40 days and 40 Nights: A Most Unusual Victory at Market Basket

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After a weekend of last minute haggling and prolonged negotiations, a settlement of the Market Basket dispute was announced Wednesday night bringing to a close one of the most dramatic and inspiring labor struggles in the United States in many a year. The settlement was not immediately about wages or benefits or job security language. These employees don’t even have a union! The settlement was about who would be their boss and CEO. In a highly unusual management-led action, they paralyzed the company’s 71 stores and promoted a devastating consumer boycott to get previously fired CEO Arthur T. Demoulas back and they won.

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Most of the 25,000 workers from part-time checkers to big shot regional managers will be returning to work immediately. In fact, during most of the dispute, most of the checkers and in-store personnel worked, converting their stores and parking lots into protest platforms where the few remaining customers were engaged in intense discussions about the MB dispute. Where once the walls of a store were adorned with promotional ads, now they were decked-out with signs extolling the virtues of “Arthur T.” and their desire to maintain his business model over his cousin Arthur S. The strike was a strategic one by a combination of key workers in trucking and warehousing and top and middle managers whose industrial actions prevented any perishables from reaching the stores. Market Basket became nothing but a big dry goods chain.

Threats of firing and numerous “drop dead” days for employees to return to work came and went, virtually ignored by the workforce that was out. The power of a united and strategic workforce acting forcefully with broad consumer support rocked the whole of Eastern Massachusetts and its 30 stores in New Hampshire and Maine.

Would the workers have been better off in a union? Yes, of course. There is no substitute for the power and voice that collective bargaining provides for workers. Yet, the great irony here is that if Market Basket workers had been in a union, it’s nearly impossible to imagine them striking to restore their fired boss and defeat the Wall Street business model of his cousin Arthur S. A no strike clause and the narrow post WW II vision of our labor unions would surely have prevented that.

We should also point out that warehouse and trucking is usually with the Teamsters in unionized grocery stores. Often the decision to respect UFCW picket lines is not always forthcoming or impossible because of contract language.

An NLRB charge was filed by several employees arguing that the company’s threats against them constituted a violation of their Section 7 rights to protest and redress their “wages, hours and working conditions.” If a settlement hadn’t been reached, a National Labor Relations Board Administrative law judge would have had to rule on whether the discharge of the CEO constituted a “unilateral change in working conditions!” The employees certainly saw that it did — and put their own lives on the line because they saw their own conditions inextricably bound up with who was their CEO.

Below are some lessons from this extraordinary struggle that we draw for the rest of the labor movement:

● Not all workers pack an equal punch – Strategic workers in trucking and warehousing are crucial to interrupting the flow of goods, particularly perishables. Current labor laws (especially in the private sector) exclude many of the most strategic workers making meaningful strike activity much harder.
● Management rights are workers’ rights – Unfortunately not since the UAW’s Walter Reuther has the U.S. labor movement sought any real say over operating and management decisions. Instead, we’ve surrendered to the narrow “management rights” clause written into virtually every union contract. Yet, these decisions, as the MB workers demonstrated, are crucial to the livelihood of workers.
● A real strike stops production – Campaigns at Wal-Mart and in fast food have called the exit of a handful of workers from stores and fast food outlets “strikes.” But most have failed to stop production. Market Basket workers (management and labor) engaged in a true “strategic strike” and the camera shots of empty shelves and empty stores were a compelling image that needed no virtual enhancement or Facebook ‘likes’ to be real.
● Community support is key – The depth of support in the massive boycott where customers taped their receipts from Stop and Shop, Whole Foods and Hannaford’s to the windows of Market Basket was an essential part of the victory. For many customers this was a deep hardship, but the passion and energy of the workers and Market Basket’s low prices underlay consumer’s commitment to stay away until victory.

Union or “not-yet-union,” one fundamental lesson is that there are no shortcuts to deep organizing at the point of production. Labor strategists and organizers who are impatient with that process and believe that social media and corporate leverage can substitute for the basics are doomed to failure.

Following this monumental struggle, Market Basket and its workers will never be the same. To reach a settlement, Arthur T. enlisted the notorious private equity firm, BlackRock to buy one third of the company. As a result, the Market Basket culture and its manager’s paternalistic practices may significantly change. Meanwhile, Market Basket’s workers expectations have never been higher and the sense of their power – even without the managers’ support – can’t be denied. The vast majority of workers are part-time and low paid. The UFCW is actively reaching out to enlist support. Stay tuned because there is undoubtedly much more to come!

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 →

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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When a strike is a strike: The saga of Market Basket in New England

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What has been big regional news for four weeks is breaking into the national consciousness with extensive coverage in the New York Times, NPR and the Today Show.

It is the story of the fight for Market Basket/Demoulas supermarkets in Maine, New Hampshire and Eastern Massachusetts. The employees are on strike and are waging a colorful and creative community-based struggle to keep their CEO Arthur T. Demoulas. Arthur T. was thrown out by the Market Basket Board of Directors in June. The coup against Arthur T. was led by his cousin Arthur S. Demoulas. The forced exit of Arthur T. is the culmination of a long family struggle for control of the three generational family business founded by Grandfather Demoulas in Lowell, Massachusetts.

Truck drivers, warehouse workers, deli counter attendants, top level managers, checkers etc. are all on strike and have been for four weeks. The 71 stores are empty of all but dry goods, and even though the stores are open they are empty of customers who are loyal to Demoulas (This was the name of the market when I was growing up in Massachusetts!) because of the low prices and the customer service. My mother is one of those customers who are not shopping at Demoulas in solidarity with the strike. Customers are taping their receipts of money spent at other markets on the windows of the empty DeMoulas stores.

This is one of the most sweeping and captivating labor struggles in the private sector in years. There is no union and the employees are striking and protesting, at one rally 25,000 strong, for the return of their CEO Arthur T. False consciousness, confused workers bamboozled by their CEO and mangers, many of whom are also on strike? NOT! Demoulas workers are loyal because they can read the handwriting on the Wall Street wall. The new board is about cutting costs, squeezing assets and raising profitability on the backs of the employees. The employees correctly foresee a Bain Capital takeover ala the Mittster.

Long time Boston-based advocate for worker ownership and decision making, Chris Mackin, commented in a recent TV interview that the workers are specifically “challenging the business model” being proposed by the Market Basket board.

The outcome remains uncertain, but the power of 25,000 workers in motion and united with their customer and community supporters should not be lost on labor organizers. It is refreshing to see a real S-T-R-I-K-E in retail that paralyses production and commerce with the support of the customer community. I showed a video of a news clip of the Market Basket struggle to a training for union bus drivers and the reaction was surprising to me. I expected the reaction to dote on the fact that the workers were without a union and misguided in supporting their boss. Instead the participants in the training took inspiration in the passion, creativity of the workers and their close ties with their customer base. It was a great lead in for a healthy discussion of building a driver-rider alliance.

Strikes require deep roots and ties with the work force and their issues to be effective. In retail, there needs to be a solid alliance with the community customer base to be successful. Organizers taking on industry giants like Wal-Mart or organizing fast food workers at McDonalds would be well advised to study the lessons of Market Basket.

