Part two of a series looking back on the 20th anniversary the AFL-CIO’s New Voice movement
John Sweeney, his officers, and their staff team came into office with high expectations and great optimism. A good part of their inspiration was drawn from SEIU’s Justice for Janitors campaign that many had directly participated in or saw as a model of success. After all, Justice for Janitors had succeeded in mobilizing members, winning better contracts and organizing thousands of new, mostly Latino members while garnering broad public support.(1)
Founded in 1921, the Building Service Workers was a Chicago-based janitors, window washer and doormen’s union. George Hardy, the predecessor to John Sweeney as International President, was a San Francisco native and organizer who took his comrades from Hayes Valley to Southern California after World War II to organize janitors in Los Angeles. From his base at Local 399 in Los Angeles, Hardy launched the campaign to organize Kaiser and health care that would transform the Building Service Workers into the Service Employees International Union.(2)
By the 1980s, much of the union’s market power among urban janitors had eroded as the industry restructured to a cleaning model that relied on outsourced contract cleaners instead of permanent staff. When Justice for Janitors was launched in the late 1980s however, the union still retained tremendous power and thousands of members in its traditional strongholds of New York City, Chicago and San Francisco.
In these cities, the union had excellent contracts with good wages and benefits for doormen and cleaners. These were the “fortresses” that played such a crucial role in the success of the janitor’s campaigns in Los Angeles, San Jose, Oakland, Denver and San Diego where the battle was to reorganize weak and degraded bargaining units and organize thousands of new members.
The early janitor organizers in Los Angeles recognized the importance of first rebuilding and re-energizing their base. One of the first campaigns undertaken was the contract campaign for downtown janitors. Cecile Richards(3) skillfully directed a winning contract fight for the approximately 1,000 janitors in the core market of LA. The contract struggle gave the union a new core group of supporters; many of whom became the front line soldiers in the campaign to organize the vast non-union market outside of downtown.
A key to the membership mobilization was “market triggers” that Local 399 inserted into its collectively bargained agreements. The triggers provided for automatic increases in wages and benefits if the janitors union succeeded in organizing 50 percent or more of the commercial buildings in mutually agreed upon geographic areas. Thus, when rank and file union janitors marched for “justice for the unorganized janitors” it meant marching to increase their own wages and benefits and to gain a more secure future.
In Los Angeles long-time union signatory contractors like International Service Systems (ISS) were operating non-union or in the case of American Building Maintenance (ABM) double breasting by creating new entities like “Bradford Building Services” to clean non-union in LA.(4) On May 29, 1990 the SEIU janitors boldly struck non-union ISS buildings in the entertainment high rise complex called Century City. When the Daryl Gates-led police department brutally attacked the striking Los Angeles janitors on June 15, the shocking news footage traveled around the country.(5) With some prompting, SEIU Local 32 B-J leader Gus Bevona threatened ISS with a shutdown in New York City if the company didn’t settle in LA. That strategic solidarity contributed to victory and the nearly immediate organization of thousands of new members for SEIU Local 399.
Most successful organizing is not done in a vacuum, existing members have to be front line apostles.
The campaign even had a movie made about it; “Bread and Roses” directed by the Scottish filmmaker Ken Loach.(6) It did a fine job of presenting SEIU’s strategy to organize industry-wide and build a campaign that resonated broadly in the community particularly among Latinos. It also portrayed the challenges organizers always face in holding the unity of the working class. The deep divisions and contradictions among workers are often the biggest obstacle that needs to be overcome in order to have a shot at beating the boss.(7)
The Justice for Janitors campaign was often showcased by New Voice supporters as a premier example of “new” organizing. But what many union leaders and key staff strategists have missed is the fact it was not a “blank slate” campaign disconnected from the sources of SEIU’s membership and contract power. As we have shown above, it was a campaign (as William Finnegan also pointed out in an excellent New Yorker article) deeply rooted in the existing power, base and history of SEIU.(8)
Herein lies an important lesson: It takes members to organize members! While obvious and hardly a new concept, it was embraced as part of the New Voice strategy of “bargaining to organize” in 1996. But sadly the importance of worker-to-worker organizing, building strong committees and using our bargaining power with employers got lost. As a result, we’ve seen a multitude of costly “Hail Mary” passes being thrown in the labor movement with little chance of success because there is not the power of the market or the members in play.
Justice for Janitors was a brilliant campaign that wisely by-passed the NLRB election process and leveraged better contracts and growth through an industry-wide strategy that relied heavily on creative confrontation and community alliances. It was not however a campaign out of whole cloth. It had the power of the existing membership in major markets, leverage with many of the employers who were operating non-union in new markets and the loyalty of many members who had seen the union’s power in making a better life for themselves and their families. Bargain to organize remains a successful starting point for real organizing, member-to-member.
Most successful organizing is not done in a vacuum, existing members have to be front line apostles. Can United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) supermarket members be expected to support the organization of Wal-Mart workers if national supermarket chains are weakening their labor contracts, and the union is not responding with a national bargaining strategy?
This is the dilemma so often faced by trade unionists in thinking about bold new initiatives. For example, in the aftermath of the success of the Janitors campaign in Los Angeles the union succeeded in organizing many new janitors, raising their wages and in some markets, winning health insurance. The contractors responded by cutting staffing to recoup their margins. SEIU Local 399 engaged in several dramatic strikes against staffing cuts. These were strikes by workers under contract. One strike led to the arrest of all 55 janitors in the largest office building in Los Angeles in 1993. While the strike led to victory in the staffing conflict in that building, it created tension with the external organizers who saw any deviation from focus on new organizing as problematic and any disruption of union signatories as a problem. Never an easy dilemma, but if existing members are not confident in the union’s power to deal with their lives then their support for external campaigns becomes more limited.
Several years ago, the new “Our Walmart” campaign was rolled out and previewed at a strategic organizers retreat in California with an impressive power point presentation on Walmart’s markets, finance and vulnerabilities. The presentation projected the organization of one percent of Walmart’s workforce by the end of the campaign’s first year: 12,000 workers. As the presentation came to a close, a veteran organizer from the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE) very respectfully made two points with respect to his organizing experience:
•It has taken HERE 20 to 25 years to build an organizing culture in some of its locals among its existing membership base
•In the hotel industry the “big dog” is Marriot and the union did not think it had the power and resources at this moment to take that company on.
The HERE organizer had just effectively deconstructed the Our Walmart effort. This from an organizer with a union that successfully waged a “bargain-to-organize” campaign with the Hyatt Hotel chain that resulted in organizing rights in new Hyatt’s in selected markets. This is another example of the effective use of the “union fortress” to grow.
The urgency of organizing millions of workers to reclaim the union density levels of post-World War II led the ambitious “New Voice” apostles to steer the labor movement away from emphasis on long, patient organizing drives and deep worker-based organizing. What an irony that a campaign whose very success was based on the strength of its existing membership base was — and continues to be — misconstrued into an example of how large scale organizing can take place without the fundamental imperative of engagement with our existing membership.
(1) “Justice For Janitors: A look back and a look forward: 24 years of organizing janitors”
(2) For information about George Hardy and for the history of the Building Service Workers
(3) Richards is the daughter of Texas Governor Anne Richards and now director of Planned Parenthood.
(4) International Service Systems and American Building Maintenance
(5) “Janitors Suit Settled,” Sonia Nazario, Los Angeles Times, September 4, 1993
(6) “Bread and Roses”
(7) Scottish screenwriter Paul Laverty came to Los Angeles in the early nineties to march and hang out with the janitors and their organizers. His screenplay was made into “Bread and Roses” staring a young unknown actor named Adrien Brody cast as the SEIU organizer. George Lopez, later of TV sitcom fame, played a vicious cleaning company supervisor.
(8) Finnegan’s showed remarkable insight in his article, “Dignity” about the “Fight for $15″ in the September 15, 2014 issue of The New Yorker where he points out the fundamental difference between the Justice for Janitors campaign and Fast Food organizing: “The Justice for Janitors campaign of the nineteen-nineties offers a good precedent for the current fast-food campaign, [SEIU President Mary Kay] Henry said. The janitors were fissured by the broad move of commercial property owners to subcontracting, much as fast-food workplaces are fissured by franchising. Their nominal employers, small cleaning companies, had no power and thin profit margins. The tactics of the janitors were unorthodox, and included mass civil disobedience: closing freeways in Los Angeles; blocking bridges into Washington, D.C. Their goal was to get building owners to the table, and in time they succeeded, in some cases nearly doubling with their first contract the compensation they had been earning. The movement was largely Latino, and crucially strengthened by undocumented immigrants who stepped up, risking deportation. But big-city janitors had been unionized, historically—and in some cities, like New York, still were—so the fight was really to reorganize and rebuild. There is no comparable history in fast food. More important, the fast-food workforce is just under four million and growing, and the main companies are so rich and powerful that the stakes are higher than in any labor struggle in recent memory.” (Emphasis added)
Previously in the series looking back on the 20th anniversary the AFL-CIO’s New Voice movement
Part One: Just a whisper now: a look back at the AFL-CIO New Voice after 20 years
Chicago hasn’t seen such electoral contention since the days of Dick and Jane – and Harold. Even in defeat, the Jesus “Chuy” Garcia challenge brought a familiar spirit back to the city by the lake. No one expected the immigrant from Durango to challenge the abrasive Rahm in a run off. Nor could we have predicted the surprising synergy that would result from over a dozen insurgent ward campaigns and Chuy’s crusade. In the 12th ward on the Southwest side, we learned that politics is local.
