Before holding forth on this topic, I should identify myself. As an old-fashioned (and I mean old!) liberal/progressive, my views and general approach on socio-economic/political issues may not be quite as “advanced’ as many of the participants in this forum. Put another way, I may seem like an out-of-date, not to say out-of- touch, compromiser! That said, I am calling everyone’s attention to a longish editorial opinion piece in the Sunday (Nov. 22) New York Times Sunday Review section of Nov. 22: one titled “Who Turned My Blue State Red?”. The writer is an Alex MacGillis, by-lined as a political reporter for Pro-Publico. He writes about the phenomenon now fairly apparent in this country: Increasingly, districts and whole states with populations that are heavily dependent on various government programs (from housing subsidies and food stamps and disability payments to Medicare and Social Security) – in general, favored by Democrats – are electing politicians who do not particularly support them – in general, Republicans. Indeed, he describes some regions and states that are among the greatest beneficiaries of these government programs as now electing Republicans who explicitly campaign AGAINST these very programs. How and why this comes about is what he undertakes to explain: briefly he argues that it is the white population, especially older whites in these regions who may themselves be relying on at least some of these programs. However, they regard themselves as having earned/paid for these benefits and see poorer folks, especially people of color or newer ethnic groups, as freeloaders. And because this latter, relatively large segment of the region’s population does not vote in proportion to their numbers, whites, especially older whites, get to elect Republicans. Although he does not state this, it seems to be implied that this group assume that Republican politicians will in fact retain all programs that benefit themselves [E.g. Social Security, Medicare] but cut back on anything that rewards those “freeloaders” [E.g. food stamps, disability payments]. If nothing else, these people are giving expression to a generalized, “floating” resentment that Republican politicians seem responsive to. That is what lies behind this apparent paradox.
Aside from wishing to call your attention to this thoughtful piece – even if you do not necessarily agree with all of his points – I would like to make my own point. And it is that I feel that Democrat politicians – up to and including Hillary Clinton – and all of us “liberals” should face up to this development in our nation. We should not leave it to Republicans to campaign in this negative way, to make promises about what they will do or not do about these issues when elected. But I would go further – and this is where I may lose some of you – I think that the Democrats, and we liberals/progressives, should admit that there is waste and fraud in these programs and, if elected, they will set about to try to eliminate this.
For starters, there is undoubtedly a top-heavy bureaucracy administering most government programs. There is redundancy, there is inefficiency, incompetency. Every program should have some sort of Ombudsman whose sole duty is to seek out waste and fraud. No need to hire new personnel – rather reassign existent staff to this. It is well known that there are individuals receiving disability payments who are not really deserving. I would be for tracking them down. Thus the Social Security Administration will assign staff and procedures to more closely examine all disability claims. People abuse the food stamps they otherwise deserve. Medicaid and Medicare are rife with fraud, much of which is committed by pharmaceutical companies and upper-income medical practitioners – this is not a campaign just against lower income individuals.
Let me be clear. I accept that the total sums lost in all such instances – that is, involving individuals committing what I’ll lump together as “fraud’ for the moment – would add up to probably far less than what corporations get away with by avoiding taxes. Or what defense contractors get away with by manipulating contracts, not to mention corporations’ own varieties of fraud. And all that, it goes without saying here, should be a major priority of Democrats and progressives. But here’s my point: This other issue should be taken away from the Republicans. We do not need to elect even a “democratic socialist,” let alone some radical third-party candidate to deal with this issue. I know this is perhaps not much more than a cosmetic clean up of our social/economic/political system. But for better or worse we have this two-party system, and I wish the Democrats would take up this particular crusade. Bernie Sanders raving about greed in banking, Hillary carrying on about Wall Street, East Coast liberals questioning hedge funds (“the carried interest loophole”?!): none of this means much to the inhabitants of West Virginia and Kentucky who are voting in Republicans because they see some in their own communities unfairly getting disability checks while still active. Or getting food stamps and yet attending fancy restaurants or expensive sporting events. The Democrats should make it a “populist” issue and provide a reasoned promise to deal with this problem. They might even restore some of those Red states to the Blue column.
Related to the NYT’s piece mentioned in this post: The Powder KegThe seething racial resentment of the Obama era is of an altogether different kin, Esquire, 24 November 2015 by Charles Pierce
Warren Mar has written a provocative piece on the role of Community Based Organizations and Worker Centers in the working class movement. He explores controversial issues of the funding and democratic control of these organizations which have filled a vacuum in organizing particularly among immigrant workers.