Links to checkout:
“Market Basket stalemate continues as cousins fail to reach agreement on terms of sale”, Masslive, 25 August 2014

Minor league team wades into Market Basket fight

We are Market Basket

What the Heck Is Happening at Market Basket?

Market Basket workers, customers rally around beloved CEO after firing

About the author

Peter Olney

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

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The Rubbed Balloon On The Ceiling: A Few Thoughts About Robin Williams

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August 11, 2014

Robin Williams’ death was reported in the NY Times as an, “apparent suicide”, and that he was suffering from, “deep depression”. When I have spoken to some friends about his death, and from the many comments that I have read in the press, the nature of his death seems to have surprised some people. Those who know anything about his personal history, as well as the nature of bipolar disorder, easily understand how this happened. It was a terribly tragic, but logical end to a life that was inhabited by an illogical psyche. I’m certain that my fellow manic-depressives are nodding as they read this.

When I watched him perform I reacted breathlessly as he would comically pound his way through a manic storm. He had an astounding ability to extemporize comedic commentary, edit it on the fly, self-reflect, and then seamlessly connect to another topic all completed within a gulp of air. I could sense how much fun he was having and how much pain it caused him simultaneously (Did I go to far? Did I hurt someone’s feelings? Did I just harm myself?). But that’s the nature of a manic storm. It is tremendously exhausting and ultimately ends with the pendulum swinging into depression.

His stand-up routines, as manic and improvised as they appeared, were mostly well-rehearsed routines. My wife Lea and I had the rare privilege of seeing him at a comedy club in San Francisco in 1990. It was a private event that had been set up for him and Bob Goldthwaite to try out new material on a live audience. Here was a rare opportunity to watch him corral that intense improvisation, to catch the lightning and bottle it. And he did. He would get rolling, the way a Formula One car rolls, driving it up on the sidewalk, back onto the road, spinning some donuts, idle, write some notes, step on the gas by repeating what he had just said and taking it in a new direction. We were sitting at the front of the stage and were able to see him work close up. His eyes never stopped observing the audience, even in those moments when he would stop to think, to make notes. He took my overcoat from my chair, put it on, and drenched it in sweat as he improvised as Al Capone, then a wino, then a flasher. (He later offered to pay for dry cleaning).

To call his routines improvisations doesn’t give him enough credit. Indeed, they were routines based on improvisations that he would then improvise upon when performing. A routine was a springboard for improvisation in subsequent performances. He harnessed his manic-depression and channeled it unlike any comic I have ever seen. He created remarkable comedy as an antidote to the maelstrom inside. It must have been exhausting.

I once asked my psychiatrist to give me medication for my depression, but not the mania. He laughed because he understood why I was asking. Manic episodes can be intensely creative, fun, exhilarating, sexual, evocative, soaring, in-your-face-funny and outrageous. But too often they are terribly draining, expensive, destructive to others with displays of inappropriate behavior. For me they are also self-destructive. I suspect he had similar experiences. After all, these are the most common aspects of bipolar disorder. Maybe I’m projecting my own feelings here, but I suspect not.

Years ago, I ran into to him on a Sunday afternoon in Golden Gate Park. He was with his kids. I was skating. Actually I was falling forward on eight wheels, helmeted, gloved and padded. I said hello and he asked me how I was doing. I rubbed my belly, patted my head and said, “”Depressed”. He laughed his big, loud, life-loving guffaw. I think he understood what I was saying. Nothing else needed to be said.

Robin Williams let us mortal bipolar people seem, well, mortal. He showed us that we can function in a world that rages around us as we rage within. His mania was reassuring to me. I am sorry and very sad to see him succumb to the demon within. I will miss him.

 

 

Editor’s note: Current events have delayed publishing of Mike Miller’s second and third pieces on THE MOVEMENT and what it means today. The next post will be on the labor situation at Market Basket.

About the author

Michael Yonchenko

Michael Yonchenko, Chairman and Co-Founder of Direct Health Media, Inc, graduated from the City University of New York in 1976, with a degree in Film and Television Production. He was manager of Video Production for the Division of Instructional Media at Stanford University Medical Center, where he produced numerous instructional programs for many campus departments including the School of Medicine, the Graduate School of Business, the Law School and the School of Engineering. DHM is a non-profit corporation founded to provide health-related electronic media to patients and other health consumers at no charge to them. Yonchenko has won of 80 national and international awards including a 2007 Jefferson Award from the American Institute For Public Service in Washington, D.C. As of January 2014 DHM has distributed over 80,000 bilingual, interactive DVD’s at no charge to patients and their families View all posts by Michael Yonchenko →

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Mike Miller on Freedom Summer and Beyond, Part 1

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Long time organizer Mike Miller recently journeyed to Mississippi for the 50th anniversary gathering of Freedom Summer. Peter Olney interviewed Mike for The Stansbury Forum on his return. Here, running in three parts, are his thoughts on the reunion, his trip and the relevancy of the Freedom Summer experience to today.

Peter Olney (P): Mike, you recently returned from the 50th anniversary gathering of the Freedom Riders in the South. Please tell us where you went on your trip and what were some of the activities you participated in?

Mike Miller (M): On the way to Mississippi, I stopped at the National Civil Rights Museum, a fantastic place. You can stand on the balcony where Martin Luther King was assassinated, and look across the way at the window through which his assassin fired the fatal shot; then you can cross the street and visit the assassin’s spot as well. I didn’t stand on the balcony; too painful.  I wondered how history might have been different had King, Malcolm X and Robert Kennedy not fallen to assassin’s bullets. Might a different political configuration have led to something other than the country’s turn to the right?

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Making a left turn in one of the halls, I saw a well-known SNCC brochure photo of Martha Prescod, Bob Moses and me (along with some unidentified local people) on the wall and said to a friend, “There I am!” Martha was in Greenwood, MS when I was there in 1963. She became a Movement historian, and is a co-editor of one of the SNCC women’s books. Bob, of course, is the legendary organizer who was SNCC’s Mississippi Project Director.

Hearing my “There I am,” a guy next to me wanted to know the story.  One thing led to another. He wanted a picture with me. Then about 20 black kids making a museum visit together did as well–so I did it one-by-one. Their faces and comments showed a feeling of standing next to a piece of history. It was a touching moment.

The rest of the museum is a terrific collection of visual and narrative material about “THE MOVEMENT”—which we always wrote in capital letters.  It, along with the one in Birmingham and, hopefully, a soon-to-be opened Mississippi civil rights museum, should not be missed.

The Delta counties had black a population 70% to 80% with five percent registered to vote at the maximum; in some it was closer to zero. Fear was deep. People were fired, evicted, denied credit, refused cotton ginning, beaten, their houses fire-bombed, and at the brutal worst, murdered. Internalized oppression led many to consider politics “white folks business.” By and large, none of that exists now. Blacks now work where they never could before; there are local towns and counties with black elected officials, cops and sheriffs. Ebony, a 31 year-old black woman, picked me up at Tougaloo for my car rental. We chatted. While she insisted on the southern “sir,” there was none of the deference that characterized black-white interactions 50 years ago.