Following a spontaneous and wildly successful petition drive which netted 62,000 names in less than a month, passion in wards north, south and west threatened to ignite a city-wide blaze.
To our chagrin, the wind in our city could not propel enough burning embers across the Dan Ryan and the Eisenhower. In the posh areas of the new economy, condo dwellers stamped out the sparks with their tony boots. They rushed to the polls as if panicking in a lakefront fire drill. Municipal employees and pensioners tried to nurture the flame out southwest and northwest. But suspicious property owners turned on their sprinklers in spite of distaste for mayor’s one percent. Constant TV attack ads paid for with Rahm’s millions were the showers that fell harder on some neighborhoods than others.
Jesus “Chuy” Garcia awoke long dormant alliances. Young activists stepped forward and exchanged skills with veteran organizers. Hundreds worked to create new mechanisms for electoral struggle. Aldermanic candidates emerged to give leadership to progressive ward organizations. Terms like “privatization”, “community policing”, “progressive taxation”, “participatory budgeting”, and “the neighborhoods” became familiar topics.
When the votes were all counted, we were not the kind of movement that could topple Rahm Emanuel’s coterie of global power brokers. We are a populace fragmented by the cunning of the one percent. We rose up to fight back. We lost. And yet we gained a lot.
At the risk of over simplification, the mayor’s tactic was to arouse suspicion of a Mexican American populist. To whites, the message, encoded in “dog whistles”, was that Chuy is a “nice”, but “naïve”, Mexican “boy”. His call for audits of city corruption was spun as an evasion of fiscal responsibility. At a more sinister level, the unspoken message called for unity to keep the burgeoning Latino community in its place – at the precarious margins of progress. Fearful of dire warnings of municipal bankruptcy, many white voters sided with the one percent. Chuy’s biggest strength is his unapologetic compassion and his defense of the undocumented. In the minds of a beleaguered middle class, this roughly translated as “keep them in their place, scrambling at the bottom alongside the blacks”.
And to African Americans, many of whom have been pushed even beyond the margin, there was not a deep enough reservoir of solidarity. Competition for jobs and economic opportunity between blacks and Latinos has created a divide. The rivalry, often downplayed in polite discussion, is nonetheless real. It’s the most recent iteration of the age-old scenario – not unlike the divisions set up at the turn of the previous century when southern sharecroppers were imported as replacement workers in the stockyards.
More than anything else, the race hinged on race.
Significantly the Latino community in Chicago supports a relatively vibrant commercial class.
Yet we gave them a scare, flexed some political muscle, won a handful of new aldermanic seats, learned a lot, increased our numbers, and projected an example for similar coalitions and struggles nationwide.
The key was a grass roots approach. Some purists missed this important dynamic. They stood on the sidelines calling Chuy a corporate neo-liberal in disguise. They predicted that Chuy would enact austerity budgets. They feared that his campaign was not radical enough to energize those who have lost hope. They jumped on weaknesses in outreach to African American communities as a deal breaker. The campaign’s call for hiring of 1000 police officers was cited as an indication of treachery.
In the near southwest 12th ward, we didn’t even try to influence the citywide campaign over which we had little control. We felt that, if everything fell into place, we might be able to replicate the minority-led Harold Washington inter-regnum of thirty years ago. But, more realistically, we were fighting for power at the ward level and to defend our people. As things stand, neo-liberal schemes define the political landscape. Rahm Emanuel personifies this perfidy along the predominantly Latino Archer corridor. Transfer of wealth proceeds apace.
The elevation of Commissioner Garcia as our standard bearer at first seemed accidental – driven, as it was, by Karen Lewis’ brain tumor and County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s refusal to accept the challenge.
But it is not random chance that reform’s most credible and trustworthy candidate arose from the Latino political movement. Commissioner Garcia has positioned himself as an honest independent. He has been steady in opposition to each successive re-incarnation of machine politics. He got his start as a pioneer for Chicano empowerment in the late seventies. The ward organization, which he helped form in Little Village, is the only opposition precinct apparatus which has stayed intact over this span. The man has displayed courage several times in his career – from his willingness to stand in for his assassinated compadre, Rudy Lozano, to his recent acceptance of the torch from Ms. Lewis, the outspoken leader of the teacher’s union.
Chuy’s campaign meme was that Rahm takes from the neighborhoods and rewards the rich. The gleaming center versus decaying ghettos and barrios was a fundamental metaphor. Specifics in regards to safety, education, revenue generation, and services were plentiful. Problems with the mix of issues, the way they were broadcast, difficulties in creating a citywide campaign, and missed alliances do not alter the key point – Chuy was articulating a broad populist message.
With regard to Chuy’s strongest base of support, critics should own up to their own blind spot. He unapologetically spoke for a large, multi-class base in a Latino community that is marginalized and becoming more so. It is almost too obvious to state that Latinos are overwhelmingly members of the working class. The dynamism of the Latino fabric in Chicago is hard to ignore.
Correctly and in keeping with his longstanding approach, Chuy subsumed his Chicano politics within a call for class justice. Unions were his financial bedrock. Class was a unifying blanket. Good government was a broad appeal. But the speakers of Spanish, the people whose names end in “ez” and “ño”, the Latinos of Chicago, were his reliable electoral base.
In our work in McKinley Park, we were struck by the Latino solidarity. Every precinct produced vote percentages coinciding almost exactly with the percent of Latino voters. Of course there are small remnants of the discredited Hispanic Democratic Organization (HDO). In my own precinct, there are four reliable Rahm votes in the household of machine-backed State Senator Tony Muñoz. And, of course, we know white and Chinese voters who went with Chuy. But the general pattern holds.
Significantly the Latino community in Chicago supports a relatively vibrant commercial class. Their interest is strongly with the economic well-being and the secure residency status of all Spanish speakers. They along with Latino professionals – both public and private — were totally on board. It was never hard to solicit botanas and comidas for Garcia events. Rahm Emanuel photo ops with Latino elected officials, who called themselves the Rahmtinos, elicited derision in all Southwest side barrios.
In the run off, Latino turnout, while elevated and enthusiastic, did not cascade to the mighty levels that we experienced with African Americans voting for Harold Washington or Barak Obama. Social and historical reasons prevail. A huge cohort of noncitizens intermingles with many who are not registered or feel culturally and linguistically alienated.
Similarly, the hoped for re-unification of the Black-Brown alliance of the 1980s, was not spectacular. Emanuel’s money produced saturation attack ads, street level pay offs, misleading promises, and appeals to racial divisions by proxy publicists. Some lingering loyalty to Rahm as an emissary from President Obama depressed the African American turnout significantly. Rahm pulled down majorities in the mid-50s to mid-60s in African American precincts.
Long known as a united voting bloc, African Americans were divided and confused. Could the Garcia campaign have said the magic words and repaired a historic divide? Weaknesses in the commissioner’s campaign were a reflection of something broader. He could not create on-the-ground leadership and proof of good faith for such an alliance in a matter of weeks. Stubborn realities of segregation, alternating tactics of favoritism and neglect, gerrymandering, and economic competition have chilled the dialogue among the two communities.
Chuy’s history is replete with efforts to reach out and champion the black agenda. He was a swing vote for Harold Washington in council wars. He has stood against discriminatory landlords and segregated high school boundaries. More so than any current elected official in Chicago, he has worked to create working multi-ethnic and multi-issue coalitions. When he was in the Illinois Senate, he was a member of the Black caucus. In contrast, the incumbent one percenter used guile to fashion relatively cheap and insignificant gestures as a lifeline to African Americans.
… we had such a large base of volunteers that we were able to approximate the old style machine structure
Several African American leaders and activists were prominent and instrumental. For every compromised clergyman there was a Jesse Jackson. For each Bobby Rush there was a Danny Davis. For every charter hustler there was an education activist like Kenwood’s Jitu Brown.
In the 12th ward, Pete DeMay’s aldermanic campaign intermingled with Chuy’s mayoral crusade. Like Chuy, Pete stepped forward when no one else was willing. He entered a one-on-one bout with machine regular, George Cardenas.
Pete was an anomaly – a white guy with credibility as a United Autoworkers organizer, fluent in Spanish and with organizing experience in Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Tennessee. He was a hard-working and combative campaigner. He united with an existing core of activists in the McKinley Park neighborhood and attracted an expanded following. His platform centered on education, end to regressive revenue measures, as well as more equitable public safety and ward services.
It is here, at the deepest level of political activity, that the elections of 2015 are interesting and instructive. In the precincts, we mixed the battle for local accountability with the broader, city-wide effort. We went toe to toe against a well-funded, entrenched machine. We stood upright in the middle of the ring. We were surprised to see a Latino cheering section for the güero against a man who has a surname evocative of Mexican radicalism. So effective was the challenge, that Cardenas appealed to a hometown referee – Rahm’s Chicago Board of Elections. Ruling on preposterous legal pretexts, the board declared a technical knockout. Pete was stricken from the ballot. We were down for the count before we could finish the first round.
We’ll never know if Pete’s aggressive campaign could have ridden Chuy’s coat tails to victory against a Latino apologist for neo-liberalism. His spunk and organization touched a nerve. Even without his name on the ballot, we netted an unprecedented 20 to 25 percent write-in count in the municipal general election.
The use of legal shenanigans to derail Pete’s challenge was as obvious as it was odious. The required number of nominating signatures was 473. We collected over 2100. Of these, 1400 were invalidated in challenges. The majority were stricken based on overly precise requirements that the signatures match exactly with their original applications. One hundred and fifty names were ruled “out of district” by a computer program that was obviously flawed. Each in-district address that was rejected was clearly within the boundaries.