The author entered community and labor organizing in the late 60’s and early 70’s during the second resurgence of a left alternative to capitalism. Many new left activists entered the labor movement during this time, hoping that American Unions would finally represent the entire working class, and not only those workers under a specific work place contract.
Even at its peak in 1953 the AFL-CIO unions only represented 33% of American workers. This year coincided with continuing legal Jim Crow segregation in the South, excluding African Americans from unions, and years of Asian and Latino exclusion from unions on the West Coast. Therefore the 33% reflected on longingly by union old-timers may have represented a majority of white males concentrated in heavy industry and the skilled construction trades of the Midwest and Northeast. This was the geographic concentration of the majority of union members during the height of the AFL-CIO. Not until the late 60’s and early 70’s when public sector unions were formed and – and public sector civil service jobs were integrated – did large numbers of women and minorities become card-carrying AFL-CIO union members even in the most liberal of northern cities.
The above serves as a context to what we are seeing in liberal urban areas today. Unions, even those that survive, are too insignificant to have a large impact on organizing and popular culture. At 6% density in the private sector, most young workers have no chance of stepping into a union job, so the benefits of union membership is an ideological abstraction. In contrast, many baby boomers were able to step into private sector union jobs, fresh out of high school in the early 1970’s. My first union job allowed me to rent my own apartment, in San Francisco, by making five times the minimum wage. I also had a full medical plan, paid vacation and holidays off, something my immigrant parents never obtained in the era when they were excluded from most unions and specific industries. While I fought against the racism and cronyism of unions I never faltered in my support of them. Even in liberal San Francisco, the difference between a union job vs. a non-union job meant a real living wage. I learned to work union whenever I could right out of high school because it allowed me to pay the rent and later carry the mortgage on my first home in one of the most expensive cities in the United States.
What has stepped into the void with the demise of unions?
It would take another long article to discuss the demise of unions in this country and in particular urban areas. That is not the purpose of this article. Rather, I want to look at the rise of Community Based Organizations (CBO’s), all of whom are chartered as Non-Profit Organizations. They have stepped into the void left by unions as the main and sometimes only organizers of low wage immigrant workers. Some organize workers explicitly through the moniker of being a “workers center”. Many started by representing workers that traditional unions would not touch such as transient immigrant workers who moved from industry to industry or who lacked documentation. The day laborer programs come most readily to mind and they have sprouted up in all urban and agricultural areas where a concentration of Latino or Asian migrants seek casual work, without the benefit of documentation. Others have arisen to redress violations of local progressive workers ordinances such as increases in the minimum wage, paid sick days, private contributions to health care, etc. These progressive policies, usually enacted in left-leaning urban areas, came into being without any enforcement mechanism and when there were written regulations they were remanded to municipal departments woefully understaffed and often with a history of civil service staff lacking the bi-lingual or bi-cultural ability to serve immigrant workers, the most likely victims of non-compliance by intransigent employers.
How have CBO/Non-profits done in representing the most exploited among the working class?
Many progressives and leftists, who did not come from the working class, saw the importance of working in unions in the 60’s and 70’s. Many did so by taking jobs in factories, hospitals or in the service sector, after their tenure as campus activists came to an end. Campus activists who leaned towards socialism saw the need to become workers themselves, “integrating with the masses”, moving into inner city neighborhoods to work and live amongst the working class. They often sacrificed the earning potential of their college cohorts and the high hopes of their middle class parents. Ironically many of their middle class professional ambitions were fulfilled when they rapidly transitioned from the shop floor to positions of paid union staff and full time officials in the inner sanctums of the American labor movement. A number of the top leaders of the union affiliates which led the ascension of John Sweeney and Richard Trumka in the “New Voice Movement” taking over leadership of AFL-CIO in the mid 90’s had entered the union movement in the 70’s fresh out of college. The rapid rise of college educated radicals in the leadership of unions raised many contradictions for those who believed that the working class should and indeed could run their own organizations. This was especially true if one professed an adherence to socialism – where workers were supposedly able to run all of society. In practice, this meant the working class should be able to run their own union, if the goal was to give them power over an entire country.
