Many of the radicals who helped to form and shape my old union, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), were merchant seamen before they worked “along shore”. They had traveled to exotic places around the world and been confronted with different realities and turbulence and revolution. The union owes much of its glorious past to these pioneers whose worldview was expanded by world travel.
Consciousness is often elevated by a radical change in one’s environment.
My life was radically changed by my experience of a year abroad in Florence – Firenze, Italia. Many Americans end up in the Tuscan cradle of the Renaissance because of a professed urge to study art history. I got to Florence because of language and then love.
I had studied Latin since the 7th grade. During my five years of classical study, I had read the Odyssey and the Iliad in Latin and performed in Latin theater. Deciding I wanted to be able to watch Italian movies without subtitles I took a course in Italian as a senior elective in the fall of 1968.
That was the first year Italian was offered at Andover. Taught by Mr. Markey, a French instructor who had never studied Italian, he stayed one lesson ahead of the students. The class was three of my Italian American teammates from football and a 6 foot 2 Brit who later became a Labor Member of Parliament. On the last night of class the Professor invited us all to ride into the North End, the traditional Italian neighborhood of Boston for an Italian meal. He dined us and maybe wined us at a white tablecloth Italian restaurant on Parmenter Street off Hanover, the main street of the district. Quite a sight; the diminutive Mr. Markey escorted by 4 hulking footballers and a big Brit.
That summer, 1969, I returned volunteering at the North End Neighborhood Center where I was hired to tutor young Italian kids in English. Soon the kids discovered that I was trying to learn Italian and spent the rest of the summer tormenting me with their rapid fire Neapolitan dialect. One day in June we chaperoned the children to Scusset beach just north of Cape Cod on the South Shore of Massachusetts. On the beach I met another tutor in the program, Marinella Biava, an Italian from Firenze. We talked all the way home on the bus. She tolerated and teased me about my Italian. She had a warm smile and a seductive laugh. I was smitten, and I insisted on walking her home to the family she was living with on Beacon Hill. With that began my almost two year courtship of La Biava, la Fiorentina.
Marinella had witnessed the devastating flood in Florence in 1966 and the whole situation had so depressed her that her mother and her older brother decided it would be best if she got out of Italy and went to the USA as a nanny. She started out in Evanston, Illinois caring for young children of a family there, and then moved to Boston to live with a wealthy old Brahmin family on Beacon Hill. We were a couple by the time I began my freshman year that fall at Harvard University. It was my relationship with her that would lead me to live in Italy in 1971-72.
“Many of my teammates were ethnic Italian and Irish working class kids from the greater Boston area…”
But first a little of my experience at Harvard. I was assigned to live in Strauss Hall right on the edge of the Harvard Yard in Harvard Square. I took Italian and a lot of courses in Political science, which I thought, might become my major and kind of befitted the turbulent times. I remember taking a course with Carl Friedrich, a Professor and German national who had written the post war constitution of West Germany. I would sit in the front row of a giant hall to listen to his lectures; inevitably falling asleep only to awake in an embarrassed start, feeling like the whole lecture hall was looking at me. The fatigue was not just the product of his boring lectures, which consisted of him reading chapters from his book. I was tired because I was playing football and worn out from practice and the endless meetings and film study sessions.
Football was an intense experience even at a non-powerhouse like Harvard. It was also the place along with the hockey team where Harvard sought to infuse the ruling class with some new blood, some toughness from the other side of the tracks. Many of my teammates were ethnic Italian and Irish working class kids from the greater Boston area who were there to play football or hockey. Many of them had brothers and friends who were in Vietnam. Some of them were not real enthused by my anti-war attitudes and politics. Long bus rides to games were often punctuated with intense and emotional discussion over the war and the protest against it sweeping across college campuses. I managed to hold my own in those discussions because I had held my own on the gridiron. I remember being charged by multiple teammates in the “bull in the ring” drill during practice. I fended off the charges of my line mates and emerged standing bleeding profusely because the bridge of my nose had been broken. One of my teammates slapped me on the helmet and said, “Not bad Prep”. The “bull in the ring” drill has since been banned from all levels of football.
The war even bled onto the field. I’ll never forget the head football coach telling us in my sophomore year that if anti-war protestors invaded the field during a game, we were to dutifully retreat to our dressing room under the stadium.
I participated in most of the public protest on campus against the war and Harvard’s complicity in it. Shrill rhetoric about the leading roll of workers in revolutionary struggle was never much substantiated by actual blue-collar participation except for the occasional presence of a few Harvard custodians. There was no lack of debate about the issues however, and there were plenty of “bull in the ring” intellectual encounters in which my clever and intelligent classmates would spar over the issues of the day and spread their oral genius. I was never much for these discussions because they reminded me of prep school sparring that was predicated on wit and clever remarks, not grounding in real experience.
The most dramatic moment in my time at Harvard occurred in the spring of 1970. The US began to bomb the dykes in North Vietnam and protests escalated throughout the country culminating on May 4, 1970 when the National Guard gunned down four students at Kent State. Eleven days later at a Mississippi black college, Jackson State, two protesting students were killed without much of the national anguish over the four at Kent State.
But prior to Kent and Jackson a major protest was called for the Boston Common on April 15th. I went to the protest on the MTA Red Line from Cambridge to Park Street station. I stayed for the whole rally. Abbie Hoffman, the leader of the Yippies (Youth International Party) gave a stirring speech in which he pointed at the John Hancock building, then the second tallest building in Boston and shouted, “See that hypodermic needle, John Hancock was a revolutionary not a fucking insurance salesman.”
After the rally I climbed up over Beacon Hill on my way to Marinella’s. Four or five hours later I decided to ride the MTA to my dorm in Harvard Square. As we approached the square the train stopped unexpectedly several times. Finally the train pulled into the station and the few of us still on, got off. I rode up the clackety old wooden escalator and emerged into a darkened eerie square with fires burning everywhere. The Cambridge Trust and the Harvard Bank’s windows were both smashed in and trashcans burned throughout the square. I looked north along Massachusetts Avenue and saw Cambridge riot police massing to charge down into the square to clear the area. A group of Weathermen had marched back from the Common along Massachusetts Avenue and smashed store windows, trashed banks and gutted two police cars with fire.
“…“impaled” on the Yard fence.”
Well the Weathermen were no longer in the square but I was, and I was all alone. My roommates and friends were inside the Yard and the giant metal gates had been shut and chained. They yelled for me to climb over the fence. The fence was over ten feet tall and the wrought iron bars were capped with metal spikes. I started to scale the fence and got one leg over the spike when my back foot slipped. I was wearing dress shoes with slippery soles. The knee of my right leg became caught on the tip of the fence. Fortunately my friends were able to raise me up and over the fence to safety just before the Cambridge cops swarmed into the area. They would have most certainly pulled me backwards and done severe damage to my knee.
My adrenaline was rushing so I felt very little pain in my leg, but then I examined the tear in my pants and discovered a gaping wound. My knee had been impaled on the Harvard Yard fence!
Friends escorted me thru police lines to the student infirmary where med students took turns looking at my wound, which was deep enough to offer them an opportunity to study human anatomy up close. Finally they stitched me up and sent me back to the Yard.
Among all the news radio reports of the Harvard Square riots one story emerged of the Harvard freshman that had been “impaled” on the Yard fence. Harvard’s attorney at the time was a law school professor named Archibald Cox, who had been Solicitor General for four years under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. He would later be one of the casualties of the “Saturday Night Massacre” of October 20, 1973 when he was dismissed by President Nixon from his post as Special Prosecutor during the Watergate scandal.
At a press conference later that evening Cox was asked by the media about the impaled freshman. All imagined a human body run through front to back by the sharpened spikes of the yard fence. Cox calmly faced his questioners and demonstrated his acute legal mind and attention to detail by saying,” Let’s find out where he was impaled.”