Then, with a remaining cushion of 300 above the needed level, Cardenas’ election lawyer submitted witnesses and affidavits supposedly proving a pattern of fraud. The alderman’s staff had gone around the ward during work hours to badger signers into recanting their names on Pete’s petitions. On the basis of 47 coerced affidavits and 3 suspect witnesses, the hearing examiner declared all sheets turned in by Pete himself to be inadmissible. Our signature total fell to 407 and we were off the ballot.
Activists and constituents understood the cynical use of a municipal board to protect a favorite of Mayor Emanuel. The commissioner is a lawyer who has received over $200 million in municipal fees for billable hours in recent years. We made common cause with other campaigns who had suffered similarly egregious rulings. We rallied voters who saw these maneuvers as a sign of weakness by the incumbent and an affront to democracy. The commitment of the core tightened and the drive for write-in votes picked up steam.
Chuy had surpassed all expectations and held Rahm to only 45%. With none of the five candidates receiving more than half, the mood at our 12th ward election night gathering was mixed. We had brought home landslide numbers in all our precincts for Chuy. We knew that write-in votes were accumulating in astonishing numbers but Pete’s defeat was seen as unavoidable. The obstacles were too great.
Looking around the banquet room, the majority of Pete’s active campaigners where Latinos. They were union members. They were young people gaining their first taste of politics. They were from each section of a gerrymandered district. We all saw this cause as inseparable from the city wide crusade to “Take Back Chicago”.
Precincts were the critical unit of geography. The goal was to staff each precinct with people who live there. Typically in our southwest campaigns, the stability of such teams has been uneven. Most often – especially when the turf is larger than a ward — volunteers show up for canvassing. They are handed walk sheets based solely on the areas that have not yet been covered. In Pete’s campaign – because we had the added dynamism of working in concert with the Chuy mobilization – we had such a large base of volunteers that we were able to approximate the old style machine structure.
Democratic ward armies of the past have been based on captain and patronage loyalists. These teams are in decline nowadays because of a shift from hiring clout to sub-contracting and privatizing. Our home grown teams were able to match up favorably with the diehards. We held precinct meetings, put out specific flyers by neighborhood, and were able to allocate crews of watchers, passers, and runners at every polling place. Just as our ward was a battleground in the mayoral, the precincts were key for Pete’s challenge.
To grab and hold some power even at the ward level, this must be a continuing emphasis. We forged cooperation by local people of good will – from recreation and cultural leaders, to teachers and librarians, to retired and current union people, to the youth and the unemployed. Links to citywide issues and to the concerns of other neighborhoods are a priority. Of particular importance will be creating unity with African American communities.
Here in the Latino southwest side, the progressives fought five aldermanic battles in addition to the overarching Garcia effort. Though they were not arrayed as an official slate, there was an informal alliance which benefited each local race and contributed to Chuy’s organizing.The various teams picked up tips from each other. Those which didn’t survive the first round joined in to help out those still in the field and to work side by side in the mayoral. Marching bands from two of our high schools led parades to early voting.
The teams from various ward struggles and from the Chuy field offices now have an opportunity to forge tighter working unity. We face stiff challenges as Rahm begins his next four year reign. We expect renewed attacks in ever changing forms. That’s what it’s all about — learning from electoral efforts, gearing up for the next one, and directing a united front against inevitable attacks.
“A city wakes up in pain amidst the billowing smoke of deceit and dreams incinerated.”
How many times have I heard it? “I just love what they have done to Baltimore—the stadium and the inner harbor.” No doubt, many of same folks would say they love The Wire, too. But if they were asked to match the devastation of deindustrialization with a single city, Detroit would win hands down.
Baltimoreans share these bifurcated allegiances. Who doesn’t love a coliseum that so ably represents a city’s history of industry and hard work, even as one wonders how the metropolis will survive its gentrification?
I should have known my Facebook musing on a smoldering city would be touched by our schizophrenia about the cause of Baltimore’s troubles.
I listed a chain of legendary industrial workplaces that have long been shuttered, beginning with Bethlehem Steel’s Sparrows Point Plant, where I spent 30 years, most of them as an activist and representative of the United Steelworkers.
The plant, which, after Bethlehem’s bankruptcy in 2002, had been traded off in a corporate poker game between several owners, has been shut down for two years, idling more than 2,000 workers.
Just a few weeks ago, the 3,200-acre facility’s towering blast furnace –one of the world’s largest when it was built, a landmark that carried a star seen for miles each Christmas, one I memorialized in a poem–was imploded, spreading as much pain as finality.
So, I asked my Facebook friends what happens when dozens of legendary plants that employed hundreds of thousands, workplaces like General Motors, Western Electric, Armco Steel and Lever Brothers shut down.
I asked what happens when apologists for the outsourcers and “free” traders and financiers say not to worry. Good, clean jobs will open up. Young people locked out of opportunity will find bright futures. A rusty city will gleam. What happens?
My answer: “A city wakes up in pain amidst the billowing smoke of deceit and dreams incinerated.”
The “likes” poured in. In the narcissist vein of Facebook, I felt important and persuasive.
It took a former co-worker only a few seconds to burst my boast. Rob accused me of “making excuses” for rioting groups of inner city residents who “won’t take accountability for their own lives.”
I responded to him civilly. I said accountability for a polarized, suffering city should be expansive, encompassing the decisions not just of the folks at the bottom, but those of the wealthy and powerful, with a bit of introspection on the part of the rest of us.
“Accountability for their own lives.” I thought back on the struggle that had already been raging in the courts over discrimination in the steel industry when I was hired in 1973, one brilliantly preserved in a video, “Struggles in Steel,” by Braddock, Pa., steelworker sons Tony Buba and Ray Henderson.
Black workers had always been assigned to the dirtiest, most dangerous jobs in the mills. And they would lose their seniority if they transferred out to majority white departments, starting out at the bottom again, at the beck and call of the boom and the bust.
Years of lawsuits, rallies and lobbying had finally resulted in a consent decree that provided for reforming seniority systems and opening up trade and craft jobs to minority workers and women.
The Civil Rights Movement had spread into basic industries.
Black steelworkers from Birmingham, Ala. to Lackawanna, N.Y. and Baltimore took “accountability for their own lives.”
They didn’t always fight alone. One of my proudest recollections was accompanying 300 coke oven workers, mostly senior black workers from the hell hole of the mill, but accompanied by a notable infusion of more recent hires, many of them white guys who had come home from Vietnam.
Decked out in overalls and safety shoes, they blew through the doors and security of the Shoreham Hotel in Washington where their union leaders were meeting to demand support in winning cleaner conditions and higher incentive pay. And, after a brief wildcat strike when they returned home, they won.
Skilled jobs had been off limits to black workers for decades. For a time, while attending the local community college, I interviewed some of these co-workers as part of a co-op curriculum toward my paralegal degree.
Their stories were heart-rending. A Korean War veteran related how he worked as a plane mechanic in the Air Force, but was flunked when he took the millwright’s test at the Point, even while less-qualified whites entered that department.
So he became a laborer, stacking up ungodly hours of overtime on man-killing assignments to equal and surpass the paychecks he could have made had he been able to move into a skilled position.
I’ll never forget the words of Francis Brown, one of the leaders of Steel and Shipyard Workers for Equality, a leading organization of black workers at the Point:
“When a white guy needs an electrician or a plumber, he calls his brother or brother-in-law,” said Brown. “Black workers call the white contractor.”
But the consent decree mandate on integrating the skilled trades came too late for many as the U.S. steel industry went into decline in the 1980s. Overseas competitors targeted this nation’s market and our trade and tax policy compromised U.S. workers and producers.
The damage from steel’s decline was inequitably apportioned.
At Sparrows Point and the other mills, the legacy of Jim Crow, of white workers threatening to strike if black workers moved into skilled positions, of supervisors and managers who relished and help perpetuate the divisions between the races, persisted.
So the skilled trades remained overwhelmingly white even as the crisis within the industry intensified.
Today, as former steelworkers fan out looking for work—some traveling as far as Texas—the more skilled are recovering upwards of 65 to 75 percent of their former salaries, while their peers in production jobs lag far, far behind, leaving them less able to hang onto their homes or send their children to college. Their family wealth is sinking.
Surely my white co-worker would think it’s preposterous to suggest any link between Baltimore’s industrial and housing segregation and the fiery streets of 2015 after the death of Freddie Gray. Despite his own bout with unemployment, he would think it equally preposterous to attribute the 37 percent unemployment among black youth to anything other than their parents’ bad choices.
The power of a job, not just as a means to a living, but also as a bond between people, a space of solidarity, dialogue and action
But life forever reminds us that inequality has consequences. Its damage survives until it is uprooted by the formidable claws of legal and moral pressure, recognition and activism.
Here, in the home of The Wire, a hollowed out, deindustrialized city that never came to terms with its own legacy of racism in its workplaces, housing and communities has reached its inevitable breaking point.
I remember attending meetings of black steelworkers at a social club off North Avenue in northeast Baltimore, not far from Johns Hopkins Hospital. The club was in a row house in a stable, clean neighborhood full of workers from local industries.
Fast forward 40 years—only a few blocks from the place where tough men and their lawyers plotted a strategy to challenge a Fortune 500 corporation is a corner that lays claim to one of the highest homicide rates in the U.S.
A mayor and a U.S. president denounce the “thugs” and criminals who burn and loot.
I’m appalled when my ears resonate with “thug,” but my eyes take in TV images of young high school students, in their khaki uniforms taking to the streets.
