative or creative messaging, but in the willingness of workers en masse to sacrifice their sunny Sunday for the greater good. Si Se Pudo!

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All photos by Robert Gumpert.

Workers

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Over a photo career dating back to Harlan County in 1974 I have always concentrated on labor, work, unions and social issues.

For years I was lucky enough to work for a number of progressive US labor unions, progressive politically and progressive in their view that the union’s publications should serve as an alternative news source to corporate media and not a PR device for leadership.

When that changed, and it did, I moved on to other clients. But my commitment to wanting, as Lewis Hine, the great social documentarian and activist of the early 20th century, “to show the thing that had to be corrected: the things that had to be appreciated” has never changed.

Over the 40 years or so that I have been doing this work my work-life situation has changed numerous times. In January of this year, no longer finding the work justifiable, I declined to continue contract work with my main client and instead have began looking for new avenues, sometimes on old roads not traveled in many years.

In that vein I will from time to time, starting with the collection here, move from behind the screen at The Stansbury Forum and post up small galleries of work and worker photos from my archive. And perhaps, some brand new material as well.

Please note, the work is not free for use.

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Olney Odyssey #12 – Big Battles in a Small World

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With the labor contract settled at Mass machine I was not only able to buy a brand new lime green Ford Pinto, but I got myself a couple more pairs of elastic polyester pants made popular in the 70’s disco theme movie, Saturday Night Fever. One pair I had was my pant of choice in public gatherings, parties and union meetings. It was an alternating plaid brown and black that you might see today on the legs of a cruise ship octogenarian playing shuffleboard. I’ll never forget trying to impress my aunt Amy, who had decided to visit me and see how I was doing. She came to my run down and filthy apartment on Dorchester Ave in Savin Hill . To show her that I was doing fine I proceeded to pull out my ironing board and begin to iron my polyester. I paused to talk to Amy and withdrew the iron. I had burned a huge hole in my best dress pants. The polyester clung to the face of the iron in the shape of the gaping hole.

While my automotive purchase and haberdasher decisions might be called into question, I had done enough right in the organizing campaign and contract negotiations to be selected union shop chairman at the factory. That meant I was responsible for making sure the contract was enforced and representing our small unit at UE Local 262 meetings and at UE New England District Council meetings. The action however was on the shop floor and even though we had signed an excellent labor agreement, the turmoil and battles did not cease.

Visionary leader of the Oil Chemical and Atomic Workers, Anthony "Tony” Mazzochi. 	(Photo: Robert Gumpert 1981)

Visionary leader of the Oil Chemical and Atomic Workers, Anthony “Tony” Mazzochi. (Photo: Robert Gumpert 1981)

1973 was only three years after the passage of the Federal Occupational and Safety Act (OSHA). This was a huge breakthrough for working people and was championed by the visionary leader of the Oil Chemical and Atomic Workers, Anthony “Tony” Mazzochi. (See a biography of Mazzochi by Les Leopold called “The Man who Hated Work and Loved Labor”)

OSHA, although lacking teeth then and now, is a wonderful organizing tool. The penalties are not strict enough and enforcement capacity is limited and often completely lacking but OSHA remains a wonderful organizing tool for a union that is on its toes and has the power to enforce the standards.

We certainly used it that way at MMS. The loud clacking of the metal stamping presses meant that the noise on the floor of Mass Machine was often higher than the acceptable OSHA standard of 90 decibels. We told Mass Machine that it was their responsibility to engineer that noise out of the production process.

The company at a certain point installed a buzzer system with an alarmed door and a Plexiglas window like those at all night convenience stores in a high crime neighborhood.