Needless to say I remember very little of academics from my two years in Cambridge. I was absorbed by my relationship with Marinella, who was my first serious girlfriend and love. I would visit Italy with her in the summer after my freshman year. She stayed in Italy at the end of the summer, and I returned to the USA alone. Our relationship continued in unsatisfactory fashion via snail mail letters and strained phone calls at odd hours because of the time difference. I decided that if we were going to make it I would need to move to Firenze. I applied and was accepted into a junior year abroad program with the State University of New Jersey, Rutgers. The program was attractive because rather than isolating American students in a Villa with each other, the Rutgers program inserted its students directly into the Universita di Firenze.
Soon after my acceptance however my relationship with Marinella fell apart, but I decided to push on to Firenze anyway. In the fall of 1971 I set out for Italy
In the next installment I describe my year in Italy; on strike at the University, giving an anti-war speech in the Piazza della Signoria, playing rugby and being attacked by a fascist gang in Rome.
Correction: After the Forum posted Olney Odyssey #1, Jeff Crosby, the retired President of IUE local 201 in Lynn Massachusetts, wrote in to say that Al Coulthard Sr. played a key leadership role in the early days of Local 201, but he noted that as far as he has discovered in his research, Coulthardt was a socialist not a communist. Thanks to Brother Crosby for the correction and thanks to him for his years of service to the working class.
Some baby boomers were propelled down the road to working class radicalism by the clash between the values that the “greatest generation” nurtured in us and the external social realities of racism and war. Each of our journeys is unique and yet each is the same.
My father, Peter B. Olney Jr., was one of those young men who in 1943, fresh out of high school, enlisted. He was a medic and while he saw much, he said little but for one story. He told me of an incident when the driver of a flatbed truck popped the clutch lurching the truck forward and throwing the soldier standing on the fantail to the ground. That soldier was Black and the white driver roared with laughter. My Dad rushed the cab, grabbed the driver by the neck and punched him in the face. “Don’t you ever f…ing do that again,” he said. I will never forget that story and what it taught me.
Through sports my father taught us a lot about values. As manager he enraged Little League parents when he insisted on playing all the team members even if it meant losing a close one. He made sure the football was equally distributed to all ages in the family touch football games. My youngest cousin, Sarah, would always be dramatically escorted into the end zone by a phalanx of the biggest males that warded off any members of the opposing team. My Dad would vex and perplex other fathers who were obsessed with winning even in family touch football.
At home honesty and integrity were taught by example and never compromised. My mother, Elinor Bowman Olney is the same as my Dad, although she could be tougher. I remember her actually threatening to wash out my mouth with soap for uttering some cuss words. She is a no-nonsense New Englander who revels in telling me on the phone every time it snows and ices over in Massachusetts that, “We will survive, we are a hearty people and used to it”. She also has a great sense of irony and humor. I think it was three Christmases in a row in the early Seventies that she received a Mao Tse Tung calendar from me and each year with a twinkle in her eye she exclaimed that, “How did you know I needed this calendar. What a wonderful surprise.”
“She had marched with Martin Luther King in Selma and with King and Walter Reuther in Washington, DC in August of 1963”
Values in the home led us to challenge hypocrisy in the world and to seek big answers. These were the bases of change fostered at a very young age, but ironically it was my Grandmother’s choice of Sunday school that sent me on my path to the working class.
Until 1963 when I went off to a summer camp for two weeks in Ferry Beach, Maine, my connection with my grandmother, Anne Stewart Bowman was very traditional. Sundays and holidays were a time to visit the Bowman house at 87 Cedar Street in Malden, Massachusetts. Grandmother always put out a fine traditional meal topped off with a homemade baked pie. The house was big. It was great to roam around in with a wooden standup bowling alley in the back room that my sister Anne, my brother Steve and I entertained ourselves on…. and fought over. The Malden house had a tell tale aroma to it that followed Grandmother and Grandfather all over the world so that when I visited them in 1972 on Via Sistina in Rome I could close my eyes and imagine with my nose that I was back in their Malden house and a child again. Grandfather enjoyed listening to his vast classical and opera LP collection and took particular relish in playing my sister, brother and I the first Beatles album before we even knew who the British mop heads were.
But during those two weeks in ’63 at Ferry Beach at the mouth of the Saco River I experienced something that was to happen to me many times in the more than thirty years after. I was introduced to a woman named Alice Harrison who was a friend of my grandmother’s and the Director of Youth Programs for the Unitarian Universalist Association on Beacon Street in Boston. Alice puzzled over my last name and she asked if I was Elinor’s son. I said yes. She then exclaimed, “Why you are Anne Bowman’s grandson.”
Those summers in the mid sixties at Ferry Beach were discovery days filled with the fervor of the civil rights movement as Unitarian Universalist (U-U) ministers returned from the the South to tell us of their adventures and spur us on to activism. One of those ministers, James Reeb (here and here), was murdered by a white racist mob in 1965 in Alabama. I discovered that my grandmother knew Reeb and all of these activists. She had marched with Martin Luther King in Selma and with King and Walter Reuther in Washington, DC in August of 1963. In later years I loved listening to her recount her stories of marching and protesting for civil rights and justice. But her mentoring always included the stern admonishment to “Be sure and get your degree.”
In 1995 just before my grandmother passed away I attended a service at the U-U church in San Francisco. I was browsing in their study after church and I came across a book entitled, The Larger Faith, a Short History of American Universalism by Charles Howe. I rushed quickly to the chapter on the 1961 merger between the Universalists and the Unitarians and there found a reference to my grandmother: “Anne Bowman, who had been elected secretary of the new association, had done such an excellent job that in 1965 she won the denomination’s highest honor, its Award for Distinguished Service to the Cause of Unitarian Universalism.”
“My grandmother’s simple and practical decision to enroll her children in a Universalist Sunday school, her skills as a nutritionist and her basic sense of fair play created the environment within which I found my life’s path.”
How did the daughter of a Scots Irish immigrant to Pittsburgh Pennsylvania become a top leader of America’s most liberal and socially active church denomination? Anne Stewart grew up in a strict Presbyterian household in Beaver Falls. Her father, David Stewart, was the superintendent of the Jones and Laughlin Steel mill. If suitors came calling for Anne or her sisters, the first question from her father to the young man would be, “What parish were you raised in?” Needless to say the local Catholic parish was the wrong answer and entrance was denied.
My grandmother studied nutrition at Carnegie Institute of Technology and graduated and then met my grandfather J. Russell Bowman at a summer session at Edinboro State College, where he was a teacher and she the campus nutritionist. They moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts where he received his doctorate in English at Harvard and then relocated to the working class suburb of Malden during the depression. Grandfather became an English teacher at Malden High School, and grandmother a homemaker raising her children, the oldest of whom was my mother born in 1927. In 1934 it was time to find a Sunday school for the children and there was no room at the Presbyterian Church so grandmother made a practical decision to enroll my mother and my uncles in the nearby Universalist Church. She became active in the women’s federation as she cooked the meals for the Sunday Socials and rose to a national leadership position before the merger of the U-U in 1961 when she became the national secretary of the association’s board of directors.
My grandfather Bowman, the descendant of Pennsylvania Deutsch immigrants, grew up in Lebanon PA. He was a brilliant man who did not suffer fools and ideologues. He had a particular distrust of the Catholic Church, partly because a priest in Malden had launched an attack on his “Good Reading and Discussion Group”. This was a great books discussion group that he led from 1948 to 1965 when he retired. During the height of the McCarthy period in the early fifties this priest questioned whether the readings were sufficiently patriotic and loyal. In 1965 my grandmother was honored at the Statler Hilton Hotel in Boston at the Unitarian Universalist Association Annual Banquet. She received “the annual award” on the occasion of her retirement for her service to the church. The theme of the evening was the newly emerging “ecumenical” movement and many other leaders of other faiths were honored also. But his eminence, Richard Cardinal Cushing, the Archbishop of Boston paid eloquent tribute to my grandmother. My grandfather Russell had to sit thru the Catholic tribute to his wife and stew over his stew.