I can’t blame Mayor Rawlings-Blake or President Obama for their thug talk.
African-Americans only survive in political office when they are perceived by whites as the best carriers of the stern rod of discipline, as the enforcers of accountability.
I think about what the future will hold for the young folks who are taking their passion to the streets of Baltimore. And I recall a poignant conversation years ago between two co-workers in the mill.
One had been in the streets after the assassination of Dr. King in 1968. His white co-worker was out there, too—as a member of the Maryland National Guard.
After 1968, they each started families and found decent-paying union jobs at Bethlehem Steel with benefits and security.
They became active in their communities as coaches and PTA officers. And they became friends.
I think about these two co-workers as I watch proud citizens and courageous leaders like U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings and local pastors working to heal their communities. I wonder how many neighborhood elders who are sweeping up the glass and exhorting the young to protest non-violently have their roots in steel and auto and can manufacturing, shipbuilding, and unions.
And I consider the power of a job, not just as a means to a living, but also as a bond between people, as a space of solidarity, dialogue and action.
Where are the jobs for the young people some so swiftly label “thugs?”
Where is our accountability to the legacy of the men and women who came to Baltimore from North and South Carolina and Virginia and sacrificed to build a future where the economic playing field was level and dreams could be nurtured?
Where is our accountability to the young people, from Baltimore and across America who, today, mourn Freddie Gray and demand our attention and our answers?
In November 2014, Teamsters Local 25 succeeded in uniting more than 1,500 parking lot attendants in Boston. As reported by the Boston Globe, the workers were almost all immigrants, many from Africa. As organizers, we believe that when thousands of immigrant workers win collective bargaining rights and rise out of the lowest tier of the working class it’s important news. Yet their organizing victory was virtually unknown to most of Boston’s labor community because it was quietly brought about over several years of patient organizing. It was not part of the “Fight for $15″ or the OUR Wal-Mart mobilizations, and had none of the bold, public ambition of organizing millions of fast food workers or the 1.3 million workers employed by Wal-Mart.(1)
The parking lot attendants’ victory — and hundreds of similar organizing and collective bargaining achievements — are too often ignored by pundits, academic observers and labor movement insiders. Their mantra seems to be that with membership plummeting in both the private and public sectors labor faces “an existential crisis” and needs “bold new approaches and initiatives.”(2)
However, the “crisis” is hardly new. Twenty years ago, in 1995, labor was also in crisis. In 1994, Newt Gingrich had led the Republicans to victory and seized control of the House of Representatives, just two years into Bill Clinton’s first term. Even sleepy old Vice Presidents of the AFL-CIO woke up in the Executive Council meeting to ask long-time President Lane Kirkland, “What’s going on?”
Then as now, labor was indeed in crisis. Union density was lower than any time in the postwar period at 17 percent and Gingrich’s “Take Back America” movement meant that the AFL-CIO’s political program was stymied.
What was to be done? Kirkland was increasingly seen by union leaders as having no answers. Rank and file local union leaders were openly restless. National union leaders were worried too, and for the first time since the formation of the AFL-CIO in 1955, an active challenge to the incumbent president was launched, led by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the Teamsters.
Teamsters?? Weren’t they on the cutting edge of the Cosa Nostra, not the labor movement? The union that always endorses Republicans? Those stodgy old, mobbed up Teamsters weren’t so stodgy anymore. In 1991, Ron Carey, a reformer from the big New York City UPS local, joined a slate led by Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) reformers and beat a divided old guard in the first one member, one vote election. At his January 1992 inauguration as new International President at the Teamster’s “marble palace” in Washington DC, he was surrounded by newly elected Teamster leaders, progressives from throughout the labor movement, and hundreds of long time, dedicated TDUers. Overnight the Teamsters went from reactionary to the leading edge of the labor movement. The Carey election was the “game changer” for the restless forces growing in opposition to Lane Kirkland and his chosen successor, Tom Donahue.
Hope — and the promise of significant change — was in the air. A year earlier, the Justice for Janitors blockade of the 14th Street Bridge in Washington, DC became the revitalizing metaphor for the New Voice movement. A movement that envisioned a more active “street heat” unionism, mobilizing at the grassroots to organize the millions necessary to return labor to its 35 percent postwar membership in the private sector.(3)
The New Voice wasn’t just about growth, it envisioned a labor movement that reclaimed its place as a powerful force for justice in the community and strongly allied with the country’s progressive intelligentsia. But organizing was the magic word.
SEIU President John Sweeney, at the time head of the most aggressive and successful organizing union in the country was the consensus choice to lead the New Voice slate. The Teamster reformers infused the coalition with enough votes to make the election a foregone conclusion in November of 1995.
After the votes were counted, over 500 organizers (many of them old comrades and student radicals from the New Left who had cast their lot with labor) celebrated in a raucous dancing and drinking party that lasted until the wee hours. A sense of promise and rebirth was in the air. As the refrain from the labor anthem, Solidarity Forever goes, “We would bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old!”
After the party was over, it was time to get to the task of organizing millions of new members. To its enduring credit the New Voice program highlighted many of the elements necessary to launch successful large scale organizing. To re-energize support for organizing and collective bargaining with members and leaders, the New Voice launched an ambitious agenda to:
• Increase AFL-CIO affiliates’ budgets for organizing to 20-30 percent of union resources with the objective to organize millions of new members(4)
• Adopt policies that were more inclusive of the immigrant labor force(5)
• Commitment to diversify the leadership of the AFL-CIO with a more prominent role for women and people of color(6)
• Engage community and civil rights groups, academics and intellectuals to support organizing, collective bargaining and the mission of the labor movement(7)
• Assist with coordinated campaigns and cooperative organizing between affiliates (and increase resources from the Federation for affiliates to engage in strategic organizing campaigns)(8)
• Deploy more research assistance to affiliates to “bargain-to-organize” and “organize-to-bargain” campaigns(9)
• Transform politics by electing thousands of union members to political office(10)
• Engage members and supporters in grassroots “Street Heat” mobilizations led by local labor councils to support workers’ organizing(11)
• Recruit and train thousands of new organizers to build strong worker-led committees and deal with aggressive interference by management(12)
• Launch a broad “America Needs a Raise” campaign to raise wages for all workers.(13)
Then as now, a very ambitious program. Using the Stansbury Forum, the authors plan to provide a “look back” at the New Voice program on its twentieth anniversary. We want to ask what was accomplished and what went wrong? What were the obstacles and impediments to progress?
Finally, what have we learned from the New Voice experience and what lessons from those twenty years can be applied to the “crisis” today(14).
While many well-meaning progressives repeatedly say “we can’t organize,” “we can’t strike,” and “we can’t win”; they haven’t convinced us. Despite the sharp attacks against organized labor, there are still over 15 million members and considerable resources. We intend our “look back” to stimulate debate and discussion on what, in concert with the remaining membership, should be done with those considerable resources going forward. We believe it is the cardinal question for union leaders, organizers and labor activists today.
(1) “Boston’s parking attendants unionizing,” by Katie Johnston, Boston Globe, November 10, 2014 http://www.bostonglobe.com/business/2014/11/09/teamsters-organizing-parking-attendants/8HXoKxbdwcWzWN1qgbE6NO/story.html
(2) “Why Workers Won’t Unite,” by Kim Phillips-Fein, The Atlantic, March 16, 2015
Phillips-Fein writes, “Labor has grown so weak by now that whatever form of organizing might come next will have to start almost from scratch anyway, to build something entirely new… What that something might be—what it will look like, and how it might help us remake our society together—is an unavoidable question of the 21st century.”
(3) “Justice For Janitors: A look back and a look forward: 24 years of organizing janitors,” http://www.seiu.org/a/justice-for-janitors/justice-for-janitors-20-years-of-organizing.php
(4) In April of 1997, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), at its International Convention in Honolulu adopted a resolution mandating that the union would spend 30% of its budget on organizing. This was a direct result of the New Voice program.
(5) Spurred by the Bay Area Labor Immigrant Organizing Network (LION) the AFL-CIO at its convention in Los Angeles in 1999 voted to reverse its position in support of Employer Sanctions and the 1985 Immigration Reform and Control Act.
(6) This commitment was reflected in the selection of Linda Chavez Thompson of AFSCME as Executive Vice President of the Federation, the first female executive officer in the history of the AFL-CIO.
(7) Falling in Love Again? Intellectuals and the Labor Movement in Post-War America, Nelson Lichtenstein, New Labor Forum, No. 4 (Spring – Summer, 1999) http://www.jstor.org/stable/40342220
(8) Examples: AFL-CIO Capital Stewardship and Center for Strategic Research
(9) “Bargain to Organize, Organize to Bargain,” Matt Luskin, Labor Notes, September 22, 2010,
http://labornotes.org/2010/09/bargain-organize-organize-bargain and Bargain to Organize: From Boon to Embarrassment, Steve Early http://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/13710/bargain_to_organize_from_boon_to_embarrassment
(10) McEntee said unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO began pooling resources in the 1996 election cycle and did so again for the 1998 and 2000 elections. He said that as a result, 4.8 million more union household members turned out to vote in 2000 than in 1992. Union household members represented 26 percent of the vote in 2000, up from 19 percent in 1992. He said the AFL-CIO program also resulted in 2539 union members now holding elective office and that the labor movement’s goal is now to elect 5,000 union members.
(11) “John Sweeney’s New-Old AFL-CIO,” Jane Slaughter, http://www.solidarity-us.org/node/801
(12) About the Organizing Institute
(13) AFL-CIO “America Needs a Raise” Campaign Builds Pressure Around Country on Minimum Wage
(14) Richard Sullivan’s retrospective on the 15th anniversary of the AFL-CIO’s New Voice campaign in New Labor Forum (Spring 2010) titled, “Why the Labor Movement is not a Movement,” merits re-reading in the 20th anniversary year.
