I was young and I believed
I didn’t know I was naive
But if you don’t know what’s coming down
You can’t turn this world around
(But if you never even try
You’ll never ever learn just why)
Since I wouldn’t go to war,
They said, go off and teach the poor
To a town that’s mean and gritty
Go on down to New York City
I left in the blistering summer heat
Cruised on down to East 10th Street,
On my first post-college road trip
Thought, this place is really hip
Grabbed my bag and up the stairs,
Saw my good friend Eric there,
Bounded down to the first floor
Out the door to get some more
But my bags had disappeared
No, I cried, this is too weird
No one there had seen them taken
I was stunned and badly shaken
Eric’s place was barely able
Bathtub doubled as a table
Eastside people weren’t so pretty
Blown out minds and looking shitty
Even worse than digs so shabby
Was a neighbor very crabby
Raging, drugged with muscled body
He tortured Eric with Karate
Eric, sad, but we were buddies
Partners from our Princeton studies
Black and small and somewhat fried
Eventually fell to suicide
Off to find a place to live
$300 bucks I had to give
10th street living wasn’t right
Settled down in Washington Heights
Went on over to the Board of Ed
Packed with draftees filled with dread
Used my letter of introduction
Got my South Bronx-bound instructions
Off to work, my shoes all shined
Arriving to a picket line
“Wow” I thought with satisfaction
Teacher striking, lots of action
Joined the teachers on the line
Seeking justice felt just fine
Didn’t know, amidst the strife
This type of fight would be my life
Meanwhile back at my new pad
Lack of food, cockroaches bad
Just a mattress for my head
Borrowed bakery day old bread
The first strike ended, stopped the duel
All the kids went back to school
Time to teach, my new found skill
Where was Ocean Hill Brownsville?
Kids were sharp and very cute
But didn’t like their substitutes
Every day they drove me mad
Good was boring, they liked bad
School was lousy, not well done
They were looking for some fun
They were black and we were white
We all knew this wasn’t right
Then the strike broke out once more
Teachers marching out the door
Once again I walked the lines
Teachers’ rights were on our signs
Soon it ended, back to teaching
Time to try more children reaching
But the contradictions raging
Forced my mind to start engaging
Then a teacher caught my ear
Tried to make the picture clear
None of us would have immunity
When teachers struck against community
How could a fight for teachers’ rights
Be separate from the awful plight
That drowns our students with its tides
And yet we stand on different sides
This wisdom struck like bolts of thunder
Removed the fog that I was under
Somewhere I heard my father say
We’re all equal in every way
I tried for days to reach the others
Draft dodging men, I called my brothers
But not a one would make a break
All looking out for their own sake
When the big strike three came to pass
We decided to teach our class
Six of 100 made up our mind
Defy the union picket signs
First we canvassed door to door
Inviting kids to a school house tour
Contradicting their teacher perceptions
Getting a friendly community reception
Every morning we formed our troop
Parents and children in our group
Just as the daily clock struck nine
We marched across the picket line
Teachers booed and shouted “scab”
Taking names and keeping tabs
Don’t know from whence my courage came
But I was proud, eschewing shame
For many days the strike endured
My classroom filled, my will inured
Without supplies or books or training
I learned to teach, my skillset gaining
The halls were quiet as could be
The classrooms practiced ABCs
Each class was made of many ages
But they seemed happy turning pages
Five weeks the routine carried on
The tensions high, battle lines drawn
It wasn’t how I pictured teaching
But here were kids that I was reaching
We braved the conflict all together
Standing strong in stormy weather
I let the kids into my heart
My new career, a fateful start
But then the bitter strike was done
And daily classrooms had begun
I faced the union teachers’ glare
They didn’t want me teaching there
When other teachers got a class
I was always left to last
They vowed to leave a deep impression
They wanted me to learn a lesson
I remained a daily substitute
Living down my ill repute
I couldn’t keep the kids in line
They kept messing with my mind
I couldn’t sleep night after night
Each day my stomach wasn’t right
My days ended with me screaming
The kids were laughing, even beaming
Once again I was dependent
On my friendly district superintendent
When I told her of my plight
She agreed to set it right
I began the new semester
A fourth grade class I had sequestered
On Fox Street Bronx I found a school
Principal Lonoff made the rules
A delightful group of fresh fourth graders
Confronted with a new invader
But I brought forth my youthful passion
With all the tricks that I could cash in
Some came to class with ragged sticks
I said I won’t fall for your tricks
Oh no, they cried, it’s for the rats
On Fox street you’ll find lots of that
One contingent spoke only Spanish
My earnest lessons quickly vanished
My class was just their latest fate
Our school had no one to translate
The books were few
No lesson plans
There were lots of can’ts
And too few cans
Principal Lonoff told us all
There shall be silence in the hall
All that he wants is law and order
In case of visits from headquarters
I once played Puerto Rican songs
And by their desks kids danced along
Then in stormed Lonoff in a rage
To subject us to the printed page
Nightly through our windows passed
School yard rocks and shattered glass
Early mornings with my broom
I daily swept glass from the room
With winter winds ferocious breezing
The kids wore coats to forestall freezing
Lonoff declared the issue dead
Without word from the Board of Ed
Wilfredo, bored with class room dreck
Looked out the window, cut his neck
Lonoff freaked out at the blood
They covered windows all with wood
One young girl, her arms all bitten
Said with bedbugs she was smitten
I went to visit with her mother
But the landlord said he wouldn’t bother
I had grown up working class
Never had a lot of cash
But I never knew much more
About the suffering of the poor
I tried to paint a hopeful arc
Once took the kids to Central Park
I fell in love and tried my best
To undo how they were oppressed
Next year to remain in compliance
Lonoff had me teaching science
I said of science I knew shit
Lonoff said just use the kits
I decided to be a radical padre
And found myself some 6th grade cadre
We studied weekly from the text
The autobiography of Malcolm X
Then with my cadre, bold and hearty
We went to see the Panther Party
With old strike friends in the community
I developed power and immunity
Lonoff, in the liberal tradition
Gave me time and his permission
To do the outreach and explore
A Bronx-wide march against the war
Of the charts and in my glorium
I led a Bronx-wide moratorium
While Thousands gathered in DC
The Bronx Students marched with me
But yet the teaching took its toll
I hated how I lost control
Without much help and absent training
I had my doubts about remaining
One kid hid in the cloakroom there
I found by grasping for his hair
Next day his mom said “please sir please sir”
My son was up last night with seizures
One day Jeff Perry came to see me
Actually intent to free me
Leave he said and follow me
It’s nothing but a colony
Forget the draft
Walk out the door
We’ll keep you from
That awful war
There’s a place to go
And not for scuba
That was the end of my teaching career
My mind was blown, my spirit clear
It radicalized me to my core
I knew not what, but I wanted more!
OFF TO TEACH THE POOR in 1968- A POEM BACKGROUNDER
This poem is about my personal journey as a working class Jewish kid form Philadelphia who traveled to NYC in 1968 to get out of the draft, not knowing that I was stepping into a tornado of social conflict. As a graduate of an elite college I found out that I could avoid the draft if I was willing to do what was considered by many as unthinkable – teach in a poor neighborhood of NYC.
Thousands of young NYC men had the same idea and the same war-avoiding desperation, but through good fortune I had a letter of introduction from an African American NYC District superintendent. I got a job at an elementary school in the South Bronx. This began an intensive year and a half coming of age for me and an education about poverty, racism, public education unions and power.
What I didn’t expect was that on my first day on the job I would arrive to a picket line – the vast majority of teachers in NYC were on strike. It was my first union experience and, at first, I enthusiastically joined the picket line.
The NYC Ocean Hill Brownsville struggle, as it is often referred to, was a historical moment: for NYC, for teachers, public sector unions, Jews and African Americans in NYC and beyond, as well as for public education. (There has been a lot written about it – one thorough overview is the book titled The Strike that Changed New York by Jerald Podair and for more here and here)
Ocean Hill Brownsville was the Brooklyn community where the district board fired and transferred teachers, demanding more control over who teaches and what is taught in their mostly African American neighborhood. The United Federation of Teachers (AFT) led by a rising star of the labor movement, Albert Shankar, struck to protect the union contract and due process rights of teachers above all else.
In its essence the struggle was between communities of color wanting control over their failing local schools and a union wanting to defend policies that protected predominantly white teachers, many of them Jewish, who lived mostly in the outer boroughs and the suburbs. This is all in the context in which the NYC Department of Education in Brooklyn rigidly controlled every single operational aspect of schools throughout the five boroughs.
The conflict brought to a head the Post WW II growth of “middle class” whites many of whom migrated out of the inner cities resulting in a shrinking urban tax base and the deterioration of schools, housing and public services. In the case of Jews in NYC, and elsewhere, they had gone into to teaching since the 30s for its rewards and because of the continued exclusion of Jews from parts of private sector employment.
This strike followed the ’68 riots that broke out across the country after Kings assassination and the emergence of movements among African American and Latinos seeking economic equality beyond the legal progress gained from civil rights legislation.
The three UFT strikes in the fall of 1968, the third lasting for five weeks, fractured a long standing solidarity between Jews and African Americans. Jewish teachers and communities joined a citywide white alliance with Irish and Italian Catholics. African American joined with Puerto Rican communities. Ford Foundation, ironically, funded the experimental district in Ocean Hill that led the community control struggle.