My grandmother’s simple and practical decision to enroll her children in a Universalist Sunday school, her skills as a nutritionist and her basic sense of fair play created the environment within which I found my life’s path. As I wrote when she passed in 1995, “Anne Stewart Bowman was a mover and shaker and a delicious pie maker!” Thank you grandma.
In Olney Odyssey #3 I will recount my two years at Harvard playing, football, protesting the war and studying Italian.
Recently on a Sunday morning I sat on the infield of the track at Piedmont High School. I was exhausted from a brutal kettle bell workout devised by our coach and master trainer Roy San Filippo. I had done 1 440-meter lap, 10 reps of plank push-ups and 40 reps of 35-pound kettle bell swings repeated three times in a span of a little over 17 minutes. I was the senior guy at age 63. The energy all flowed from the youth, one of who, my son Nelson, shamefully lapped me during the training routine.
I listened in on a fascinating exchange between Nelson and a journeywoman union electrician named Emily, a Taiwanese-American in the East Bay International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 595. She was advising Nelson, a newly minted first year apprentice in the San Mateo local, on handling lay offs and lack of work. She told him, “When I get asked to sit at home I prefer to take the layoff and then I go back to the hall and sign up for work with a new company. I don’t wait around and hope that my present employer will call me back. My attitude is that I work for the Union not the Company, and I have learned the hard way that this is the best way to get work”.
The Business Manager of Emily’s local is Victor Uno, a Japanese American who as a young apprentice was initially barred entrance from a union meeting by the Sargent at Arms, who tore up his dues receipt, refusing him entry. When he finally was able to get into the meeting, a member commented “hey Fred, are we allowing Chinese in now?” Indeed we have come a long way from the Chinese Exclusion Act passed in 1882 and championed by the old American Federation of Labor and its leader Samuel Gompers. This was a measure that the barons of labor of the SF Building Trades Council supported and that Dennis Kearney, the mayor of SF on the Workingmen’s Party ticket fought for.
“We would be false to them and to ourselves and to the cause of unionism if we now accepted privileges for ourselves which are not accorded to them…” J.M Lizarras, 1903
Victor Uno gave me a great bit of history that dramatizes the conflict between class solidarity and race bigotry: “When the Japanese Mexican Labor Association tried to affiliate with the AFL in 1903, Gompers directed the union to bar Japanese and Chinese from membership. J.M Lizarras, the association’s Mexican President refused, stating: “We would be false to them and to ourselves and to the cause of unionism if we now accepted privileges for ourselves which are not accorded to them…We will refuse any kind of charter, except one which will wipe out race prejudices and recognize our fellow workers as being as good as ourselves.” Gompers never responded when Lizarras returned the AFL charter.”
My son’s IBEW apprentice class of 30 in San Mateo is majority people of color with 7 women. The SF Ironworkers have taken in over 100 Chinese workers as journeymen in order to deal with the growing non-union ironworker sector. What would Dennis Kearney say about that? The trades when I came into labor in 1972 were lily white and in my home City of Boston a new union of African American workers, United Community Construction Workers, was created to combat the exclusivity and racism of the construction unions. They would march on to all white job sites in Boston and shut down the project seeking a commitment to hire black construction workers.
Perhaps the most common image of the building trades emblazoned in the consciousness of young radicals like myself in the early seventies was of the mobilization of hard hats on May 8, 1970 to beat up peace protesters in lower Manhattan. The march was led by Peter J. Brennan of the New York City Building Trades Council, later to be appointed by Nixon to be US Labor Secretary. Almost 42 years later in March 2002 on the day that the bombs started falling on Baghdad as Bush initiated the war on Iraq, the California Labor Federation and State Building Trades opened their annual legislative conference at a hotel in Sacramento. The assembled leaders were abuzz with talk of the war. The speeches from the podium however were about workmen’s compensation reform and other dross labor matters. Then Bob Balgenorth, an IBEW member and the leader of the State Building Trades approached the dais. He launched into a stirring and memorable speech entitled, “Badges? We don’t need no stinking badges” in which he, denounced the impending criminal loss of life and treasure in Iraq. Here is a lengthy quote from Balgenorth’s speech:
“In a memorable scene from the classic western, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Humphrey Bogart demands to know if the men about to rob him are bandits or lawmen as they claim. Their response is the famous, “We don’t need no stinking badges!”
Might makes right.
Bush will have his war, Congress will have to give him the $90-100 billion he demands for the cost of war. The billions to rebuild Iraq will add to that sum. And, underlying all of this is the current $400 billion deficit projected for this year alone. We support our troops anywhere in the world in which they are in harm’s way. We pray for their safety particularly in Iraq and the hornet’s nest that will develop around that doomed region. In the turmoil that follows we can only hope the loss of life will be minimal. But wars have a strange habit of getting out of hand”
Balgenorth was so prescient. Some things indeed have changed. These are not your daddy’s building trades!!
The kettle bells wiped me out, but the conversation between Nelson and Emily rejuvenated me. I’ll be back for more.
“… there needs to be imagination”
We need a new indicator of economic success other than GDP.
We must change our thinking fundamentally: that GDP, or simply put, the aggregate growth of an economy is almost meaningless unless that growth is clearly defined in the context of democratic principles.
Let us measure GDP at home and abroad based on the path toward attainment of the social contract that achieves life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Let us build solutions to the issues of health, education, housing, employment, and retirement measureable by outcomes that equate to nothing short of the achievement of the full capacity of every child, woman, and man.
To me the essence of organizing and social movement is that before there can be planning, strategizing, or even investment in change, there needs to be imagination, the ability to truly see a new place for people to create a peaceful and just society. Indeed such a place requires new public policies, but the creation of such policies that actually result in transformed lives for people to be able to achieve their dreams first requires clarity about what the dream actually is. I think consensus can be achieved about the dream. The means to get there is when we challenge ourselves with the facts.
Often people who want positive change complain that our nation lacks the constitutional commitments that exist in Europe and elsewhere that “guarantees” certain social and economic benefits to its citizens. We often complain that the struggle here in the U.S. is quite different. Perhaps.
I would suggest that such paradigms and constitutional mandates change over time…just look at the creation of the Eurozone and the current convulsions and threats to the economic security there. Sadly and predictably, all across Europe, even in what seem to be unlikely places such as Scandinavia are experiencing the rise of racist and fascist parties that are in large measure responses to Great Depression-era unemployment levels and dislocation. The social contract in Europe is under severe threat of falling apart. It will take much convulsion and reconciliation to arrive at up-to-date and workable solutions.
What about in the U.S.?
“Having won this race, all are complicit in both a major crime against humanity and against workers everywhere and here in the US.”
Let’s look at just how far off track we have gone:
In my view, a recent New York Times story in its way scratches the surface of these questions by detailing the misery this nation’s and others’ manufacturing, labor, and trade policies cause to so many.
On December 22, 2013, the New York Times provided a very important piece of research and journalism which explains what we already know: the race to the bottom of wages and working conditions in the clothing industry has been won by the manufacturers, distributors, and purchasers of clothing world-wide. Having won this race, all are complicit in both a major crime against humanity and against workers everywhere and here in the US.
Sadly, but unfortunately all too consistent with what is wrong with our nation in its essence, is that the U.S. government spends about $1.5 billion directly aiding this aspect of the race to the bottom through direct purchases of clothing from the lowest wage and inhuman working condition manufacturers in the world.
The race to the bottom in the clothing industry has been underway for more than a century.
There is no telling just how far the cynicism and fear among workers here and abroad will go. The nearly vertical direction of wealth flowing to the top 10%, 1%, .1%, and .01% both in the US and around the world by definition creates so much misery that the mind cannot really comprehend it. Yes, the race to the bottom has been going on for a long time. And the cynicism and fear in the hearts and minds of workers everywhere stokes the passions of dangerous ideology. Have we learned nothing from our past?
