Lotta di Classe o Lotta di Generazione?!*


Firenze 7 Maggio 2016


Italy has been a point of reference for me because of the historic strength of its labor federations. When I lived here in 1971-72 (here and here) the unions were at the apex of their power and central to all discussions of radical societal change. That power has declined but the percentage of workers in unions remains at 37.2% of the entire workforce. This is more than three times the “density” of US unions at a paltry 11%. The Italian number is more impressive if one takes into account that membership in the various labor federations is a matter of personal choice not a “term and condition of employment” as it is for most US union members. The percent of Italian workers covered by collective negotiations is 80%! This means that the great majority of Italian workers are covered by contracts negotiated by unions that they don’t even have to belong to.

The Italian union federations and political parties (more on the “parties” in a future installment) have been under great pressure to loosen the terms of employment to make it easier for employers to hire and fire. They have also acceded to “two tier” employment contracts as have their American manufacturing counterparts like the UAW. For the generation of those born prior to the January 1, 1970 pensions will be 90% of their last earnings as long as they have 18 years of work credit. For those under 40 today the pension will only be 36% of salary.

This retirement income disparity is enormous. The annual earnings gap across generations is also enormous: a 24 year old worker makes on average 19,217 Euros per year vs. a 55 year old worker’s 31,873 Euros. No wonder that the discourse in the “dailies”, “I Giornali” is all about the generation gap and not the class struggle. The former Prime Minister of Italy Mario Monti was quoted as asserting that the youth of Italy born in the 70’s and 80’s were a lost generation and that Italy could only hope to limit the damage to them and provide better for subsequent generations. Our friend Enrico, born in the 80’s, hipped me to an article on a blog called “Medium Italy” written by Maurizo Pittau and entitled, “The Lost Generation of the 70’s and 80’s“. Pittau says young Italians of his generation have only two choices: Accommodate a corrupt system and work precariously or leave the country. He has chosen the latter as have many young Italians. Youth unemployment is 35% nationally and over 50% in the historically underdeveloped South.

Pittau cites a figure of 8 million workers in the precariat: the underemployed, temps, self- employed. Of that number he calculates that 4 million are the in the black market economy. The discussion of the precariat and the verification of the numbers is as my friend Nicola put it, a “Tower of Babel”, lots of numbers and lots of definitions and lots of confusion. This is certainly true in the United States where whole industries are characterized as “precarious” with no reference to solid research and numbers. The best figures I could find for Italy and employment on a web site called ItaliaOra.org indicates the following:

Italian population: 62, 375, 215
Total Italian workforce: 24,820,424
Precariat: 3,488,940
Unemployed: 3,267,950

The precariat then represents 14% of the total workforce. This is a growing number and a preoccupation of the labor federations who see their power slipping as enrollment declines and the younger generation is increasingly skeptical of trade unionism and the two tier deals that impact their cohort.

“Common sense” has it that unions are antiquated self-serving protection rackets for the older generations with fixed employment contracts and generous pensions. However one respondent to Pittau’s blog, Daniele Dellafiore, said that he thought there was a “third way” to deal with the challenges to the “lost generations”. Rather than accommodate the injustices or flee the country, he has chosen to stay and changes things. Stay tuned as my discussion with CGIL (Confederazione Generale Italiana dei Lavoratori) leaders and activists will hopefully paint a picture of what staying and changing things looks like here in Italy.

La lotta continua….

*Class Struggle or Generational Struggle?!


In response to my post entitled Class Struggle or Generational Struggle, Nicola wrote:

Firenze 9 Maggio 2016

Dear Peter,

Generational conflict or class struggle? There are four fundamental points:

1. On the crisis of the unions caused by their membership losses in key sectors of the economy and the excessive power of the associations of the pensioners, an article in La Repubblica of August 19, 2015 by Matteo Pucciarelli details how profound the change in the composition of the unions is. (Olney summary: Pucciarelli writes about an extensive report prepared by the CGIL, Itay’s largest and historically Communist led union federation. The report includes many details but the fundamental and startling fact is that in the period from the end of 2014 until August of 2015 the federation lost 723,969 members. This is a 13% loss in a year from a total of 5.6 million members. This membership is voluntary unlike most membership in the United States. The largest losses in membership come in growth sectors of the economy like retail. The other stunning fact is that over half the membership of the CGIL are pensioners, therefore the political weight of the retired plays an outsize role in determining the future of the union with respect to the newly employed. For readers of Italians here is a link to the article in La Repubblica: )

2. The “dualism” in labor rights between workers who work in enterprises with more or less than 15 employees means a diversity in pay and rights.

3. Union policy that punishes the young. The newly hired cannot enjoy the same rights with respect to salary, holidays, job protections and least of all to pensions even though they do the identical job of more senior workers. I emphasize that I am not talking about the plethora of numbers in contract precarious work invented in the last twenty years, nor those covered under IVA (Imposta sul Valore Aggiunto – Tax on Value Added) the fiscal management of those “professionisti” who work not for a salary but for a fee. There is no fixed deduction on a salary (which they don’t have) but they pay IVA on the total compensation received in the fiscal year (a total often very high but varying from year to year). Given they are compensated with a fee their employment can end at any time.In fact these workers work for an enterprise but are paid less than employees doing the same work.

4. The pensions are a symbol of how slow the unions have been to take into account the changes in the labor market (and the general political situation); until the reform of 1995 it was possible to retire with 35 years of service regardless of your age. In other words someone who went to work at 14 years old after finishing minimum mandatory schooling could retire at 50 years old. After the reform two scenarios exist to activate the pension:

a. One needs 35 years or more of service and an age of at least 57 or;

b. 40 years of service independent of age.

These conditions were not sustainable in the long run because of increasing life expectancy. Salary and regulatory concessions were made primarily by governments of the left but also by the Alema government which tried to make reforms that were blocked.


Italia: McDonald’s and Starbucks??


We had not been to Italy in almost 30 years and to our delight we found the neighborhood quality of life to be strong and vibrant: people walking everywhere with whole families, children crying in the street unashamed and unrestrained by their always-doting parents. Our neighbors freely introduce themselves to us and tell us their life histories in the hood. The world moves on bikes and Vespas. Whole families on rusty old bikes. Stores remain specialized: Panificio (baked goods), Ortolano (Greens etc.) Macelleria (Meats) etc. Life in our neighborhood of San Frediano remains sane and engaging.

San Francisco, CA.  17 March 08.  sidewalk comments.  Political comments

But change is there too. My wife and I arrived in Florence on the train on Sunday evening and emerged from the station in the Piazza across from the church of Santa Maria Novella. While the lettering was discreet and there were no billboards, a whole block was taken up by a Burger King and a McDonald’s. 29 years ago on our last visit Burger King and a McDonald’s were not in Florence. In fact this is the 30th anniversary of the arrival of the first McDonald’s in Rome, Italy. That opening in Piazza di Spagna was met with a citywide mobilization. A protest in May of 1986 featured Italian politicians and intellectuals carrying signs with giant blowups of Clint Eastwood with the inscription, “You should be Our Mayor”. This was a reference to the fact that Eastwood as Mayor of sleepy and upscale Carmel in Monterey County, California, had moved to outlaw fast food joints as a rude incursion on the quality of life in the quaint resort town. Today there are 530 McDonalds’s restaurants in Italy and 270 McCafes serving 700,000 patrons per day. That is a significant number, but France has over 1300 outlets.

The new and perhaps deeper cultural challenge to the Italian way is the prospect that this year a Starbucks will open in Italy. Rome and Milan are slated to have the first outlets of the Seattle based coffee giant this year. What may seem amazing is that while Starbucks is ubiquitous in much of the rest of the world and is certainly everywhere in France, 39 in Paris alone, to date there has been no Italian market penetration.

Howard Schultz’s original inspiration for his cafes was the Italian cafe, which is more than a dispensary of coffee and pastries, but a neighborhood center and community-meeting place for small talk, big ideas and catching up. Schultz’s first outlets were called “Il Giornale” (the Daily) a reference to the Italian word for daily newspapers. In many corners of the United States and the world, Starbucks have become the centers of neighborhood life that their Italian counterparts are.

The cafe society is alive and well in Italy. Furthermore the bars also are licensed by the state to sell tobacco and vapor products, bus tickets and postage stamps. Will Italian youth flock to Starbucks and plug in their laptops and iPads for work and play? If they don’t and Italians reject Starbucks, is the model and brand severely damaged with consequences worldwide?