But conditions now are in many ways what they were then, and in some ways worse. The schools are still largely segregated, and awful; poverty for the majority is still a fact of life; un- and under-employment are widespread; drugs have penetrated the area, and form an underground economy. Together, these elements create the school-to-prison pipeline, which is alive and well in the state. Mississippi is the poorest state in the country, and no place is poorer than the Delta.

In Indianola, two black students told us about their schools: old books, a strict dress code, suspension for slight infractions of the rules, inadequate staffing. “It’s like a prison,” one of them said. They are part of a school reform organizing effort, whose organizer Betty Petty was our host. Southern Echo is the organization that carries on the MOVEMENT’s organizing tradition in the state. Its full-time President is Hollis Watkins, who was one of SNCC’s first Mississippi recruits. It describes its “underlying goal [as] to empower local communities through effective community organizing work…to create a process through which community people can build broad-based organizations necessary to hold…systems accountable to the needs and interests of the African-American community.”

The Blues were born in the 1920s in the shacks and “juke joints” of the Delta. In Clarksdale, a Delta Blues Museum celebrates that history.

I stopped to talk with the museum custodian, a man in his 60s who remembered the bad old days, and whose father was part of THE MOVEMENT. I gave him a poster (I brought about a dozen of them with me for this purpose) that includes the photo of Bob Moses, Martha Prescod and me. He shook my hand for what seemed like minutes, excitedly thanking me for coming down to his state some 50 years ago. “You all did good things back then,” he exclaimed.

Mrs. Hamer,” as we all called her even when we knew her pretty well, is a legendary leader of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. She electrified the country with her speech to the Democratic Convention’s Credentials Committee in 1964 (here and here). Here’s her conclusion: “Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?” At the time, the TV networks were angered by a last minute, no-content, news conference called by President Johnson with the obvious purpose of pulling the cameras from Mrs. Hamer’s speech. So they re-played it several times. Delegates on the convention floor cried when they heard her.

Mrs. Hamer was one of the early people to go down to the courthouse to register to vote. She was told by her plantation owner to remove her application or she would be fired. She didn’t, and was. Her house was fired into a few nights later; luckily, no one was killed. She refused to budge, and went on to become a nationally known leader. She is a heroine of THE MOVEMENT.
 
She later established a pig farm coop, and provided food to both black and white people in and around her country who were living on the edge of starvation. The pig farm was run in an interesting way. Hungry families were given two piglets, a male and a female. When these pigs had a litter, the family had the responsibility to give a male and female pair to another hungry family. Both whites and blacks were beneficiaries of this program, and I’m told the relationships among them were often good—indicating that the wall of racism can be broken relatively quickly if the circumstances are right.

The Fannie Lou Hamer Museum is small, but its collection includes graphic documentation of those earlier times. Photos of Mrs. Hamer, a reconstruction of the shack she lived in, flyers and other documents from the period are all there. We were fortunate to show up when the curator was there on other business. (The museum was officially closed.) She took us on a personal tour. A few hundred yards away there is a Fannie Lou Hamer shrine and burial place. It brought back vivid memories of the times I was with her. In 1963, I went through Ruleville and visited her after purchasing the 1963 memorial issue of Ebony Magazine that celebrated the Emancipation Proclamation. She loved going through it with me as we sat in her house. I bought it for myself—and on my $10 a week income it was pretty pricey. I left it with her as a present. Seeing her joy at reading that history was a far greater satisfaction than having the magazine.

I also remember Mrs. Hamer at the infamous Peg Leg Bates SNCC staff meeting of December, 1966. (Bates was an African-American one-legged tap dancer who supported good causes.) I arrived to bid adieu to my friends; I was on the way to Kansas City, MO to direct Saul Alinsky’s black community organizing project. When the vote to exclude whites from the SNCC staff passed, Mrs. Hamer was in tears. “Mike,” she said to me, “I just don’t understand what they’re doing.” Her deep Christian faith told Mrs. Hamer we are all children of God. It was the last time I saw her. She died of cancer about 10 years later.

I rented a car in Jackson, and drove to Diamondhead, which is on the Gulf, and visited a friend there. There are still foundations with nothing standing on them–testimony to the power of Hurricane Katrina. My friend lives back from the water, and about 40 feet above sea level, so her house wasn’t touched.

We talked a bit about the recent election. A Tea Party candidate was defeated in the Republican run-off because blacks “crossed over” from the Democrats and voted for his opponent in sufficient number to affect the outcome of the election. An unusual provision in Mississippi law let registered Democrats (which is what most blacks are) vote in the run-off election between two Republicans.

The nominated Thad Cochran is better than the candidate he defeated. But the Mississippi potential is for someone and something much better. I hope the potential will be realized. The pieces and the legacy for something strikingly different are there.

“Of course you need programs and issues to build power. But these are two distinct things, and need to be understood in their own terms.”

(P): Mississippi summer was such a seminal time in our movement history for issues of race and class. What is the legacy of Freedom Summer for these issues, positives and negative?

(M): As your question suggests, there were positives and negatives. On the positive side, the Mississippi Summer Project (MSP) (here and here) broke the back of legal discrimination in Mississippi. Barriers to voting, equal access in public accommodations, state and private-violence against blacks who in any way spoke up, hiring in many areas and other features of what had been an apartheid state ended soon after MSP. Of course nationally there was a climate of support for civil rights. In 1965, Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) led the Selma-Montgomery march which was another major pressure to get the national government to enact voting rights, and implement those rights by sending federal marshals to the south to implement them. MSP brought about 1,000 people to the state. Three hundred of them were volunteer legal, health and other professionals; the rest were predominantly middle-to-upper middle class northern white students from major colleges and universities. Within days, a couple of them, along with a local black activist, were murdered by Klansmen operating in conjunction with law enforcement personnel (here; here). The national pressure that resulted forced federal action. It is possible that without the MSP Mississippi terror might have broken THE MOVEMENT—as it did in the 1955-60 period.

There were negatives as well, and they are more difficult to measure. In some projects, newly emerging local black organizers were unintentionally pushed aside by self-confident northern whites. Local organizing and organizers got lost in the “big picture.” Voter registration and other “programs”* became ends in themselves as distinct from interim objectives that contributed to building power to address more recalcitrant problems, particularly economic and educational opportunity.

*(freedom schools, community centers, the Democratic Party’s convention challenge to seating the Dixiecrat racists by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s (MFDP), and the challenge to seating the elected Mississippi racist congressmen at the January, 1965 opening of Congress)

(P): There was focus on the MFDP challenge at the Democratic Convention in 1964. Was such a focus to the detriment to or complimentary to more grass roots power building?

(M): The slow, patient, work of building local units of people power was absorbed in the highly visible Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s challenge to the seating of the racist Dixiecrats at the 1964 Democratic Party convention. (here and here): The discussion is generally cast as a moral one. As Fannie Lou Hamer put it, “We didn’t come here for no two seats.”