How much longer will we tolerate low wages and inhuman working conditions?
And how much longer will we tolerate the self-fulfilling prophecy that people “want” low-cost items because they cannot afford more? There is just too much data that we all know all too well that the race to the bottom is what capitalism has achieved. It is time for all stakeholders to discuss and plan for a much different set of outcomes.
This should not be a radical idea.
We must have a vision of how to attain high quality health outcomes for all while achieving manageable and affordable costs.
“I believe there is a grand experiment that we can undertake: change our thinking about GDP in the health care sector.”
There is a different path:
Health care in the US has also been a race to the bottom. 20% of our GDP, that amorphous super macro measure of growth hides the race to the bottom in US healthcare: 50 million uninsured, with health costs being the single highest cause of personal bankruptcy, and for all of our highest in the world spending, the World Health Organization ranks the US 37th in the world in health care outcomes for its people.
A vision known as The Triple Aim summarizes a new vision, a realizable state of consensus in which 1.) each individual, and 2.) the population in aggregate achieves health, and in so doing, 3.) the cost to achieve health is substantially reduced. There is a growing consensus among stakeholders in the healthcare sector of the economy that The Tripe Aim ought to be achieved. Obviously there are differences about how to get there…but the vision is demanding and actually quite specific in its intent. The Triple Aim demands that the 20% of GDP spent on health care be measured, improved, and substantially reduced.
We must have a vision of how to attain high quality health outcomes for all while achieving manageable and affordable costs. Our nearly $3 trillion annual spend in healthcare must be reduced if our economy and our people are to have money for other needs.
Through Medicare, Medicaid, the Federal Health Insurance programs, the Veteran’s Administration, and now the Affordable Care Act, we say as a people that care must be extended to all, care that is of the highest quality, highest safety, with gentle and caring patient experience. If actually achieved, care for all will become much less costly because health is maintained for everyone, not just for those who can afford care.
To accomplish this, we need systems thinking: the cost, safety, quality, and access to care requires a different delivery system of care and a different payment system that rewards outcomes as opposed to activity: outpatient and preventive care should be the emphasis, with clinics available near everyone; outpatient care must emphasize early childhood preventive care, including dental care and behavioral/mental health care. We need care that is based on popular education methods so that people learn to own their own health and understand their bodies.
There is a broad consensus that these transformations in health care would if implemented over time, save about $1 trillion of the $3 trillion annual spend. To achieve this outcome, we must start the investments in transformed health care thinking and delivery systems as soon as possible.
“Social dialogue must replace the politics and confrontation of self interest in all venues.”
All of these changes that must take place require a much different dialogue among practitioners, employers, employees, administrators, insurers, government, unions, and community stakeholders. Inherent in the changed dialogue is a commitment to put self-interest aside, and plan change in a collaborative fashion based on measureable improvement and value creation.
Social dialogue must replace the politics and confrontation of self interest in all venues.
Health care transformation should be part of a broader social movement, part of an imagined, but real vision of the hopes and dreams of our people.
If everyone is covered by insurance, the “risk pool” is broadened and spreads the cost across the largest population, the healthy and the not healthy. Since healthy people use the system less, the overall cost is reduced. Emphasis on prevention and patient education is the key to success: pre-natal care, teaching healthy eating/active living and pro-active management of chronic conditions like diabetes, heart ailments, asthma, and mental health saves money over the long haul. All of these changes require investment in new infrastructures outside of hospitals and other large institutions which create new opportunity and new forms of employment. Payments to providers must be based on achieving these goals.
“We have seen the race to the bottom…”
Like anything else, a system that works requires management and regulation: you cannot have utilities, transportation, or construction of buildings or housing without strict regulation and systems to ensure safety and service. Health care requires the same kind of planning. No more sacred cows!
Wholesale cuts in expenditures or services are not the answer. Clinicians and providers can only cut their own expenses so much, and these cuts will impact small group and individual practitioners and advantage large systems that can scale back costs through consolidation and volume. Such cuts will demoralize the workforce, which instead must be fully supported. It is the workforce that must be fully engaged to solve the problems of waste, error, efficiency, safety, and patient experience.
The Triple Aim envisions substantial reduction of the unsustainable amount of our nation spends and wastes on health care. Let the Triple Aim serve as a path to new thinking about a New New Deal: a fundamental alteration of priorities with a vision to create high wage employment, reduction of military spending, advance universal health care, alter the tax codes, make pension plans a right, universal early childhood development a right, with a parallel emphasis on “employment transition”; that is, long term planning for skilling up for the jobs we will forecast for the future.
We have seen the race to the bottom in the clothing sector and in manufacturing. We have seen the race to the bottom in health care. What these tragic experiences have in common has been a reluctant but wrong acceptance that we cannot have prosperity for all and products and services for all.
And through it all we keep measuring our economy with something we call GDP.
Without measures of improvement in our people, we will continue to mask democracy with incomplete and amorphous data. The Triple Aim is inherently measureable, and should serve as a path to how we think about and measure our economic activity.
This is hard, but it is much harder and dangerous to have a society in which the basics are missing for so many.
To honor the memory of my great friend and comrade Jeff Stansbury, whose life took many of the same twists as my own, I plan to write a blog for The Stansbury Forum documenting the chapters in my own odyssey. I hope to touch on episodes and tales from my life, and the opinions I have developed based on that experience. And along the way, I look forward to hearing from others about the challenges our working class movement faces.
Trainer’s Table to the Bargaining Table #1
At the end of 2013 I retired as Organizing Director for the West Coast longshore union (ILWU). I put 16 years into the job, and it was the culmination of my 40 years as a labor organizer on the West Coast and in Massachusetts. Many times — and especially in my final years with the ILWU — I would find myself in dangerous situations and unusual places wondering, “How did I get here?” and “What a strange journey this has been!” A scab’s car would be speeding at me on a picket line, or I would be addressing a union meeting in the Mojave Desert, and I’d have to pinch myself and say, “You’re not in Andover any more.”
Andover is a small town 25 miles north of Boston. My family lived in the town, and I attended Phillips Andover Academy the most elite of elite prep schools, infamous for producing both Bush presidents and many captains of industry who, in turn, were usually descendants of captains of industry. I studied at Andover from the fall of ‘65 through my graduation in June of 1969.
In May of 1969, when the domestic uprising against the Vietnam War was at its height, some of my fellow students and I joined with local peace activists in town to protest the war. We handed out leaflets along the annual Memorial Day parade route, and I marched at the head of the parade carrying the American flag and wearing a peace symbol on my arm. Our actions created a huge stir. The local police were called out to surround City Hall in riot gear. Young townie Marines back from boot camp challenged us to physical fights, and the local Coffee Mill refused to serve peace protestors.
That was my coming out party as an anti-war activist. Back at school, the Dean of Students called me into his office after the parade to counsel me to be careful with whom I was associating.
Later that week the school’s sports trainer Al Coulthard was wrapping my ankle with athletic tape in preparation for a lacrosse game, and he offered some fatherly advice, “Pete, it’s good you like to protest the war, but don’t forget about the workers!” His remarks made no sense to me. What workers was he talking about? The most important workers in my life were the cafeteria employees in the student dining commons, and while I saw them daily I did not know their names and nothing of their lives. They were just there waiting to serve. Class wasn’t part of my lexicon.
Al’s words stuck with me however. I felt a deep affection for him because he had taken good care of me throughout my football and athletic career. When I got a “stinger” in my sophomore year, Al told me to do weight training to build up my shoulder and neck muscles so I wouldn’t experience the temporary lateral paralysis of a pinched nerve suffered upon a violent collision with an opposing football player.