We have a whole month here to figure out the complexities of Italian politics and cultural interactions in dispatches to come. For now though life is good in Italia. Ciao a tutti!


About the author

Peter Olney

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

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Do You Like the Union? Yes!


Part 2 – The Few

Microsoft Word - Document26

I couldn’t even think about doing another line. We’d just finished a mass picket that made it clear to the Parc 55 we wanted recognition and a good contract. But another group of hotel workers was under attack and I was going to join the first string at an after-hours chant-fest on their behalf. I had to concentrate – If I didn’t soar, I might crash and burn.

We’d been a thousand people at the earlier picket, dancing and chanting on the polluted, profiteering street, reverbing our anger to the executive suites high above.

“I think they heard us.”, I said to Chito as we walked up Mason.

“I’m signing the contract as we speak”, he replied, miming signing the deal we wanted.

“Let’s hope”.

“Yeah, well you can lead next time”, said Clare, “I can barely move”.

“Go home. We can cover”, I told her.

“I signed up for tonight”, she said. “I’d rather get it done”.

Tired as we were, we had another hotel to picket. Its owner, A. Cal Rossi had declared bankruptcy and wanted to stiff our members, denying them their benefits and refusing any severance pay.

We couldn’t drag people up from the just completed gigantic action. They needed to go home, to recover. The staff would have to take care of it, joining the Donatello workers in front of their hotel on Post.

“Cuantos tenemos?”, I asked Chito. “Sufficiente”, he said. “Enough.”

The neighborhood changed as we moved up the hill, leaving behind the convention hotels and raw Market Street scene. Up we moved, from Class A to B territory, up to where the air is cleaner and the sidewalks more genteel, through higher and higher cost boutique hotels. Below us lay the giant properties of Union Square, to the side the teeming streets of the Tenderloin, ahead the heights of Nob Hill. Partway up, waited ten Donatello workers, fresh and ready to roll.

“Who stays here?” I asked. “It’s Class B+, the affluent business traveler”, said Clare. “They overspent on the renovation, but they’re fine other than that. The bankruptcy is just a tactic to reorder their debts.”

“They’re offering the workers nothing”, said Chito. “It’s like they never worked here.”

We rounded the corner of Mason and Post, greeted the workers and caught our breaths.

As we waited for the picket to begin, the rest of our crew arrived from the Parc, half-finished fast-food in hand. They stuffed it down as the start-time arrived two more hours and we would be done for the day.

I looked around at my fellow staffers and chant-leaders. This was the best of the best, in a union that always had a picket line going, that had been given an award for its creative protests.

“Let’s go”, said Chito, the lead this time. “These folks deserve something for their years of service.”

We dug deep and dove in, circling in front of the hotel’s entry, wielding again our most effective tool. From field hollers through Civil Rights marches to the unions – we took the call-and-response tradition and ran with it.

What do we want?
When do we want it?

From deep down, Clare pulled out first one chant, then another, cutting through her exhaustion as the Donatello workers buoyed her up with their response, buoyed us all up, starting slow, the simple ones again:

San Francisco should beware
Donatello is unfair.

Finding our second wind:

San Francisco should beware
Donatello is unfair!

Passing on the horn to the other first-stringers, morphing into something like the blues, a bit of jazz, the spirit of improvisation creeping in across our tired bones:

A. Cal, A. Cal Rossi
Why are you so mean and bossy?

A. Cal, A. Cal Rossi,
Why are you so mean and bossy?

Liberated from the need to keep it simple, to forge unison chanting from a thousand people, able to soar now, riffing, improvising, pushing past fatigue to make it really interesting.

And difficult to emulate.

Clare handed the bullhorn over to O’Connor. He had come from the UFW, schooled in calling the workers to come out of the fields, over the shoulders of the sheriff’s deputies, dodging their billy clubs in the 106 degree heat:

Huelga! Huelga!

Famous for his slashing, up-and-down use of the union flag, hollering at larynx-damaging levels:

A. Cal, A. Cal Rossi (flag up)
Why (downthrust) are you so mean and bossy?

A. Cal, A. Cal Rossi (flag up)
Why (downthrust) are you so mean and bossy?

Fifteen minutes later, O’Connor handed it off to Charlie, our rock-and-roll organizer, who channeled Elvis:

A. Cal, uh, A. Cal Rossi
Why so mean and b, b, bossy?

The Donatello workers enjoying this part of the show, brought some of the king to the line, arms up, fingers pointing in time to the hotel:

Why so mean and b, b, bossy?

His turn done, Charlie passed the horn to Casey, newly elected union president, who had organized with the transport workers in Ireland. His chants had that out-from-under-the-British-boot-heel sardonic edge, as if it was a real question:

A. Cal, A. Cal Rossi,
Why are you so mean and bossy?

From Casey to Lisa, queen of the San Francisco homegirl, alto chant. She called as if she was A. Cal’s mother, his older sister, and she was not pleased with his behavior:

A. Cal, A. Cal Rossi,
Why are you so mean and bosssssy?

Security was not happy, the guests coming and going were not happy, and we were pretty sure A. Cal was having trouble digesting his dinner high above in his penthouse suite. We soldiered on.

From Lisa to the incomparable Alphonso, rank-and-file activist to field rep, king of the soul chant, the Motown-inflected vibe:

A. Cal, A. Cal Rossi,
Why so mean and why so bossy?

Hey Cal, hey Cal Rossi,
Why so mean and why so bossyyy?

On into the San Francisco night, the traffic headed downtown lightening, the foot-traffic quieting, our powerful, block-encompassing dome of sound capturing those still stumbling back from their after-meeting parties to their upscale digs:

A. Cal, A. Cal Rossi…

Bouncing off the mid-height buildings into the rooms-for rent of the Donatello:

“Shut up! Keep it down!”, a guest shouted, tossing ice at us from the tenth
floor, which we blocked with our picket signs.

“Shut it!”

At which point we knew it was working, we were driving the guests crazy and the business away.

Why so very mean and bossy?

The two hours of chant-jamming passed surprisingly quickly, until it was my turn to lead, my first at an after-hours performance alongside Local 2’s veteranos. I took the horn:

A. Cal, A. Cal Rossi,
Why are you so mean and bossy?

Warming to it, gathering steam:

A. Cal, A. Cal Rossi,
Why so mean and why so bossy?

Finding the third wind at the end of the long day, supported by the workers and my more experienced peers, overcoming doubt, digging deep, where the barrier between ego and id gives way, and a riff bubbled up, transforming into a whole new chant:

He’s a mean guy in a bowtie,
A. Cal Rossi, hunh!
He’s a mean guy in a bowtie,
A. Cal Rossi, hunh!

Running with it:

He’s a mean, mean guy in a mean, mean tie,
A. Cal Rossi, hunh!

He’s a greedy guy in a greedy tie,
A. Cal Rossi, hunh!

We were rolling now, staff and members, responding in a jazz groove, improvising to the end of a very long day.

Handling the bullhorn like an electric guitar:

He’s a bad bad, bad guy in a bad, bad tie,
A. Cal Rossi, hunh.

He’s a greedy guy in a greedy tie,
A. Cal Rossi, hunh

Dancing, Chuck Berrying, exorcising Rossi’s nastiness, sending his greedy spirit away.

High on our repetitive, rhythmic meditation, I realized – this was our afterhours club where musicians go after all the other clubs close to challenge each other, to take it higher – call-and-response like the Dead and Dark Star, Coltrane and My Favorite Things…

We were breaking new ground:

He’s a nasty guy in a nasty tie,
A. Cal Rossie, hunh.
An empty guy in an empty tie,
A. Cal Rossie, hunh.


He’s a mean guy in a…

“Shields”, shouted Chito again. “It’s time to wrap.”

Startled out of my reverie, I saw Chito signaling me – we had a court order to stop at nine.

Soon, the late-night hum of the city would reassert itself, with the
Donatello workers and my colleagues giving me high-fives, letting me know I had been found worthy (Yes!).

Before that happened, though, we needed to send one more boycott driving blast the hotel’s way, leaving an echo of our presence that would carry through to our next late-night engagement on their doorstep:

A. Cal, A. Cal Rossi,
Why are you so mean and bossy?
He’s a mean guy, in a bowtie,
A. Cal Rossi, hunh!!!


Do You Like the Union? Yes!


Part 1 – The Many

Microsoft Word - Hotel Workers Strike San Francisco Hyatt Hotels

“Shields – take your end of the line around the corner onto Ellis.”
“What about the chanting?”
“Everyone on a bullhorn will do the call. The monitors will do the response”.