The following article first appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Tikkun
I recently received an infuriating email from a man I used to organize with in my labor union. The email had all the hallmarks of his habitual way of interacting with other organizers (and especially women organizers): arrogance, condescension, and a steadfast belief in the superiority of his own opinions. This time, I simply clicked the delete button and moved on with my day. But it got me thinking about how, a few years ago, an email or interaction of this kind would have set me off on a cycle of intense anger, frustration, and exhaustion that sometimes verged on burnout, before I became more committed to developing a mindfulness practice.
Mindfulness as a secular practice draws from Buddhist teachings and encompasses a range of activities—from meditation to breathing exercises to therapy—meant to help practitioners develop greater insight into themselves and the world around them. In the San Francisco Bay Area, mindfulness practice has become very popular among a wide range of left movement activists, helped in no small part by the work of organizations like the East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland and the Buddhist Peace Fellowship in Berkeley, which share an explicit commitment to radical social justice work.
While mindfulness practice has recently received media attention for its increasing use in corporate and military circles to sharpen concentration, far less mainstream attention has been paid to its use by radical social justice activists seeking ways to make their movement work more personally sustainable. What follows is a short and by no means comprehensive list of some key mindfulness concepts that have helped me develop a more sustainable relationship to movement work over the past ten years.
1. Don’t turn away from suffering.
Many social justice activists have already taken on one of the central tenets of Buddhist mindfulness practice: a willingness to recognize the enormous amount of pain and suffering in the world and a refusal to turn away from it. Rather than distract ourselves with all of the sensate pleasures that surround us in this intensely materialistic society, we’ve chosen to sit with realities that are deeply painful and disturbing—realities of economic inequality, racism, misogyny, heterosexism, xenophobia, war, imperialism, transphobia, ecological disaster, and more. This is not an easy thing to do, and so the other aspects of mindfulness practice can serve to help sustain activists through the difficulties that arise from our refusal to turn away from pain and suffering in this world.
2. As much as possible, try not to let anger consume you.
It almost goes without saying that anger is a healthy emotional response to all of the systemic injustices we encounter on a daily basis. We feel angry when our dignity or the dignity of people we care about is affronted or when those we care about are harmed; this anger is often the initial spark that leads us to become involved in social justice struggles in the first place. Anger can also be a healthy self-protective measure to make us feel a bit more powerful when we are being made to feel vulnerable, as we so often are when we confront systems of entrenched power and privilege.
At twenty-one, in my first job as a young organizer, I was responsible for organizing direct actions to confront the CEO, board members, and top managers of a factory where the workers were trying to unionize. My work week moved between meetings with workers, at which I listened to their stories of harassment on the job and struggles to make ends meet, and visits to the affluent communities where the people responsible for the workers’ oppression and exploitation enjoyed privileged lives. Key worker activists who publicly supported the union were illegally disciplined or fired. Many others lived on the brink of poverty.
The anger I felt at their treatment by the company and at the fact that this is permissible in our society was palpable, fierce, and constant. Ultimately my anger came from a place of fear and guilt that I would not be able to do enough to improve their situation. This propelled me to push myself harder than I ever had before, in ways that helped the campaign and helped me grow in the process. But we were in a losing battle against a powerful and intractable opponent. No amount of greater effort on my part alone would have been enough to turn the tide. I’m grateful for the experience, which profoundly shaped my life trajectory, but I can see in retrospect that I did not make enough room to deal with my anger, fear, and guilt in difficult organizing situations. As a result, I ultimately suffered severe anxiety and physical health problems—in other words, burnout.
At the time, I thought that righteous anger and a willingness to give everything one had to the work were what made an organizer great. Now, nearly a decade after my first experiences working in the labor movement, I can see how limited and damaging this view was. I’ve come to see that, though I believe we have every right to be angry—for the systems and individuals we’re fighting certainly deserve our righteous anger—we ourselves don’t deserve to be consumed with anger all the time.
Finding the right balance with anger is not easy, but I’ve learned over time to simply let myself be angry when I’m angry, and then let go of anger when it’s ready to pass. When I was younger and anger was my only shield against feelings of fear, powerlessness, and guilt, I used to try to hold on to it, as I think many young people in social justice work do. But though feelings of fear, powerlessness, and guilt no doubt will always recur for activists, no matter how long they’ve been in the movement, I’ve observed over the years that the best organizers I know and the ones who are least susceptible to burnout—are also the least angry. The remainder of this essay focuses on some of best methods I’ve found for getting beyond anger as an activist to develop a healthier and more sustainable orientation toward movement work.
3. Make space for the pain underneath the anger and make care work central.
Too often in activist circles, we cultivate an ethos that makes righteous anger acceptable but doesn’t provide space for individual and collective healing and care to address pain and suffering. This is a point that has been made many times over by feminists doing social justice work, but it always bears repeating. Movement work can be intensely painful and even traumatizing (for example, when it involves confrontations with the police or the law) and is often motivated in the first place by experiences of oppression, exploitation, and trauma. Of course, personal healing is not “enough” to transform systems of oppression, but if we don’t make the time and space to care for ourselves and our comrades, it’s very difficult to find the strength to continue doing the work of confronting injustice. We don’t need to choose between interpersonal work and broader structural transformation: we must do both.
4. Learn to be less reactive and accept impermanence in order to cultivate a sense of equanimity.
Doing social justice work often requires dealing with a nearly uninterrupted series of urgent or emergency situations. The normal human response to emergencies is fight or flight—our adrenaline spikes, providing us with short-lived extra powers to deal with the situation at hand. But we’re not built to experience this sustainably, on a regular basis—afterward, we feel depleted, off-balance, and in need of rest. So doing this work for the long term requires finding more sustainable ways of responding physically and emotionally to intensely stressful situations.
Mindfulness practitioners often refer to this kind of adrenaline-driven response as being “reactive.” The answer is not failure to react when a situation arises—as activists, we have no choice but to respond to injustice—but finding a way to react that does not so deplete us such that we’re unable to sustain ourselves in the work.
A whole series of mindfulness exercises focused on becoming more attuned to our bodies and the physical connection to our emotional state are particularly helpful for learning to become less reactive (as well as becoming more attuned to, and able to sit with, feelings like anger and pain.)
Perhaps inevitably, we also develop a greater sense of equanimity in movement work simply through accumulating more experience as activists. Over time, what I’ve come to see is that, even though things are difficult much of the time in movement work, the worst-case scenario usually doesn’t pan out, and even when it does, we have no choice but to find new ways to organize around it. Learning to respond to difficulty without a supercharged shot of adrenaline is critical, not just for sustaining ourselves as activists but also for finding the best solutions to evolving problems.
Conversely, even when things are going well in the movement, we never reach the end of the work. There is always more to do, and dynamics are constantly changing. Movements are called movements for a reason: they are constantly in motion, and whatever the current situation may be, for good or for bad, it is impermanent. Accepting this central truth about the work (and about everything in life, of course) makes it easier to develop a greater sense of equanimity in charged and constantly changing situations. Resisting the temptation to fuel ourselves on the highs that come from wins is the flipside to resisting the temptation to fuel ourselves on anger.
5. Foster a sense of community with comrades and others who support the work you do.
An absolutely critical aspect of learning to be less reactive in movement work is developing a strong activist community. For those of us who are seeking to make social justice work sustainable, there is no better thing we can do than to cultivate a sense of community with our comrades. The work itself can be incredibly intense—anxiety-provoking, depression-inducing, and isolating. Without a like-minded group of caring people around us to offer mutual support, it may be nearly impossible to sustain our work in the long term.
Social justice groups are, of course, not immune to the problems of the larger society, and highly toxic dynamics can develop. Sometimes we need to take a break or leave altogether when faced with an unchangeably toxic situation in an activist setting. If leaving is not an option (for example, in the context of workplace or neighborhood-based organizing), we can still find new people within the same community to organize with.
On a related note, wherever possible, it’s important to hold on to relationships with non-activists who support the work we do and to maintain some interests outside the movement. When things are not going well in the movement, these non-movement friends can help keep activist struggles in perspective.
6. As much as possible, try to keep your ego out of the equation.
Being a social justice activist means accepting that things will go badly as often as, or more often than, they go well. As a result, we can’t count on getting a lot of external approval or even recognition for the work we do. Even when things are going well, there are still many people who disagree with us: that’s the whole point. So in order to make movement work sustainable, we have to find a way to really make it about the movement and not about our own egos. This doesn’t mean being a martyr, but it also doesn’t mean doing the work in order to feel important or be praised.
It helps me to start with the following premise: on one hand, I am just one person and I’m not responsible for fixing everything, but on the other hand, I am still one person with something to contribute—because everyone has something to contribute. The trick is to figure out just what that thing is and to balance it with other people’s contributions. We don’t need everyone to be in the spotlight to make a big impact, and in fact, the most important movement work always happens outside the spotlight. It’s the day-in, day-out stuff that makes the difference in the long run. It’s very unlikely that everything will just fall apart if one person needs to step back. And, in fact, if things were to fall apart just because of one person’s absence, there’s a much deeper problem there that’s bigger than one individual’s ability to solve it.