The lessons from the Ocean Hill Brownsville struggle are still being learned. Teacher unions are struggling to build community alliances while corporate funders promote privatization of education while posing as the champions of the poor. Off To Teach the Poor is my reflection on this moment in history.
“Morgue work takes a certain personality.”
When I made the decision to become a refrigeration technician I figured that was a way to get off the elevator and into a better paying and less alienating occupation. Our City Hospital AFSCME union local represented the workers in the physical plant at the hospital who did all the routine maintenance work. The maintenance chief told me that he would give me a look if I completed a tech course. I enrolled in the Heating Ventilation Air Conditioning (HVAC) program at the Northeast Institute of Industrial Technology, which was located on Phillips Street on Beacon Hill. I was carrying two study commitments: pursuing a Spanish degree at U-Mass Boston on Columbia Point in Dorchester and splitting time with an evening vocational school.
Northeast was founded in 1942. It was a poor second to the much more prominent Wentworth Institute which granted engineering degrees and had prestigious vocational programs some of which are used today by the unionized building trades. Northeast at its height had 400 students in a two year day program and an evening certificate program. In the nineties enrollment declined to about 100 as real estate values increased. The property was sold for a fortune in 1998 when the school closed.
I was in the evening HVAC program with about 20 other students most of whom were from the working class Boston suburbs of Revere, Medford, Braintree and Quincy. There were two of us from Boston. I lived in Jamaica Plain at the time and the other Hub student was an African American named Tom Mack from Dorchester. Most of the other students in class were already working in the trade but needed to up their game. I immensely enjoyed the “theoretical” training on heat and pressure, but I was not too swift when it came to “sweating” joints with solder. That was a big problem because lots of the service calls involving malfunctioning reefers or AC units involve leaky pipes and joints.
I had nothing to compare the training with so I can’t vouch for its quality, but there were some entertaining instructors. One teacher named Tom Glavin took it upon himself to school us in all the ways to get rid of overly inquisitive and attentive customers who were shadowing our work. He told us to always carry an old screwdriver that you could use to “make” a 220 circuit produce a fireworks display of short-circuiting sparks. If that didn’t work to drive away the nosey customer he showed us how to drop a toolbox “accidentally” on the customer’s toes.
My lack of facility with tools and the basics would haunt me a few months later when my classmate Tom Mack and I set up our own little business, T&P Refrigeration. One of our first service calls was to a high-end pastry cafe called Just Desserts in Somerville. The principal cooler for all their foodstuff was not “pulling” down the proper temperature and there was a danger of spoilage. We identified a leaky line and recharged the system with refrigerant and collected our fee. Later that evening I got a dreaded “call back” that the cooler was not cooling. I went to Just Desserts and found a leak and repaired it, but the cooler wouldn’t work properly. I decided to spend the night sleeping next to that cooler and repairing and recharging whenever the temperature would inevitably start to rise. After that night sleeping with the fine pastries I decided that T&P (at least the P part) was not a viable business model and we closed shop.
“Sometimes bodies would arrive at the morgue and stay there waiting for next of kin to claim them”
Once I demonstrated in 1981 to the BCH maintenance shop that I was enrolled at Northeast they gave me a job as a maintenance helper. I was out of the elevators and into the power plant. I was assigned to work with an outside HVAC contractor named Phil Doyle who was a member of the Plumbers Union and who was permanently stationed at City to handle all their big cooling issues. He was a fabulous teacher and a fabulous human being, a white Irish-American who refused to leave his Mission Hill neighborhood as it became increasingly Black and Puerto Rican. Most of his brother plumbers had fled the city of Boston, but Phil was committed to his neighborhood and befriended his new neighbors. I became very close to him, and he treated me like a son. Daily he urged me to let him get me into the Plumber’s Union “Frosty” program, but I was committed to hanging in there at City.
In the beginning my workday consisted of following Phil around and doing the simple tasks that he would assign. We handled everything from the giant “chillers” that air-conditioned the whole hospital to a little icebox that was cooling blood vials in the Intensive Care Unit. One location in the hospital where cooling is of the utmost importance is the City Morgue, and that was part of our daily rounds. We would walk in on autopsies and the stench of human blood and guts. Phil handled the overall cooling of the autopsy room.
My assignment was to make sure that the bodies being stored on the slabs were kept cool. This meant that the “heat exchangers”, cooling coils, inside the compartments had to be constantly cleaned or they would be choked by dust and other waste and rendered non-functional. City of course was the final resting place for the poor, indigent and homeless when they passed. Sometimes bodies would arrive at the morgue and stay there waiting for next of kin to claim them. Attorneys were paid by the City of Boston to track down blood relatives, but if after 6 months no one was located the corpses were given public burials in potter’s fields. Many of the bodies on the slabs were in advanced stages of decay and rot.
My work was to get inside the giant chest of drawers and straddle the slabs and use forced air to blow the coils clean. That meant that I often had very close encounters with the deceased. There was one cadaver that Phil and I called “the man with the fur coat” A male body had been lying in the morgue for so long that a whitish green mold had covered his whole naked body. The ringlets of mold were so pronounced that it had the look of a giant white stole.
Morgue work takes a certain personality. There needs to be a combination of sensitivity because you deal with next of kin, but also a certain hardened callousness so that you can find humor in the grimmest of circumstances. Who would have thought that over thirty years later my dear friend and comrade Gene Bruskin would write a brilliant musical play about morgue workers rebelling called “Pray for the Dead: A Musical Tale of Morgues, Moguls and Mutiny”?
As I roamed the corridors of BCH on my refrigeration rounds I would meet up with Steven Eurenius, a fine human being who became a lifelong friend. He was a bio-medical technician charged with fixing the cutting edge electronic equipment necessary to save patients and keep them alive. We had initially bonded on my elevator when he saw me doing a crossword puzzle and peered over my shoulder to give me the solution for “44 Across, Poet Lazarus”, 4 letters. “EMMA”, he said. We decided in the spring of 1982 that we would do a drive away together out to California for our vacation. An elderly Italian American man in Framingham, Massachusetts wanted his car driven to Scottsdale, AZ where he was retiring. We decided that was a good fit for us and would bring us within striking distance of California. In early August of 1982 we picked up the car, and my friend Steve and I, like so many before us headed West.
Next: OO# 19 – Christina and California – A Game Changer
My brief tenure at NECCO in the fall of 1972 had gotten me more that an abrupt discharge for defacing company property with radical political slogans. In order to operate the freight elevator at the candy company in Central Square, Cambridge, I had become licensed in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to operate an elevator. A state inspector boarded my elevator, rode up and down with me, and scrutinized my ability to level the elevator by releasing the control knob just as the car approached the desired floor. Through a friend and comrade I found out that Boston City Hospital has an opening for an elevator operator. I had the license and I got the job in September of 1979. When I presented my self to work at the office of the elevator department, which was situated in the Housekeeping Department, I met my supervisors Peggy and John. Peggy had bright red hair and she staffed the office and took calls from angry hospital personnel looking for an elevator that was late in arriving and from operators who were calling in absent or late. John was the relief operator, and he was my trainer. He was very short; in fact he was a dwarf. I soon discovered that a prominent Harvard neurologist had decided in the 50’s that he wanted to study dwarfism. He needed his subjects to be near at hand for observation and so he prevailed upon BCH to hire dwarfs as elevator operators. I was therefore a hulking giant among my co-workers, at least the males, many of who were very short.
It was the one place in the city where Black, brown, Asian and white were patients and workers.
John trained me on the elevators in Dowling North and South. These were the two wings of the main surgical building at City Hospital. I spent most of my two years as an operator running these elevators. Occasionally I was stationed in pediatrics, the medical building or the laundry, but Dowling was where the action was. The emergency room was ground floor for Dowling. Boston’s knifings, gunshot wounds and catastrophic industrial accidents came to the Dowling for triage, and then if the patient was stabilized I transported them up to surgery or an ICU or recovery room. Dowling and BCH were Boston’s melting pot. It was the one place in the city where Black, brown, Asian and white were patients and workers.
I greeted them all at the door of my elevator with a cheerful, “Going up” or “going down”. I carried visitors, patients and hospital staff. I would transport deceased patients down from surgery often accompanied by their family and visitors seeing their loved ones on other floors. There wasn’t much privacy at BCH. It was raw.
I transported the famous “Steve Martin arrow man” up to surgery. A laborer had been driving his utility truck in Southie one night after downing a few too many at the tavern, and he had run head first into a tree. His crow bar had come thru the window of his cab and gone straight through his head. He came into City and was brought onto my elevator on a gurney, but the paramedics had to tilt his head impaled by the crowbar in order to get through my elevator door. He went into surgery and the doctor, a Harvard trained African brain surgeon, successfully extracted the crow bar and saved the man’s life.
The job afforded me considerable flexibility because we were constantly being relieved to take breaks and lunch. In an eight-hour shift we probably were on duty a total of 4 hours. The job gave me a chance to do my studies as I had recently enrolled at U-Mass Boston to complete my college and learn Spanish. I could do my homework on breaks sitting in a secluded spot on an abandoned surgical floor. On weekends and evenings I could even read my Spanish literature while operating the elevator. That led to several interesting encounters. Young resident male surgeons had little interest in befriending or inquiring of the work force. They were blessed beings that had often grown up far from the grit of Boston’s working class. They would brusquely enter the elevator car and call out the floor they wanted often not even looking at the operator. They were however cognizant of the size and demeanor of most of my colleagues. Many of them as I mentioned were short and some had physical disabilities and missing limbs. One evening a young Harvard med-surgical resident entered my car. I was sitting on my stool reading Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. This was the basic text for my introduction to Spanish literature. The surgeon scanned my limbs and looked at the text and made a quick decision that I must have some disability and because everything else looked in order he decided I was deaf. He promptly thrust 5 fingers in my face to signal that he wanted the fifth floor. Up we went. When we got to five I called out the floor and the Intensive Care Unit. He left befuddled.