In April of 1974, the company hired a new Vice President for labor relations, Jim Moran who was tasked with taming the UE juggernaut. Moran approached me and told me that I would have to wear earplugs and recommend that all the press operators wear earplugs. I told him that we wanted the noise engineered out, and that earplugs were not a solution. I said that I would not wear them. He fired me on the spot for insubordination and told me to leave the factory. I passed the word to all the workers to meet in the lunchroom on the second floor to discuss the company’s actions. Just as the meeting started the Boston Police Department entered the lunchroom, called by the company to evict me from the premises. The workers decided that if I was being escorted out that they would all go out with me. The plant was shut down, and we were on the street. Within 2 hours the Company was in negotiations with Mike Eisenscher our UE Organizer and they agreed to put me back to work with no recriminations against the other members, and they would explore the engineering solution to the high decibels. So while we had a grievance procedure that provided for no strikes during the term of the contract I had quickly learned an important lesson. When production is halted and the employer has no effective means of restarting it any time soon, we had a lot of power. This was the first of many episodes of MMS workers flexing their muscles.

In June we struck again. The Company brought in two Labor Pool workers to do our work. They were paying them $2.00 per hour, $.75 below our start minimum, and no benefits. We shut down production and negotiated a $2.75 per hour rate for them for all work they had done and an agreement that the company would not try again to bring in Labor Poll workers.

During that summer of 1974 the workers at Baltimore Brush, a facility adjacent to us on the corner of Albany and Northampton Streets decided to organize into the same union, UE Local 262. Baltimore Brush employed about 65 workers and I knew the main organizer at the “Brush”, a Puerto Rican brother named Julio. As their organizing drive opened up and got more aggressive, the company responded by firing Julio. This was the pre-cell phone era so Julio came over to our lunchroom to tell us what had happened. We rounded up our members from Mass Machine, particularly the Puerto Rican brothers, and we all marched into the Executive Offices at Baltimore Brush demanding Julio’s reinstatement. Two days later he was back, and soon the workers at Baltimore Brush voted in the same union, the UE.

We had a habit of barging into executive offices, a tactic we had employed successfully on many occasions at Mass Machine. The company at a certain point installed a buzzer system with an alarmed door and a Plexiglas window like those at all night convenience stores in a high crime neighborhood.

These were pretty heady times. Young red agitators like me were anticipating big societal change and often intoxicated with our small successes. I think the most amazing moment and the one that pushed the company to a fateful decision was the Bill Buckley incident. Bill Buckley was a popular supervisor who was often supportive of our issues. One night in a Marxist study group I discussed Lenin’s “What is to Be Done” which describers the tasks of communists in a pre-revolutionary period (Guide; Study questions) . He exhorted us to be fighters not only for the interest of the working class but also for the interests of all classes in opposition to the Tsar. Taking this exhortation completely out of historical context, I headed to the factory the next day determined to implement my new understanding. The company chose to fire Bill Buckley. I chose to “fight for the interests of all classes”, and save the job of a low level supervisor, and I led a walkout to protest his firing. We were out on the street and I thought I better call the union hall and talk to our union rep, Mike Eisenscher before the company did and explain the situation. I explained what we had done and he said, “you did what????###%%^^&&! He ordered us back to work immediately.

On November 6, 1974 the company announced that they would be closing in Roxbury and moving to Nashua, New Hampshire sometime in January 1975. Nashua just happened to be outside the 30-mile radius clause (in post #11 the number was incorrectly printed as 60) we had negotiated in our new labor agreement. Nashua was 45 miles away and that meant that the contract and the union would not be going to Nashua with the company.

This decision set the stage for our battle against the runaway.

Olney Odyssey #13 Stay or Pay Fighting the Runway Shop

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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The Spiritual in the Struggle-Book Review

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Living Peace: Connecting Your Spirituality with Your Work for Justice, by Victor Narro 2014

Living Peace, Victor Narro’s new book on the spiritual side of organizing is just over 100 pages long. His little volume is broaching a topic that might raise cynical eyebrows in certain quarters in our labor movement. His thesis intrigued me and in the spirit of self-mindedness I read the book and then reflected on my own recent experience.