But the inequalities of capitalism are not so easily overcome. In most of the first unions I was a member of in lower level service work — warehousing, garage work, retail, the phone-company, restaurant and hotel work — many of the workers who came directly from the rank and file spoke English as their second language. Some could not read and write English, many could read only at the primary school level in their native language, the result of class inequalities in their countries of origin. Others had never typed a letter and with the advent of computers they were the least acquainted with these new contraptions. So, while some unions conspired to hire college educated non-workers as a means of controlling their staff, who had no ties to the rank and file other than their staff positions, the harsher reality was that even for the most democratic unions the increasing bureaucratic legal codes and the increasing corporatization of Human Resource Departments in firms coinciding with the formal assault on unions in the 1980’s meant that the ability of rank and file members to rise in staff positions became limited by their formal education. It was easier for unions to have representatives with a college education sit across the table from their equally educated counterparts representing management. Whatever we want to think about working class democracy in a highly industrialized society such as the United States, most people learn how to read, write and compute by attending school. In post-industrial America attending better schools or a better university or college made a big difference.
California, which had the best public post-secondary education system in the United States in my adolescence, reflected the class tiers in the three public higher education systems represented in the Master Plan. Community colleges, started out as trade schools, where some licensed workers (nurses, real estate agents, and accountants) could get better working class jobs or transfer to a Baccalaureate institution. State Colleges (formerly referred to as teacher’s colleges) were the first rung on the professional ladder, emphasizing the training of school teachers, social workers and later middle management in the private sector. Finally the University of California system or their private counter parts like Stanford University trained the elite representatives of the ruling class in the sciences, law and business, including the children of the ruling class.
Today, most professional union staff who do not originate from the shop floor and the core staff of non-profits come from these elite universities, not the first two tiers of community and state colleges. This has widened the contradictions among workers and the staff who purport to represent them. Historically progressive unions have had to deal with the racial divide as working class demographics changed the labor force to a significant number of women and people of color. Today’s non-profits have huge class divides between their staff and member/clients.
The problem is further exacerbated in the non-profit sector because at least in unions the staff and officers are financially accountable to the members. Unions after all are still membership organizations. Union members pay dues for officer and staff salaries. In theory, if not practice this meant that the membership is the highest decision making body and while there have been reams of articles and books written about how unions often try to subvert their membership by fixing elections, general meetings, conventions etc., the point is they still need to hold these gatherings. Sometimes, conventions, elections, and meetings don’t go as planned and radical changes may occur. This means that there is still some structure which allows for working members to wield power in a truly membership based organization. Unfortunately most non-profits today do not have the structural requirements most unions must adhere to. There is little in the way of by-laws governing non-profits, for membership election of leaders and oversite of executive directors and staff.
Many non-profits founded as mass based organizations no longer exist – The example of the Chinese Progressive Association
A mass based organization was the term coined in the 60’s when community based organizations were first formed, mostly in communities of color to fill a void where, most of their working class immigrant members lacked union representation. They also formed to deal with issues that unions considered off limits at the time, such as tenant protections when many communities of color where faced with bull dozers at the height of urban renewal, lack of public services in their communities, and lack of access to jobs both private and public which had the best chance of earning a living wage and moderate working conditions. As an example of this type of mass organization, the Chinese Progressive Association (CPA), which formed in San Francisco in late 1973, existed without outside funding well into the 1980’s. It had a large membership base of several hundred, which was dues driven. But the main source of sustainability was the in-kind contributions of the active membership. There was no paid staff. Rent was paid through weekly Sunday dinners where members and non-members alike gathered and paid a few dollars for the meal. Other contributions came in for movie showings and annual celebrations. Regular storefront hours were kept by retired members who, also helped clean the premises, and performed a wide array of handy-man repairs. More important, all of the organizing campaigns were led through volunteer committees which included direct participation of the affected residents of Chinatown. Longstanding committees included a women’s committee, workers mutual aid committee, tenants committee, youth committee, pro-China support committee and cultural committee. I may have forgotten a few. The committees were led by chairpersons and represented on the steering committee, led by English and Chinese speaking co-chairs. We incorporated a Chinese speaking co-chair to guarantee immigrant representation.
Being membership driven in the early years meant that elections of co-chairs and steering committee members were at times contentious, as were decisions to support other nationalities and engage in support work outside the community. Even on international issues and pro-China work, the membership was often at odds, especially when China entered into a border dispute and war with Vietnam in the late 70’s. None of these issues could be dictated and decided by the leadership without many contentious meetings. In hindsight I think this was a fair price for being membership based. Throughout this period we remained critics of local government and shied away from government based funding.