I was not at the hospital to perfect my “altitudinal technician” skills or to bring good humor to the hospital community as a “vertical digital analyzer”. There is considerable lore about elevator operators being the spiritual lifeline for apartments buildings, manufacturing lofts and courthouses. The constant contact with people often in emotionally distraught or jubilant states, means that the operator is a force in people’s lives. I was at The City to organize workers. This workplace was already unionized in American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 1489 for my job and those of the housekeepers and other blue-collar workers. The techs, ward clerks and nurses were all in the Service Employees International Union. Local 1489 was a colorful collection of people, the most diverse workforce in Boston. The President was a gay Italo-American security guard from Southie. The VP, a black nurses aid from Roxbury and the Recording Secretary a Chinese American woman from Michigan. I picked up the task of publishing the 1489 newsletter and made sure that it was translated into Spanish. I also became the steward for the elevator department and represented the grievances of my fellow operators. The City was tight knit community, and I spent a lot of time roaming the hospital at all hours and every day of the week. I remember returning to the hospital three years after I had left Boston for California. I was walking in one of the underground tunnels that linked the various buildings of the facility when I happened on an orderly who was pushing a gurney with a patient on it and a saline bag hanging hooked up to the patients’ arms. He abruptly stopped his gurney and said to me, “Where you been I have been looking for you for ages. I got a grievance I want you to handle!”
The elevator was a great organizing platform. I could transport groups of workers up to their designated areas and abruptly stop the elevator between floors and conduct a true captive audience meeting to review the issues of the day and encourage their participation in whatever activities the Local; was promoting. While I enjoyed the human contact, the union work and the flexibility I soon decided that I wasn’t cut out for a lifetime career as an operator. Plus it didn’t take a Marxist analysis to know that technology replace our department with automated lifts. I enrolled at the Northeast Institute of Industrial Technology on Beacon Hill. I was pursuing certification as a “frosty”, a refrigeration mechanic. This training would lead me to new adventures at The City and beyond top California.
Next: OO #18 – Minding the Morgue
The opening scene of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens shows an Imperial Stormtrooper who is ordered to fire on a group of innocent villagers. Instead, he has a crisis of conscience, escapes, and poses as a leader in the Rebellion. His conversion, though lightly sketched, is genuine, and Finn is elated to have found a home with those fighting the repressive Dark Side brutality.
Jamal Igle wrote in a blog post on The Nerds of Color website, “For the Love of FN-2187: Why John Boyega as Finn is one of the Best New Characters in Star Wars”:
“Finn is a character without an identity when we first meet him. One of the many faceless drones amongst The First Order, Finn is the first Stormtrooper we ever see remove his helmet in any of the films. We’re witnessing a birth in a way. All he wants to do is get away from the people who have oppressed him, as far as possible and never return. He’s never known a life outside of being a Stormtrooper, the mission on Jakku possibly being the first time he’s seen actual combat. What he saw shocked him so much, it shook his programming and for the first time, he saw things for what they truly were.”
The ironic thing is, this scenario already happened, in 1899.
In 1898 the United States leapt into the Spanish-American War, a heavy-handed campaign of opportunity that was so grotesque that its centennial was barely celebrated, let alone mentioned. (It urged me to post my first web article, in 1998). The second part of that campaign, the Philippine-American War, was even more loathsome and less remembered. It’s beyond the scope of this essay to delve into those wars, but suffice to say they established our young nation as an imperial force to be reckoned with. It’s where our military refined such as tactics as “waterboarding” and “strategic hamlets,” and gave rise to the American Anti-Imperialist League.
Four regiments of “Buffalo Soldiers,” who had earlier been assigned to fight American Indians and served in the Spanish-American war in the Caribbean, were joining that bloodbath in the Philippines. But many of the black soldiers became so upset with their treatment by white officers and soldiers, as well as resisting their role in enforcing a white national military policy on other people of color, that six took the extreme step of desertion. In addition, as many as 24 white soldiers deserted for various reasons.
Desertion during war is a high enough crime (all were sentenced to death, but only two were executed), but at least one took the extra step of joining the Filipino resistance.
David Fagen was an African American soldier sent to fight in the Philippines in the summer of 1899, and on November 17 he left his post and joined the guerilla forces. Scholar E. San Juan, Jr. described his commitment to the cause:
“Instead of simply escaping to an isolated native community and withdrawing from the conflict, Fagen embraced the revolution with such boldness and energy that no one could be blind to the depth of his commitment to the Filipino cause, especially in the light of George Rawick’s reminder that Afro-American slaves ‘do not make revolution for light and transient reasons.’ “
Efforts to capture Fagen proved challenging, and he was never caught. A bounty of $600 collected by a Filipino defector, but the partially decomposed head was never positively identified.
Fagen’s conversion did not sit well with the establishment black press, but even they had a hard time ignoring the fundamental racism of that war. The Indianapolis Freeman, editorialized in December, 1901, “Fagen was a traitor and died a traitor’s death, but he was a man no doubt prompted by honest motives to help a weakened side, and one he felt allied by bonds that bind.”
Finn was following in some very heavy footsteps when he doffed his bloodied storm trooper helmet and joined the people he’d been trained to consider the enemy. Perhaps the next episode of Star Wars will feature a Stormtrooper rights movement, Stormtrooper underground newspapers, and Stormtrooper coffeehouses.
Changes are happening and the Cubans are trying to figure out how to accommodate them within a socialist framework
As I prepared for my recent November trip to Cuba I thought back to my many memories of my first visit in the spring of 1970. Having left teaching in the South Bronx, discouraged and risking the draft deferment NYC teaching ironically provided, I decided, with my wife at the time, to go on to Cuba on the Second Venceremos Brigade. The Brigade was a left initiative to help break the US imposed blockade on Cuba and 800 of us went from across the country to cut cane with the Cubans and help them succeed in their production goal in the Year of the Ten Million tons.
The result of weeks of cutting cane with Cubans, as well as with revolutionary guests from struggles around the world, and traveling across the country in a remarkable 100 bus caravan, changed my life. The world was aflame with liberation movements in all continents and the US anti-war, women’s and Black and Latino liberation movements were in full swing. Although new to left movements in the US, when the Cubans, including Fidel, told us we were revolutionaries I figured, who was I to argue? In essence, the trip set me on a course of a life-time as a participant in many progressive movements, especially labor, seeking to create social and economic justice everywhere. I have never regretted that decision for a single second.
What I saw in Cuba in November 2015 was both hopeful and upsetting. Hopeful because the Cubans have never given up on socialism as the methodology/system to solve their many problems, perhaps the only place on earth where that is the case. And upset because of the serious poverty that exists and the deathly stranglehold that the US Embargo still has on the Cuban economy.
The trip was organized by Code Pink who had already taken two groups since the US began the recent Cuban diplomatic recognition process, and has several more in the hopper. They do a very good job of it. The focus of the trip was the international conference being held in Guantanamo province against the US military base in Guantanamo Bay and US bases around the world. The conference brought delegates from many countries and perhaps as many as 100 folks from the US. Even as a long-time foe of US imperialism, it was a shocking reminder of the devastating political, environmental and economic devastation caused by the 800 or more US military bases located on every continent and in outer space.
We traveled throughout the province and were greeted in various places like visiting dignitaries, mostly because of the power of the message sent when those of us inside the belly of the beast go out of our way to support the victims of the beast. As I watched people lining the streets, smiling and cheering for our arrival, tears came to my eyes. I have learned over and over never to underestimate the importance of our international solidarity work, no matter how minimal it may seem, to those whose only face of the US is often the barrel of a gun or the weight of US global corporate power.
I thought of the irony and hypocrisy of the US demanding that the Cubans must clean up their human rights record before the embargo could be lifted
We visited the city of Caimanera, the closest point in Guantanamo province to the US prison. We climbed up to a second story and looked over the bay and saw the outline of the buildings where prisoners have been held and tortured since 2001, without trial and charges. It sent chills down my spine and made me feel shame for our country. It reminded me of a time with the Venceremos Brigade in 1970 in Oriente Province in Eastern Cuba. It was announced that a boatload of Cuban “gusanos “ had landed and were seeking to blow up the sugar refineries to prevent the Year of the Ten Million Tons from succeeding. Of course the invaders from the US shores didn’t pay any attention to the fact that the goal of the unfortunately unsuccessful effort was to produce enough sugar to acquire the capital to buy cane-cutting equipment so no Cuban would ever again have to endure the backbreaking work of cutting sugar cane. Those of us on the Brigade were outraged and embarrassed that the attack has been staged from the US and some Brigade members naively offered to pick up arms and fight. The Cubans politely and wisely declined the offer.
As I reflected on the world-despised torture site I thought of the irony and hypocrisy of the US demanding that the Cubans must clean up their human rights record before the embargo could be lifted. Here was the US making this demand while occupying the Cuban territory of Guantanamo Bay for more than 100 years, and brutally imprisoning Muslims from around the world without trial on Cuban territory.