On January 24th Agustin Ramirez, the gifted ILWU Northern California Lead Organizer invited my wife and me to participate in a levantamiento in Merced, California hosted by his mother and father. I had participated in “posadas” at Christmas season before, but I was ignorant of the “levantamiento” “Posadas” is a ritual whereby the community marches door to door in the neighborhood singing carols and reenacting the quest of Joseph and Mary for room at the inn, lodging or “posadas”. “Levantamiento” comes 40 days after the birth of Jesus and is also a community procession in which the baby Jesus is raised up and presented. Both these rituals are part of the Christmas season in Latin America and part of Agustin’s formation as an organizer. These are the cultural connections that enable the deep base building involved in his work in the Latino immigrant community. Merced is worlds away from the Bay Area but not from the lives of its immigrant Latino working class.

“…sustaining lifelong activism for social change requires more than clinical strategy and political exhortations”

I have had the privilege of participating with Agustin in a wonderful worker organizing campaign in the County of Alameda California over the last three years. The Campaign for Sustainable Recycling has been successful in raising the dignity and the hourly wage of the sorters who pick through garbage and waste on filthy conveyor belts in the wee hours before most residents of the Bay Area are even awake. The workers of International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and its Local 6 have succeeded in raising their hourly wages to $21.00 per hour by 2019! All this progress for a workforce that is 65% female and mostly Latina immigrants has come through a combination of worker action, strikes and stoppages coupled with political pressure in particular municipalities like San Leandro, Fremont and Oakland that set the rates for garbage pickup and recycling.

This is a “Si Se Puede” story for 300 workers against all odds. Policy makers, pundits and certain “union leaders” said it couldn’t be done. This year on March 1, the workers will celebrate three years of struggle and their achievements at an International Day of the Recycler Convention in Oakland California. March 1 was designated Dia Internacional de Los Recicladores by the Associacion de Recicladores de Bogota, Colombia. In that country last year’s March 1 was celebrated with a march of over 17,000 recyclers.

No organizing achievement of this magnitude happens solely or mainly because of clinically detached policy wonks and labor strategists figuring out leverage. There is a transcendent quality of spirituality in this powerful organizing. I was reminded of this when I attended a recent steering committee meeting of the campaign. Agustin punctuated the meeting and the history of the campaign by telling an amazing story of the life challenges of one woman at the ACI recycling facility in San Leandro.

But first a little background. The ILWU started working in 2013 with a group of recyclers at ACI. The workers there had each been bilked out of almost three dollars per hour for three years under the City of San Leandro’s living wage. Led by several Latinas the workers organized to file a lawsuit under the living wage. The company retaliated by firing workers whose immigration papers were not in order. The workers struck and protested against this retaliation. They persevered and finally organized a union with ILWU Local 6. The Teamsters who represented the higher paid garbage truck drivers acted in concert with the employer and tried to bully the workers into joining their union. The workers voted 49-9 for the ILWU, got a three dollar per hour immediate raise and settled a law suit for over $1million dollars, and are on the precipice of a first contract that will bring wages to the Alameda standard of $21 by 2019.

Ramirez told of one ACI worker, a Latina immigrant who was fired in the initial retaliation. Despite this humiliating experience and the sacrifices it imposed on her family, she has remained a loyal supporter of the lawsuit and the organizing. I can only imagine the inner strength needed to face this maze of challenges, which brings us back to Victor Narro and his fine book on connecting the spiritual to our work for justice.

Narro’s spiritual faith in a greater ‘Good” is the product of his own amazing work as a labor and community organizer in Los Angeles for thirty years and his study of the teachings of St Francis of Assisi and a Vietnamese spiritualist and teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh. Living Peace is a manifesto, skillfully written and beautifully illustrated with photographs by Narro and his life partner Laureen Lazarovici. Each chapter is introduced by a quote from St Francis. Reflection questions end each chapter and there is space for personal notes. This is meant to be a book that an organizer can take into the field as a spiritual companion.