In San Francisco many public sector unions and skilled private sector craft unions fought affirmative action hiring programs initiated by CBO’s at a time when the demographics and language needs of the city were changing, and the people of African American, Asian, and Latino’s were woefully under-represented in government jobs as we became the numerical majority in the city. Organizers realized that local government was the protector of the status quo and whatever discriminatory policy or services were allotted at the state and national levels usually fell on local government to implement. This was true of dishing out low rent housing, summer jobs for youth, government building contracts, etc. In San Francisco, as in many large urban cities, local government was also the largest employer. CBO’s who wanted a share of good civil service jobs knew local government was the historical arbiter of political cronyism and nepotism.
Post mass base CBO’s: From government challenger to government sub-contractor
During the 1980’s when unions were under major assault and public services started sliding into privatization, CBO’s that survived and thrived underwent two major changes. First they negated their membership base to the back burner, no longer relying on their financial or in-kind contributions, and second, became increasingly reliant on local government funding as the primary sustainer of their organization. The rest is supplanted by corporate donations or foundation grants. They may have a paper membership, but this membership is not empowered to have direct elections or financial oversight. In most non-profits you will be hard pressed to find a governing board that looks like their constituents/clients. Most non- profit boards are made up of professionals and often representatives of private corporations who are major donors. Second, there are few non-profits that are member supported financially with any significant dues base. This has transformed many grass roots CBO’s founded in the 60’s-70’s from local government critic and watchdog to local government sub-contractor.
Many CBO/Worker’s Centers receive the lion share of their funding from liberal foundations. Ironically they are enforcing worker’s rights through donations from the heirs of the wealthy. Today, local government contracts have replaced foundation grants as the largest source of funding for many CBO’s in liberal enclaves such as San Francisco. Workers Centers are the recipients of these contracts because local worker rights ordinances such as living wage ordinances, sick day ordinances and medical care contributions are relatively new local policy initiatives. But the lion’s share of non-profit funding comes not from protecting workers rights but from subsidizing housing for the poor, which has gone through decades of privatization. The majority of money granted to CBO’s originates from municipal government, through housing grants. Non-profit CBO’s receive huge grants to build housing but they have also been given grants as property managers on government owned property that was managed publicly in the past. Ironically in pro-tenant San Francisco, the majority of tenant rights have fallen on groups with direct funding from the Mayor’s Office of Housing (MOH). Sometimes the same group can serve as both landlord and tenant rights advocate, both sides funded by the Mayor’s office. There has been more than one local news article where non-profits have turned on their own tenants. In one of the most audacious examples a non-profit church tried to sell off its low rent housing to a private developer, who wanted to transform these low rent housing apartments to market rate units in rental hungry San Francisco. With government pulling out of its responsibility to serve the poor, non-profits have stepped in as a private sector alternative of choice. This is especially true of housing where, just last year Mayor Ed Lee in San Francisco turned over all formerly HUD federal housing to private non-profits.
Staff and Member Class Divide
Some unions put up barriers for non-rank and file staffers by creating rules against professional staff holding elected office. Some unions liked the separation of staff from rank and filers, because if they fired a college-educated staffer these outsiders could not return to the shop floor to foment dissent against a sitting officer.
The class divide among professional staffers in CBO’s, are even wider than they were inside unions who had staff from mixed backgrounds? Few if any of the non-profit staff and leadership reflect the class background of their member/clients. Today, we would be hard pressed to find an Executive Director of a non-profit, program or lead organizing staff without an elite college education. Even the contradiction of a wide class and educational divide between staff and membership felt by unions is not at play in non-profits, because they don’t have any pressure from an active membership. Most of their funding comes from foundations or now local government contracts. If they have a board of directors, it is usually a self-perpetuating board of like-minded professionals. Like corporate boards in the private sector many CBO/Non-Profit boards share members. There is also an easy transition from staff to board membership. Most non-profit CBOs function under the authority of a strong Executive Director model, where the entire staff is hired by the Executive Director. Many board members also serve at the pleasure; explicitly or implicitly of the Executive Director. So unlike unions there is ultimately no membership to answer to.