7. Remember that it’s all connected and that you always have more to learn.
Because of the way that social justice work is often organized, along single-issue lines, it’s easy to forget that all our struggles are connected. Intersectionality, which recognizes the multiple, overlapping layers of oppression and privilege that each of us experiences, is a helpful tool for thinking through our connectedness. Divide and conquer is the oldest trick in the book, and unless we can find ways to deal with internal oppression and divisions in our movements, the forces of oppression and exploitation will keep winning. It’s a question of the pragmatic realities of organizing as much as it is a question of principle.
This is yet another reason it’s so important to keep our egos in check in movement work and to learn to really listen to comrades with different backgrounds and experiences. Assuming that any individual can have all the answers is both damaging and wrong. More fundamentally, the really liberating thing about doing movement work is not just fighting for liberation itself but also the experiences we have along the way: collective process and collective action can be powerful antidotes to the alienation we experience, individually and collectively, in our daily lives.
Ultimately, both movement work and mindfulness practice share not only a commitment to stringent intellectual honesty when it comes to the nature of our lived reality but also a profound commitment to radical love and compassion for the people around us. Together these values can provide us with a great deal of meaning and purpose in a world that too often leaves us feeling empty and alone. In other words, social justice work, when done in a healthy and sustainable way, can be profoundly therapeutic, not only for our communities but also for ourselves.
On Friday night I got home at 10 PM Pacific Time to my house in San Francisco. Just in time to dial up my beloved Red Sox playing the Yankees in the Bronx in the top of the 17th inning. The Sox didn’t score and I went to bed. I googled Red Sox Nation next morning and found that they had won in 19 innings on a dynamite double play initiated by Red Sox stellar second baseman Dustin Pedroia from Woodland, California. This game was the longest, 6 hours and 49 minutes in the very long rivalry between the Bronx Bombers and the Bo Sox. But it is not the longest game in innings between the two teams. I was at the longest game; a twenty-inning marathon on August 29 and the following wee AM hours of August 30, 1967.
We were after all both suburban boys, and not real attuned to rustic customs and mores. We were able to bond with Jack over the Sox however.
First though a little background for non-fans and Sox die hards alike. I will always remember the summer of 67 as the “Impossible Dream” season when the Sox climbed out of mediocrity and against all odds won the American League pennant. It was also the summer between my sophomore and junior year in high school. To make some summer money and to prepare my self physically for football season, I worked on Earl Foster’s dairy farm in North Andover, Massachusetts. Mr. Foster had 150 head of Ayrshire milking cows and he and his wife Bea managed the farm and employed two year round hired hands, Earl and Jack. Earl Woods was a wizened old Down-easter who spoke in gruff barely discernible tones and smoked a smelly pipe. Jack Hamill was a young Vermonter who had grown up on a farm and had been indentured to the Fosters. I worked on the farm picking up bales of freshly cut grass and loading them on a truck to be delivered to the cow barn. Then I sat up in the boiling hot barn receiving the bales on the conveyor and dovetailing them together into neatly packed rows to be stored for winter consumption.
Earl Foster needed more help that summer so I recruited my older cousin Mark to work with me. We worked as hard as we ever have, and we were covered with sweat and hayseed at the end of the day. Foster regaled us with barnyard tales and used a lot of animal metaphors to describe common human activity. Bea fed us steak with killer potatoes. My cousin sheepishly asked one day to gales of laughter from all the hands, “What do the bulls do?”
We were after all both suburban boys, and not real attuned to rustic customs and mores. We were able to bond with Jack over the Sox however. He was a huge Sox fan, but had never been to the bandbox of a stadium in the Fens. My cousin Mark and I were big sports nuts and had been to Fenway Park before so we invited Jack Hamill to join us in seeing a game. We decided that we would go to Fenway for a night game on Friday, August 19th. Earl Foster agreed to milk the cows that evening so Jack could escape early and drive in to Boston with Mark and I.
Turns out we picked a very historic game. Jack Hamilton of the Los Angeles Angels beaned the Red Sox slugger Tony Conigliaro, Tony “C” to the Fenway faithful. Conigliaro was a local hero from the North Shore and had played at Swampscott High School and signed with the Sox upon graduating. He was what we call today a “four-tool player”: hit, slug, field and run the base paths. He had led the league in homers with 32 in his second season in 65 and was an All Star in 1967. That night a Hamilton fastball caught him high and tight and his cheek was shattered. While he would return and play again for the Sox and the Los Angeles Angels he never regained his all-star form. Tony C would die young from the kind of head trauma after effects that so many pro-football players are experiencing in the 21st century. The beaning put a big damper on the evening, but Jack was still happy to have been there, and Mark and I felt pretty worldly for having taken him to the Hub.
Later that summer after finishing our work at Fosters farm, my cousin and I decided it was our turn to go to Gotham, New York City, home of the hated Yankees to see the Sox play in the closing days of a wonderful season. We chose Monday August 29th to see the Yankees at the “House that Ruth built” in the Bronx. My Uncle John and Aunt Fran hosted us at their apartment in Tompkins Square in the East Village, and we trained out to the game, a day night doubleheader, on the IRT, the New York inter borough subway. Day night doubleheaders are extinct in this day and age, but we got to the ballpark ready for a full day and evening of baseball.
Gentleman Jim Lonborg, the brilliant Stanford educated pitcher who would win the Cy Young in 1967 pitched for the Sox in game 1. He won 2-1 and completed the game striking out two in the ninth, throwing as hard as he had in the first. The second game made history. It went on and on into the evening and the night. Around midnight my cousin and I started to sweat it. In Boston the MTA closes down at around 12:30 so we figured we were stranded in the Bronx if the game continued, but we decided to stay and were comforted by watching the IRT elevated train zip by beyond the center field fence throughout the game. We didn’t know the NYC system ran all night. The Yankees broke through in the 20th inning on a single by Yankee center fielder Horace Clark off Red Sox pitcher Jose Santiago and won the game 5-4. We got back to Tompkins Square circa 4: 00 AM.
The record of time duration was shattered on Friday April 10-11, 2015, but the inning totals from 1967 remains a record and my memory of the old Yankee Stadium and watching that IRT train is clear. The magical season of 1967 went from summer into late fall. On Saturday, September 30, my high school football team was playing the Tufts College Freshman team in Medford, Massachusetts. I was standing in the huddle listening to our quarterback call the next offensive play when the spectators filling the bleachers on both sides of the field exploded into clapping and uproar. Wow, we hadn’t even run a play, and they were going bonkers. But there was no gridiron action to observe. The Sox had beaten the Minnesota Twins. All the football fans were glued to their transistor radios and listening to the Red Sox broadcast. The Sox would beat the Twins again on Sunday (There were no divisions then) and moved on to the World Series against the St Louis Cardinals.
That was a summer of resurgence for the lowly Sox who despite losing to the Bob Gibson redbirds in the World Series would go on to great heights and great disappointments in 1975, 1978 and 1986 before finally breaking through and busting the curse of the Bambino in 2004. Who knows what would have happened if the brilliant Tony Conigliaro had not been beaned on that Friday night that my cousin and I took a Vermont farmhand to the park?
“Looking back, immediately behind us is dead ground. We don’t see it, and because we don’t see it, there is no period so remote as the recent past. The historian’s job is to anticipate what our perspective of that period will be.” Professor Irwin in The History Boys, 2006.
The “recent past” that has occupied my own current work is the long 1960s. I came of age in Washington, D.C. between 1968 and 1972, diving deep into a profound social movement as only a naïve and invincible high school student can. I went to major demonstrations and fought with riot police. I went to Mobe Marshal trainings with my sister. I helped put out our underground student newspaper. I counseled students about draft resistance, saw grainy films about Vietnam, and made my own poster about the generation gap. I lived it, I knew it – right?
I began to realize how shaky our historical foundation was when I was visiting Cuba in 1989. I was with some other artist friends visiting OSPAAAL, the legendary Organization in Solidarity with the People of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. I knew of them as the publishers of fantastic political posters, and I asked them how many different titles they had produced. I was shocked when they said they didn’t know. That got me motivated, so I began to work with a colleague in the U.S. and we tracked down all known OSPAAAL posters, shot high-quality slides of them, then proceeded to research who made them and when. After several trips to Cuba, lots of faxes and late night calls, and countless hours of work, by 1996 I finally compiled the first catalogue raisonné of OSPAAAL’s output. I shared this with the Cubans in the then-new digital format of CD’s. For the first time, a poster image could be immediately paired with artist name, date of publication, country represented, and other major data points.
The value of this research was evident several times over; at one point I was asked to provide digital prints of Che Guevara posters from U.S. collections that the Cubans themselves no longer had. I realized that I was onto something.
As I became a politicized human being I adopted the practice that part of daily life includes “political work.” That can mean staffing a bookstore, or running a printing press, or writing an essay. I’ve done all of those, but my primary contribution now is as a professional archivist.
In the old days – e.g., over 20 years ago – an archive was usually a staid institution that was responsible for stuff – books, photos, correspondence, videotapes, and such. Access to that stuff for research was often tedious, the result of a meticulous and expensive set of processes involving many library and technical professionals.
That scenario has changed considerably, and it’s transforming what an archive is, how it’s run, and how it’s accessed. The OSPAAAL catalog described above is an early example of that shift, with important implications for scholarship in social justice studies. A democratization is taking place in archival practice.
Here are some of the key elements of this archival revolution:
1. Inexpensive digitization. Images beg to be seen as clearly and completely as possible. When I first started this kind of work the archival standard for 35mm slides was Kodachrome 25. It was very stable, had good color balance, and most importantly, had very fine grain. That’s important when you blow up a poster with tiny type. But just as silver-based film began to slip from the scene, it also became clear that simply having good slides wasn’t enough. At some point they needed to be digitized, and that additional step also took a toll on resolution. Big institutions were able to jump on the high-resolution digital bandwagon early, but at a high price. The cameras were expensive and slow, and a good image would cost as much as $25. Around 2002 affordable consumer cameras became available that produced digital images as sharp as the scans I could get from scanned slides. I bought one and never looked back. I now shoot thousands of crisp images and don’t worry about the cost.