More broadly, “programs” (voter registration, community centers, freedom schools) trumped organizing for power. This subtle distinction is lost on most people. Of course you need programs and issues to build power. But these are two distinct things, and need to be understood in their own terms. When you look at things from a power-building perspective, you are interested in questions of capacity—can we do this and grow stronger as a result? You can, for example, win a major campaign on an issue and leave nothing on the ground afterward. Or, you can run a wonderful Headstart program (as the Child Development Program of Mississippi was) but find all your energies absorbed in it with none left to continue on the road to greater democracy, freedom, equality and justice. You get a big win, or build a great program, but there’s no organization and movement left.

And you have to be wary of the downsides of good, big programs. Here’s a comment from a local black Mississippian:

“[W]hen Head Start got into the county, that split up everything. When they got the pre-schools…our leaders all jumped out of our organizations, our Freedom Democratic Party, and went for those jobs. That left the peoples that were following. Y’know how that is when something happen to a leader and nobody else can really just go on. They had peoples to take over, but didn’t have nobody strong enough to know the issues and follow them up…Then those poor peoples who had all interest in these leaders, they started saying, “They using us to get everything for themselves!” Which it was true. It was sure enough true.”

The answer to your question is not an unequivocal one. Things might have been done differently. What disappointed me about the reunion was the absence of a critical look at what we did then that might have informed what is being done now by a whole new generation of organizers, activists and leaders.

What if MFDP had asked for half the seats instead of all of them—i.e. a split delegation? Granted, that would have been an implicit acceptance of the racism of the “regulars.” But wouldn’t that have made an interesting proposal? Had it been granted, and had the regulars remained at the convention, they would have found themselves in an “integrated” Mississippi delegation—more accurately one characterized by equal voting rights. Of course they wouldn’t have stood for that, and would have walked out—as they did anyway even after MFDP rejected the two seats at large offer. Would the split delegation proposal have won additional credential committee votes? Might it have blunted the fear of white voter backlash expressed in now-released private tape recordings of Lyndon Johnson rounding up votes to deny MFDP’s challenge? Would it have made a difference with labor, liberal and other allies? We have no way of knowing. But on the face of it, I think it might have been a better proposal.

Indeed, it is arguable that even the two seats at large might have presented MFDP with a wedge into 1968 recognition as the official party from the state. Instead, the labor-liberal-national civil rights leadership alliance bypassed MFDP, and created a new “moderate” Democratic Party in the state.

I don’t have a firm view regarding these options. I am convinced of the importance of learning by evaluating the past.

 

In part 2 a Mike Miller addresses the question:

“In most of the states of the Black Belt south, African-American population hovers around 30%. In many states the presence of new immigrants, Latinos and Asians, mean that “minorities” approach 40 % of the population. Why haven’t these demographic groups been able to leverage their numbers into more statewide power? What would that power look like beyond occupying seats in legislatures and the executive?”

About the author

Mike Miller

Mike Miller graduated from the University of California at Berkeley. His worked as a tenant organizer in NYC, was on staff to SNCC and spent time in 1963 in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. In 1966 he took a job in Kanas City with the Industrial Area Foundation with Saul Alinsky. In 1968 he returned to San Francisco where in in 1972 he started the ORGANIZE TRAINING CENTER. He has also served as editor and contributor to the publication Social Policy. View all posts by Mike Miller →

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Harvest of Children

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Make no mistake about it: the children detained on the US-Mexico border and those winding their way north from Central America are the legacy of US intervention in the region in the 1980s and beyond. Guatemala was left in shambles in the wake of the genocidal war successive military regimes waged against its indigenous population with Washington’s blessing since the US government overthrew the Guatemalan president, Jacobo Arbenz, in 1954.

El Salvador’s attempted revolution stalemated the military regimes after the United States poured a million dollars per day into counter-insurgency for a decade. The result was not only the death of tens of thousands and a shattered economy, but also a country awash in weapons of war. That armament became readily available to young men deported from Los Angeles who took home a new modality of social organization: the “maras,” the gangs they formed in exile to negotiate the mean streets of Southern California and that now terrorize El Salvador.

Honduras was likewise affected. The Reagan administration used the country as a massive military base throughout the 1980s to battle the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the FMLN in El Salvador. In the process, the United States government weakened Honduras’ institutions even further, the coup de grace finally arriving in 2009 with the ousting of President Manuel Zelaya. Honduras became ripe for the double plague its people can endure no longer: a transfer point for drug shipments going from Colombia to Mexico and a breeding ground for youth gangs engaged in the trade, in addition to other criminal activity.

In both El Salvador and Honduras, the gangs have created mayhem of all sorts, inflicting violence upon the population with no apparent end in sight, always hungry for new, young recruits. It is that violence, with its roots in US foreign policy toward the region, that has pushed parents to do the unthinkable: to send their children to the United States unaccompanied by family members. The fear of having their children snatched by the gangs and inducted into them (under threat of death) is greater than the fear of human traffickers.

As a consequence, the US government now faces a compounded immigration problem and the human tragedy of the massive incarceration of children. And given the Republicans’ determination to oppose, deny, and derail every single policy proposal coming from the White House, it is hard not to be pessimistic about the future of those children. President Obama is asking Congress for more funding to do more of the same: to use his executive powers to deport immigrants by the millions. That might be the only proposal he will find bipartisan support for in Congress. After all, can anyone really expect that those who created the problem in the first place would be willing to fix it in a humane, just way?

About the author

Myrna Santiago

Myrna Santiago grew up in Tijuana and moved to Los Angeles when she was twelve years old.  She attended Stevenson Junior High in Boyle Heights before going to Phillips Academy, Andover on an ABC Scholarship.  She graduated from Princeton University with a BA in Latin American Studies in 1982 and left for Mexico City on a Fulbright Scholarship after that.  Between 1985 and 1990, she did human rights work in Nicaragua, returning to the United States to start the PhD in History at UC Berkeley.  She currently teaches Latin American history at Saint Mary's College of California. View all posts by Myrna Santiago →

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00#7 Making NECCO Wafers – Fall 1972

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“All-day suckers and lolly pops
Maple fudges and chocolate drops!
Wares that satisfy; goods that please!
Who sells lovelier things than these?
Who among all of our working clan
Has a happier trade than the candy man?”

The Candy Man by Edgar Guest

I arrived back in the USA in late August of 1972 deplaning at JFK in New York City where I had started my Italian adventure the previous year. I had one small bag, and stuck my thumb out and hitched to Boston. I checked in with my parents in Andover and then headed for The Hub and my friends from the Lewd Moose commune of the summer of ‘71. Two of them, Buck and Steve had bought a house on Pine Street in the same Central Square neighborhood where we had lived together. I was invited to stay, along with half of the street lumpen kids from East Cambridge. My bedroom was in a dank basement that would flood occasionally and I would wake up and stick out my hand for a depth reading before trying to climb out of bed.

Steve and Buck, being movement entrepreneurs, had the idea that they could fund the movement by raising money with events featuring progressive rock stars and cultural icons. The initiative was called “Entropy” and they became mildly successful promoters. One day I remember being told not to barge in on the master bedroom because Allen Ginsburg was using it for some pre performance meditation. There sat the rotund rollypolly Ginsburg oohming in the upstairs bedroom. I think I was the only one in the house with a regular job, which conveniently was a stone’s throw up on Massachusetts Avenue at Albany Street at the New England Confectionery Company (NECCO). NECCO is famous for NECCO wafers and for the Whitman Sampler chocolate assortment box gifted on Valentine’s and Mother’s Day.