Clare was right. As the room cleaners hit the picket line, we had to keep moving or risk arrest.

Chito and I dove in halfway through the three hundred people on the right side of the main entrance to the hotel. We directed half of them to follow us around the corner.

“Swing around Chito down there”, I yelled to the workers, “and back around the sign at this end”.

The people we left behind gradually formed into a new oval, while our group of a hundred and fifty chanting hotel workers formed a new section of the line on Ellis Street.

I took my position on the corner, watching our lead chanter Alphonso, now fifty yards to my left and Chito, our chant responder, around the corner on the right.

What do we want?

“Alphonso!”, Clare shouted, “Make sure everyone can see you. We need to keep the chanting together.”

Alphonso pivoted as he did the calls, so we on the bullhorns to his left and right could see him.

When do we want it?

What do we want?

When do we want it?

We had succeeded, the turnout was enormous. But to win, we needed strong, unified mass chanting to project our power, the workers’ power, up to the executive suites of the hotel. That was getting harder to do with every additional hundred people that hit the line.

What do we want?

When do we want it?

I could see Alphonso, pivoting as Clare had instructed, but I was too far away now to hear him. By the time his sound reached me, he was already a couple of syllables ahead. This made it hard for Chito and me to keep our folks chanting in time with the main line around the corner.

Our power was dissipating as we moved out of sync:
What do we want?
What do we want?

When do we
When do we……
want it?…
…want it?…


It hadn’t started this way. An hour ago, we had been tight – a lean, mean fifty person-chanting machine. Besides adding another nine hundred fifty people to the line, where did we go astray?

“Have you no shame? Check out now! Scab!”

For two years, the Parc’s workers had been fighting for the right to bargain for good pay and a voice on the job. Thus far, no deal.

So for the past week, we’d been preparing the next in our series of actions designed to move the campaign along. We made picket signs and chant sheets, did last-minute turnout calls and cafeteria visits and solidified our labor-community support. We let everyone know we were taking it to the next level.

Early the morning of the action, we assigned staff and members their tasks and loaded everything onto the pickup truck.

“Shields, you and Chito will be in charge of the upper line”, said Clare, lead organizer for the action. “You’ll chant-lead and Chito will lead the responses and oversee the sign-ins. We may have as many as a thousand people.”

“What happens if there’s too many for the front of the hotel?”, I asked.

“We’ll wrap around the corner and activate backup chanters. Chito?”

“We should be good. Send me the Latina room cleaners. I’ll make sure they know what’s happening”, he responded.

Okay, but a thousand people? Holy shit.

Rolling up to the hotel, we set up the truck, placed the signs in strategic piles along what would become the expanding line, rechecked the bullhorns, positioned our monitors, passed out the sign-in cards, checked in with the police, and started a small line with the early bird arrivals.

We ran through our chant repertory:

What do we want?

Do you like the union?

Se ve, se siente,
La union esta presente.

Primed and prepared, we waited.

As the day shift ended in the hotels, the workers arrived. With each new group of ten or twenty, we lengthened both sections of the picket line further down the sidewalk from the hotel’s main entrance.

In the middle, at the entrance, we leafleted customers as they entered or left the hotel, hollering at them to stay someplace else:

“Have you no shame? Check out now! Scab!”

We weren’t committing civil disobedience today, so we couldn’t block them. We needed sound to power the boycott. If done right, our audio uproar would drive away millions of dollars in bookings.

In the early stages of the action, with fewer numbers, we did more complex chants.

“Union conga!”, shouted Alphonso.

Do you like the union?
Yes! (thrusting our picket signs up)
Do you like the union?
Yes! (signs up)

Do you like the bosses?
No! (signs down)
Do you like the bosses?
No! (signs down)

Union-bashing’s got to go!

Tightly knit, choreographed, we danced down the line. But then, wave after wave of maids poured in from the downtown hotels, joined by cooks, food servers, bussers, bartenders and bellmen. Soon came the other unions – the sign and display workers, the teachers, the carpenters, the long shore and health workers, then the church and community people, the politicians and the North-of- Hollywood movie stars.

We had to simplify.

All this in a concrete canyon in downtown San Francisco, a kaleidoscope of rush-hour traffic, clanging fire engines, people rushing for BART, the guy with the “Twelve Galaxies” sign who was at every protest in the city, the usual assembly of hurting, hollering street folks and the looming, hulking presence of a corporate hotel that had dared open nonunion, in our town.

To be heard, our wall of sound had to absorb every noise thrown at us from the rush hour city and turn it against the hotel. That meant tighter, synchronized chanting by larger and larger numbers of people.

We’d had it down, up to a point – two, three, four hundred people on the
expanding line. At five hundred, we were spread out farther than we were used to. Clare feverishly adjusted monitors, chant leaders, responders, leafletters.

“More chant sheets!”, shouted Chito.

At eight hundred, we began to wobble out of unison.

Do you like the bosses?
Do you like…

Union bashing’s…
Got to…
Got to…


Now the half-way house guys hit the line, another hundred-fifty, beefed up from years pumping iron in the joint.

“Here are the sheets”, Clare shouted to Chito. “Tomenlos”, Chito said to the Latina room cleaners. “Mabuhay”, I heard the Filipinas shout, “Tuánjié”, from the Chinese.

We were reaching flood tide.

A shuttle bus pulled up in front of the hotel, in the middle of our two gigantic, main sections of line. As the passengers disembarked the leafletters thrust their flyers at them over the blocking arms of hotel security, “Check out now!”, they shouted, check out now!” Some on the line joined them, others continued as before:

Check out now!
What do we want?
Check out now!
Check out…
When do we want it…

It was call-and-response chaos.

The guests fled into the hotel. Management screamed. “Back off”, said the cops.

We were teetering on the edge.

“Get back together!”, shouted Clare.

I’m chanting with my whole body now, struggling to get us in sync.

What do we want?
What do we want?

Pushing the sound back together:


Driving it like an offensive lineman:

When do we want it?
When do we want it?

Until finally:


We’d done it. The cops back off – a thousand people are chanting as one.
They can hear us in tour-planning offices around the world.

Then, something unusual starts to happen. Flowing up the sides of the hotel and the buildings across the street, the thundering storm of unison chanting begins to generate something else, something other-worldly, a layer of under and overtones that reverberates in all directions and up into the sky.

What do we want?
Contract, act, act…
When do we want it?
Now, ow, ow, ow!…

I heard something like this once, in my avant-garde theater days on the East Coast, when some experimental music guy who’d studied Tibetan Buddhist chanting claimed he could sing three notes at the same time. Apparently, so could we. We reached the level of triple-toned, mass-chanting, high-picket-line art.

We’d created a transcendent symphony of sound that said, “These streets belong to us and you better give us a damn contract.”

Contract now, ow, ow…!
Contract now, ow, ow…!
Contract now, ow, ow…!

At the peak of our multidimensional, transformational chant-fest, we stopped. It was six, and people had other things to do.

A committee member said a few words, as did a worker from another hotel, a member of the Board of Supervisors and then San Francisco’s fighting labor priest.

Speeches done, we turned towards the hotel. Leading a group a thousand strong, Alphonso called out,

“Let’s tell them what they already know”

We’ll be back, ck, ck , ck!….
We’ll be back, ck, ck , ck!!….
We’ll be back, ck, ck , ck!!!….
We’ll be back, ck, ck , ck, ck!!!!….

Until we won.

After today, I knew we would.


The Need for a More Radical Solidarity in the Labor Movement based on Spirituality, Mindfulness, and Self-Care


“Until we are able to love and take care of ourselves, we cannot be of much help to others.”
– Thich Nhat Hanh (Vietnamese Buddhist monk, teacher, author, poet and peace activist living in France)

We live in challenging times for the labor movement. The corporate right-wing agenda to destroy unions in this country is more apparent than ever with the wave of legislation to convert states to “right to work” and the current Supreme Court case of Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. On the other side of the spectrum, labor advocates and their allies are fighting back. We have witnessed significant impactful victories with the “Fight for 15 Campaign” and the passage of $15 minimum wage and wage theft enforcement policies in many cities and states. Moreover, after years of avoiding confrontation, the U.S. labor movement is reasserting itself. From the ports of Los Angeles to the car plants of Detroit, unions are demanding payback for sacrifices they say helped revive the economy, and the level of workers going on strike or engaging in labor stoppage increased last year.