High-resolution scans fulfill several functions in this new archival world. First, a really good image can be used to make very acceptable and affordable digital surrogates that can be passed around a classroom table or mounted for an exhibition. Second, and perhaps more revolutionary, the images can be easily shared globally. I can send an image or a Web link to a scholar instantly anywhere in the world for free, asking if they’ve seen it.
2. Embedded metadata. Geeky enough for you? All this means is that it’s easy to add content information to a digital photo. You already do this now and don’t know it – your cellphone photos are time stamped, and some settings even record location. Ramp that up when you are scanning a conventional print on a flatbed scanner – who shot it, where was it, where is the original photo. These are all vital parts of the puzzle, and are best captured at the moment of digitization.
3. Consumer-grade image databases. For the past 15 years I’ve used an off-the-shelf, cheap, powerful digital asset management system that was originally designed for stock photographers. I can keep track of thousands of images, create galleries based on research requests, add data (and import the data along with images I import, taking advantage of item #2 above), export images at smaller sizes, and produce mini catalogs. Major institutions use very big, expensive databases that are way beyond the range or skill level of ordinary civilians, but that gap is vanishing.
4. Efficient processes for cataloging. Here’s an example of how what I do could not have happened a short time ago. I’m handling a long-term project of building out good catalog records for a huge collection of social justice posters at the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA). First, I shot all 24,000 of them, before the collection even was turned over to the museum. The next step was a crew of initial staff entered basic obvious information about each item as they were physically processing each poster – size, medium, full text, and so forth. My job involves pulling up those records and correcting/amplifying them – when was it made, who made it, why should one care about the ten-year community struggle for the International Hotel – all without looking at an actual poster. This is a process that goes a lot faster when you don’t have large and fragile sheets of paper all over your desk. At some point I’ll be able to do it remotely. One could even have an offsite team doing this.
And – here’s where I feel like I’m living in the future – as I’m cataloging each item I can readily use the enormous power of the World Wide Web. Having trouble nailing down when it was printed? (You’d be surprised how often we don’t know the date of publication, and in the historical record, that matters). Between a reverse calendar for day/date concordance and some event searching, I can usually draw a year. Who was that obscure labor leader, or in what year did Patty Hearst rob that bank? Keystrokes.
5. Community building. The best part is asking questions. Sometimes during a single cataloging session I can identify a person connected to the poster, track down an email address, send them a query with a link to an image, and get a reply. Here are a few examples:
6. Improved access to collection content. It’s very hard to share physical collection content with researchers. Not only does it have to be seen on site, but it usually requires the work of several staff and the exposure takes a toll on the object itself. Digital representations of content, however, have none of those limitations. Researchers from the public can usually find what they want through searching the database and retrieving usable items. This does not replace the skill and expertise of a professional archivist, but in most cases it’s good enough. OMCA has put almost all of the posters I’m processing online, some with incomplete or inaccurate records, under the policy that “best is the enemy of good.” Digital records can be easily fixed, and several important facts about posters have resulted from the public seeing items online.
So, how does this affect our own knowledge of our own history, much less help share it with the world? Hugely.
In the course of my cataloging research I’m digging into events that, in most cases, have not entered the digital domain yet – and perhaps never entered the analog one either. I’m turning up artists of previously anonymous posters, compiling complete collections of digital items that do not exist together in real space, and confirming production dates so that we know which event happened before or after that one. I’m assembling facts that are the building blocks of our history. These online catalogs are used by artists, academics, and activists for inspiration, confirmation, and validation.
I’ll end with one of my favorite posters about social justice self-expression, “Speak! You have the tools,” the first poster printed by the San Francisco’s Noe Valley Silkscreen Collective, 1972. The graphic was by Carol Mirman, a student at Kent State who was present during the tragic 1970 National Guard shooting. The people have spoken, and now we finally have the tools to really share those messages with the world.
Passengers disembarking from luxury cruise ships at San Francisco’s Pier 27 will be greeted by radical commentary on unemployment, housing shortages and racism delivered in multi-media and interactive fashion by a wonderful piece of public art, called the James R. Herman Memorial Wall Sculpture. The whole terminal is dedicated to Jimmy Herman, a legendary San Francisco leader who was President of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) from 1977 until his retirement in 1991. Herman had big shoes to fill. He succeeded the legendary Harry Bridges, a founder of the ILWU and its 1st President who served from 1937 until 1977. Herman did not live in Bridge’s shadow however when it came to oratory and his vision of the ILWU as part of a broader labor and people’s movement. He had a powerful voice and delivered compelling speeches in three-piece suits wearing his trademark coke bottle thick glasses.
On the evening of March 26th a ceremony was held in the new cruise terminal to dedicate the wall sculpture. Tides of Change was unveiled to the public by a cast of labor, political and community dignitaries headlined by ex San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos, who led San Francisco through the trying times of the 1989 earthquake and who was a tenant in Herman’s house on Portrero Hill when he first arrived as a young man in the city decades ago from Springfield, Massachusetts. Tides of Change is a multi-media exhibit with interactive video and film that profile Herman’s life in labor. The surface is an undulating wave that carries some of Jimmy’s most memorable quotes in neon lights: “Racism runs deep in this country. We must be committed as a union in the struggle against it.”
I can only imagine an elderly retired couple from Middle America coming down the escalator after leaving their cruise and being confronted with Herman’s social commentary. To paraphrase Dorothy, “We are definitely not in Kansas any more!”
The exhibit is designed by an art collective based in Brooklyn New York, Floating Point. The artists are Genevieve Hoffman, Jack Kalish and Gabriella Levine. Their work needs to be seen by all San Franciscans and all visitors to the well-traveled Embarcadero. It is one of the most stunning examples of political public art that I have ever seen. It is on a par with the Museum to the Martyrs of Liberation in Algiers, which I visited in October of last year.
We however have a problem. The exhibit is inside a cruise terminal that is only open when a cruise ship is in, and then only to terminal workers and cruise passengers. The Port of SF also advertises the facility for public events; mostly corporate galas also not open to the public. The Port of San Francisco needs to open this art to the public with a regular schedule. It is too critical to the education of the SF populace. The origins of the City as a Port city not a high tech playground need to be understood and the inspirational life of James “Jimmy” Herman cannot be forgotten. Visit Pier 27 to see the exhibit and if it isn’t open call your County Supervisor so that we can get regular hours and public access.
Jimmy Herman Presente!!! Open the Exhibit to the Public!
The parallels between Cermak and Garcia—and Chicago’s political moment in the 1930s and now—are striking.
During his campaign, in 1931, Cermak was told he could not win because of his background. Instead, he turned his heritage into an advantage by effectively organizing the city’s many ethnic groups including Poles, East European Jews, Italians and African Americans—a kind of “Rainbow Coalition” long before similar efforts by Washington and Rev. Jesse Jackson.
When considering Jesus “Chuy” Garcia’s impressive run to become Chicago’s next mayor, many cannot help but make historical comparisons. Understandably, Harold Washington’s historic victory in 1983 springs to mind—not the least because Garcia served as a key Washington ally during those years. However, Washington did not run against a seemingly unbeatable incumbent, nor was he an immigrant.
Perhaps a better comparison is to 1931, when Anton Cermak built the original multiethnic coalition, shook up the city’s entrenched politics and won the mayor’s race. Cermak asserted that the government needed to help ordinary people rather than corrupt business elites and sought to reduce the violence then plaguing the city. Sound familiar?
During his campaign, in 1931, Cermak was told he could not win because of his background. Instead, he turned his heritage into an advantage by effectively organizing the city’s many ethnic groups
Cermak—yes, there’s a street, formerly 22nd, named after him—pulled off an incredible victory by defeating William “Big Bill” Thompson. The parallels to the current election are striking.
Cermak arrived in the United States as an infant with his Czech parents from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Like most immigrants, they came with next to nothing. First, they lived in a small town south of Joliet where Cermak, just a child, worked with his father in a coalmine. When Cermak was 12, his family moved to Chicago’s South Lawndale neighborhood, home to a large and thriving Czech community—the same neighborhood Garcia lives in today, more commonly referred to as Little Village and the heart of the city’s Mexican population.
As a teen, Cermak worked as a railroad brakeman and teamster, earning the nickname “Pushcart Tony,” before entering politics. He was elected to the state House of Representatives, City Council and Cook County Board of Commissioners before announcing his intention to become mayor. Incredibly, Garcia also was elected to the state legislature, City Council and County Board.
During his campaign, in 1931, Cermak was told he could not win because of his background. Instead, he turned his heritage into an advantage by effectively organizing the city’s many ethnic groups including Poles, East European Jews, Italians and African Americans—a kind of “Rainbow Coalition” long before similar efforts by Washington and Rev. Jesse Jackson. Among Chicago’s diverse working people, Cermak saw himself: fellow immigrants and Americans not represented by entrenched and rich political elites.
Rahm Emanuel looks a lot like an earlier incumbent, “Big Bill” Thompson, who ignored the needs of the people he was elected to serve. Thompson’s reign was so awful that even the Republican Chicago Tribune described his time as mayor as filled with “filth, corruption, obscenity, idiocy and bankruptcy.”