My decision to work at NECOO was not the product of deep scientific analysis. I needed a job to support my self, and my Italian experience inspired me to want to be a part of the US working class. I thought that any radical change in America would come from building a strong workers movement, like the one I had seen in Italy.

Like so many other workers in my experience they referenced the good old days when working at NECCO was like being part of a family.

My job at NECCO was to start work early at 5 AM, just when the frequent all night party was winding down at 51 Pine Street. I was the freight elevator operator, and I received a license from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to operate. My job was to carry raw materials and workers, mostly older ethnic Italian, Portuguese and Irish ladies up to the production floors. I enjoyed practicing my Italian with the ladies who mostly spoke Sicilian and Neapolitan dialects. I soon became attuned to some of their issues in the workplace. The clanging noise of “Rolo” and “Skybar” molds being hammered to release the product drove the noise decibel levels over 90, unsafe for human ears. The cold storage area for the filberts and peanuts used in the chocolates was infested with rats. There was a human element to the pestilence also that tamed any desire for milk chocolate on my part. Manny, an older Portuguese worker from the Azores loved to stand in front of all the other male workers in the early AM, and relieve himself into the chocolate vats. I started to talk issues with the women as we rode the elevator, and of course I had a captive audience because I could stop between floors and hold forth with my opinions about their working lives. Like so many other workers in my experience they referenced the good old days when working at NECCO was like being part of a family. Change started to happen in 1962 when NECCO was purchased by the United Industrial Syndicate (UIS) out of New York. UIS was a publicly traded conglomerate that was in the business of picking up manufacturing companies and squeezing their assets for super profits. The women were victims of that drive for increased profitability. The plant manager, Tom Antonellis, a former Boston College football star, would come down on the assembly line and fill up the line with Whitman Sampler boxes so that the ladies had to work even faster during the holiday season.

My employment at NECCO was short lived because of a classic moment of youthful idealism. The Vietnam War continued to rage, and I continued to have my strong feelings about US imperialism. At one point I came to work early and scrawled “Victory to the NLF’ on the elevator walls. I am not sure that Victory to the National Liberation Front, the Viet Cong, was an educational and teachable moment for my elevator passengers most of who didn’t speak or read English let alone know who the NLF was. But there it was penned in magic marker on the wall. It did catch the attention of management, and I was summoned to the Personnel Director’s office. The director was an old blue-blooded Bostonian who probably was given the job as a life cushion after graduating from Harvard. He wore a natty bow tie and proceeded to lecture me calmly about the offense I had committed, defacing company property. He said however, “I understand people have strong feelings about these issues, and if you will promise not to do it again you can keep your job.” I immediately expressed my strong feelings, “Absolutely, I will NOT promise never to do it again”, and I swiftly exited the chocolate factory in December of 1972.

I arrived early and was chatting with some of the Italian ladies when two giants in leisure suits from the BCT approached me.

Even though I was on the street my involvement with NECCO and its workforce was not over. I had earlier connected with an organization called Urban Planning Aid (UPA), headquartered in Central Square. This was a movement consortium specializing in technical expertise in communication, health and safety and other organizing skills. I was particularly interested in health and safety issues given some of the deplorable conditions at NECCO. The labor contract was expiring at the end of January, 1973 for the workers. They were in union Local 348 of the Bakery Confectionery and Tobacco Workers Union (BCT). I decided with the help of UPA to do some street agitation about the health and safety conditions hoping that the union would be spurred to address them with the company. I call it “street” agitation because I was out on the street handing out flyers calling out the noise and the rats in the peanut bags. I got a nice welcome from my ex-elevator passengers who appreciated seeing me in the biting winter cold handing out the newsletter. The BCT was not so hospitable.

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I went to the first union meeting of my life on January 22, 1973. The meeting was scheduled in order to update the members on the BCT contract negotiations with NECCO. It was on the second floor of the Odd Fellows Hall at 536 Massachusetts Avenue in Central Square. I arrived early and was chatting with some of the Italian ladies when two giants in leisure suits from the BCT approached me. I was no small lithesome guy, and still they proceeded to pick me up in a fireman’s carry, dragged me down the stairs and deposited me outside on Mass Ave. The contract was ratified and didn’t deal with any of the issues I was agitating about. I have learned that health and safety issues are often of utmost importance to workers, because while pay and benefits are fundamental, the breaking point that often spurs action are issues of human dignity that involve life and limb and safety and health. That was true at NECCO and has been true in every workplace I have organized since.

Of course in retrospect I might have been more effective at NECCO if I had told Mr. Blue Blood, the Personnel Director, that I would promise of course never to deface company property. Then there would have been no legitimate basis for the BCT goons to throw me out of the meeting and I would have had the daily ear of the workers on my elevator. But those were times of high idealism and little political seasoning. I chose principle over pragmatism and who paid the price?

Writing in my journal on December 22 I characterized my decision as “Stupid honesty” and reflected that I had let “Pride and a moral code that you have rejected intellectually, determine the decision”

Next – OO#8: Mass Machine Shop and the United Electrical Workers (UE)

 

Lillian R. Rubin – On Tuesday, June 17, my friend Lillian R. Rubin died. She was 90 years old. I was scheduled to have lunch with her on Friday, June 20 at Garibaldi’s restaurant on Presidio in San Francisco. I would arrive there for my monthly luncheon with her and ask for Dr. Rubin. The maître de would usher me to her favorite table at a corner spot in the back of the restaurant. Lillian was a sociologist, psychotherapist and doctor in psychology from Berkeley and an accomplished writer and commentator on matters of class, race and family in America. I had read her most famous book, Worlds of Pain: Life in the Working Class Family, as a young organizer in Boston almost 40 years ago so I was thrilled to meet her through a mutual friend in SF. Lillian was a woman who led an extraordinary life, and I will leave it to others who knew her longer and better to tell her story.

Here is her daughter Marci’s tribute and here is the obituary published in the New York Times

Lillian was a writer/mentor constantly challenging me to begin each essay with a paragraph telling the reader what I was going to write about. She would admonish me to go deeper and stop with the bland “encomiums”. I will miss her sharp edits of my essays. I hope that I have improved a little bit because of her coaching. She is missed in my life.

 

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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Recycling Workers in Their Own Words.

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The following stories, told to David Bacon, first appear in the San Francisco Bay Guardian Online 10 June 2014

Fired Immigrant Recycling Worker
Cristina Lopez and her two sons. (Lopez’ name has been changed to protect her identity)

I first applied for a job at the Select agency in 2000.  I’d just arrived from Mexico, and a friend explained to me about the agencies, that they’ll quickly send you out to work.   They sent me to some other places before ACI.  Then I was out of work for awhile, and I went down to the agency to ask them for another job.  They said the only job they had for me was in the garbage. 
 