The hypocrisy is also echoed by the US demand for up to $8 billion dollars in reparations for alleged revenue lost by the Cuban government’s expropriations of US owned businesses and property in the early 60s. I remembered riding past the former US mansions in Havana in 1970 and seeing little brown faces smiling and waving from the upstairs balconies. These were the faces of poor Cuban children from the countryside brought to Havana to live and learn in the former homes of the rich. Meanwhile, the school and neighborhood I left in the South Bronx before the trip were in total neglect and disarray and also filled with the faces of Black and Brown children.
One of the most inspiring parts of the trip was the constant presence of Cuban culture-live and very lively music every night, dance performances of large contingents of Cuban youngsters, art every where. One afternoon in Santiago my wife Evie and I wandered over to the hotel pool and there were a dozen teenage Cubans practicing hard to create their water ballet for future performances.
During one performance in the city of Guantanamo for a few hundred members of the international delegations and local Cubans, about 40-50 Cuban school children put on a series of choreographed songs and dances. Cute does not begin to describe the pride and skill and self-confidence of the young people, some as young as 5 or 6. As they entered the hall from the rear, those of us on the aisles, including myself, were given hugs and kisses by each child on the way to the stage. They had the audience enthralled even before the first note was played. After a series of elaborate songs and dances, including the ever popular song Guantanamera, they sang and swayed to John Lennon’s Imagine, in English. There was not a dry eye in the room.
In the midst of the large group on the stage was a small child, who clearly had Down syndrome, totally integrated into the performance and respected and helped throughout. I thought of our struggling inner-city schools, cutting deeply on budgets for the arts and special needs services in order to allow more time to assure that No Child Goes Untested. The Cubans understand the power of culture to make people’s lives full and to build a spirit of unity among a people.
The Blockade Stranglehold
It is hard to explain the viciousness of the blockade. There is no similar practice imposed by the US in our history. Any company in the world who does business in Cuba cannot do business in the massive US marketplace without massive fines. And this imposition is rigidly enforced, even since the onset of diplomatic relations. In 2014 the French bank BNP Paribas was forced to pay a staggering $6.5 billion fine for doing banking business with Cuba in order to have continued access to the US market. Also recently the Canadian owned division of Master Card, which was popular with the more than one million Canadians a year who travel to Cuba, was recently bought by Bank of America (suspicions that it had US government support) and immediately Canadian Master Cards could not be used in Cuba.
The impact of the blockade on the Cuban economy is massive and the country is poor, even using horse and carriages as regular public transport in the rural areas. But education is free through the university level, excellent healthcare is available to all, homelessness seemed non-existent compared to the rampant epidemic in US cities, basic food stuff are supplied to all, public transportation is virtually free and jobs are available for all, albeit at low salaries.
At the same time there is little in the stores to buy beyond the basics. Cuba is expanding worker owned cooperative businesses and privatized services such as taxis in the large old US cars, small restaurants and bed and breakfast accommodations in peoples’ homes to meet the needs of the growing tourist trade. Changes are happening and the Cubans are trying to figure out how to accommodate them within a socialist framework. One good example is Major League Baseball which is drooling over the chance to legally get its hands on so much untapped talent. The Cubans are proposing that multi-million dollar contracts include clauses that allow substantial amounts of the salaries to go back into Cuba to, among other things, develop sports facilities for Cuban children.
Little about the embargo itself has changed under Obama, and there remain many steps that he can and should take without Congress that would make a huge difference to the Cuban people. Any notion that the embargo makes the US seem like a friend and might inspire uprisings against Fidel were and continue to be beyond dumb—they feed the antagonism to the US government but not at all to the US people.
One other experience is illustrative. As our bus was barreling down a country road at night, several kilometers from Guantanamo, we were suddenly stopped at a military checkpoint. It was a surprise because we had seen virtually no police or military presence during the entire trip. Naturally many of us had an instinctual reaction to a military stop. Rodrigo, our Cuban tour representative, go off the bus and returned to explain that the police were there to give us a VIP motorcycle escort into the city. The Cubans understand the value of international solidarity.
So, in conclusion, I say Go to Cuba and fight for the end of the embargo. Socialism in Cuba can and must live as an example for us and the entire world
We at the Stansbury Forum would like to thank Lincoln Cushing for allowing us to use the poster images. To see all manner of political and cultural poster Lincoln’s site Docs Populi – documents for the public is a must stop.
Today we live in an increasingly unequal society. Inequality is greater now than it has been at any time in the last century, and the gaps in wages, income, and wealth are wider in the U.S. than they are in any other democratic and developed economy. (The Nation; Brookings; Forbes; Economic Policy Institute; US News & World Report; PEW)
Between 1979 and 2007, the real incomes of the richest 1 percent almost tripled, while the real incomes of regular households inched up only about 25 percent—and that was almost all due to an increase in labor force participation and hours worked.
Meanwhile, the richest 1 percent – some call them the Billionaire Class — owns about a third of the nation’s wealth; and the top 5 percent claim over 60 percent. Their share has grown steadily over the last generation. And since the Great Recession, almost all of the gains of the recovery have flowed only to the richest Americans.
Among the world’s wealthy countries, the U.S. ranks dead last on all of the relevant inequality measures. And our inequality is growing at a faster rate than that of any other major country.
Somerville, Massachusetts is a city of about 78,000 just north of Boston that is currently experiencing intense gentrification, out-of-control housing speculation, and major corporate real estate development in several neighborhoods.
The city has a vibrant community of resistance arising out of decades of grassroots struggle and the “Occupy Somerville” movement. Two years ago, we finally gained a majority of the seats on the Board of Aldermen (equivalent to a city council) opening up new possibilities for progressive change.
Despite our strong progressive base, economic inequality in Somerville is increasing. Billion dollar corporations like Federal Realty Investment Trust claim that they can’t afford union wages and benefits. Private developers only want to build luxury housing for the rich. And far too many business owners still engage in wage theft and job misclassifications to avoid paying fair wages or providing good benefits.
Seizing on this opportunity, Good Jobs Somerville (a loose grouping of local labor and community activists) collected more than 200 signatures from residents urging the Board of Aldermen to hold a public hearing on inequality which was backed by a broad coalition of unions and community organizations. 
After a spirited public hearing on December 10, the Somerville Board of Aldermen voted unanimously to support four bills before the state Legislature which in a small way would help to address the problems caused by rising income inequality.
Speakers at the hearing testified about the seriousness of the problem and in support of four state initiatives that would benefit our community:
Gina Garro, a teacher and MTA member, talked about the need for a new amendment to our state’s constitution to create an additional tax of four percentage points on annual incomes above one million dollars. The new revenue from this “Millionaire’s Tax” would be invested in quality public schools, affordable higher education, and improvements in public transportation.
Sagar Tivari, a fast food worker at Dunkin Donuts, described how hard it was to live in Somerville on low pay. Sagar seeks passage of new living wage legislation for employees of big box retail and fast food companies so that people like him who work for large, profitable corporations can earn a living wage of at least $15 an hour.
Alex Galimberti, a Somerville restaurant worker and local leader of the Restaurant Opportunity Center (ROC), reaffirmed the city’s previous commitment to the elimination of the subminimum wage for tipped workers. ROC is supporting legislation at the statehouse to end the subminimum wage and provide restaurant workers with the same hourly minimum wage as workers in all other industries in Massachusetts.
Marya Axner, director of the Jewish Labor Committee and Alex Pirie, from Immigrant Service Providers talked about the need to pass new legislation for paid family and medical leave to ensure that workers are not forced to choose between work and the well-being of their children and other family members.
Numerous others from the community stood up to testify about how the high cost of housing, low wages, redevelopment and displacement, and skyrocketing health care costs was affecting them and their families.
Although State Senator Pat Jehlen, and Representatives Denise Provost and Christine Barber all spoke after the hearing in support of the bills, passing them at the state house (and winning more comprehensive changes at the local level) will require even broader unity between labor, community and faith-based organizations.
Somerville’s Board of Aldermen took an important symbolic first step to support passage of the above state initiatives which, if passed, will improve working families’ lives. And in doing so, the board acknowledged the significance of economic inequality and its corrosive impact on our community. Now the hard work must begin to win very specific municipal reforms so that our city government can more aggressively use its power to make sure the wealth we create stays in our community and goes to where it’s most needed – Somerville’s hard-working families.
(1) Supporters included: The Immigrant Service Providers Group/Health, Building and Construction Trades Council of the Metropolitan District, New England Regional Council of Carpenters, Restaurant Opportunities Center, Somerville Community Corporation, Somerville Municipal Employees Association, SEIU Local 32BJ, SEIU Local 888, Tufts Labor Coalition, UFCW Local 1445, Heat and Frost Insulators Local 6, Welcome Project, and the Jewish Labor Committee.
In 1964 as Princeton freshmen we were told that Woodrow Wilson had been a leading Progressive, a proponent of “Democracy,” and a champion of self-determination abroad. It is good to see students today challenging that picture (“Updated: Students ‘walkout and speakout,’ occupy Nassau Hall until demands of Black Justice League are met,” November 18, 2015).
Wilson’s record was deplorable on the “race question.” He cut back federal appointments of African Americans; supported showings of the white-supremacist film “The Birth of a Nation” for himself, his Cabinet, Congress, and the Supreme Court; stood by silently as segregation was formalized in the Post Office, Treasury, Interior, Bureau of Engraving and Printing, and Navy; did nothing as almost two dozen segregation-supporting legislative attempts including exclusion of Black immigrants, segregation of streetcars, and a ban on inter-racial marriages in the District of Columbia were introduced in the House and Senate; and declined to use any significant power of office to address lynching, segregation, and disfranchisement (which marred the land) and the vicious white-supremacist attacks on twenty-six African American communities including Washington, DC, Chicago, and East St. Louis that occurred during his administration.