In this time he told me stories about himself, his family– about riding in a truck and car convoy with his father during the Republic Steel massacre in Ohio in the 1930s. I was intrigued. Who was Al Coulthard and what was this working class thing? What were these unions he was talking about? Turns out that Al’s father was “Red” Coulthard, a Communist and the leader of the United Electrical Workers at the General Electric Lynn works giant turbine plant in Lynn, Massachusetts a few towns over on the north shore of the state. He was a labor leader who had fought to defend the left-led United Electrical Workers (UE) from the raids by the anti-communist International Union of Electrical Workers (IUE), a creation of the employers whose purpose was to raid and destroy the UE in the early fifties during the height of McCarthyism.
Al’s words resonated for me again later that spring when I was contacted by John Di Carlo, a local union carpenter from nearby Lawrence, Massachusetts. John had read about our anti-war protests in the local newspaper, and wanted to talk about working class politics and the need for radical change in America. This was a lot to think about for a young 18-year-old high school senior who had flirted with joining the Army if the draft came calling. But those were the times. Values and traditions were challenged and changed and people made life-altering decisions. I had begun my life’s odyssey, a journey that would take me from upper class suburbia to the mean streets of working class Boston, and ultimately to the labor movement in California and the West Coast.
“Sit down and shut the fuck up kid!”
Odysseys by nature include challenges and hard lessons and that summer I learned my first big lesson about working class politics in the United States. Invigorated by my reading of Marxism and heady discussions with other young radicals, I tried my hand at consciousness raising on my summer job after graduation from Andover. I worked as a janitor in the Charles River park apartments on upscale Storrow Drive in Boston, where it was my job to strip floors of their finish and then refinish and buff them.
My fellow workers were all guys from Southie, the traditional Irish American community of Boston. One evening during lunch the discussion turned to our low pay and lousy benefits. A couple of workers lamented the fact that the complex’s pet poodles were treated better than the cleaning help. I saw my opportunity to do a socialist exposure. I leapt up onto the lunchroom table and exclaimed, “The owners of these apartments treat us worse than the pets of their tenants. Our pay is pennies above minimum wage. You older guys have no pension. These abuses are the reason that we need socialism in America!”
Before I could step off the table, the lead janitor yelled, “Sit down and shut the fuck up kid!” After all who was I? I found out that I had no credibility to declaim on anything. I’d listened to Al Coutlhard because he was a constant and respected force in my life. But I had no such experience with my fellow janitors. They barely knew me, and we hadn’t bonded over common work place struggles. I had no street cred! An idealistic and naïve upper middle class kid had just been figuratively kicked in the teeth and taught a hard lesson about the working class. My education had begun.
In the next installment entitled, “Anne S. Bowman and the Unitarian Universalist Association,” how my grandmother’s search for a Sunday School led me to the barricades!
Thanks to Nelson Perez-Olney, Christina Perez, Lillian Rubin and Rand Wilson for reading drafts of this essay and offering invaluable editorial advice.
Metro Detroiters gathered at Central United Methodist Church December 8 to observe the 100th anniversary of the historic strike by miners in Michigan’s Copper Country and to watch a new film on the Italian Hall disaster in which scores of miners’ children died.
The film, 1913 Massacre, deals both with the bitter eight-month strike and the children’s deaths during a Christmas Eve party where someone, perhaps a strikebreaker, gave a false cry of “fire” that led to a panicked rush to a narrow staircase where 73 people, 59 of them children, suffocated trying to leave.
The disaster shook the people of Calumet and surrounding communities in the copper-rich Keweenaw region of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. A miles-long funeral procession took the small, white caskets for burial at Lake View Cemetery overlooking Lake Superior, where headstones today mark the tragedy.
By the time of the strike, over 7,000 miners had joined the Western Federation of Miners and had written to the Calumet and Hecla Mining Corporation for a meeting to discuss hours, wages, and working conditions. Miners worked 12-hour days six days a week and earned $3 a day. In 1912 alone, accidents caused an average of nearly one death and more than 12 serious injuries every week.
But mine owners ignored the miners’ appeal. Asked by a Congressional committee if he would negotiate wages with workers, Boston-based James McNaughton, president of C&H, said, “This is my pocketbook. It is mine. It would be foolish to arbitrate that question. I have decided it in my own mind.”
Miners picketed, rallied, and held parades to press their demands, and well known leaders like Mother Jones and Ella Reeves Bloor came to join them. After the Italian Hall disaster, many miners left town and within four months the strike drew to a close. Miners got a small wage increase and a reduction in working hours, but little else. It would not be until 1943 that they would win their first contract with the help of the Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers union, later to become part of the Steel Workers. The last mine closed in 1968.
I knew something about the copper strike, having spent many summer vacations as a youth in Calumet, where my mother was born to Finnish immigrants who were farming on company land. Finns, Croats, Italians, Slovenes, Scots, and other immigrants made up a large part of the population and the workforce in the mines.
But it wasn’t until the late 1970s that I learned that our family had a connection to the Christmas Eve tragedy.
My uncle, Ted Taipalus, was visiting us in Detroit, and I had put on the phonograph a recording of Woody Guthrie’s ballad, “1913 Massacre,” based on the Italian Hall tragedy. To my surprise, Ted suddenly said, “I was there.” His father had been a striking miner, and he, then 10 years old, and his brothers and sisters had gone to the party along with other strikers’ children. While he and his brothers escaped death by going out a second-floor window, two little sisters, Ellen, 7, and Mildred, 5, were both caught in the staircase crush and died.
The piano played a slow funeral tune,
And the town was lit up by a cold Christmas moon,
The parents they cried and the miners they moaned,
“See what your greed for money has done.” 1913 Massacre by Woody Guthrie © Copyright 1961 (renewed) by Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc.
The loss of the two young girls hurt his father terribly, Ted said. “He took me in his arms and cried like a baby. I had never seen my Dad cry before.” After the strike ended, Ted said, a mine boss came to his father and asked him to return to work. But so devastated was he from the loss of his daughters, he, like many miners, would never go back into the mines again.
Ted, who went on to join the Border Patrol on the Detroit River across from Canada during Prohibition, returned to Calumet in 1955.
“With my brother-in-law and others, I went to the Eagles Hall for a couple beers,” he recalled. “Someone suggested that we go upstairs to watch a dance that was going on. I took one look into that room and froze. I suddenly realized that it was the old Italian Hall and the stairs were where my sisters died. I had to get out of there. I never wanted to go back.”
The Italian Hall itself, on Seventh St. in Calumet, was demolished in 1984, a decision that many residents opposed. Today, visitors can learn about the tragedy at a peaceful memorial park on the site built with the help of the Steel Workers and Operating Engineers unions. The arched doorway to the fatal stairway remains, and plaques tell the story of the tragedy.
Last summer, hundreds of people of Finnish descent from throughout the U.S. and Canada gathered at the site for ceremonies during the national FinnFest to honor the memory of those who died. Government officials and a children’s choir from Finland participated in the ceremonies. At the nearby village hall, the names of each of the victims were displayed with flowers.
The National Park Service, which has designated the Keweenaw region as a National Historical Park, runs a visitors’ center in Calumet, and holds regular walking tours that end at the Italian Hall site.
The film 1913 Massacre is available on DVD for $25 at 1913 Massacre. And you can read more by clicking on the spring 2013 issue of “Looking Back, Moving Forward” under Labor History at the Michigan Labor History Society website
Randy Shaw’s Activist’s Handbook is a book with legs. First published in the early 1990s, it has now been updated as a guide to “winning social change” in the new millennium. If you’re a long distance runner in any U.S. social movement–or trying to figure out how to become one–this is the training manual for you and your team.
The appearance of a second edition from University of California Press has given the Bay Area author and community organizer a chance to expand upon the case studies he utilized in the initial edition, adding sections about protest activity not yet stirring two decades ago. The eclectic mix of older and new material makes the information and advice that Shaw dispenses even more useful to organizers of all types. His latest Handbook examines “new strategies, tactics, issues, and grassroots campaigns, and revisits whether activists have learned from past mistakes.”