With the continuing attacks and threats against the labor movement, and the recent upsurge in workers mobilizing and taking to the streets, we are facing a major challenge from within. It is the struggle for sustainability and a more healthy labor activism to continue the good fight. A common thread frequently runs throughout our work. It’s a kind of martyr’s code that measures a person’s commitment to justice by the willingness to sacrifice personal time, health and relationships. Many of us who work in the labor movement often work on organizing campaigns with short timelines, with little resources, and moving on all pistons at a grueling 24-7 pace. This extreme pace can consume the important things in life that contribute to a person’s personal well-being. During most of my over thirty years working for immigrant and workers’ rights, I lost touch with myself and my work-life balance on many occasions. Work took control of my life. Everything that contributed to my well-being became secondary to the work. I caught myself believing that my physical and mental exhaustion were indicative of my commitment to the work for justice, and that sacrificing my health for the sake of helping others was a badge of honor. The result was a series of periodic episodes of burnout where I lost both the physical and mental capacity to continue the work. This stage led to an empty feeling where what I was working towards began to lose complete meaning. My most recent burnout three years ago culminated in my hospitalization. I realized that I needed to change my lifestyle as an activist for the sake of my health and well-being. During a period of intense self-reflection and meditation, I reached deep into my spiritual faith and connected with the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi to guide me. The outcome of this period of burnout and deep reflection was my book, Living Peace: Connecting Your Spirituality with Your Work for Justice.

In Living Peace, I argue that the work of activism is a form of spirituality in and of itself. As labor activists, we have the foundation of spirituality within us from which we can approach the work together and rebuild the labor movement from within. Each of us is an instrumental creative part of the universal being of labor activism and worker justice, and there is no one single role that rises above the others. The spiritual framework that we need to strengthen the labor movement as we move forward will rely on 1) our interconnectedness with each other, and 2) our embrace of a labor activism through compassion and humility.

The interconnectedness between all of us in the labor movement should become an indispensable part of our work. This is so especially where we find ourselves dispersed in so many different strategies and campaigns, and often disconnected from each other. St. Francis of Assisi, the peace activist of the Middle Ages from whom I derive my spirituality, would spend long hours with each of his brothers that formed the first band of followers of his teachings. He lived and practiced daily the heart-to-heart connections with them. Similarly, in the labor movement, we are all interwoven – ourselves, our lives, the workers we represent and what we are striving to accomplish. Francis had the capacity to go deep into someone’s heart and share the joy and sadness of that person. As labor activists, we too have the potential to connect through our hearts and let that connection be the driving force that enables us to struggle together, to strategize together, and to win together. In reaching such a potential of human relationship, we will create the spiritual binding force from which we can move forward with a collective strategy. This is true solidarity in action within the labor movement – our interconnectedness with one other. It is labor solidarity reaching a radical level.

Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Buddhist Zen Master, poet, scholar, and human rights activist, in his Fourth Mindfulness Training, Loving Speech and Deep Listening, states that we must be “determined not to spread news that [we] do not know to be certain and not to utter words that can cause division or discord.” He goes on to state that we must “make daily efforts, in [our] speaking and listening, to nourish [our] capacity for understanding, love, joy, and inclusiveness, and gradually transform anger, violence, and fear that lie deep in [our] consciousness.”

We must learn to engage in active listening with our heart, which will then enable us to speak through compassion or mindful speech, and not anger, frustration or fear. Active listening without passing judgment, is a gift that we can give to each other to enhance our work in the labor movement. When we are really heard, and the other understands our meaning and emotions, we feel valued and respected, a condition necessary for strengthening our movement. There is a no more precious gift, to give or receive, than to listen to the words of another. This process of active listening and loving speech will enable us to be mindful of and respect the dignity within each one of us. There is really no meaning in a task or activity unless there is a deep inter-connection with our spirituality and with one another in our struggle for worker justice.


The second principle we must embrace is a model of compassion and humility. To be humbled, it is said, strengthens a generous spirit. Like the principles of non-violence, humility in social justice work is not submission or a state of passiveness; rather, it is a powerful force for change. Francis understood that the biggest threat to humility was the power of human pride and ego. For him, humility in its highest form (holy or spiritual humility) always puts pride and ego to shame. Francis saw humility as the only way to prevent our ego from poisoning our pride. In this way, humility is a form of “self-activism” where we, as labor activists, take proactive steps to ensure that we act for the act itself, and not to feed our selfish desires or be puffed up by the praises of others. Just as Francis preached a way of life through the principle of humility, we too must approach our work in the same way. What does this mean? It means that we must exercise humility through acts of compassion and selflessness as we carry out our tasks in our everyday work – in a campaign, in a picket line, a protest, giving a presentation or workshop, house visits, worker assemblies, visiting policy makers, etc. In whatever activity we engage in as part of our work as labor activists, we must always do it through the principle of humility that Francis teaches us. After all, true leadership is about knowing when to step back so that others can step forward.

Of course it takes courage to radically change direction towards a more sustainable and healthy movement for worker justice. But as labor activists, we owe nothing less to the millions of working families impacted by the economic injustices that we fight against every day. If we can truly support one another and open our hearts, we can connect and create a “radical solidarity.” Labor activists and their allies working for justice must embrace a “radical solidarity” that encompasses a deepening of self-care and community care to build a healthy movement for change. They need to be able to advocate for themselves when the symptoms of burnout and stress begin to overwhelm them. We must take the courageous step forward to dismantle the “martyr syndrome” that is so entrenched in the labor movement. There are many ways to make a more healthy labor activism a reality. For example, we can integrate healthy diets and exercise into our daily activist work. We can create spaces within our workplaces for reflection, check-ins and talking circles to address burnout. We can connect with our spiritual faith or mindfulness practice to guide us towards a balance of self-care and healthy activism. There is no “one shoe size fits all” approach. The important thing is that we decide to move forward in this direction.

The major threats and challenges that the labor movement faces today create opportunities for us to strengthen ourselves. Let us embrace a new approach to moving forward together. Let us create a spiritual framework of humility, compassion and respect that will provide for a more cohesive collective strategy, healthy and sustainable activism, and a stronger movement as we continue the good fight for worker justice. Finally, a passage from Living Peace taught to me by St. Francis captures the essence of how to move forward together next year in the good fight: “When surrounded by a thousand dangers, let us not lose heart, except to make room for one another in our hearts.”


For more information on Victor Narro’s book, Living Peace: Connecting Your Spirituality with Your Work for Justice, go here. To order a copy of Living Peace or its Spanish translation, Paz en Acción, go here. He can also be found on Twitter at @narrovictor.

About the author

Victor Narro

Victor Narro is Project Director for the UCLA Labor Center and Lecturer in Law at UCLA Law School. For more information on his book, Living Peace: Connecting Your Spirituality with Your Work for Justice, go to https://www.facebook.com/ConnectingSpirituality. He can also be found on Twitter at @narrovictor. To order a copy of Living Peace or its Spanish translation, Paz en Acción, go to http://www.labor.ucla.edu View all posts by Victor Narro →

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The Art of Negotiations, lessons from the film Bridge of Spies



While the power of a strike, boycott, or direct action campaign may get you to the negotiating table, it doesn’t close the deal. There, a new art and science is called upon: negotiations. It is individual people who are the negotiators, not anonymous organizations. While these individuals are the voices of organizations—whether governments or private entities—they also have egos, aspirations, preconceptions, strengths and weaknesses, and some autonomy regarding the deals they finally strike.

“Bridge of Spies” is a first-rate, fact-based, Cold War thriller; it is also a lesson in the art and science of negotiations.

The Story.

The Stephen Spielberg-directed film’s plot is the complex negotiations that took place between the U.S., East Germany and the Soviet Union over the exchange of U-2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers (who was captured by the Soviet Union), and American student Frederic Pryor (arrested and accused of spying by East Germany) for U.S.-imprisoned Soviet spy Colonel Rudolf Abel. The major U.S. negotiator, Attorney James B. Donovan, is played by Tom Hanks. Mark Rylance won an Academy Award for his role as Colonel Abel.

Donovan had earlier represented Abel as a court-appointed attorney in his spy case. Convicted, Abel was spared the death sentence in large part by Donovan’s effective representation.

About six weeks after a U.S. Supreme Court 5-4 vote upheld Abel’s conviction on the 28th March, 1960, an American pilot named Francis Gary Powers was flying a U-2 spy plane on a CIA mission over the Soviet Union. His plane was shot down, and he was captured—undermining all U.S. government claims that it was not using these high-altitude flights to spy on the Russians. The U.S. wanted him back, and asked Donovan to be the negotiator who got him.