Narro’s fine work recognizes that sustaining lifelong activism for social change requires more than clinical strategy and political exhortations. He provides a spiritual guide for organizers who are engaged for the long haul. Ramirez was reflecting on the courage of one worker in his telling of the challenges of the ACI worker, but her story is not unique. The quote that precedes the final chapter of Narro’s work could apply to many organizing situations:

“When surrounded by a thousand dangers, let us not lose heart, except to make room for one another in our hearts.”

For a copy of Living Peace contact Victor Narro at vnarro@irle.ucla.edu

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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It’s Greek to Me!

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Alexis TsiprasSyriza party, as expected, captured control of Greece’s government this past weekend, with a crushing victory winning 149 of the 300 seats and just missing majority control without the need to form a governing coalition. While the campaign was closely followed throughout Europe by both established politicians and financiers, as well as by leftists, in the US little attention has been paid to it, perhaps because as the cliché goes about something not understood “It’s Greek to me.” In Europe, though, his victory, hailed by counterparts like Podemos in Spain, in Portugual, and in England’s often vibrant Socialist camp the big win apparently promises to provide a surge in support for similar anti-austerity and redistribution movements.

Notably, Tsipras, accused of being an atheist (among other fear mongering) during the campaign outraged aged European political leaders by rejecting the traditional religious vows and swearing-in by the country’s Greek Orthodox Archbishop and by appearing in an open-necked shirt (he has vowed not to wear a tie until he has successfully negotiated with the “Troika” which imposed extensive privitization and savage cuts in the country’s social welfare programs.  His first act as prime minister was to lay roses at a memorial to 200 Greek communists executed by the Nazis in 1944 which was interpreted both as a signal that Greece was ready to stand up to Germany’s austerity demands as well as honor the country’s left resistance.

Tsipras, whom European financiers and officials had predicted would “move to the center” after being elected, were more stunned and frightened by his forming the needed coalition not with moderate parties but with the rightwing party Independent Greeks (known as Anel) which won less than 5% of the vote.  Like Syriza,  Anel has demanded higher taxes on the country’s oligarchs, along with more rigorous tax collection from the rich, an end to widespread corruption, limits on moving wealth out of Greece, and a rejection  of the country’s subjugation to German demands (which it has linked to the German nazi past).  

Anel, meanwhile, not unlike most social right-wingers in the US, is anti-immigrant, strongly religious, anti-gay, and at times anti-Semitic. But that linkage to join in a governing majority communicated Tsipras intention to pursue his anti-austerity and redistribution principles as the dominant theme of his new government.

Standing up to Europe’s governing elite and financiers won’t be easy for Syriza.  He is somewhat hemmed in by the desire of most Greeks to continue in the Euro zone. But this victory, and Tsipras’ initial moves to ignore contradictions on social policies and ideologies and coalesce with a strong anti-austerity, anti-financial group is a lesson for other countries, as it should be here in the US.

As an English friend and union activist and Socialist wrote me “Syriza and Podemos are partly offspring of the Arab revolutions in 2010 and I know that developments in Greece, where the Euro working class has been most savagely hit, will be closely watched. Wouldn’t hurt other more distant lefties to pay attention into class, now would it!”

OO #11 – First Contract at MMS

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The workers at Mass Machine Shop had voted decisively for representation by the United Electrical Workers (UE), but as anyone knowledgeable of labor knows, that is only a small first step. Often the challenge is negotiating a first contact between the union and the company. Many companies in the 21st century treat the NLRB representation election as a minor speed bump and race ahead with their plans to undermine the choice of the workers and destroy the union. That was not the case at Mass Machine Shop in 1973 for reasons soon to be revealed.

The employer had threatened such a move in the run up to the union election. We needed protection…

The workers at Mass Machine elected their negotiating committee. Billy Foley was chosen to represent the South Boston, white Irish contingent. Julio Santos was chosen to represent the Puerto Ricans, and my Italian language drew me the assignment to represent the Italians. Our UE Organizer Michael Eisenscher was the spokesperson and chief negotiator. The company sent its Vice President Dick Theurer to the table along with the company’s outside attorney for labor relations a very tall and well-spoken man in his sixties named Alan Tepper.