This separation of staff, board and member clients has had a chilling effect on the ability to really build a grass roots movement. It definitely has a chilling effect on trying to sustain a movement. Rather mobilization has taken the place of empowerment and organizing. Mass demonstrations have become a prop for media coverage. Turn-out is a lobbying effort to impress city hall. Nowhere is this more evident than in the tenant’s rights work in San Francisco. San Francisco has one of the most stringent rent control ordinances in the country. But to get relief from the local rent board, both tenants and landlords by necessity need to show up with a lawyer. All hearings eventually come before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), making any direct participation a fool’s journey. There are now no real tenant unions or collectives although one group still holds the name. A web search of their board will show a preponderance of attorneys. They lobby city hall, sometimes by turning out their tenants/clients whom they manage. Even if the eviction fight is righteous, the tenants are more their clients than the ones empowered to sit down and discuss housing and land use issues with the government or their landlord. Often the CBO-Non-profit groups lobby not only city hall but for-profit developers about whether or not they will support a project. In exchange the developer agrees to a fee which goes into a pot for low income housing which city hall can then transfer to the appropriate non-profit.
San Francisco’s main Non-Profits involved in housing gave up on a demand that housing developers build a percentage of affordable housing on-site long ago. Rather developers can legally not build a single unit of affordable housing in a project for in lieu of fees, which the non-profits are then reasonably confident City Hall will remit to them. This had the effect of re-segregating entire neighborhoods. It also had the effect of allowing non-profits in Chinatown and the Tenderloin to benefit off fees by developers in the Dog Patch/Mission Bay and the South of Market neighborhoods that wanted 100% market rate condos. This gentrification has depopulated African Americans Latinos and Filipinos from these two neighborhoods. It was legal bribery and City Hall and the larger non-profits were happy to play. Much of the current gentrification ravaging the East Side neighborhoods of San Francisco started with these policies hailed by progressives as a victory in extracting monetary concessions from for profit developers.
While unions have often been estranged from their members through undemocratic officials and a technocratic unaccountable staff, the potential of the membership to take back power is inherent in their financial contribution (dues), and their codified right to exercise direct power. These two factors are not in play for a majority of non-profit CBO’s currently working with lower paid workers and immigrants. More troubling is the move from direct fundraising and foundation grants to local government contracts which serve as the back-bone of organizational viability for many non-profits today. This has served to allow local government, like federal and state government before them, to privatize previous government services to the poor, at the same time creating a huge client base for the expanding non-profits. Led by People of Color educated from elite universities, many non-profits can avoid the intentionality of dealing with the class question. It also ties many non-profits to neo-liberal Democrats such as Mayor Ed Lee in San Francisco. They can no longer serve as the watch-dogs and critics of government abuse of low income working class residents. This does not serve grass roots organizing, nor does it train the poor and working class on how they should manage their own institutions and maybe some-day the world. If CBO’s and workers centers want to build a long term grass roots movement, they must be able to sustain themselves with a real membership based on dues and volunteer activism. Most importantly they must cut their umbilical cord of government funding, or they will never be able to challenge the state representatives of the ruling class.
This piece was originally publish in Social Policy, Fall 2015
Labor for Bernie was initiated in June 2015 by trade unionists who have worked closely with Senator Sanders for many years. The network now includes thousands of elected officers, shop stewards, organizers, and rank-and-file members from 50 states and all of the national labor organizations as well as many independent unions.
These labor activists signed an on-line statement embracing Sanders as the only declared candidate, in either major party, “who challenges the billionaires who are trying to steal our pensions, our jobs, our homes, and what’s left of our democracy.” The first 5,000 union supporters may be viewed on the Labor for Bernie website.
More than a quarter of these Sanders supporters belong to building trades’ unions, (with more than 1,000 coming from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers alone). Members of other unions who have showed significant membership support for Sanders’ presidential campaign include the Communications Workers of America, American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, Service Employees International Union, International Union of Operating Engineers, United Auto Workers, and International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
Of course, social media has played a major role in helping to quickly build a strong grassroots network. The Labor for Bernie Facebook page has more than 10,000 “likes” with daily posts frequently reaching over 100,000 people.
The national AFL-CIO’s decision not to make an early endorsement in late July was a reflection of the then surging union support for Sanders’ bid for President. An important early victory for Labor for Bernie! That delay created more space for national affiliates and local unions to support Bernie. Sanders soon won support from the energetic National Nurses United and picked up endorsements from many local unions, including unions like Iron Workers Local 7 and IBEW Local 2222 where members have had previous experience with his strong commitment to workers’ rights.
Larry Cohen, past president of the Communications Workers of America and now a volunteer working on the Sanders campaign said, “Our strong and growing grassroots movement shows that workers are fed up with business as usual. This campaign is about building new power at the grassroots to put a stop to the corporate assault on working families.”