Identify Self-Interests—not yours, but those with whom you’re dealing.

Donovan’s skill at homing in on specific self-interests makes the film a lesson in the art of negotiations. At Col. Abel’s earlier sentencing appearance, Donovan made this argument in the Federal District Court:

“It is in the best interests of the US that Abel remain alive…It is possible that in the foreseeable future an American of equivalent rank will be captured by Soviet Russia or an ally; we might want to have someone to trade.”

“There’s also the humanitarian argument: he’s doing the job they sent him to do.”

This makes Abel an honorable man, though an opponent. Here Donovan seeks to deal with the Cold War-immersed Federal District Court Judge’s predisposition to dehumanize Abel.

The narrow self-interest (the possibility of a future trade) is wrapped in a larger framework of values (Abel is an honorable human being). The Federal District Court Judge can tell others, and say to himself, that he was above self-interest in sentencing Abel to 30 years in prison rather than death. Similarly, the Supreme Court is asked to stand for the Constitution so that the U.S. doesn’t look weaker in its cause the does the USSR in its.

At the Supreme Court, where the case goes on appeal, Donovan makes an appeal aimed at convincing the Justices that we should be as committed to our Constitution as Abel is to his country: “Will we stand by our cause less resolutely than he stands by his”.

Shortly after Donovan made his case for Abel, Powers was captured by the Soviets when he parachuted from his plane rather than injecting himself with the poison he’d been told to take by the U.S. government if he was shot down and there was any possibility of capture. Thus the stage is set for an equal trade between the United States and the Soviet Union. But things get complicated when the East Germans take graduate student Frederic Pryor as a prisoner while he’s in East Berlin at the time the Berlin Wall is being completed and hostilities between the U.S. and the Soviet Union are at a high point.

The U.S. government’s principal interest was to negotiate Abel for Powers. In a face-to-face meeting, Allen Dulles tells Donovan that Pryor can be sacrificed. The CIA representative who is Donovan’s contact person acquiesces to Donovan’s interest in getting Pryor released as part of the deal to humor Donovan, but insists that the goal is to get Powers. When Donovan holds out for Pryor’s release when everything is set for an Abel-Powers exchange, his CIA liaison officer says, “You fucked it up.”

For Donovan, getting both released becomes a personal mission. He deals with an East German lawyer who claims to represent Abel’s wife, and Ivan Schischkin, second in command in the East Berlin Soviet Embassy.

At one point things look shaky in the negotiation with Schischkin. Donovan is talking with Schischkin’s aide: “If we have to tell Abel that he’s not going home, then his behavior might change. And who will be held responsible for that—your boss?”

The Person on the Other Side of the Table

Donovan wants to establish a personal relationship with Schischkin, at least as personal as can be expected in the circumstances. Having said, and found agreement from his Russian counterpart, that the world is in a very dangerous place, he says: “We need to have the conversation our governments can’t.”

Donovan is complimentary of Abel, telling Schischkin that Abel is still “your man.” He behaved “with honor” refusing to give information to his U.S. interrogators. He says to his Soviet counterpart, “This is not part of our business. I like your guy.”

Donovan also asks Schischkin what his standing will be with his superiors if this deal doesn’t go through. This happens in the context of Schischkin saying that he can’t speak for the East Germans—who are the ones holding Pryor.


At the table, you don’t want to reveal your hand—which means you don’t want your adversary to know what’s very important to you, and what’s of little value. Both Donovan and Schischkin, play the game:

Schischkin: “We think Abel might have given up information; that’s why you’re ready to trade him.” And, “We have to determine whether he is still our guy.” All this to say Abel isn’t really all that important to the Russians. Schischkin tells Donovan there are parties in his government who would be just as happy if the trade wasn’t made. Is this a bluff?

Donovan calls the bluff: “The next operative caught by the United States might think twice about whether he gives up information.”

If Abel, who didn’t give up information, is left to rot in a U.S. prison, a subsequent spy might decide to give the U.S. information so he can avoid that fate.

Divide and Conquer

Schischkin tells Donovan, “we don’t have Pryor, the East Germans do”. When it suits his purpose Donovan treats the East German government as a puppet of the Soviets, essentially freezing Schischkin as his target and making him responsible to deliver Pryor.

Donovan to Schischkin: “I’m confident you can make arrangements for Pryor.”

But when dealing with the East Germans, he acknowledges and uses their desire to be recognized by the U.S. (our government refused to give formal recognition to the German Democratic Republic) as part of his negotiating tactics to make Pryor part of the deal.

God (or the Devil) Is In The Details

The Abel-Powers trade takes place at the Glienicke Bridge between East and West Berlin. But the Pryor trade precedes it at “Checkpoint Charlie” so that the East Germans can make clear their separateness from the Soviets.

The timing must be perfect: the two sides stand facing each other at the bridge, waiting for the call from Checkpoint Charlie telling them Pryor is in U.S. hands. Only then the two parties, with spotlights and guns pointed from each end of the bridge, walk toward each other. The two men being exchanged continue walking. Those accompanying them turn back to their respective sides of Berlin. The deal is done.

There’s More

The subtleties are many: You have to leave room for your negotiating partner to save face. You have to establish the trustworthiness of your word. There is a continuous process of testing going on. Make them live by their rulebook. There’s more.
It takes quickness of mind and facility of tongue to do the job. The movie is fun if you watch it as a lesson in negotiations.


The author recently made a presentation of his co-edited book, People Power: The Community Organizing Tradition of Saul Alinsky. If you’d like to see a video of that event, or get is presentation notes, write him at mikeotcmiller@gmail.com. For more on him and his work, visit www.organizetrainingcenter.org

About the author

Mike Miller

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

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Uber, Taxis, Independent Contractors, and Unions



In examining the current regulatory framework and models of organization of the taxi industry and the effects of Uber and the other Transportation Network Companies (TNC’s) disruption of the status quo, there is going to be a substantial restructuring of the individual for-hire transportation system.

The taxi industry has historically been heavily regulated for a number of reasons. Foremost has been the safety of passengers and the public. Municipal governments have extensive functions devoted to ensuring that those who are licensed to drive for hire, have no criminal or civil violations that would indicate they might pose a risk to the public or passengers, and in particular, more vulnerable members of our communities such as senior citizens and others. It should be kept in mind that when one enters the car of a stranger, they are forfeiting a certain amount of control and therefore security. Beyond the immediate concerns of personal security, the regulated taxi industry has civic responsibilities. The taxi companies fulfill obligations to serve communities with services that left to their own devices they would likely not provide such as access for the disabled and to serve lower income areas where senior citizens depend on for-hire taxi services.

In contrast, Uber has ushered in the beginning of change in urban mobility as the millennial generation is more inclined to live without owning a personal automobile with all its attendant costs and impact on the environment such as emissions and parking. Albeit, this has come at the costs of eschewing first, passenger and public safety and avoiding regulation by the subterfuge that they were a ride-sharing service, and second, by reducing driver earnings after dominating a city market. Being able to dodge the financial burdens of traditional taxis in capital, facilities, and regulatory overhead has enabled Uber to bring the prorated price of for-hire transportation down to the point that a young person confronted with the high costs of purchasing, insuring, and parking a vehicle in an urban environment finds “Ubering” a competitive alternative.

“Now that Uber has reached market dominance, it has been slashing rates for drivers. And the drivers have reacted”

The reality now is that Uber is a titan, with a market valuation of $62 billion, and there is no going back. What urban elected leaders and municipal governments will confront moving forward is how to even out the levels of regulation, and corresponding cost, between the sectors of taxis and Uber/TNC’s. Will the taxi industry regulation and cost be reduced to reconcile a system of fair competition? In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti has asked the Taxi Commission to “take all steps necessary to ensure equal competition.” Or will Uber/TNC regulation be increased so they have the same burden of safety and security? The California Public Utilities Commission has in recent times questioned if TNC’s should be regulated by them. Should the taxi cab and TNC industries be regulated by the same authority? In California, municipal governments regulate taxis, however the State Public Utilities commission regulates TNC’s. They will each have to become more like the other: in the case of taxis, for survival; in the case of Uber because local governments have an imperative to ensure safe and secure transportation for the citizenry.