The ground covered includes fights for better housing and tenant rights, neighborhood preservation and safer cities, affordable higher education, fair treatment of immigrants and AIDS victims, “sweat-free” manufacturing, gay and lesbian rights. The author also analyzes, in very ecumenical fashion, many different arenas for political work, including state and local ballot initiatives, legislative lobbying, running for office, direct action, litigation, and media campaigns.
One particularly helpful thread is Shaw’s exploration of how modern-day insurgents are utilizing “social media and other new tools to achieve their goals, and how new media can be best connected to traditional organizing and ‘old media’ strategies.” His chapters on “Winning More Than Coverage” and “Maximizing the Power of Online Activism” provide a thoughtful survey of how the PR terrain for public interest work has been transformed from its “pre-Internet days,” creating “enormous opportunities and formidable challenges.” Shaw reminds readers that “new-media tools do not change the activist rule that ‘media coverage alone is not enough.’” He warns against too much tinkering with a “YouTube video that few swing voters will see” or over-reliance on websites “that fail as a communication and mobilization vehicle” while “old school campaign tactics” are being neglected in the meantime.
Shaw is a lawyer (one of the good ones) and co-founder of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic. Launched when he was a law student, the thirty-three year old THC is now San Francisco’s leading provider of permanent housing for homeless single adults. From a small store-front operation, that dispensed advice to tenants, the group has grown to a unionized (SEIU-represented) staff of nearly 250. THCers administer a range of innovative programs and services, while continuing to struggle against neighborhood gentrification and joust, when needed, with local politicians and real estate developers. Shaw also operates a lively on-line alternative news source and blog called Beyond Chron, which covers books, politics, culture, community organizing, and other subjects of interest to left-leaning residents of the Bay Area and beyond. (In the interests of full disclosure, I should note that I am a Beyond Chron contributor on labor topics.)
Drawing on his personal experience with THC-related campaigns, Shaw tallies up, in fairly candid fashion, the successes and setbacks of advocates for the homeless nationally and locally. He also devotes an entire chapter, with wider application, to the question of whether lawyers are “allies or obstacles to social change?” With a telling anecdote from early in his career, Shaw illustrates the sometimes problematic role of legal advisers–and union officials as well–in settings where direct action is in the offing: “As the demonstration approached, I observed a renewed sense of vigor and excitement among the hotel tenants…I also learned that the legal- aid attorneys had called a tenants’ meeting for the night before the demonstration. Apparently, the hotel owner was once again appearing reasonable and was now interested in negotiating. The attorneys, who had kept their distance from the proposed demonstration, felt that holding the event would jeopardize the possibility of a negotiated settlement.”
Anyone who’s ever had the rug pulled out from under them and people they were organizing, in similar circumstances, will find the denouement of this story to be quite familiar. While lobbying successfully to cancel the street protest, legal aid staffers downplayed the fact “that the landlord had so far agreed to nothing,” plus had a history of “promising compromise, only to renege.” The cancellation of the planned demo, of course, proved deflating for the tenants. As Shaw observes, “they were again reduced to passive participation in the ongoing drama affecting their lives. They had lost a sense of personal empowerment and, more critically, a sense of unity.”
Throughout the new edition of his book, Shaw does a consistently good job of categorizing, in general, what works and what doesn’t and why. For example, in his dissection of the strengths and weaknesses of the “tactical activism” of Occupy Wall Street, he praises Occupiers, far and wide, for having “the audacity to launch a national debate about income inequality that still shapes public attitudes about the nation’s commitment to economic fairness and equal opportunity for all.” Yet, despite the enduring brilliance of Occupy’s framing of the problem (aka “the 1 percent versus the 99 percent”), the movement itself became bogged down, he believes, in a defensive crouch. “Occupy’s preoccupation with preserving its public encampments reflected its shift from a proactive approach.”
In Oakland, where OWS succeeded in promoting a “general strike” that brought 10,000 marchers into the streets in November, 2011, its organizational culture was not always sufficiently welcoming of non-full-time activists. “A process that required people to attend meetings deep into the night did not work for those with family responsibilities or other work commitments, “Shaw notes. “In fact, it skewed decision-making to a small segment of ‘the 99 percent’ that had time to attend hours of outdoor meetings on work nights.”
DREAM: CAMPAIGN VICTORY
One of the Handbook’s most compelling new case studies involves the successful organizing by young immigrants after Congress failed to legalize the status those who came to the U.S. as children and ended up in college or seeking jobs, but still without papers. According to Shaw, proponents of the DREAM Act did not give up after broader immigration reform efforts stalled. Even when legislation to address their own precarious legal situation was thwarted in the lame-duck session of the still Democrat-controlled Congress in late 2010, they did not despair either. Instead, they escalated their direct action campaign, based on the calculation that they “could still achieve something close to the DREAM Act by appealing to someone who was depending on Latino votes to secure his re-election: President Obama.”
In June, 2012, DREAM Activists began to conduct sit-ins in Obama campaign offices in more than a dozen cities. Their goal was an executive order that would end the deportation threat for DREAMers, even though the risk of arrest greatly raised the stakes for those participating because they were now publicly revealing themselves to be undocumented. The “student activists willingness to adopt a ‘by all means necessary’ approach” had the desired effect on Obama. His administration unveiled a “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” program that implemented much of the DREAM Act administratively. This new policy grants work permits and a two-year renewable right to stay in the country to an estimated one million “young undocumented immigrants who can now live openly and work in their chosen fields.”
According to Shaw, there is plenty of room for optimism about the future of grassroots organizing—and not just among audacious DREAMers. “Today’s activists feel more confident because the Internet has exposed a vast world of social change activism that traditional media gate-keepers once excluded.” He cites several examples of progress being made, even if the ultimate objective has yet to be achieved, under the Obama Administration at least. He believes the gay rights movement should take particular pride in going from “pushing Democratic presidential primary candidates to back state recognition of same sex ‘civil unions’ in 2004, to getting President Barack Obama to publicly endorse gay marriage only eight years later.” On the environmental front, “green activists transformed a ‘done deal’ to build the Keystone XL pipeline into a national grassroots campaign and a litmus test for the nation’s commitment to combating climate change.”
Shaw sums up the formula for “overcoming all obstacles” in any electoral season or under any national administration, Democrat or Republican, as follows: “Create proactive agendas, establish fear-and-loathing relationships with elected officials, seek coalitions with ideologically diverse constituencies when necessary, strive to align the media with the cause, and understand how to use direct action and the courts” Most important of all, he reminds his readers “that neither politicians nor political parties are the prime movers for progressive change.”
With that checklist for change, and a wealth of accompanying detail about individual campaigns, there are few modern-day iterations of Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals more instructive than Randy Shaw’s Activist’s Handbook. if you haven’t read Alinsky, consult his book first, then Shaw’s, and then, in response to all those urgent organizational appeals filling up your e-mail in-box, go out and “get active!”
Steve Early has been active in the labor movement since 1972. He is the author, most recently, of Save Our Unions: Dispatches From a Movement in Distress, from Monthly Review Press. He is currently working on a book about the impact of community organizing in Richmond, California. He can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com
Our attempt at this article was inspired by a brief analysis of the BART strike by Maria Poblet of Causa Justicia/Just Cause. We agreed with much of her global view that the strike was conducted under the current neo liberal agenda in this country of dismantling public services, at the same time blaming the inadequacy of those services on the public workers and their unions. In this article we would like to not repeat or focus of these points but home in on what the union(s) could have done better under these conditions – in particular SEIU 1021 – because we are more familiar with that union through our direct work with them in the past.