A lot of people had told me that this job was really bad.  The woman at the agency told me, go try it for a day, and if you don’t like it you can come back here.  So I went.  At first they put me on the cardboard line.  That didn’t seem so bad because it’s not so dirty.  It’s just that the cardboard stacks up so fast.  But then they put me on the trash line, which was a lot dirtier.  But the thing is, I needed the job.  So I worked hard, and the years passed, and I was still there.
 
All day every day the trucks arrive, they unload and a machine starts pushing the trash onto the line.  Down below, we start sorting it.  The line brings all the trash past the place we’re standing, and first we separate out the cardboard.  The next line takes out the plastic.  Then the metal and aluminum gets taken out on another line. 
 
The worst position — the one with the heaviest and dirtiest work — is the trash line.  It’s really ugly.  All the really terrible things are there.   Things like dirty diapers.  There are dangers too.  Broken glass. Rusty iron.
 
I got punctured twice by hypodermic needles, and they sent me to the hospital.  I was really scared, because you don’t know where the needles have been.  You could get HIV.  They kept checking my blood at a clinic in Castro Valley for eight months afterwards, for AIDS or hepatitis or other illnesses.
 
Afterwards Maria at the agency said the company had checked my papers and found out that they weren’t any good.  I wouldn’t be able to work anymore if I couldn’t give them new papers within a month.  I told her I wanted to see this in writing, and I’d take it to a lawyer before I signed anything.  I told her, “With the lousy wages you’re paying us, do you think you’re going to find people with good Social Security numbers?”
 
After the month was up they didn’t say anything.  I knew three people after that who were called into the office after they’d been punctured by a needle, and the company then checked their papers.  But they lost their jobs because they didn’t speak up the way I did.
 
The heaviest job is separating out the metal and taking it to the containers.  Once I was sorting on the line and a heavy piece of equipment fell on me.  It really hurt me bad, but they didn’t pay me anything for that or send me to the doctor or the hospital.  Last November I slipped and fell while I was putting a cylinder on the forklift, and it hit me in the stomach.  They didn’t do anything for me that time either.  They just sent me home. They always look for a way not to send you to the doctor when something happens. 
 
We don’t have any medical insurance. They tell us that because we work for the agency, we don’t have a right to this benefit or anything else.  No vacations.  Nothing.  They call us temporary workers because we work for the agency, but we’re not really temporary.  Many of us have been working at ACI for many years.  We are permanent workers there.  But ACI doesn’t have any of its own employees on the sorting lines.  Down there we all work for the agency. 
 
When I started at ACI they were paying me $8 an hour.  They made us work ten or twelve hours every day, standing in one place all that time.  If we got sick and asked for time off they’d deny it.  Every Saturday was mandatory.  If we stopped the line to get a drink of water because it was so hot they’d get angry. If we went to the bathroom, they’d look at their watch to see how much time we were taking.
 
Then in 2012 they started two shifts and raised the wages to $8.50 for nights and $8.30 for days.  I don’t think that’s a fair wage. The job is very heavy and the pay is really low.  In one safety meeting I asked them to give us a raise.  Then the manager yelled at me and called me a grossera because I said the company was greedy. Afterwards he told me I had to go apologize in the office. 
 
They’d yell at us and tell us to get out more production but they’d never raise the wages.  Our hands were hurting from what they already demanded. Once a woman said we’d go on strike and Brenda, the manager, said we’d all be fired if we did.  She said, there are four doors and they’re all open for anyone who doesn’t like it here. 
 
Then they decided to motivate us by giving us clocks as presents, but they didn’t work.  When I asked why they’d give us broken clocks the company was insulted, but I see better stuff in the trash.
 
Even though we were asking for raises, we never knew that San Leandro had a living wage law.  Of course they never said a thing about it.  They would just say, there’s not going to be any raise.  We learned about it when we talked with the union organizer, Agustin.  We decided to file a court case to force them to raise the wages.   We didn’t want to get fired – we wanted them to pay us better.
 
Then in February they began calling us in to say they’d started checking our papers.  They said la migra had checked our papers over a year earlier, but if that was really true, why did they wait until we’d filed the suit?  When I asked Monica, a manager, why, she said it was partly because we’d sued the company and partly because the company had been audited by la migra.   People have worked here for fourteen or fifteen years, and no one ever said anything to them before.  Now that we filed the suit, we’re getting fired. 
 
Since I got fired I’ve been very worried about my situation.  I can’t get hired and my sons lost their jobs in Los Angeles and came up to live with me.  My PG&E bill is very high,  $258.  The water bill came — $239.  The rent is $1250.  We’re all living in one room and renting out the others just to be able to pay it.
 
I’ve been here fourteen years, and it’s impossible for me to go back to Apatzingan, in Michoacan, where I was born. But I was never sorry I came.  I worked hard for three years, and brought my two sons.   I may not have a job right now, but I don’t regret anything.  I’m going to struggle, and continue moving ahead.

 

 

Fired Immigrant Recycling Worker
Luis Valladares, his wife and two of their children. (Valladares’ name was changed to protect his identity)
 
 
My father is a farmer in Chiapas, and grows corn, mangoes and bananas.  Our land wasn’t enough to support our family, though.  The little we were able to grow was just to eat.  When I went to school I didn’t have any money for lunch.  I’d just bring some tortillas with salt, or some beans. We always suffered from poverty.  Now we just try to forget. 
 
Poverty closes doors in your life, to what might have happened if you could have kept studying.  When I was sixteen I left home and school, and went to Mexico City. Parents never want their children to leave.  But we, their kids, don’t belong to them, and we can’t stay.  The majority of young people in my town have left, like me, looking for a way to help their families survive.
 
In Mexico City I found work as a musician, because I play the marimba.  On weekends we’d go out to the markets with the marimba and make enough to eat.  Then I met my wife who was living in Mexico City too.  I was the one who suggested to her that we come here.  She had a sister who was already here.  We had no money, so her sister gave us a loan to get here.  I came first and found a job with this same agency.  It wasn’t very stable work, but after five months I put together enough money to bring my wife. 
 
We had a daughter we had to leave behind.  She was just three when we left, and she’s sixteen years old now.  She still lives in Mexico.  This was very hard for us.  We send money home for her, but she doesn’t want to come live here and leave her grandmother.  We don’t want to force her.  And now, of course, it’s much harder to come.  It’s not just more expensive, but you’re risking your life.  Many people have died trying to cross the border.
 
When I came I crossed in the desert.  I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone.  You just make the decision to do this out of need. When we were thinking about coming here, my idea was that we’d stay here for two or three years, save up some money and then go back and build a house.  But look.  Now we’ve been here 14 years and we can’t go back.  My children belong here, and there are a lot of benefits for them here. 
 
I worked at ACI for twelve years.  When I started I was a sorter on the line.  Then they asked me if I wanted to operate machinery, and I got off the line.  I ran the packing machine.  I learned to drive the forklifts and the loaders – all the machines the company has. 
 
The packing machine packs all the material that is sorted on the line — paper, cardboard, trash, aluminum, plastic, cans – into a dense package and puts the bands around the package.  Each package has to have a certain weight.  My job was to watch the line, and calculate the weight of the material going into the machine.  If I let too much go in, the machine would seize up.  It would be a big headache.  It took me time to learn, but at the end it’s like the way you know your car. 
 