In the creation of a new expanded for-hire urban transportation sector, Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar now have upwards of close to 200,000 independent contractors driving for them. According to information from Uber, approximately 30% drive fulltime. In Los Angeles there are approximately 22,000 Uber drivers. Hence, about 6,000 drive fulltime. There are approximately 2,300 taxi drivers licensed in Los Angeles. Now that Uber has reached market dominance, it has been slashing rates for drivers. And the drivers have reacted. They have begun to organize among themselves and are forming fledging groups uniting drivers. They have been mounting various protests such as strikes at La Guardia Airport in New York and in San Francisco leading up to the Super Bowl.

In some cities, local unions have been doing organizing work with Uber and taxi drivers to a lesser or greater extent. For the most part, Teamsters seem to be applying the same organizing model they have struggled with for many years with port truckers by concentrating the fight on having them converted to employees. Labor and others seem to be waiting on the outcome of the class-action lawsuits that seek to convert Uber drivers from independent contractors into employees. Organized labor is in a unique position as the entire urban for-hire transportation system is restructuring. This restructuring is happening largely without the voice of those who do the work. That organized driver voice needs to be part of the process as broad regulatory decisions are being formed about the future of the industry. The taxi and Uber drivers both have a common cause to level the playing field. Otherwise the TNC operators such as Uber will continue to drive wages and regulations downward. The history of how Uber has dominated this industry is rife with lawless disregard for civic regulation to the extent that they are banned in a number of cities and countries around the world. Navigating legislation and policy with the collective will and voice of workers is what unions do.

“…recent developments of the gig economy in the states of Washington and California are breakthrough moments…”

One place where Uber and taxi drivers in a union are waging this fight for a fair and just system with collective bargaining is Seattle. Teamsters Local 117 has been successful in developing defensible legal positions for independent contractors to have the right to collectively bargain. The Seattle City Council voted to create a groundbreaking Ordinance establishing a process of collective bargaining for Uber and taxi drivers.

“This could be a game-changer,” said Charlotte Garden, a Seattle University professor specializing in labor law, in the Seattle Times. “You could see cities like Seattle and states run with this model in all sectors of the economy. The legal fight over this would be intense.” One challenge often quoted is that federal labor laws govern collective bargaining exclusively. However, independent contractors are outside the scope of the National Labor Relations Act, which applies only to employees. This is in effect Seattle creating a law in the absence of any federal labor laws regarding these “Gig Workers” as they have come to be called.

The other challenge that this new model will encounter is federal antitrust law price-fixing. Garden states that under a “state action defense… sovereign states, and then by extension, municipalities, should be able to pursue a range of policies in the public interest — including policies that might otherwise be anticompetitive,” Garden continues, “There are certain requirements that have to be met in order for the state action defense to apply in a case like this, including that the ordinance be drafted pursuant to a clearly articulated state policy, and that there be governmental oversight of the process and final result.”

It is widely discussed that as the model in Seattle overcomes challenges, it will be taken up in other states and cities. That momentum is already stirring in California. Assembly Member Lorena Gonzalez is planning to introduce the California Self-Organizing Act. This bill is reportedly being written to specifically encompass independent contractors who operate through a business platform or app. As in Seattle, California is building defensible structures to move forward and to give people who work in the exploding “gig economy” some basic protections and a union because at the end of the day they are workers. Various estimates are that approximately 10 to 15 million workers in the country are independent contractors. This massive increase in gig workers certainly has a correlation in the decline of union membership. Unions have been ambivalent in organizing independent contractors. It was only in the last several years that the New York Taxi Workers Alliance was affiliated and welcomed into the house of labor. There is much history of various organizing with a focus on waiting until the workers are employees. Now, the recent developments of the gig economy in the states of Washington and California are breakthrough moments of change and not only within the for-hire transportation industry.

We might want to examine the reality of the aforementioned sheer size and percentage of the gig economy workforce as well as the fact that a substantial number of those workers wish to be independent contractors for various flexibility and entrepreneurial motivations. A number of legislators, worker advocates, and business leaders are starting to acknowledge and agree a third classification is needed that allows for flexibility and protections. Senator Mark Warner told Bloomberg BNA “The fundamental nature of work is changing and I don’t believe in the future that it’s just going to be a binary choice between a 1099 worker or a W-2 worker”. Union leaders such as Laphonza Butler and David Rolf from SEIU are co-authoring positions advocating comprehensive portable benefits with people like Nick Hanauer an entrepreneur, venture capitalist, civic activist, and philanthropist.

Part of the reason drivers love taxi work is because of its entrepreneurial nature. They decide how to structure their work times and places. However, people in these roles and jobs still absolutely desire and need protections for their livelihoods, healthcare, conditions of their relationships with very powerful organizations, and all the things all of us need as workers. It does not matter if we are employees or independent contractors; we still all get out and work every day. Are there huge challenges to organizing gig workers? Yes. But there were also massive challenges to labor’s Fight For 15 campaigns. Waiting on the sidelines to see if these new legal theories would work is not the way we won in the past. We need to fight in the city halls and state houses to make it work. In the spirit of generations of labor union solidarity, we in labor need to take these workers as we find them. We need to take people as we find them, not as we wish they would be. We band together with all our brothers and sisters that work to demand fairness, equality, dignity, humanity, and respect.


Labor for Bernie Activists Take the Political Revolution into Their Unions

By and

Last June a small group of volunteers kicked off a network called “Labor for Bernie.” Their goal was to build support inside their unions for Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.

Since then, Sanders has come a long way—racking up primary wins in nine states, including a major upset in Michigan. The all-volunteer Labor for Bernie operation has come a long way too, growing to include tens of thousands of union members.

So far they’ve helped Sanders win the endorsements of more than 80 local unions and four national or international unions, including the Postal Workers (APWU), Communications Workers (CWA), and National Nurses United.

CWA made its endorsement after polling its members online — and after Sanders rallied with Verizon workers who are battling for a contract. The candidate is a longtime advocate for postal services, which impressed the Postal Workers. He’s also a lifelong proponent of single-payer health care, NNU’s signature issue. Nurses have crisscrossed the country on their union’s “Bernie Bus,” talking to voters.

The latest big union to endorse Sanders was the Amalgamated Transit Union. In a March 14 press release, President Larry Hanley cited the senator’s “longstanding fidelity to the issues that are so important to working people.”

One of Labor for Bernie’s top achievements has been to block an AFL-CIO endorsement, once presumed to be in the bag for Hillary Clinton. President Richard Trumka announced in February that there would be no endorsement at the federation’s winter executive council meeting.

Labor for Bernie had submitted 5,000 signatures last summer urging the executive council not to make an early endorsement. While many international unions have endorsed Clinton since then, Labor for Bernie has helped publicize opposition in the ranks and push local endorsements for Sanders.

The lack of a primary endorsement “means that union members and other working Americans are not going to be facing a coordinated campaign from the AFL-CIO for the other candidate,” said former CWA President Larry Cohen, who has campaigned for Sanders across the country. “It’s a green light for people to do what moves them, and that’s what democracy looks like.”


Labor for Bernie has been a central clearinghouse for members campaigning for their local unions to endorse Sanders. Its website offers a model endorsement resolution, workplace leaflet, and sign-up sheets for supporters. It’s also using social media to promote the Sanders campaign with union members, garnering 25,000 “likes.”

Ariana Eakle, a third-year apprentice with Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 124 in Kansas City, tailored a version of the resolution for her local. She estimates she’s had members of 15 IBEW locals around the country contact her to get a copy.

After hundreds of IBEW members signed a Labor for Bernie petition last year, new President Lonnie Stephenson announced the International would not make an early endorsement. More than 30 IBEW locals have since endorsed Bernie, thanks to grassroots organizing by members like Eakle.

In every case, said Local 153 member Carl Shaffer, “it’s been a part of a democratic process. None of these endorsements represent a top-down action by a couple of leaders on their own.”

Shaffer has helped coordinate the campaign within the IBEW. He said in past elections it was unusual for locals to endorse. “You didn’t dare do anything like endorsing on your own,” he said. “There would have been a phone call, there would have been an international rep coming to see you, there would have been a lot of pressure to rescind.”


Some Sanders supporters whose national unions endorsed Clinton have taken to social media and the press to challenge top-down, undemocratic decisions.

The Food and Commercial Workers came out for Clinton in January. But a month later, Northern California
 UFCW Local 5, whose 28,000 members work in grocery and food processing, endorsed Sanders.

The executive board vote was 30 to 2, according to Mike Henneberry, the local’s director of communications and politics. He said the local hasn’t gotten any pushback from the International. “For us, it was not a very difficult decision,” he said. “Compare an individual who’s been supporting workers since he was mayor of Burlington with someone who’s been on the board of Walmart.”