Under Wilson the U.S. not only implemented the Espionage Act of 1917, the Sedition Act of 1918, and the Palmer Raids of 1919-1920, it also occupied Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Nicaragua and intervened in Panama, Honduras, and Mexico. Nevertheless, Wilson ran for President in 1916 on a campaign slogan “he kept us out of war,” posed before the world as a champion of democracy, and prated of “the rights of small nationalities,” of “self-determination,” and of “the right of all who submit to authority to have a voice in their own government.” In addition to the awful horrors let loose on small countries pre-war, in the postwar period he also helped to pave the way for partition, occupation, and conquest in the Middle East and Africa and for future wars.
There were contemporaries of Wilson, people like the intellectual/activist Hubert Harrison, the founder of the first organization (the Liberty League) and first newspaper (“The Voice”) of the militant “New Negro Movement,” who saw through the misleading portrait of Wilson so often found in the media and history books. Harrison understood that while lynching, segregation, and disfranchisement marred this land, and while the U.S. brazenly attacked smaller countries, “Wilson’s protestations of democracy were lying protestations, consciously, and deliberately designed to deceive.” At the founding meeting of the Liberty League in June 1917, Harrison posed a direct challenge to Wilson who had claimed the U.S. was entering World War I in order to “Make the World Safe for Democracy.” Harrison’s mass meeting was called, as its organizational flyer headlined, to “Stop Lynching and Disfranchisement in the Land Which We Love and Make the South ‘Safe For Democracy.'” A month later Harrison led a second major Harlem rally to protest the white supremacist “pogrom” (his word) in East St. Louis, Illinois (15 miles from Ferguson, Missouri).
We are glad that the Black Justice League is raising some of these issues, opening the eyes of many, and helping to point the way forward in the 21st century.
Speech given at the 79th Annual Celebration of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Berkeley, California 11/8/15 by David Bacon
All my life I’ve known about Spain. I grew up singing Freiheit and Viva la Quince Brigada and Los Cuatro Generales, and knew the names of some of the places in Spain where the big battles were fought. I owe a lot to my parents, and to the culture they helped create. They didn’t go to Spain, but they were brave people nonetheless. When Paul Robeson went to sing in Peekskill, my dad was one of the union members from New York City who lined the roads to protect people from the rocks thrown by the fascists of upstate New York. In 1953, the year the Rosenbergs were executed, they brought my brother and me here to Oakland, where I grew up. That’s why I’m an Oakland boy, and not a Brooklyn boy.
When I think about the impact of Spain on my life, I think about the people who went and fought there, and what they taught me. Some of them I knew personally, and some taught me by example. They all taught me about how to conduct a life dedicated, not just to opposing injustice, but to fighting for a different world, for a vision of a just society, a socialist society.
Today I work with California Rural Legal Assistance, as a photographer and a journalist. Growing up in Oakland, I didn’t know much about life in rural California, or who farm workers are and the work they do. But I come from a union family, so when I got back from Cuba in the early 70s, full of revolutionary enthusiasm, the place where I thought I could fight for real change here was the farm workers union. I went to work, learning from people like Eliseo Medina the nuts and bolts of how to organize strikes, win union elections, go on the boycott – the basic toolkit of working class struggle.
There I met Ralph Abascal, who had helped to organize California Rural Legal Assistance. With a nod and a wink, after the lawyers had gone home at the end of the day, our crew of workers and organizers would come in and use the typewriters and xerox machines all night to put together our legal cases against firings and grower dirty tricks. That’s what I loved about CRLA and the way he ran it – it was a part of the workers movement, and its resources were shared. He wanted the union and the workers to fight and survive. It was no surprise to me later to learn that Ralph’s family came from Spain, and that his uncles fought in the Civil War.
I’m not your average photographer. That’s one reason why CRLA and I get along so well, together with our partner in documenting the lives of farm workers, the Frente Indigena de Organizaciones Binacionales. The purpose of our work is to create photographs that are instruments or tools for social change. We document workers living in tents under trees and sleeping in their cars when the harvest comes, in Arvin, Coachella, San Diego and Santa Rosa. But we do more than show abuses. Our photographs show workers acting to change those conditions.
One of my favorite quotes is by Alexander Rodchenko, the famous Soviet photographer of the 1920s and 30s. He said, “Art has no place in modern life,” and that we should “take photographs from every angle but the navel.” What he means, of course, is not just that photographs should have a social purpose, but that the photographer should be part of the movements for social change, for revolution.
The most important photographer who not only shared this idea, but lived her life by it, was Tina Modotti. She had a deep connection with the defense of the Spanish Republic. She was an Italian immigrant, from Udine, but she grew up here, in San Francisco. Today they have festivals in her birth town and a foundation in her name in Italy. Here in the Bay Area, though, we hardly know or speak about her. She grew up in North Beach, wanted to become an actress, and went to Los Angeles where she met Edward Weston. Together they went to Mexico just at the height of the artistic ferment of the 1920s, when the revolution was going strong.
She and Weston developed modernism in photography, but she went a step further. She filled their modernistic style with political and social content. And she did more. She joined the Mexican Communist Party, and helped organise the Union of Painters and Sculptors. She took some of the first photographs of huge political demonstrations, and tried to find a visual language that was simple and could inspire people to act.
And as her political commitment deepened, the Mexican government deported her in 1930 to Germany, and from there she went to the Soviet Union, where she went to work for the Comintern. During that time she stopped taking photographs. That’s one of the things I admire most about her. She said, “I cannot solve the problem of life by losing myself in the problem of art.” There are times when the need to act politically is so important that art has to give way. That’s the opposite of what we’re taught in the corporate culture of today, where “art is everything” – that you can’t let mere social justice get in the way.
When the war came in Spain, she went with her lover, Vittorio Vidali, or as he was know in Spain, Comandante Carlos. Modotti was the organizer for Workers Red Aid, helping to free what prisoners they could, and sustain and keep alive those they couldn’t. She worked with Dr. Norman Bethune. Vidali organized the Fifth Regiment, and today when I hear the words to El Quinto Regimiento, that in the “patio de un convento, el partido comunista (in Oscar Chavez’ version) or el pueblo madrileño (in Rolando Alarcon’s version) formo el quinto regimiento,” I think about Vidali and Modotti.
At the end of the war, Modotti was in charge of helping the streams of refugees that filled the roads along the coast, from Barcelona to the French border, as they fled Franco’s advancing troops. I think about her when I see the roads filled with migrants fleeing the bombing in Syria and Iraq today, trying to find refuge in Europe. If Modotti were alive, she would be there. But she would be the first to say that these desperate people can’t use our pity any more than the Spanish refugees could.
When the vets came back from fighting in Spain and from World War Two, California and the Bay Area were very different politically from what they are today.
Just as we know that the advance of fascism was the root cause of people fleeing Spain, we have to look at the root causes of the flight of migrants today. We have to ask what, or better still, who makes poverty and violence so unbearable that drowning in the Mediterranean seems an acceptable or necessary risk. And of course, it’s not just there. What is causing the poverty and displacement in Honduras or Mexico, that makes migration a necessity for survival? And just as the internment in France that greeted the Spanish refugees was a basic violation of their human rights, and a demeaning humiliation, the Karnes and Hutto detention centers in Texas are a crime against working people that we have to fight today.
After the war Modotti and Vidali separated. Vidali eventually returned to the Free Territory of Trieste, and when it became part of Italy he was elected the Communist deputy from Trieste for many years. Modotti returned to Mexico when Lazaro Cardenas was president, but she was so exhausted she got sick and died. She was never allowed to return to San Francisco, and to her family.
So this lesson of Modotti and Spain is that photography and social change are important and go together, but the most important thing is the objective, which is to fight fascism and change the world.
Spain attracted photographers. We all know the Robert Capa photo of the soldier shot just at the moment when he rises to charge the enemy. Capa made his reputation in Spain. The famous Magnum Photo Agency in New York was organized by photographers who supported, and some who participated, in this huge social upheaval. I did a google search of the VALB archive database, and I found 26 photographers who went to Spain, and that’s not counting the other artists. They didn’t go to take pictures or paint. They went to fight. So Modotti was definitely not the only person who thought this way. But she asked the big question about our role as artists – how to make art serve the cause of social justice, and how to make that the main question – not becoming a celebrity or making lots of money.
When the vets came back from fighting in Spain and from World War Two, California and the Bay Area were very different politically from what they are today. Don Mulford was firing teachers for not signing loyalty oaths. The Knowland family ran Oakland. Sam Yorty ran Los Angeles with Chief Parker running the LAPD, including its notorious Red Squad. The growers in the valley had all the power. They had yet to be challenged by the farmworkers historic strike in 1965, the fiftieth anniversary of which we’re celebrating this year.
In my life as a union organizer, before I started work as a photographer and journalist, I met other people who’d fought in Spain. They were part of the unions and movements where I met them. Henry Giler was blacklisted in those bad old days, and became an air conditioning mechanic, before he went back to law school. Then he became a civil rights lawyer, and defended our strikers when I worked for the United Electrical Workers. We were organizing immigrants at the beginning of the huge upsurge that has changed California’s politics so fundamentally.