Why all public workers need to learn from the BART strike:
After a strike or any labor struggle, union summations often focus on how vicious the management was and how one-sided the main-stream media was in their reporting of the strike. Both these points were true during the BART strike, but this is the basis of our first critique. Unions need to ask themselves what they could have done better, regardless of the trying conditions. By its opening strategy, the union leadership appeared not to have expected management’s intransigence or that the mainstream media would immediately, foment public sentiment against them. Why would this be a surprise to any public sector union heading into contract talks today? Didn’t they read the news reports about what had taken place to public sector workers in Wisconsin and Michigan? Closer to home, three years ago, in liberal San Francisco, SEIU and other public workers were attacked with a referendum to cut their pension and health care benefits. Although public sector unions fought this back, a two tier system was created and newly hired SEIU 1021 members have a longer vesting period, and all members now pay more into their pensions. This was done through a compromise referendum offered to the voters as an alternative to the more reactionary one. Only last year, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee tried to decimate the lowest paid SEIU 1021 members, mostly women, by driving a wedge against comparable worth standards (equal pay for equal work) with male dominated classifications. The Mayor’s lay-off and furlough plan during the recession could have disproportionally fallen on women and minority members in classifications held by SEIU 1021. This unilateral move was stopped in court when a judge ruled that the mayor could not do this in the middle of a current contract and would have to wait until the contract reopens and bargain for this change. This may well be another fight deferred.
Public workers and reliance on politicians:
It is clear from the above that even the most liberal politicians and the leadership of the Democratic Party hierarchy have succumbed to the neo-liberal paradigm that public sector unions are to blame for deteriorating services and rising costs, including in mass transit. So who did SEIU appoint to lead the bargaining battle that would result in the BART strike? Josie Mooney, who served as Executive Director of the old SEIU 790 local in San Francisco before their merger into 1021. Mooney was an old school public sector union head who kept a regular table at one of San Francisco’s tonier restaurants near City Hall where she would meet political power brokers to get what she needed for her members, while returning coveted support for future electoral ambitions. SEIU 790 and 9 other locals in Northern California merged into one regional behemoth Local 1021 (now encompassing over 165 bargaining chapters and 54,000 members). Their BART members constitute only one of these chapters, albeit with one of the better contracts historically.
One of Mooney’s first acts after being rehired was to bring in her old ally, Mark Mosher (of Whitehurst/Mosher Media), on the campaign as a consultant. Mosher’s main work had been as a campaign consultant on most but not exclusively, Democratic Party campaigns. Most observers assumed his main worth was to get the legislators across the counties, who make up the Metropolitan Transit District governing BART, the state legislators and Governor Brown whom he and SEIU had helped elect, to support their cause, and push management into a reasonable and quick settlement. If this was his main worth, he failed miserably. Most legislators and Governor Brown read the political winds and either sided with management or did nothing at all, which amounted to the same thing, forcing SEIU and ATU into no option but to strike.
Where was the direct contact with the ridership and their constituents?
The leadership of 1021 did not prepare the public for the upcoming war. Mass transit riders were painted as collateral damage by the politicians and rather than blame management, most riders blamed the union. Why is this? If SEIU 1021 had done a sober organizing assessment of their members’ interactions and interface with the public including their own ridership they could have foreseen this outcome. Every public sector worker who goes on strike today must do this assessment. All public workers are being attacked today, but some have advantages the BART workers did not.
Police, firefighters, nurses and most teachers are generally looked at sympathetically by the public. Why? For one thing those we serve know us. They see us often when they are vulnerable and need something from our work. Our interface with the public is often direct and one on one. If they don’t have direct dealings with us, it is rare that a family member or friend has not. Even negative interactions are often off-set by the majority of positive ones and the most pro-management biased media cannot discount these inter-actions with our members.
How does the commuting public interact with BART workers? They don’t. One barely catches a glance of the train conductor as the trains speed into the stations and we jump on or off into the third, fourth or eighth car. There is no interaction with humans when paying our fares unless BART security officers are checking our passes, often an unpleasant experience. Even the maligned Muni bus drivers are more sympathetic because we often walk by them as we board the front of the bus. If we are regulars, we see the same drivers coming and going on the same route as our regular commute. We see can see them smile or frown and they are sources of information to new riders and lost tourist. We hear their voices as they tell passengers approaching stops and crowds to please move back to make way for new passengers, and we may even sympathize with their working conditions as we see bicyclists weave in and out of lanes, watch how they get stuck behind private Google buses and delivery trucks, double parked taxi’s and slam on their brakes for jay-walkers.
We have no idea what a BART conductor is doing or dealing with, the train just moves and stops. If management tells us it can all be done automatically by a computer program, we think maybe it can. We have no view of the conductor separated from the riders in his caged booth at the front of the train. Riders have even less knowledge of what mechanics, electrical techs, car cleaners or other workers do to keep the trains moving. These workers often labor in the middle of the night on the train tracks or in rail yards closed to the public. We have no idea how dirty, hard and dangerous their jobs are. We have no idea about the skills, training or education these workers have obtained through years both from BART and often before at technical colleges and other trade apprenticeships, before they crossed over to their BART jobs. Ironically an example of job safety reared its head when two strike breakers were killed during the strike while a train was on auto-pilot, exactly what management had wanted to do on a more routine basis in their proposed work rule changes.
“SEIU 1021 was aware of this history and public perception yet did not do the public education they needed to make their working conditions share common ground with the riding publics commuting conditions. This education should have commenced one full year before the start of bargaining. Better yet it should be done as a component of organizing their membership internally in a permanent program.”
The only contact the public has with a worker is with some of the BART station agents and this often is a negative experience because they seem to be the frontline bearer of bad news without any ability to fix problems. The toilet, escalator, elevator, change machine, ticket machine is out of order again; “sorry go to the other ones on the other side of the station”, seems to be their main message to most riders. They cannot dispense tickets, collect fares or make change yet are enforcers against gate jumpers, homeless squatters or just drunken sports fans who often take out any inconvenience on this sole BART employee they can see. Sadly, the second biggest safety issue on the table this year, besides the maintenance workers dealing with walking on the train tracks and dealing with the high voltage lethal third rail, is the lone BART station agent who has increasingly been assaulted by members of the riding public, who experience real or perceived slights from a transit system that over charges and under-serves them.
SEIU 1021 was aware of this history and public perception yet did not do the public education they needed to make their working conditions share common ground with the riding publics commuting conditions. This education should have commenced one full year before the start of bargaining. Better yet it should be done as a component of organizing their membership internally in a permanent program. Compare this with the California Nurses Association’s approach. CNA has been able to garner the most support in their campaigns when they have made the working conditions of registered nurses the quality care conditions of the patients left in their charge. The slogan “RN’s are patient advocates” was not an accidental slogan. They sent their member nurses out to talk at senior centers, community groups and anyone else that would listen about how hospital administrators cutting corners is not just about the nurses losing pay or working harder but forcing them to make mistakes, which they were unwilling to carry out, causing injury or death to their patients. CNA has worked on this for years and not just during contract bargaining and a large section of the public now believe this. In many polls on public perception of public workers registered nurses consistently ranked highest as most well liked and trusted. The only group with a higher ranking is firefighters.
Can we not imagine how different things may have played out in the media if BART employees were looked upon by the riding public as mass transit advocates? As advocates who wanted to build an efficient, safe, affordable, public alternative system of commuting to the grid-lock of private automobiles, and the privilege of the private Google buses that the 99% has no ability to ride on. Ironically this mantle is currently held by the President of the BART board of directors; Tom Radulovich, who took a hard line against the workers’ demands through much of the negotiations. He is the resident mass transit advocate and environmentalist. He has held this position for many years not only because he does believe in mass transit as an environmental option, but because the unions have conceded this mantle to him by not speaking out and claiming it for themselves. In another twist of irony the only person quoted against the new policy of allowing bicycles on BART trains at all hours was Antoinette Bryant, president of ATU 1555, representing the train conductors. She was cast as the dissenting voice against all the environmentalist and public transit advocates at the end of the strike.