Negotiations began in August of 1973 with an initial meeting during which the union presented its proposals. The proposals had been honed in several cafeteria meetings at Mass Machine and at the UE Local 262 hall at Andrew Station in South Boston. Health and safety issues had to be addressed. We demanded that the Company engineer out the high decibel noise from the clanging punch presses. We demanded that the company install guards over all the presses so that no one would ever again lose a digit in the production process. We decided that we would, in our little proletarian stronghold, emulate the mighty United Auto Workers and get Supplementary Unemployment Benefits (SUB). SUB meant that a worker who was laid off would receive the difference between unemployment benefits and their regular take home pay supplemented by the company. We were very attuned to the danger of production being closed down in Roxbury and moved elsewhere to evade the union and its contract. The employer had threatened such a move in the run up to the union election. We needed protection so we proposed a 30-mile radius clause that would insure any move within that distance would carry it with the responsibility on the part of the employer to keep the workforce and the contract. And of course we wanted a healthy pay raise.

Negotiations began in the steamy humidity of Boston summer. The company, prior to being union, had a loose heat day policy whereby if the temperature exceeded 90 degrees they let workers go home with pay. They relied on giant fans to keep the temperature just under 90, and no one could remember ever having benefited from this policy. That summer we decided to test the policy. The temperature was in the high 80’s around 11 AM and I started to monitor the temperature and called it to the attention of Pat Caizzi, the production supervisor. The thermometer that would control was next to the time clock in the punch out area. At 11:30 the workers in the tool and die shop that abutted the time clock began to stoke up all their ovens that were used to harden their dies. That drove the temperature over 90! I called Pat to the thermometer, and he reluctantly rang the break and lunch buzzer, and we all lined up and began punching out. As the last worker happily punched out heading home with 4 hours of “heat day” pay, Pat looked at the thermometer and saw that the temperature had slipped back under 90! It was too late, we were free and we subsequently incorporated that “heat day” language into the collective bargaining agreement that was settled in September.

I went out and bought myself a new car, a lime colored Ford Pinto with rack and pinion steering. I probably should have paid less attention to the hype in the auto showroom…

I thought that a combination of the ingenuity of our negotiator and the solid support of the workers led to a very fine first contract, in fact a model agreement. We got the Supplementary Unemployment Benefits, the runaway shop proviso of 30 miles and the heat day language, which I have never seen in any labor agreement since. And we got all of this and a dollar an hour raise immediately which in those days on a base of $3.25 was a whopping 30%. I went out and bought myself a new car, a lime colored Ford Pinto with rack and pinion steering. I probably should have paid less attention to the hype in the auto showroom and more to Ralph Nader. I had bought a lemon with an exploding gas tank!

All of these gains were made in record time. From vote to first contract took a matter of months. I have since negotiated first contracts that took years. Being young and a labor novitiate I liked to think that the contents of the agreement were the product of our bold organizing. Certainly the early seventies were not the height of employer aggression and resistance to unions. We would see that in full flower at the end of the seventies and into the 80’s with Reagan’s firing of the air traffic controllers in 1981. But it was a few years later after I had left Mass Machine that I figured out another factor that weighed on the negotiations, the company’s attorney Alan Tepper.

In 1979 I went to work at Boston City Hospital (BCH) right up the street from Mass Machine as an elevator operator. I had my license from NECCO, which enabled me to get on in the elevator department (More on the job at BCH in future installments of OO). One evening I was operating the elevator in the surgical building, Dowling Hall, carrying visitors up to the post op wards. Onto my elevator stepped Alan Tepper. I introduced myself to him and he said he remembered me from the negotiations at Mass Machine. How could he not remember my banging the table and giving militant agitational speeches that he would tolerate with a patient grin? He asked how I was doing and said he enjoyed our negotiations 6 years ago. We shook hands and he departed my elevator. I got curious and I decided to figure out whom this Alan Tepper was. Turns out he was a very progressive Boston attorney who made his living in labor negotiations, but during the height of the McCarthy period in Boston he had defended communists from prosecution. I think in retrospect he found me kind of amusing and probably appreciated the history of the Left wing UE.