I met Coleman Persily, because we were both friends of Bert Corona, the founder of our modern immigrant rights movement. Coleman fought in Spain, and then in the 50s he and Bert helped run the campaign for Edward Roybal, the first Chicano elected to Congress from California since 1879. That was a harbinger of the end of the Yorty years, of the hatred of Latinos seen in the Zoot Suit riots and the Sleepy Lagoon prosecution, and of LA’s reputation as the home of the Open Shop. As we know today, much bigger political changes were to come, and people like Henry and Coleman helped set the stage. Coleman went on to help organize the Canal Street Alliance, which today is Marin County’s main immigrant rights organization.
Through organizing immigrant farm and factory workers, I became an immigrant rights activist and organizer, like them. In those days, it didn’t make you popular, in the labor movement especially, to insist that undocumented workers had rights, and that our unions had to include and fight for them.
Both Henry and Coleman had a vision of justice and equality, which took them to fight in Spain, and which they brought back into the movements here at home. They also brought back a love of the Spanish language and culture, which then became a love for the Mexican people. It’s remarkable how many people came back from Spain and wound up in Mexico itself. Some were like Linni De Vries. She went to Mexico because she was hounded by the FBI, but then loved it so much she become a citizen in 1962. The U.S. government took away her U.S. citizenship a year later.
And then there’s Archie Brown. When I was trying to figure out what it meant to be committed to socialism, and to be a union organizer at the same time, Archie was the person who helped me.
When my youngest daughter was little, her favorite movie was “Newsies” – the musical about the newsboy strike against Pulitzer in New York in 1899. Only later did I learn that Archie too had been a newsie, and helped organize a newsie strike here in Oakland in 1928. Archie became a Red very young, as did many people who went to Spain. He was so visible that the State Department wouldn’t give him a passport, and he had to cross the Atlantic as a stowaway.
His attitude was that laws that violate the political and labor rights of working people have to be challenged directly, legally in court, and politically out in the world.
When I was just becoming politically aware, at 12, Archie got called by the House Unamerican Activities Committee. As he started to speak, refusing to name names, demonstrators, many from the UC campus here, burst into the hearing room and disrupted it. Archie was thrown out. It was the opening of the civil disobedience offensive that eventually led to the students being washed down the marble staircase of San Francisco City Hall. That was the beginning of the end for HUAC.
Archie spent his working and political life in Local 10 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. In Archie’s book, the most important political work you could do in a union was to educate rank and file workers, and help them become activists for change, in the union, at work, and in the community around them. When he ran for union office as a Communist, his point was first, to get workers to think about more radical ideas, and second, to challenge the Federal government’s prohibition on electing Communists to union office.
He was successful on both counts, I think. The government indicted him, but the Supreme Court overturned the prohibition. This is important for us to think about. His attitude was that laws that violate the political and labor rights of working people have to be challenged directly, legally in court, and politically out in the world. Today the Supreme Court is about to strike down the laws protecting union membership in contracts for public workers. Archie, running for office deliberately to defy the law, is saying to us, we have to fight.
His other objective was as important. One of the most important reasons why the Bay Area, and the cities of the Pacific Coast, have a radical political tradition is because of the ILWU. But it’s not just the union as an institution. It’s the fact that the union brought together and educated a body of workers who then worked in political campaigns, civil rights demonstrations, school and workplace integration, and a myriad of other social struggles. And creating and maintaining that active membership was the job of the leftwingers in the union.
That’s what Archie believed. Power and leftwing politics in the labor movement comes from the bottom up, not the top down, and only if there is an organized left fighting for it. In my own working life, I tried to use every strike, every plant that closed throwing workers onto the sidewalk, as an opportunity for us to learn about the nature of the society we live in.
Today in our labor movement we have a crisis, in part because we represent a falling percentage of the workforce. We face a political structure, Republican and even Democratic, that is more hostile towards us than any we’ve seen since the 1920s. But the crisis is also a result of our unions’ failure to propose much more radical measures to advance our interests, and to educate our members so they understand why that’s necessary.
I don’t think Archie learned this way of being a working class activist and organizer in Spain. But I think he shared it with the people who went to Spain from the surging working class movement of the mid-1930s. This was their style of work, what made them so effective. After all, they left for Spain within just a year or two of the San Francisco General Strike, the greatest labor upsurge we’ve ever had here. They made the same choice that Tina Modotti did. Defeating fascism in Spain was the overarching need of the working class movement all over the world, more important even than the union itself. The Abraham Lincoln Brigade is the product of that idea – what made international solidarity such a force that we celebrate it today, eighty years later.
And what they all have in common – Tina, Henry, Coleman, Archie, Vittorio Vidali – and I think everyone here – is that we fight for a more just world, not merely against the injustice of this one. This is why the living memory of the Lincoln Brigade is so important.
Sergio Sosa, a Guatemalan migrant who now directs Omaha’s Heartland Workers’ Center, says: “People from Europe and the U.S. crossed our borders to come to Guatemala, and took over our land and economy. Migration is a form of fighting back. Now it’s our turn to cross borders.”
The experiences of workers migrating from country to country for jobs, or fleeing warfare and repression, testify to the impact of free-market economics and the wars they bring about. But at the same time, these migrants are changing profoundly the culture and social movements of the wealthy countries of the global north. They are one reason why we have a greater opportunity to talk about a vision of a society free from exploitation, a socialist society, than we’ve had for twenty years.
The economic inequality and social cost of capitalism haven’t changed – if anything, they’ve become even more exaggerated. The class conflict at the root hasn’t been eliminated by globalization. In fact, it’s been extended and deepened in country after country.
Many people in our movement, at least in the US, see the cost of this system to our people and hate it. We recognize the common interest of many sections of our society in opposing it. Hating capitalism, even by name, has become popular. In my youth, just using the word capitalism was enough to get redbaited and ostrasized. Now we celebrate May Day, thanks to the ourpouring of immigrants, especially from countries where it’s always been celebrated as the workers’ holiday.
The radical vision of those who fought in Spain made the movement here stronger.
But what is the alternative? Can society be managed on the basis of equality? Can economic development provide a full life for all people, not just more efficient commodity production? What is the vision of the future that can bind together a movement of millions of people, which can produce an alternative culture that can last from one generation to the next?
A radical vision runs counter to the prevailing wisdom of our times, which holds the profit motive sacred, and believes that market forces solve all social problems. If we challenge that wisdom, we won’t get invited for coffee with the President. At the beginning of the cold war, the AFL-CIO built its headquarters right down the street from the White House. Maybe it’s time now to move.
For working people to organize by the millions, which is what we have to do, we have to make hard decisions. People must their jobs on the line for the sake of their future. But the unions of past decades, the activists and organizers who went to Spain, won the loyalty of working people when joining was even more dangerous and illegal than it is today. The left then proposed an alternative social vision – that society could be organized to ensure social and economic justice for all people. We were united by the idea that we could gain enough political power to end poverty, unemployment, racism, and discrimination.
Today our biggest problem is finding similar ways to affect consciousness — the way people think. We have to have a much clearer sense that large-scale social change is possible. The radical vision of those who fought in Spain made the movement here stronger. When our movement lost that vision in the red scares of the 1950s, we lost our ability to inspire. It’s no accident that the years of McCarthyism marked the point when the percentage of organized workers began to decline.
Radical ideas have a transformative power – especially the idea that while you might not live to see a new world, your children might, if you fight for it. In the 1930s and 40s, these ideas were propagated within unions by leftwing political organizations. A general radical culture reinforced them. Today we need a core of activists unafraid of radical ideas of social justice, and who can link them to immediate economic bread-and-butter issues. And since good ideas are worthless unless they reach people, we have to be able to communicate that vision to working people as broadly as we can.
We are not at the end of history. We have to reclaim our history, not discard or forget it. Working people have proposed alternatives to capitalism for over a hundred years – socialism, communism, nationalist economic development, and more. Those who went to Spain were fighting for this vision, as much as they were fighting against Franco.
We are told we must allow millions of people to become casualties of the free market, whether as the unemployed, the hungry and powerless, or the victims of war and oppression. It is up to those who say there is an alternative, not only to proclaim it and advocate for it, but to organize the majority of our people to fight for it.
This is the most important legacy of Spain. If there is to be any alternative, it will only exist because those who don’t benefit from the current system fight to bring a new one into being.
Before holding forth on this topic, I should identify myself. As an old-fashioned (and I mean old!) liberal/progressive, my views and general approach on socio-economic/political issues may not be quite as “advanced’ as many of the participants in this forum. Put another way, I may seem like an out-of-date, not to say out-of- touch, compromiser! That said, I am calling everyone’s attention to a longish editorial opinion piece in the Sunday (Nov. 22) New York Times Sunday Review section of Nov. 22: one titled “Who Turned My Blue State Red?”. The writer is an Alex MacGillis, by-lined as a political reporter for Pro-Publico. He writes about the phenomenon now fairly apparent in this country: Increasingly, districts and whole states with populations that are heavily dependent on various government programs (from housing subsidies and food stamps and disability payments to Medicare and Social Security) – in general, favored by Democrats – are electing politicians who do not particularly support them – in general, Republicans. Indeed, he describes some regions and states that are among the greatest beneficiaries of these government programs as now electing Republicans who explicitly campaign AGAINST these very programs. How and why this comes about is what he undertakes to explain: briefly he argues that it is the white population, especially older whites in these regions who may themselves be relying on at least some of these programs. However, they regard themselves as having earned/paid for these benefits and see poorer folks, especially people of color or newer ethnic groups, as freeloaders. And because this latter, relatively large segment of the region’s population does not vote in proportion to their numbers, whites, especially older whites, get to elect Republicans. Although he does not state this, it seems to be implied that this group assume that Republican politicians will in fact retain all programs that benefit themselves [E.g. Social Security, Medicare] but cut back on anything that rewards those “freeloaders” [E.g. food stamps, disability payments]. If nothing else, these people are giving expression to a generalized, “floating” resentment that Republican politicians seem responsive to. That is what lies behind this apparent paradox.