In 1928’s “Pineapple Primary,” for instance, Thompson supporters used hand grenades (“pineapples”) and other violent means to intimidate and literally kill political opponents. After Thompson’s 1928 re-election, gangsters like Al Capone made a mockery of the city and its police—most notoriously in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Meanwhile, most Chicagoans suffered hard times during the Great Depression and became fed up with a mayor who ignored the needs of the people and failed to reduce crime.
While Cermak ran against an actual Republican, the current mayor brazenly acts like one: privatizing schools and parking meters, turning school teachers and unions into villains, serving the interests of big finance and earning the nickname Mayor 1%.
When Cermak challenged Thompson, he disparaged Cermak and, by extension, all immigrants and poor people: “I won’t take a back seat to that Bohunk, Chairmock, Chermack or whatever his name it. Tony, Tony, where’s your pushcart at? Can you picture a World’s Fair mayor? With a name like that?” Cermak’s famous response epitomized many Chicagoans’ feelings: “It’s true I didn’t come over on the Mayflower. But I came as soon as I could.”
There’s telling comparisons, as well, assuming Garcia wins the runoff. After his victory, Cermak faced concerted opposition from the city’s wealthier elements, who fiercely resisted any hikes to property taxes, making it that much harder for the local government to help those most in need during the depression. Along with assistance from the federal government, however, the city was able to reduce economic hardship and put Capone behind bars. (What else Cermak might have done remains a mystery as he was murdered at an event in Miami, Florida when an assassin’s bullets missed their intended mark, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and killed Cermak instead.)
Of course, there are differences between the 1931 mayor’s race and this one. Most importantly, FDR supported Cermak whereas, as Chicagoans know all too well, Obama repeatedly has stumped for Emanuel. And, in 1931, the race pitted a Democrat against a Republican unlike the non-partisan election now, in which both contenders belong to the Democratic Party—even if Garcia, to quote Paul Wellstone, “represents the democratic wing of the Democratic Party” and Emanuel’s endorsements include Republicans Sen. Mark Kirk and Gov. Bruce Rauner.
Let’s face it: With Democrats like Emanuel—who the entire business and media elite along with the Republican Party openly support—Chicago has the most pro-finance, anti-union mayor that Republicans and rich Democrats could hope for. Garcia can inspire Chicago’s many demographic groups that largely have been disenfranchised and taken for granted by Emanuel—who, ironically, inherited the machine that Cermak built.
So what does this history lesson on Cermak offer Garcia and Chicagoans today?
First, Chicago is a wonderfully diverse and cosmopolitan city—a city of immigrants, especially of Mexicans and other Latinos. Garcia should model his campaign after Cermak’s, widely credited with creating the coalition that became the hallmark of Chicago’s Democratic Party. Cermak proved that a multiethnic coalition can win the Chicago’s mayor race, even against a powerful incumbent with the backing of the city’s economic elite. Garcia seems to have pursued such a strategy, uniting many of the city’s grassroots movements and drawing a growing number of endorsements by prominent African-American leaders.
Second and even more importantly, Cermak reminds us that this election is not primarily about electing Chicago’s first Latino mayor. Rather, Garcia—as Cermak (and Washington) did before—must (re)build a cross-class, multiethnic alliance of the working poor and middle classes to shake up a deeply entrenched and corrupt machine.
Whoever wins the mayor’s race will owe a debt to Cermak. If Emanuel wins, he will have had the good fortune of inheriting the political machine built by Cermak. But if Garcia can pull out a victory, then this city’s first Mexican-born mayor will be walking in the footsteps of a now-largely forgotten Czech mayor elected against the odds.
This is a reprint, with permission, which ran in In These Times on 18 March 2015
In November of 1974 when we met with the Company’s management team and their attorney, Alan Tepper, we had a sense of something ominous. Tepper was a tall slender man with a huge head of silver hair. UE Organizer, Michael Eisenscher was accustomed to call him the “Silver Fox”. Wily fox he was indeed, because while we thought we had got the best of the company in our collective bargaining for a first contract, Tepper had skillfully protected his client’s ultimate interests. Our labor agreement provided that if the Company moved within a 30-mile radius of the Roxbury site that the union and its agreement would be honored. Tepper announced the company’s impending move at the end of the year to Nashua, New Hampshire exactly 45 miles away.
The New England area had been racked by capital flight. Lawrence and Lowell had been decimated post WW II by the desertion of the textile industry to the South. Lawrence has never recovered, and Lowell only experienced a renaissance because of the growth of the University of Massachusetts-Lowell and the federal largess of hometown boy, US Senator Paul Tsongas.
“… but I do know that the question of my own agency has tempered my approach to organizing ever since.”
And New Hampshire shouldn’t have surprised us as the destination. It was the “South of the North” for runaways. Lots of Massachusetts manufacturing capital was seeking low taxes, no unions and cheaper real estate in New Hampshire cities like Nashua, Keene and Portsmouth-Dover. The threat or actual closure can paralyze and incapacitate the will, but our reaction to the company’s announcement was our program of “Stay or Pay”, either stay on Albany Street or within the 30-mile radius or pay dearly in wage and benefit severance. Eisenscher, our resourceful UE Rep immediately began working the politics of the City and the State in seeking locational assistance offers ¬¬and tax packages that would force the Company to reconsider and stay. I took charge of the public pressure campaign and pulled together a committee to Fight the Runaway of Mass Machine, and of course in keeping with the revolutionary fervor of the times to Fight all Runaways!
The shocking announcement of the relocation so soon after our union vote and first contract gave me pause to reflect on a couple of bigger questions. Was the company moving in response to our frequent and militant actions over everything from health and safety to management’s right to employ temps? If we had been a little less active, would they have made the move? Bottom line, were they moving because of me?!! After all here I was a young college educated kid raising hell and Cain in line with my ideological commitment to radical revolutionary change often with no regard to personal consequences. Was that admirable courage and commitment, or rather a sense of entitlement that meant I could always do something else if the job got eliminated? The same wasn’t true for Ernesto from Benevento, Campania, Italia and Juan from Ponce, Puerto Rico, or Eddie Murphy from Southie. I’ll never know the answer to these questions, but I do know that the question of my own agency has tempered my approach to organizing ever since. I’m always trying to check my self out and evaluate whether the strategy and tactics I am proposing are more about my subjective needs than that of the workers I am working with either as a comrade in the shop or as a staff organizer.
Fighting the Mass Machine move became a minor cause celeb in the left labor community that had grown up around UE Local 262. On October 23 we held a rally at the loading dock in the company parking lot in Roxbury. We were joined by a large contingent from the newly organized Cambridge Thermionic Corporation (Cambion). 400 manufacturing workers from this facility had voted UE in July earlier that year. They brought with them signs in English and Portuguese because there was a particularly large Cape Verdean and Azorean workforce. I emceed the rally and Charles Lowell, a UE Vice President and leader of the GE production facility in Ashland, Massachusetts was the featured speaker. Things moved fast after the rally. On November 6 the company announced that the move would happen in January 1975, and later in November they began to lay off the least senior workers. When those lay-offs happened the workers informed us that they had not received the contractually agreed upon Supplementary Unemployment Benefits. We gathered the small group of workers together with our stewards and barged into the executive offices to confront Vice President Jim McGrath about the payment of the differential to the layed off workers. We met with McGrath in his office and demanded the payments that would bridge the difference between unemployment and a worker’s regular take-home. McGrath was so flustered that he panicked and turned to the company safe behind him and pulled out a wad of cash that he proceeded to dole out to the layed-off and anyone else who stuck their hand out, if only we would leave his office immediately.
“I’ll never forget watching a health and safety … explain to a room full of punch press operators that machine oil … could eventually cause sterility in males.”
On January 8th, in the dead of a Boston winter, we rallied on Albany Street at the company’s main entrance. The public pressure was mounting and Eisenscher had successfully gotten the State of Massachusetts to weigh in and show the company several vacant facilities nearby that could be used for manufacturing. The City of Boston even prepared plans, which would provide the Company with land and a new factory built to specification, which then would be sold to the Company and financed with low interest bonds or leased by the City to them. On February 12 the company informed us that they had decided to postpone indefinitely its move. Our mood was one of cautious celebration, but on April 18th, 1975 the company announced that the final day of production at Mass Machine in Roxbury would be July 1, 1975. We held one final rally against the shutdown on June 17th and we did receive a considerable severance package, but the deed was done and the factory moved to New Hampshire. Some of the workers relocated, particularly the Italian immigrants, but most of the workforce had to look for new jobs.
I know that in the final months we openly discussed the tactic of occupying the factory and seizing the equipment ala Flint, Michigan 1936-1937 as a way to deter the runaway. I am not sure why we didn’t. Certainly factory occupations run in the UE gene. In light of Republic Doors and Windows campaign in Chicago in December of 2008 I wish we had. The UE membership in that facility, facing an impending closure, barricaded themselves inside the factory demanding that the company remain open. Their battle became a national story and captured the support of then President-elect Barrack Obama. They were able to find another buyer for the company and keep the plant open. The tactic can resonate and garner broad worker and public support.
Mass Machine was a great learning laboratory for me. Among other things I learned the power of the health and safety issue to motivate workers. I’ll never forget watching a health and safety expert from Urban Planning Aid in Cambridge, Massachusetts explain to a room full of punch press operators that machine oil, if not prevented from splattering on our laps by oil guards, could eventually cause sterility in males. When that was translated into Spanish and Italian the room groaned, and all were immediately united on the need to fight for the UE’s health and safety platform.
Next: Organizing at Advent Corporation in Cambridge, Massachusetts