Most management side labor attorneys counsel their clients to resist all the union’s “outlandish” demands so as to prolong their usefulness and their fees. Alan Tepper seems to have counseled a quick settlement with some contract language that unbeknownst to his client was more appropriate for a giant auto factory with a bargaining relationship of 40 years and several agreements. Tepper did accede to the 30-mile radius language for runaway production. We held that up as a great victory for the workers. Less than a year later we would find out what MMS had in store for us and that there may have been method to attorney Tepper’s “generosity”!

Olney Odyssey # 12 – Stay or Pay -Fighting the Runaway Shop at Mass Machine

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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Udaipur-Beyond Walls: A Wedding Trip to India

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The henna tattoos are fading from my hands but the enchanting memories of my recent trip to India are not. The blurring henna is a reminder that I spent seven days in the exotic state of Rajasthan, and the city of Udaipur, the “Venice of the East” as it is known in India. Family and friends had gathered to celebrate the “love marriage” with all the ceremony of a traditional “arranged marriage” of our young friends from “the East,” the bride from Mumbai, India and the groom from Boston, Mass.

There were many unforgettable moments. The groom travelled by elephant, a traditional custom, with both families as his entourage to greet his bride. The bride was lovely and stunning four days in a row as she greeted her blushing groom. Also, there were the larger than life palatial venues such as the City Palace, a fusion of Rajasthani and Mughal architectural styles where the Sangeet event, traditionally the bachelorette party was transformed into an international talent show. In contrast to the epic wedding there were local village scenes that were so mind-twisting I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me. These were visual images that at first glance didn’t make sense. Images so raw they moved my heart and awakened my soul.

Back Camera

These were the women who lived and worked in and around the Pichola Lake Village. Draped in a neon colored or print patterned sari unique as every woman was elegant and beautiful. The fluorescent hues were as stunning as the dark side of women’s forecasted future was bleak in this male-dominated society.

Not once in the seven days did I see the same sari or combination of sari fabric worn. It was as though each sari was created for each of the 600 million plus women on the sub-continent, including women performing hard physical labor. Yes! Women toiling at work digging ditches waist deep, laying bricks, or maintaining streets were wearing beautiful saris. Eye-popping fluorescent greens, yellows, oranges, reds blues and hues of every shade. And different combinations of fabric, such as silk, chiffons, cottons, crepe georgette and bold prints gave new meaning to “brilliant” and “style”.

While I felt sheer terror thinking that I was going to die riding in an auto-rickshaw, it became apparent how relatively “safe” I was compared to the women working in the streets. As they worked in the trenches, there were no orange cones to alert the chaotic traffic that there were WORKERS AHEAD! It was easy to imagine women being maimed or accidently strangled by flowing cloth. Work, women’s work, dignified work; women laboring and thriving in beautiful saris.

When asked why women wear saris when doing hard physical labor, a young woman retail worker said that it is customary to wear them no matter what a woman’s occupation. In the same conversation she mentioned that wearing the sari was not without controversy. When worn traditionally, a portion of the woman’s midriff flesh is typically exposed thus potentially inviting male sexual advances. In addition, desirable or not, the 6-9 meters of fabric could become a hazardous liability even “life threatening” in a tangled domestic dispute. In a society where the mortality rate for young girls 1-5 years old is 75% higher than young boys- how much more dangerous can a sari be?

Having been instructed on how to wear my own sari, I could relate to it fitting as tight as a lover’s hold. Elegance notwithstanding, its tightness can be stifling, cumbersome and somewhat oppressive! The sari wraps over and around a fitted waist-to-floor petticoat that matches its color. In addition, there is a choli, a tightly fitted short blouse worn under the sari that dates back to the 10th Century. The sari colors, prints and degree of rhinestone dazzle are a matter of the taste and desire of the buyer. Last but not least are the many safety pins. These magically hold the yards of pleated fabric strategically together with the effect being the ultimate in grace and dignity.