Aside from wishing to call your attention to this thoughtful piece – even if you do not necessarily agree with all of his points – I would like to make my own point. And it is that I feel that Democrat politicians – up to and including Hillary Clinton – and all of us “liberals” should face up to this development in our nation. We should not leave it to Republicans to campaign in this negative way, to make promises about what they will do or not do about these issues when elected. But I would go further – and this is where I may lose some of you – I think that the Democrats, and we liberals/progressives, should admit that there is waste and fraud in these programs and, if elected, they will set about to try to eliminate this.
For starters, there is undoubtedly a top-heavy bureaucracy administering most government programs. There is redundancy, there is inefficiency, incompetency. Every program should have some sort of Ombudsman whose sole duty is to seek out waste and fraud. No need to hire new personnel – rather reassign existent staff to this. It is well known that there are individuals receiving disability payments who are not really deserving. I would be for tracking them down. Thus the Social Security Administration will assign staff and procedures to more closely examine all disability claims. People abuse the food stamps they otherwise deserve. Medicaid and Medicare are rife with fraud, much of which is committed by pharmaceutical companies and upper-income medical practitioners – this is not a campaign just against lower income individuals.
Let me be clear. I accept that the total sums lost in all such instances – that is, involving individuals committing what I’ll lump together as “fraud’ for the moment – would add up to probably far less than what corporations get away with by avoiding taxes. Or what defense contractors get away with by manipulating contracts, not to mention corporations’ own varieties of fraud. And all that, it goes without saying here, should be a major priority of Democrats and progressives. But here’s my point: This other issue should be taken away from the Republicans. We do not need to elect even a “democratic socialist,” let alone some radical third-party candidate to deal with this issue. I know this is perhaps not much more than a cosmetic clean up of our social/economic/political system. But for better or worse we have this two-party system, and I wish the Democrats would take up this particular crusade. Bernie Sanders raving about greed in banking, Hillary carrying on about Wall Street, East Coast liberals questioning hedge funds (“the carried interest loophole”?!): none of this means much to the inhabitants of West Virginia and Kentucky who are voting in Republicans because they see some in their own communities unfairly getting disability checks while still active. Or getting food stamps and yet attending fancy restaurants or expensive sporting events. The Democrats should make it a “populist” issue and provide a reasoned promise to deal with this problem. They might even restore some of those Red states to the Blue column.
Related to the NYT’s piece mentioned in this post: The Powder KegThe seething racial resentment of the Obama era is of an altogether different kin, Esquire, 24 November 2015 by Charles Pierce
Warren Mar has written a provocative piece on the role of Community Based Organizations and Worker Centers in the working class movement. He explores controversial issues of the funding and democratic control of these organizations which have filled a vacuum in organizing particularly among immigrant workers.
The author entered community and labor organizing in the late 60’s and early 70’s during the second resurgence of a left alternative to capitalism. Many new left activists entered the labor movement during this time, hoping that American Unions would finally represent the entire working class, and not only those workers under a specific work place contract.
Even at its peak in 1953 the AFL-CIO unions only represented 33% of American workers. This year coincided with continuing legal Jim Crow segregation in the South, excluding African Americans from unions, and years of Asian and Latino exclusion from unions on the West Coast. Therefore the 33% reflected on longingly by union old-timers may have represented a majority of white males concentrated in heavy industry and the skilled construction trades of the Midwest and Northeast. This was the geographic concentration of the majority of union members during the height of the AFL-CIO. Not until the late 60’s and early 70’s when public sector unions were formed and – and public sector civil service jobs were integrated – did large numbers of women and minorities become card-carrying AFL-CIO union members even in the most liberal of northern cities.
The above serves as a context to what we are seeing in liberal urban areas today. Unions, even those that survive, are too insignificant to have a large impact on organizing and popular culture. At 6% density in the private sector, most young workers have no chance of stepping into a union job, so the benefits of union membership is an ideological abstraction. In contrast, many baby boomers were able to step into private sector union jobs, fresh out of high school in the early 1970’s. My first union job allowed me to rent my own apartment, in San Francisco, by making five times the minimum wage. I also had a full medical plan, paid vacation and holidays off, something my immigrant parents never obtained in the era when they were excluded from most unions and specific industries. While I fought against the racism and cronyism of unions I never faltered in my support of them. Even in liberal San Francisco, the difference between a union job vs. a non-union job meant a real living wage. I learned to work union whenever I could right out of high school because it allowed me to pay the rent and later carry the mortgage on my first home in one of the most expensive cities in the United States.
What has stepped into the void with the demise of unions?
It would take another long article to discuss the demise of unions in this country and in particular urban areas. That is not the purpose of this article. Rather, I want to look at the rise of Community Based Organizations (CBO’s), all of whom are chartered as Non-Profit Organizations. They have stepped into the void left by unions as the main and sometimes only organizers of low wage immigrant workers. Some organize workers explicitly through the moniker of being a “workers center”. Many started by representing workers that traditional unions would not touch such as transient immigrant workers who moved from industry to industry or who lacked documentation. The day laborer programs come most readily to mind and they have sprouted up in all urban and agricultural areas where a concentration of Latino or Asian migrants seek casual work, without the benefit of documentation. Others have arisen to redress violations of local progressive workers ordinances such as increases in the minimum wage, paid sick days, private contributions to health care, etc. These progressive policies, usually enacted in left-leaning urban areas, came into being without any enforcement mechanism and when there were written regulations they were remanded to municipal departments woefully understaffed and often with a history of civil service staff lacking the bi-lingual or bi-cultural ability to serve immigrant workers, the most likely victims of non-compliance by intransigent employers.
How have CBO/Non-profits done in representing the most exploited among the working class?
Many progressives and leftists, who did not come from the working class, saw the importance of working in unions in the 60’s and 70’s. Many did so by taking jobs in factories, hospitals or in the service sector, after their tenure as campus activists came to an end. Campus activists who leaned towards socialism saw the need to become workers themselves, “integrating with the masses”, moving into inner city neighborhoods to work and live amongst the working class. They often sacrificed the earning potential of their college cohorts and the high hopes of their middle class parents. Ironically many of their middle class professional ambitions were fulfilled when they rapidly transitioned from the shop floor to positions of paid union staff and full time officials in the inner sanctums of the American labor movement. A number of the top leaders of the union affiliates which led the ascension of John Sweeney and Richard Trumka in the “New Voice Movement” taking over leadership of AFL-CIO in the mid 90’s had entered the union movement in the 70’s fresh out of college. The rapid rise of college educated radicals in the leadership of unions raised many contradictions for those who believed that the working class should and indeed could run their own organizations. This was especially true if one professed an adherence to socialism – where workers were supposedly able to run all of society. In practice, this meant the working class should be able to run their own union, if the goal was to give them power over an entire country.
But the inequalities of capitalism are not so easily overcome. In most of the first unions I was a member of in lower level service work — warehousing, garage work, retail, the phone-company, restaurant and hotel work — many of the workers who came directly from the rank and file spoke English as their second language. Some could not read and write English, many could read only at the primary school level in their native language, the result of class inequalities in their countries of origin. Others had never typed a letter and with the advent of computers they were the least acquainted with these new contraptions. So, while some unions conspired to hire college educated non-workers as a means of controlling their staff, who had no ties to the rank and file other than their staff positions, the harsher reality was that even for the most democratic unions the increasing bureaucratic legal codes and the increasing corporatization of Human Resource Departments in firms coinciding with the formal assault on unions in the 1980’s meant that the ability of rank and file members to rise in staff positions became limited by their formal education. It was easier for unions to have representatives with a college education sit across the table from their equally educated counterparts representing management. Whatever we want to think about working class democracy in a highly industrialized society such as the United States, most people learn how to read, write and compute by attending school. In post-industrial America attending better schools or a better university or college made a big difference.
California, which had the best public post-secondary education system in the United States in my adolescence, reflected the class tiers in the three public higher education systems represented in the Master Plan. Community colleges, started out as trade schools, where some licensed workers (nurses, real estate agents, and accountants) could get better working class jobs or transfer to a Baccalaureate institution. State Colleges (formerly referred to as teacher’s colleges) were the first rung on the professional ladder, emphasizing the training of school teachers, social workers and later middle management in the private sector. Finally the University of California system or their private counter parts like Stanford University trained the elite representatives of the ruling class in the sciences, law and business, including the children of the ruling class.
Today, most professional union staff who do not originate from the shop floor and the core staff of non-profits come from these elite universities, not the first two tiers of community and state colleges. This has widened the contradictions among workers and the staff who purport to represent them. Historically progressive unions have had to deal with the racial divide as working class demographics changed the labor force to a significant number of women and people of color. Today’s non-profits have huge class divides between their staff and member/clients.