Some Service Employees members too have struggled to reconcile their union’s strong support for a $15-an-hour minimum wage with their International’s endorsement of Clinton, who only backs $12.

SEIU Local 1984, New Hampshire’s largest public sector union, bucked the International and came out for Sanders in November.

“I never thought I would see involvement like there was when Obama ran,” said Vice President Ken Roos, who works as a Medicaid administrator for the state. “But people were stopping me in the hall at work, or even in the street—they would say, ‘Bernie’s the man, we gotta go for Bernie.”


The campaign has collected tens of thousands of email addresses and other contact info for union members who pledge to support Sanders. A recently created workplace flyer includes a tearoff pledge card. Info from the cards is entered into a database so that supporters can be reminded to go out and vote.

Local “Labor for Bernie” groups have sprung up in dozens of states and cities, bringing together members of various unions to strategize about how to expand support for Sanders in their local labor movements.

In Seattle, hundreds of union members—including Machinists, teachers, and public employees—turned out to a February kickoff where they heard reports from Cohen and local union leaders about the campaign.

Metro Detroit Labor for Bernie formed a speakers bureau that sends members to local union meetings to talk about the campaign.

“We understood that, in order to have conversations with people, we had to talk about more than Bernie,” said Asar Amen-Ra, a member of Auto Workers Local 1248 who got involved with the group last fall. “We had to talk about the principles he represented—a living wage, universal education, universal health care.”

Amen-Ra’s local represents workers at Chrysler’s Mopar facility in Centerline, Michigan. He and his co-workers built on the organizing they had done for a “no” vote on the recent Chrysler contract. A core group of six original organizers grew to 20.

“We just said, ‘Hey, we’re going to have a conversation at lunchtime about politics, about this presidential campaign,’” he said. “And we would get anywhere from two to 10 people at a time.”

There’s nothing wrong with traditional canvassing and phonebanking, Amen-Ra argues, but unions should go further. He’s taking the time to have detailed one-on-one conversations with co-workers about politics “because we want to organize beyond these elections,” he said.

“We want to build a political transformation, and that means building a community—and you can have that community in the workplace.”

Another place to find community is where you live. Kevin Mack, who’s active in IBEW Local 58’s Minority Caucus, helped get a dozen members from his local to knock on doors in their own Detroit neighborhoods.

“When you stick at home, people can relate to you,” he said. “They see you at the grocery store, or with your kids. You can say, ‘Hey, I live right down the street. That’s my mom’s house over there.’”

Mack is 28. Pundits are largely crediting young voters’ high turnout and pro-Bernie enthusiasm for the surprise win in Michigan. Sanders won 81 percent of the 18-to-29 vote there.


Labor for Bernie’s focus now is on the Democratic primaries. The network is trying to mobilize support among union members in the remaining primary states. Supporters in states that already voted are phonebanking to get out the vote.

Meanwhile, Labor for Bernie organizers are also trying to chart their next steps. This is the first time in decades that a national movement of this scale has come together around a candidate with an unapologetic allegiance to working class concerns and aspirations.

It’s evident that there’s broad support in unions for Bernie’s platform—and that many members, fed up with their unions’ legacy of “blank check” support for corporate Democrats, want a more inclusive, democratic process for deciding endorsements.

Can the unions backing Bernie agree on an ongoing strategy to build working-class political power? Once the presidential nomination is wrapped up, will they opt to carry this “political revolution” into contests for elected office in thousands of municipal and state-level races?

Those questions will be on activists’ minds at a national meeting of Labor for Bernie activists, part of the upcoming Labor Notes Conference.

“Our endorsement for Sanders is the best that we’ve ever made,” said Myles Calvey, business manager of IBEW Local 2222 in Boston, “and most certainly the most enthusiastic one for our membership.”


A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #445. Don’t miss an issue, subscribe today.

Labor for Bernie 2016, is a volunteer effort that’s neither funded nor directed by the Sanders campaign.

About the author

Rand Wilson

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

Dan DiMaggio

Dan DiMaggio is the assistant editor of Labor Notes and a member of the Democratic Socialists of America View all posts by Dan DiMaggio →

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Reflections on the body of work that is Inkworks Press’ posters


Cover - Design Action, Oakland

Cover – Design Action, Oakland

This recently appeared as the Afterword in Visions of Peace & Justice: political posters from Inkworks Press, Volume 2.

This second volume of exemplary posters printed at Inkworks Press closes an important chapter in movement media history. The first book covered the years 1974 to 2007; this supplement brings us up to 2015. A lot has happened in the world during those years.

Some qualities of these posters are invisible to the reader, but reflect hugely on the changes in print media that have taken place. Most posters made until the early 1990s were created by graphic artists “the old fashioned way” – they were drawn with ink on paper, the typography and headlines were sent out to a professional and pasted up, and the photographic elements were sized and shot – in short, a complex and tedious process. Behind the scenes, skilled workers at print shops like Inkworks would receive all the parts, put them together, and hope that the pre-press proof was correct. All that before ink ever hit paper.

Top L-R: Visions2-Ch3-51-1 “#Jacka$$” Jon-Paul Bail, 2015; Visions2-Ch6-78-1 “First National Mobilization on Climate Change” Cesar Maxit, 2009.  Bottom row L-R: Visions2-Ch1-16-1 "Domestic workers lift up our families and our communities” Rommy Torrico, 2015; Visions2-Ch3-39-1 "Undocumented Californians deserve health care" Chucha Marques, 2015

Top L-R: Visions2-Ch3-51-1 “#Jacka$$” Jon-Paul Bail, 2015; Visions2-Ch6-78-1
“First National Mobilization on Climate Change” Cesar Maxit, 2009. Bottom row L-R: Visions2-Ch1-16-1 “Domestic workers lift up our families and our communities” Rommy Torrico, 2015; Visions2-Ch3-39-1 “Undocumented Californians deserve health care” Chucha Marques, 2015

But the digital revolution utterly transformed that. By the mid-1990s designers, with affordable computers and scanners, could create art with their own typography, their own photos, their own proofed documents, ready to reproduce. The costs of color reproduction dropped. Some of the revolutionary prophecies that the personal computer could democratize communication were true.

But one prediction was wrong – that the digital age would make posters obsolete. After all, why bother with a static graphic when you can just as easily make a free colorful video and share it with the world? Wrong. Activists still need posters. Ink on paper not only survived, it thrived.

What we see here is the glorious fruit of the Bay Area’s huge pool of graphic talent, the deep history of social justice work, and the presence of skilled and sympathetic reproduction facilities such as Inkworks Press.

L-R: Visions2-Ch5-72-1 "No pride for some of us without liberation for all of us" Micah Bazant, 2015; Visions2-Ch4-52-3 "Chicana Latina Foundation leadership institute" Favianna Rodriguez, 2010

L-R: Visions2-Ch5-72-1 “No pride for some of us without liberation for all of us” Micah Bazant, 2015; Visions2-Ch4-52-3 “Chicana Latina Foundation leadership institute” Favianna Rodriguez, 2010

Inkworks was an integral part of a rich progressive publishing ecosystem. It served nobly and well, fueled by a dedicated collective. Another link in the long tradition of printing to make a difference has been closed, and surely others will open.

Behold these paper bullets. Behold the thunder of the press.

-Lincoln Cushing, Inkworks collective member 1981-2001


About the author

Lincoln Cushing

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

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Transformative Politics : German Left/US Left Same Challenge/Same Fight


Part Two

“…the question is not about an individual, the question is how social movements act upon opportunities as they emerge.”

Effective action to build such a democratic society, to bring about that greater freedom, in Germany as in the United States, is only possible through a political movement that connects social and economic rights by creating alternatives centers of power within society. Elsewhere, Sohn builds upon this analysis through a socialist-feminist analysis which sees the particular form of the exploitation of women’s labor as central to capitalist development and as anticipatory of the formation of the “precariat” in today’s era of financialization, corporate globalization, and stagnation — and also sees the centrality of women’s organization and leadership as indicative of the ability of socialist movements to fully break with capitalism when in power. What is essential is a form that challenges the structural basis of inequality within the working class as within society at large and thus creates the basis for meaningful solidarity and unified action.

The challenge his strategy addresses is how to seize on the possibilities opened up by current crisis within a framework in which coalition politics, parliamentary and extra-parliamentary actions are mutually reinforcing; grounding alternative power in a manner that points to a possible path out of the trap of marginalization vs. cooptation. It provides a projection of political action that builds on the existence of an alternative national political party such as Die Linke, but has a relevance even where such does not exist.