In sum, one of the problems with ATU and SEIU’s public campaign was that they seemed not to have a vision of how to improve public transit or that they even cared about it. That how the BART system works was part of union’s vision too. We do not want to imply that health care workers or teachers have always paid attention to the concerns of those we serve, but we are getting better and our thoughts on how to make the systems we work under and the same system that serves the public has to be part of our discussion with the membership. Our contract demands including our working conditions must be related to what the public gets from us. A teacher’s working conditions are a student’s learning conditions is one of our union slogans, comparable to the one for the nurse’s mentioned.
Where was the media strategy?
More important, we need to have enough media savvy to bring our ideas to the public and the best people to do this is our working members. All during the strike the unions seemed not to have any communication strategy and the spokespeople who were paraded before the media seemed unprepared. Often the best quotes came from workers interviewed extemporaneously. There was no visible, planned, regular alternative outreach done directly to riders or what could have been a wider base of community support. Under this condition, the mainstream media’s bias was amplified.
Management became the spokespeople for the pain and suffering of the riding public during the strike. Many Democratic Party politicians and the mainstream media jumped on this bandwagon highlighting the inconvenience of the strike, overwhelmingly placing blame on the unions, subverting the recalcitrance of management which gave both ATU and SEIU no other option, forcing them to strike. SEIU did not do much educational outreach to their poorer union cousins in the private sector, who were often also part of their ridership. This was particularly disappointing because SEIU has a long history of good coalition work with community groups and collaboration with other unions and they could have easily done this, months in advance of the strike. With the funds they paid Mosher and Mooney they could have put tens of organizers and members on the ground to carry it out. Instead they went through the normal channels of strike support, from the Central Labor Councils and the California Labor Federation. These bodies are detached from working rank and file members, and sound bites from their leaders can’t be the only source of communication about a labor struggle, where direct sacrifice is required, in the cause of solidarity. In a last minute effort when the strike was already in full swing, some members of SEIU set up meetings with community groups through Jobs with Justice to discuss the issues of the strike with community members. This was a noble effort but too little, too late. If this outreach started earlier it would have spread beyond the usual suspects.
The strike is now over and there’s a contract in place for a few years and it seems to be a fair contract, but came at a heavy cost; two dead workers and an unpopular strike. The worse thing the unions could do is to be lulled into inaction until the next contract. The war against public transit workers is still on. Management has already hinted about a fare increase and guess who the media and politicians will blame? Should we let the riders believe that a large fare increase, with no increase in service, is solely due to the SEIU/ATU getting a mildly decent contract? Politicians, with the backing of business and media are again clamoring for the prohibition of transit strikes, with no mention of binding mediation requirements to give the unions some impartiality, in top down changes. We hope that SEIU and ATU realizes that the war is not over and start retooling to deal with these attacks and mobilize all their public sector workers on constant alert. The attack to dismantle public sector services, including mass transit, has just started.
Is there an irony that baseball teams representing Detroit and Oakland—both cities poster children for economic decline—have played two decisive games in Oakland’s “Coliseum,” a name evocative of the grandeur that was the Roman Empire? Perhaps that’s not as strange as it at first seems.
The Roman Coliseum was completed in A.D. 80 by Emperor Titus, on the site once home to the palace of Emperor Nero (he of the fiddle-playing while Rome burned). Nero’s legacy was, as you might imagine, a past that stadium-planner Emperor Vespasian (Titus’ father) wanted to flush down the memory hole. So he arranged for the building of an edifice even more imposing than Nero’s palace. In the Coliseum, some 55,000 spectators might witness humans fighting one another, mock sea battles, or animal hunts. In the inaugural games, over 9,000 wild animals were slain.
The humans involved—both gladiators and many of the spectators—might well identify with today’s citizens of Detroit and Oakland. After all, these were Rome’s underprivileged: slaves and prisoners of war filled the gladiatorial ranks, while plebeians were encouraged to spectate lest they decide that time might be better spent in rebelling against Rome’s 1%.
Oakland’s O.co Coliseum (the name is a trademark of retailer Overstock.com) is home to both the Oakland Raiders football team and the Oakland Athletics baseball club. The field and stands are regularly reconfigured to suit the type of event scheduled—meaning that it can hold some 35,000 baseball fans and 53,000 football watchers. Completed in 1966, the Coliseum is one of the older American stadiums. And its location would not be likely to attract many Roman Emperors—the O.co Coliseum stands alongside the noisy and truck-laden Nimitz Freeway. Although the Coliseum has enjoyed many successes, including three World Series victories for the A’s and memorable concerts by the likes of Marvin Gaye and Led Zeppelin, it fell into disrepair quickly after its construction, earning it the unflattering nickname of the Oakland Mausoleum. Today, in the words of one local columnist, the O.co Coliseum is “a concrete husk with few amenities and zero charm, a place most famous this year for the overflowing of its dugout toilets.”
The players on all the sports teams involved are the usual collection of healthy, young multimillionaires. But just who are the fans? Lots are ordinary folks, but among the followers of the bad-boy Oakland Raiders are gangsta wannabes who like to sport the club’s Long-John-Silver-in-a-football-helmet coat of arms. Rebels without a cause might gravitate to both the Raiders and the A’s owing to the rambunctiousness of former owners Al Davis and Charlie Finley, respectively. Davis repeatedly sued the National Football League; Finley wanted to use orange baseballs and once hired future rapper M.C. Hammer to be his club’s executive vice president. The A’s also enjoy a certain amount of geek-appeal, a residual effect of their early-2000s association with smarter-than-the-average-statistician “sabermetrics” expert Billy Beane, celebrated for his ability to recruit under appreciated ballplayers.
Detroit’s fans tend to be a more reserved lot. When Boston’s mayor said he’d like to visit Detroit in order to “blow the place up,” most Detroiters seemed to take the remark in stride. “Well, we do need a fresh start,” one Tigers fan remarked.
Meanwhile, the cities themselves continue to rot. In Oakland, the unemployment rate this year has hovered near 12%, twice that of San Francisco. Your chances of experiencing violent crime in Oakland are double that of New York City. Detroit, of course, famously declared bankruptcy in mid-July. That city has come to epitomize urban blight: Just take a look at such recent documentaries as Detropia or the Motown scenes in Searching for Sugarman. One of the brightest ideas there seems to involve turning blighted urban spaces back into farmland.
Altogether, it’s enough to make one wonder just what Nero might say. (We’re talking about a man who had his mother executed and who burned Christians in his garden as a source of light.) Maybe—two thumbs up?
Is it in fact a change of tires?
Front and rear
Replacing the balding spots
With new tread
Pumping in fresh air
To get a better grip on the road ahead
Getting ready for some bumps
And preparing to gently apply the brakes?
Or, more bluntly
As in re-tired
Or just plain tired
The gentle slowing down
Of mind and body
Looking back not forward
To the good old days
Loosening the thread
Reflecting on what was
And could have been
Breathing deeply and channeling sadness
Resting the body
Peeking gradually into the darkness?
Or perhaps a more dialectical view
A life lived
A new one emerging
The end approaching
As it always has
With no date certain
No known final curtain.
Here the bell tolls
But the phone doesn’t ring incessantly
The emails don’t intrude obsessively
The mind sheds the many tasks
For the few
The daily churn of meetings
Constant revisions and decisions
The swirl of people
Good, bad and ugly
All this is let go
But then, can one imagine
A new roaring lion emerging
Unleashing a passion of righteous fury
A project so intense
It absorbs the quite enormous energies
Of one whose tires have bumped up against
Testing many proverbs
In unfamiliar territory
What if one gigantic session on life
Broke through the sadness and frustration
And new vistas were revealed
Magic with electricity and zest
With all the pizzazz
Of Jazz that rhymed
And the body and mind and spirit
Wheeled off into the sunrise
What about that?
August 7, 2011