Can they take someone who’s been working there a month and have them do this?  No one is irreplaceable, but it takes anyone time to learn.  It’s a very responsible job. You can’t go to sleep on this machine.  If you fall in you’ll wind up in pieces. 
 
If the machine jams, to go inside you have to stop it, take out the key, and pull the electrical switch.  At another company a friend of my wife reached in to free a piece of metal that had jammed the machine. The machine was still on and he hadn’t unlocked it.  The machine grabbed his foot.  He didn’t lose it, but he’s disabled now.   
 
This is a very dangerous place to work.  Machines are always passing by.  The line is moving and other machines are moving around them. 
 
When I started at ACI they paid me $6.75 an hour. I left in 2009 because they were only paying me $8.50.  One Friday, when I saw they were still paying me that same lousy wage, I punched out and told the supervisor that if they wanted me to give me a call.  The agency fired me.  But the person they hired to replace me wasn’t very good at the job.  After a year, the agency called me and I went back at $10 an hour.
 
I didn’t know about the living wage, but some women at work talked with Agustin from the union and decided to file the suit.  Whatever is for the benefit of us, the workers, I support.  And I continue to support it.  I never imagined they would fire us for this. 
 
I always had the idea that unions had a lot of benefits for workers. They’ve never paid us any of these things.  So I thought if we filed a suit, it might lead to having a union, and eventually the company would work with it.  Instead Anna and Monica called me to the agency office and said, “We want you to reverify your Social Security number, and bring us proof that you can continue to work here.”
 
You know, when many people come to this country, we come illegally.  I’m not going to lie.  When we came we had to find a way to start working.  And this is the basic thing you need – a Social Security number.  You have to buy a number.  If we had good numbers we’d never have the kind of problems we have now.  By 2001, when I came, you could not get a real Social Security number, although long ago you could. 
 
Since that attack on the twin towers it’s been really hard. They’ve started checking Social Security numbers a lot more.  Jobs also just got harder to find.  A lot of companies closed, leaving their workers without jobs.  Now we’re in this ocean of unemployed people.
 
At first I was very angry.  I felt helpless.  And then quickly I began to worry.  I have to pay the rent, the bills.  The kids have to eat.  When you’re working, you only make enough just to live.  Do you think with the wage they’ve been paying that we were able to save any money? 
 
I haven’t been able to find another job.  My wife is working, but only part time in a hotel. Lately I’ve been going out to work with some friends.  But it’s just two or three days a week.  This week I didn’t work a single day.  Every penny I make I’m putting away to pay the rent.
 
I don’t believe that what happened to us at ACI is just.  We’re looking for the welfare of our families, trying to get a fair wage so we can live better.  People need to understand what happened to us, the abuse and low pay that immigrants have to live with.

 

 

BRAZILIANS AGAINST FUTEBOL

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Why has Brazil turned against its religion?

“Pelé is a poet when his mouth is shut”
- Romário

A day before the 2014 World Cup Finals kick-off and São Paulo, the city hosting the first game, is recovering from the longest subway strike in its history. The five-day strike, which was declared “abusive” by the courts, cost the union a bit more than U$200,000.00 a day. The strikers were beaten and gassed in the streets, thirteen were arrested and forty-nine fired.

They are not the only ones taking industrial action. While traditionally militant unions like the teachers were expected to strike, the year was peppered with strikes, from security guards to trash collection to police officers. In Rio de Janeiro, defying both the State and their union, trash collectors stage a massive eight day wildcat strike starting the last day of Carnaval, one of the busiest trash days of the year, winning a 37% wage increase. Even university students had their strikes.

Although the mass protests last year gathered a lot of attention, they faded quickly when the government at first acquiesced to the immediate demand (lower the bus fares), a victory easily lost as a month later all bus fares had gone up again. Much like Occupy in the U.S., the protests were tacitly supported by a great majority of the population, but the actual participants were mainly from the middle-class – in their majority university students.

Brazil winning the Confederations Cup amidst the most violent protests helped calm down the general sense of anger and to cool the protest movement momentarily.

The slogan of the protests also gave a momentary boost to the right-wing in the country. Decrying corruption became a rallying cry of the right against the left-of-center Workers Party government. While their direct influence inside the protests was fairly short-lived, they were successful to bring their particular brand of populism to the mainstream of Brazilian society, with a mix of anti-taxation, anti-government waste and anti-crime (including calls for vigilante justice that led to a woman being lynched to death after being mistaken identified as a child kidnapper.)

Brazil’s endemic corruption, the cost-overrun in stadiums that were either doomed to be abandoned after the cup or, if profitable, immediately privatized (including Maracanã, Brazil’s most famous stadium), while hospitals, roads and other public services continued in their appalling state of disrepair. Popular anger even turned against soccer greatest, Pelé, after he said that Brazilians should wait until after the Cup to protest and that the death of a worker during the construction of Arena Corinthians was “normal.” Ronaldo, another one of Brazil greatest, also felt the popular ire when he said that “You can’t host a World Cup in hospitals” in response to people’s complain that all the spending in the Cup should be used to ameliorate the deplorable conditions of Brazil’s health care system.

One former player, however, emerged as the voice of the disaffected. Romário (The greatest striker I ever seen play), elected in 2010 to the Chamber of Deputies on the Partido Socialista Brasileiro (Brazilian Socialist Party) ticket, has become a vocal critic of the cup’s organization and management. He has gotten in a war of words with Pelé, Ronaldo, FIFA’s Secretary General Jérôme Valcke and FIFA’s President Sepp Blatter (whom Romário called a “thieving, corrupt son of a bitch” on national television). He has tirelessly attacked what he called “the worst World Cup of all times.”

Romário’s criticisms had echo both in FIFA and in those opposing it. FIFA has harshly criticized the organization and the delays of the cup (a worker was quoted in a Monday article saying that only God could get Arena Corinthians finalized before kick-off). At the same time, the criticisms against FIFA stem from the organization’s demands (no taxation in any level, the overturn or adjustment of laws that prohibited the sale of alcohol in stadiums and of for-profit organizations as defined by Brazilian law using volunteer work), and restrictions (many of the traditional items used by fans in Brazilian stadiums will be prohibited, including drums, flares and the really big flags we are very fond of).

The World Cup will happen, and it will be memorable, whether Brazil wins or loses. It has opened the wound of discontent and politicized a whole generation.

Politica di Piazza OO#6

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Public squares or piazzas play a central role in Italian life. When I arrived in Florence in 1972 I visited some of the small Tuscan towns on the periphery of Firenze and I was a witness to “fare la passegiata”. Literally translated this means “to make a walk”, but in practice is a public ritual in which the townspeople strut their stuff in the public square. Particularly the young engage in ritualized courtship where unattached young men and women parade around arm and arm observing members of the opposite sex. This was not something I had seen on the commons of the cities and towns of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

What happens in piazza is a reflection of the balance of power in Italian society. Poltica di Piazza has its highs and lows. Benito Mussolini was accustomed to addressing huge crowds from a window in Piazza Venezia in Rome during his glory years. Later Il Duce was strung up by his heels in Piazza Loreto in Milano by the partisans at the end of the war of liberation from fascism.