As in the United States. Under prevailing conditions, a principal challenge is to develop the means to integrate different forms and groupings of political engagement in order to move beyond scattered resistance to reaction and pose a systemic alternative utilizing the tools at hand; creating the prerequisites Sohn discusses. This is why the opportunities and contradictions that followed Obama’s election remain so crucial today — for the question is not about an individual, the question is how social movements act upon opportunities as they emerge. A position paper issued by US Labor Against War (USLAW) in 2008 spoke to the issue of understanding and choice:

Some people will naively expect and believe [Obama] will do the right thing and never challenge his choices or criticize his decisions. Others will sit on the sidelines and do nothing but criticize, finding fault with every decision. Both positions lead to the same result: a powerful elite and insiders who serve them will shape the Administration’s agenda. [The New Terrain for Labor’s Anti-War Movement, On-Line posting, December 6, 2008].

Eight years later, and that critique of two forms of passivity remains valid as does the continued need for pro-active program and policy, working for the change those who voted for Obama hoped or expected he would help bring about. Progress is dependent not on government action per se, but rather on how popular action able to use the space that those expectations (“change you can believe in”) to push government and create more space for action. Looked at today, a critical weakness in liberal/progressive national politics – from Obama to Sanders — is the limited critique ideologically and practically of US overseas policy and militarism. Attacking that lack in a vacuum, however, does little to change it, instead anti-war politics needs to reintegrate itself within struggles taking place in other arenas. Such an understanding was further developed in USLAW’s call to action:

… the labor movement … must not focus exclusively on domestic reform because the domestic crisis cannot be resolved so long as the US is straight-jacketed by a foreign policy that puts us at odds with the rest of the world, and military spending that actually undermines our economic security. This depends on successfully challenging the notion that the United States must be and has an inherent right to act as a global cop and bully, dictating to the rest of the world.

But the implementation of that call is possible only by working on multiple levels, around multiple concerns, in multiple arenas:

While it is important that we continue to manifest our demands in the street, we should think beyond just demonstrations. We need to broaden our alliances with those seeking health care reform, with the environmental blue-green alliance, with movements for immigrant rights and to all those responding to all the many manifestations of the “war at home.” [USLAW, ibid.]


And that brings us to current political possibilities. Bernie Sanders campaign offers an opening even though his political positions are not radical relative to those being debated by the left in Germany. Yet given the US context in which capitalism has become a virtual state religion, even a partial critique of the dominant system that reaches millions of people opens up avenues for debate and organization otherwise largely closed. And his politics and campaign – rooted in a denunciation of corporate capitalism, demand for universal social insurance, opposition to the Iraq war in all its implications, and a focus on climate change as the key issue in our time – pose a distinct and definite challenge to the existing political system. But the most significant part of Sanders’ presidential run is in his focus on mass action, on public pressure, being the means to bring about progressive change. For here the divide in US politics is not defined as being between Democrats and Republicans, rather it is defined as being between working people broadly defined and the corporations.

In this his politics runs parallel with those of Jesse Jackson whose campaigns developed a theme of community consistent with the character of the people of the United States as opposed to the definition of community used by Ronald Reagan: white, well-to-do, and intolerant of difference. So too it is consistent with and builds upon Occupy, with its denunciation of the 1%. And it is consistent with the demands of Black Lives Matters. Sanders campaign gives space to articulate a radical notion of inclusion, implied but left undeveloped by Obama; inclusion based on working people and labor, not by hands across the aisle compromises with those now in power.

Transformative politics is therefore not a question of program or platform as an abstraction, it is a question of mobilization and organization that relies on the solidarity of the excluded. If the possibilities his campaign demonstrates becomes the basis of a more unified alternative politics already put forward by Democratic Party reform movements, by the semi-independent Working Families Parties, by rooted third party groupings, by progressive community and state organizations, and the wide array of organizations fighting for justice in distinct communities or arenas across the country then a way forward can be found that avoids the trap of too much emphasis on elective office, avoids the marginalization of satisfaction of opposition without impact. The fluidity of US politics, often a source of weakness can be turned into a strength.

A kind of strength needed in Germany so that the question of a coalition of the parliamentary left is conceived and developed as a coalition rooted in the direct engagement of working people, migrant communities, the disposed, putting forth an agenda of social solidarity – so that the definition of what lies inside or outside a putative national consensus is itself transformed, so that those whose legacy and current practice lies in the domination of the few over the many are the ones who are defined as being outside. To achieve that is to organize at the points of interconnections of various strivings for those rights once proclaimed as self-evident, toward “justice for all.” In both countries, finding the path toward building a rooted socialist presence in society, within social movements, within labor, requires reconstructing an open Marxist presence, a presence that is critical and popular, a presence that is creative and engaged with other ideas, other conceptions.

The challenge for the socialist movement is to integrate the near and the far. Creating organic links between each partial reform and between those reforms and forms of collective self-organization can provide the basis for a needed fundamental change. An assertion of equality requires an assertion of freedom that flies equally in the face of capitalist exploitation and capitalist alienation — potentially allowing one challenge to lead to another and another and another carried along by a utopian impulse made concrete by roots in what is possible. This brings us to the question of self-determination and the connection between individual self-awareness and social activism, to a critical resistance which combines the personal and the systemic – which is at the heart of any radical politics be they electoral or non-parliamentary.

Today questionings and actions, are being taken amongst those who have done well yet still feel insecure about the future because of economic volatility, because of awareness of social fragmentation, because of awareness of the fragility of nature due to climate change. Questions that are a form of rethinking of matters that had previously been taken for granted. So too questions are asked, actions taken by those impoverished, by those directly assaulted in the present and who in their vulnerability see only uncertainty on the road ahead if society continues on its present course. People who are increasingly looking not just for immediate improvements, but for changes that can make for a qualitatively better future. Combined these developments can lead to cultural shifts, new ways of seeing and looking that enable a different future to become graspable, can turn what necessity had made acceptable into a reality become burdensome. A cultural shift that is itself a political shift that can lead into social engagement by those who had previously seen life’s options only in the realm of the private. Such changes, stimulated by organization and action, stimulating further and wider organization and action is the means by which a genuine class consciousness, a socialist consciousness can emerge. Consciousness which connects the struggle over power in the present with a realizable alternative vision of the future.

Angela Davis in an introduction to a new edition of her 1969 pamphlet Lectures on Liberation commented:

Many of us thought [in the 1960s and 70s] that liberation was simply a question of organizing to leverage power from the hands of those we deemed to be the oppressors. Frederick Douglass certainly helped us to conceptualize this, but this was not, by far, the complete story. Today readers of Douglass, scholars and activists alike, do his text justice by bringing a much more expansive sense of what it means to struggle for liberation, one that embraces not only women of color, but also sexually marginalized communities as well as those subject to modes of containment and repression by virtue of their resident status as immigrants. Equally important, as we recognize the extent to which Douglass sustained the influence of the ideologies of his era, we might better learn how to identify and struggle with those that limit our imagination of liberation today. [Ibid. pp 36-37]

We act to be free, but freedom can’t be obtained if for oneself alone, if for some if not others — let alone if bought at the expense of domination of those without. The control by some of the labor of others, the layers of power and hierarchy that flow from or are furthered by the segmentations intrinsic to such control, can only be overcome through the linkages that connect everyday experience to the broad array of political and social issues within which that experience is lived. The rebirth and renewal of democratic systems that have become broken as much as the rebirth of socialist movements pushed to the margins lies in the strength of those linkages. Socialism as movement and goal is built around a program of equality and freedom, is built around a program of asserting public control over the economy and over public institutions, is built around creating the basis for ever greater self-realization. What we do in the political realm can give content to what has become hollow and help create a world in which actual choices, actual possibilities belong to the vast majority.


About the author

Kurt Stand

Kurt Stand was active in the labor movement for over 20 years including as the elected North American Regional Secretary of the International Union of Food and Allied Workers until 1997.  That year he was arrested and served 15 years in prison on charges of having committed espionage for the GDR, charges he unsuccessfully contested at trial and upon appeal.  Currently he works at a bookstore, is a member of the Washington Metro DSA, is active in Progressive organizations in his community of Cheverly, Maryland, serves as a Portside Labor Moderator and is the facilitator of a Metro DC Labor/Reentry jobs project. View all posts by Kurt Stand →

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