The little time I wore the sari and watching women manage them taught me how attentive one must be, especially newbies. My anxiety prompted a nightmare in which I dreamt my sari did unravel like a spinning top with the first misstep while dancing. Imagine my surprise when a party sofa collapsed underneath me the very next night. Later when my Son told me I had landed as gently as the sinking Titanic, I was secretly pleased I hadn’t worn my sari that night!

Back Camera

However, the most unforgettable memory was the visual contrast of luxury inside the palace hotel compared to the squalor and poverty outside the hotel walls. I imagined this is the type of contrast that Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha from the 5th or 6th century BC must have seen when he ventured outside his palace walls. Siddhartha was a young prince, forbidden by his nobleman father to go outside the family’s palace, ever. As might be expected this unreasonable demand fed his natural curiosity even as a young child and he eventually rebelled and secretly leaves. What he discovers is disturbing, confusing, and exciting. He is witness to suffering heretofore unknown to him, and chaos, or is it chaos? Profoundly moved by what he sees, feels, whom he meets and what he learns Siddhartha renounces his birthright and begins his spiritual journey of self-discovery.

As we journeyed into the Pichola Lake Village in the “Tuk Tuk” (auto-rickshaw) for the first time, the comparisons between the palace hotel and shanty dwellings were obvious- The Third World abutting The First World.

Back Camera

The contrasts in India are like that, starkly black and white with opulence up close to devastating poverty, sleeping side-by-side, dependent on each other, and their unequal embrace. Inside our pristine palace hotel were Olympic pools, a luxury spa staffed by cheap labor from Bhutan, doting staff, abundant Indian cuisine, and sprawling manicured grounds. Outside there were cows and bulls eating from heaps of foul smelling trash dumped on the side of the road as dogs lay sunbathing on the same fly-ridden waste. Mounds of plastic-riddled trash were being burned within feet of huts, shanty’s, open-air markets, and pedestrians without apparent concern for citizens being exposed to the toxic smoke and gases. There was human and animal waste on the streets and the water was rarely potable. Drivers were shooing begging children away from our Tuk Tuk . These were children whose vacant eyes, bare and swollen feet, and open palms betrayed their caste and fate in life.

Outside the palace hotel was a breathtaking and totally sensual experience, inexplicably alive and resilient yet juxtaposed with the sobering realization that the crushing disparities between the haves and have-nots are very much alive in India.

About the author

Christina Perez

Christina is a wife, mom, daughter, sister, tia, friend, marathon runner, dancer, keeper of secrets, public servant and more. She has written numerous short stories, songs, poems and missives for herself, for friends, for decades, for fun, for coping and for love. Words, thoughts, moments, in writing- all a mystery to be explored. View all posts by Christina Perez →

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America is ever Amnesic

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Son for Pop Boy for Cop
McCulloch’s
Pop
Killed by a Black Man

McSpadden’s
Son
Killed by a Cop

Was some BASE justice done
In the death of this young one?

The People knew
McCulloch’s hue

and that

Prosecution
Possessed THE
Power

Doubt
Demanded he
Defer

He
Refused
to
Recuse

Decision
Done
on
Day One
______________________

Missouri
Missouri
Misery
Tragedy
Turns
Typical
Uproar
of
Hope
Destroyed
Detrimental
Disillusionment
Rage
at
Despair
Brown
Black
Broken
Justice
System(ic)
Injustice
Dread Mike
Dred Scott
Legacy
Lives
Leaves
Misery
in
Missouri
______________________

Forget me Not
Ferguson
will not
Forget

but

America
is ever
Amnesic
______________________

 

About the author

E. Elena Songster

E. Elena Songster is Assistant Professor of History at Saint Mary's College of California.  Her field of research is modern Chinese history and environmental history and she teaches courses on world history and the history of Asia.  She is a former resident of Kirkwood, MO, another suburb of St. Louis. View all posts by E. Elena Songster →

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