I was mesmerized by a march of 100,000 Italian workers in Rome in 1972 on May Day marching against the war in Vietnam. Workers in their Sunday best, suits and ties, wearing red carnations and carrying flags with the hammer and sickle emblazoned on a red banner filed through Piazza Navona as part of a coordinated nationwide day of protest. I saw in these marchers a physical affirmation of the possibility of radical socialist thinking among working class people. Maybe if history and traditions dictate workers could be won to visions of radical change.

Three personal experiences in “piazza” left strong impressions on a young and ingénue American.

Comizio in Piazza della Signoria – In the spring of 1972 things had intensified in Vietnam both militarily and on the diplomatic front as the talks in Paris to end the war were underway albeit haltingly. In Florence the sizable American ex pat community decided that it wanted to demonstrate publically against its own government’s criminal war. We connected with an array of extra-parliamentary political forces ranging from Grupo Gramsci to Potere Operaio and enlisted their aid to stage a rally in the main square, Piazza della Signoria where the famous replica of the David statue stands in front of Loggia dei Lanzi and the Gli Uffizi. The planning meetings were a spectacle and for us Americans kind of like being a spectator at a tennis match where we would sit and watch the Italians of all different political stripes debate back and forth the merits of including this group or that in the rally.

“I got to spend a weekend in Torino and met all of the ten Trotskyists in Italy”

Peter Olney Italy(2)

Each planning meeting would open with a salute to the “Compagni Americani” and then degenerate into a heated debate over their domestic differences. It was agreed that an American should make one of the speeches in English and I was designated to speak. I found a poster on the walls of the Universita di Firenze and copied down the demands from the poster and incorporated them into my written speech. My time came and I spoke in English from the stage and looked at a Piazza full of Italians sitting in the square with the American contingent huddled in the back of the square as giant water tanks were massed with helmeted caranbinieri to deal with crowd control. I delivered my speech and arrived at my dramatic climax proclaiming the demands I had pulled off the agitational poster: No more guns, no more bombs, troops out now! There was dead silence from the crowd, which I of course attributed to language difficulties so I awaited the translator’s work and figured my punch line would yield explosive cheering and applause. Instead there was again dead silence even after my words were delivered in Italian. I was befuddled but as I was climbing down from the stage two Italian men approached me. They rushed to me and exclaimed, “Compagno de la Quarta Internazionale”! They hugged me and invited me to visit the headquarters in Torino later that month. Evidently I had purloined my punch line from a Trotskyist poster in the university and they had identified me as an American Trotskyist. I got to spend a weekend in Torino and met all of the ten Trotskyists in Italy. I also learned that the level of Italian political sophistication was way beyond anything I had heretofore experienced. Finally I learned that in public speaking it helps to know your audience.

Festa dell’ Unita – Unita was the paper of the Italian Communist Party (PCI). It was a daily newspaper replete with sports, culture and coverage of world events and local happenings. Each year in the late spring the Communist Party would hold Feste del’Unita to flex their public muscle in piazza and raise funds. That spring I was invited (my political missteps in La Signoria notwithstanding) along with another American to address a Festa event in Pontasieve, a working class suburb of Firenze. Pontasieve like many of the Tuscan towns was as stronghold of the PCI and like many of the comparable hill towns had a street named Via della Resistenza in honor of the partisan fighters against Mussolini. My American companion was asked to sing and broke out “Where have All the Flowers Gone?” I said a few words about the fight for peace. Then an Italian worker and PCI member addressed the crowd and thanked us for our interventions. He then went on to describe in detail the troop movements of the National Liberation Front (NLF) in Vietnam and the military victories they were winning over the over the Americans and the ARVN. Again I was astounded at the level of training and political sophistication and the radically different world view of these Italian workers.

Chain Gang a Roma
– In June of 1972 I traveled to Rome to visit some friends who lived near the University. It was a warm Roman day and I was wearing what is referred to as a guinea tee shirt. On one side of the shirt I was wearing a large Lenin pin and I was carrying a copy of the daily paper of Lotta Continua. I was walking in the section of the University where the Law Faculty was located which I l quickly discovered later was a home base for fascist student groups. Evidently the day I found myself at the law school, a communist in Salerno in Southern Italy had attacked and killed a fascist in a street protest. This was a national event and so the fascist gangs were out for revenge. As I walked the sidewalk I was approached by a group of ten Italian men carry chains. They spotted me and began to shout derisively, “Ciao Compagno.! I hurriedly crossed street into traffic to cut off a part of the gang, but when I got to the other side of the Viale there were still five of them coming at me. One of them must have been designated for this assignment as he started to twirl a heavy motorcycle chain over his head as he moved on me. My adrenaline was rushing so I marched right at the man held up my arm and managed to block the chain and wrest it away from him. I was left there standing holding the chain as the carabinieri approached us. The fascists started to shout that the Communist had assaulted them and that I should be arrested. I will never forget watching a young Italian father with his wife and baby in a carriage rush at the police and start yelling at them to pursue the fascists and arrest them because he had been a witness to everything that had happened. The police backed off as a crowd started to gather, and the family man harangued them. I was allowed to go on my way.

My experience in the public square, my politica di piazza left me admiring the courage and potential sophistication of the working class. I was ready to go home and see whether we could add some Italian sugo to the American political mix.

Next: Living with the Lumpen and making NECCO Wafers

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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Obama’s CTE Concussion Summit and the Future of Football

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Yesterday’s concussion summit at the White House shows how far the discourse has shifted from 20 years ago when a “bell ringer”, a concussion causing dizziness and disorientation was deemed just a part of the male rite of passage for young players and a job hazard for professionals.

Yesterday’s NYT carries an interesting quote from Steve Tisch, the chairman of the NY football Giants who says, “What I’d like to see in 20 years from now, no NFL players, no rookies playing in 2014, experiencing any head injuries” He added, “We’re taking some of the first steps in that direction.”

The problem that the NFL and all of organized football faces at all levels is that there are no steps except the complete elimination of the helmet that will lead to a drastic reduction on head injuries and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). Yes, ironically the protective equipment is the problem. It allows players to put their head in situations where brain matter is traumatized like an egg yolk floating in egg white. It is not so much the dramatic hits that ESPN shows on its highlight reels but the constant concussive activity on every play suffered particularly by interior lineman whose hands, heads and legs are constantly banging hard object on hard object on every play from scrimmage.

A celebratory head butt by a quarterback with one of his own teammates after a dramatic touchdown pass is traumatic! A hand slap to the helmet by a coach to a helmeted player returning to the sideline after an excellent play on the field is concussive activity. In 2000 I predicted that in 10 years football would become a marginal blood sport. Many looked askance at that prediction for America’s most popular and lucrative sport, but as the data accumulates and the parents get preoccupied my prediction increasingly seems less farfetched. Recently the town of Marshall in football mad East Texas outlawed contact football for students through the seventh grade.

Here for a reprise is the Stansbury Forum piece I wrote in the fall of 2012 entitled “For safety sake let’s play rugby”

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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