The problem is further exacerbated in the non-profit sector because at least in unions the staff and officers are financially accountable to the members. Unions after all are still membership organizations. Union members pay dues for officer and staff salaries. In theory, if not practice this meant that the membership is the highest decision making body and while there have been reams of articles and books written about how unions often try to subvert their membership by fixing elections, general meetings, conventions etc., the point is they still need to hold these gatherings. Sometimes, conventions, elections, and meetings don’t go as planned and radical changes may occur. This means that there is still some structure which allows for working members to wield power in a truly membership based organization. Unfortunately most non-profits today do not have the structural requirements most unions must adhere to. There is little in the way of by-laws governing non-profits, for membership election of leaders and oversite of executive directors and staff.
Many non-profits founded as mass based organizations no longer exist – The example of the Chinese Progressive Association
A mass based organization was the term coined in the 60’s when community based organizations were first formed, mostly in communities of color to fill a void where, most of their working class immigrant members lacked union representation. They also formed to deal with issues that unions considered off limits at the time, such as tenant protections when many communities of color where faced with bull dozers at the height of urban renewal, lack of public services in their communities, and lack of access to jobs both private and public which had the best chance of earning a living wage and moderate working conditions. As an example of this type of mass organization, the Chinese Progressive Association (CPA), which formed in San Francisco in late 1973, existed without outside funding well into the 1980’s. It had a large membership base of several hundred, which was dues driven. But the main source of sustainability was the in-kind contributions of the active membership. There was no paid staff. Rent was paid through weekly Sunday dinners where members and non-members alike gathered and paid a few dollars for the meal. Other contributions came in for movie showings and annual celebrations. Regular storefront hours were kept by retired members who, also helped clean the premises, and performed a wide array of handy-man repairs. More important, all of the organizing campaigns were led through volunteer committees which included direct participation of the affected residents of Chinatown. Longstanding committees included a women’s committee, workers mutual aid committee, tenants committee, youth committee, pro-China support committee and cultural committee. I may have forgotten a few. The committees were led by chairpersons and represented on the steering committee, led by English and Chinese speaking co-chairs. We incorporated a Chinese speaking co-chair to guarantee immigrant representation.
Being membership driven in the early years meant that elections of co-chairs and steering committee members were at times contentious, as were decisions to support other nationalities and engage in support work outside the community. Even on international issues and pro-China work, the membership was often at odds, especially when China entered into a border dispute and war with Vietnam in the late 70’s. None of these issues could be dictated and decided by the leadership without many contentious meetings. In hindsight I think this was a fair price for being membership based. Throughout this period we remained critics of local government and shied away from government based funding.
In San Francisco many public sector unions and skilled private sector craft unions fought affirmative action hiring programs initiated by CBO’s at a time when the demographics and language needs of the city were changing, and the people of African American, Asian, and Latino’s were woefully under-represented in government jobs as we became the numerical majority in the city. Organizers realized that local government was the protector of the status quo and whatever discriminatory policy or services were allotted at the state and national levels usually fell on local government to implement. This was true of dishing out low rent housing, summer jobs for youth, government building contracts, etc. In San Francisco, as in many large urban cities, local government was also the largest employer. CBO’s who wanted a share of good civil service jobs knew local government was the historical arbiter of political cronyism and nepotism.
Post mass base CBO’s: From government challenger to government sub-contractor
During the 1980’s when unions were under major assault and public services started sliding into privatization, CBO’s that survived and thrived underwent two major changes. First they negated their membership base to the back burner, no longer relying on their financial or in-kind contributions, and second, became increasingly reliant on local government funding as the primary sustainer of their organization. The rest is supplanted by corporate donations or foundation grants. They may have a paper membership, but this membership is not empowered to have direct elections or financial oversight. In most non-profits you will be hard pressed to find a governing board that looks like their constituents/clients. Most non- profit boards are made up of professionals and often representatives of private corporations who are major donors. Second, there are few non-profits that are member supported financially with any significant dues base. This has transformed many grass roots CBO’s founded in the 60’s-70’s from local government critic and watchdog to local government sub-contractor.
Many CBO/Worker’s Centers receive the lion share of their funding from liberal foundations. Ironically they are enforcing worker’s rights through donations from the heirs of the wealthy. Today, local government contracts have replaced foundation grants as the largest source of funding for many CBO’s in liberal enclaves such as San Francisco. Workers Centers are the recipients of these contracts because local worker rights ordinances such as living wage ordinances, sick day ordinances and medical care contributions are relatively new local policy initiatives. But the lion’s share of non-profit funding comes not from protecting workers rights but from subsidizing housing for the poor, which has gone through decades of privatization. The majority of money granted to CBO’s originates from municipal government, through housing grants. Non-profit CBO’s receive huge grants to build housing but they have also been given grants as property managers on government owned property that was managed publicly in the past. Ironically in pro-tenant San Francisco, the majority of tenant rights have fallen on groups with direct funding from the Mayor’s Office of Housing (MOH). Sometimes the same group can serve as both landlord and tenant rights advocate, both sides funded by the Mayor’s office. There has been more than one local news article where non-profits have turned on their own tenants. In one of the most audacious examples a non-profit church tried to sell off its low rent housing to a private developer, who wanted to transform these low rent housing apartments to market rate units in rental hungry San Francisco. With government pulling out of its responsibility to serve the poor, non-profits have stepped in as a private sector alternative of choice. This is especially true of housing where, just last year Mayor Ed Lee in San Francisco turned over all formerly HUD federal housing to private non-profits.
Staff and Member Class Divide
Some unions put up barriers for non-rank and file staffers by creating rules against professional staff holding elected office. Some unions liked the separation of staff from rank and filers, because if they fired a college-educated staffer these outsiders could not return to the shop floor to foment dissent against a sitting officer.
The class divide among professional staffers in CBO’s, are even wider than they were inside unions who had staff from mixed backgrounds? Few if any of the non-profit staff and leadership reflect the class background of their member/clients. Today, we would be hard pressed to find an Executive Director of a non-profit, program or lead organizing staff without an elite college education. Even the contradiction of a wide class and educational divide between staff and membership felt by unions is not at play in non-profits, because they don’t have any pressure from an active membership. Most of their funding comes from foundations or now local government contracts. If they have a board of directors, it is usually a self-perpetuating board of like-minded professionals. Like corporate boards in the private sector many CBO/Non-Profit boards share members. There is also an easy transition from staff to board membership. Most non-profit CBOs function under the authority of a strong Executive Director model, where the entire staff is hired by the Executive Director. Many board members also serve at the pleasure; explicitly or implicitly of the Executive Director. So unlike unions there is ultimately no membership to answer to.
This separation of staff, board and member clients has had a chilling effect on the ability to really build a grass roots movement. It definitely has a chilling effect on trying to sustain a movement. Rather mobilization has taken the place of empowerment and organizing. Mass demonstrations have become a prop for media coverage. Turn-out is a lobbying effort to impress city hall. Nowhere is this more evident than in the tenant’s rights work in San Francisco. San Francisco has one of the most stringent rent control ordinances in the country. But to get relief from the local rent board, both tenants and landlords by necessity need to show up with a lawyer. All hearings eventually come before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), making any direct participation a fool’s journey. There are now no real tenant unions or collectives although one group still holds the name. A web search of their board will show a preponderance of attorneys. They lobby city hall, sometimes by turning out their tenants/clients whom they manage. Even if the eviction fight is righteous, the tenants are more their clients than the ones empowered to sit down and discuss housing and land use issues with the government or their landlord. Often the CBO-Non-profit groups lobby not only city hall but for-profit developers about whether or not they will support a project. In exchange the developer agrees to a fee which goes into a pot for low income housing which city hall can then transfer to the appropriate non-profit.
San Francisco’s main Non-Profits involved in housing gave up on a demand that housing developers build a percentage of affordable housing on-site long ago. Rather developers can legally not build a single unit of affordable housing in a project for in lieu of fees, which the non-profits are then reasonably confident City Hall will remit to them. This had the effect of re-segregating entire neighborhoods. It also had the effect of allowing non-profits in Chinatown and the Tenderloin to benefit off fees by developers in the Dog Patch/Mission Bay and the South of Market neighborhoods that wanted 100% market rate condos. This gentrification has depopulated African Americans Latinos and Filipinos from these two neighborhoods. It was legal bribery and City Hall and the larger non-profits were happy to play. Much of the current gentrification ravaging the East Side neighborhoods of San Francisco started with these policies hailed by progressives as a victory in extracting monetary concessions from for profit developers.
While unions have often been estranged from their members through undemocratic officials and a technocratic unaccountable staff, the potential of the membership to take back power is inherent in their financial contribution (dues), and their codified right to exercise direct power. These two factors are not in play for a majority of non-profit CBO’s currently working with lower paid workers and immigrants. More troubling is the move from direct fundraising and foundation grants to local government contracts which serve as the back-bone of organizational viability for many non-profits today. This has served to allow local government, like federal and state government before them, to privatize previous government services to the poor, at the same time creating a huge client base for the expanding non-profits. Led by People of Color educated from elite universities, many non-profits can avoid the intentionality of dealing with the class question. It also ties many non-profits to neo-liberal Democrats such as Mayor Ed Lee in San Francisco. They can no longer serve as the watch-dogs and critics of government abuse of low income working class residents. This does not serve grass roots organizing, nor does it train the poor and working class on how they should manage their own institutions and maybe some-day the world. If CBO’s and workers centers want to build a long term grass roots movement, they must be able to sustain themselves with a real membership based on dues and volunteer activism. Most importantly they must cut their umbilical cord of government funding, or they will never be able to challenge the state representatives of the ruling class.