When the American Federation of Teachers national executive board voted to endorse Clinton with little membership input in July, the endorsement caused a huge uproar on social media and led to a major spike in sign-ups by teachers on the Labor for Bernie website. Today, more than 1,000 members of the AFT or the larger NEA have joined the network. Similarly, when the Machinists Union made a Clinton endorsement there was a strong membership reaction.
“The IAM is a great union and I am very proud to be a member, but the leaders went about this endorsement the wrong way,” said Al Wagner a Local 701 journeyman auto tech out of Chicago. “I cannot describe how disappointed I am with the IAM endorsing Hillary. Bernie Sanders is clearly the “pro Labor” and pro middle class choice who can’t be bought by big business.”
The top-down and premature endorsements by AFT and IAM spurred members of Labor for Bernie to make support for Sanders even more visible. By networking the large number of signups by union, Labor for Bernie organizers have encouraged members to begin grassroots campaigns within their unions to generate pressure on leaders for “no endorsement” and/or for “broad membership debate and discussion about the candidates and their stands on the key issues for working families.”
After a broad internal effort within the IBEW, new International President Lonnie Stephenson replied to members who emailed him, “In recent years, the IBEW International Office has made a practice of not endorsing a presidential candidate early in the primary process. We do not intend to do so this year…I encourage all IBEW members to study each candidate’s positions on the issues and to get involved in their local union’s grassroots political efforts.”
A similar effort supported by Labor for Bernie is ongoing to convince the SEIU International Executive Board not to make an early endorsement.
Bernie’s long track record has given his campaign great credibility with union members.
“Telephone workers in New England know Bernie well because he has walked our picket lines and supported our organizing efforts for years,” said Don Trementozzi, president of CWA Local 1400, based in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. “In our union’s recent campaign against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Bernie was not on the fence—he was helping us lead the fight against a job-killing trade bill backed by Democrats and Republicans alike.”
“Bernie is running on a record of real accomplishment for workers, farmers, veterans, and millions of other blue-collar Americans,” said Erin McKee, President of the South Carolina AFL-CIO. “But here’s the real difference between him and all the rest: he’s the candidate who truly believes in the power of grassroots organizing. Bernie has been to South Carolina over the past few years and some of our members got the chance to see that first hand when he met not only with labor unions but with the fast food workers fighting for $15 an hour and a union.”
“I think everyone is just sick and tired of hearing promises from politicians who say they’ll fight 100 percent for people but then act for Wall Street,” said Mari Cordes, an RN from the University of Vermont Medical Center and Vice President of Healthcare for AFT-Vermont. “Bernie Sanders has never strayed from his working class roots. Not only has he been true to his word in Vermont for the last 35 years, he has rallied real hope across the country—as a four-term mayor, eight-term Congressman, and now two-term U.S. Senator. I stand strong for Bernie for President in 2016.”
“Bernie has a long track record of supporting workers and their right to unionize,” said John Murphy, a Carpenter’s Local 40 steward from Lowell, Mass. “Just recently he was standing with Fair Point workers on their picket lines and offering them aid and support. When members ask me if Bernie can win, I tell them, that’s up to us!”
Union members across the country were out in force on Labor Day promoting Bernie Sanders’ campaign for president and his vision of putting people before profits.
At Labor Day union gatherings, supporters passed out “Why Workers Support Bernie” flyers, held signs, marched in parades, and signed up hundreds of more members to be part of the grassroots “political revolution.”
“By showing the depth of grassroots support for Bernie, we hope more local and national labor leaders will seriously consider his candidacy,” added Cohen who barnstormed for Bernie at Labor Day events in eastern Iowa.
Already tens of thousands of union members have embraced a call for “political revolution” and the “socialist” ideas that Bernie is making the cornerstone of his campaign. They are also implicitly challenging the legacy of “blank check” support from many unions for corporate Democrats who have not stood with the working class on the key issues of our time. They want to elect new leaders who can’t be bought by Wall Street or the billionaire class of “One Percenters.”
Whether or not Bernie gains the Democratic nomination and/or wins the presidency, the challenge will be to create new political structures in the labor movement – perhaps even a new party – capable of continuing the “political revolution” in contests for elected office in tens of thousands of municipal and state level races. If that is the legacy of the Sanders’ campaign, we will owe him a debt of gratitude for many years to come!
Labor for Bernie 2016 is a volunteer effort neither funded nor directed by the Sanders for President campaign. To join this grassroots mobilization, download useful organizing materials, or learn more about Bernie’s past and present support for workers and their unions, go to: Labor for Bernie.
Democratic socialist, longtime political activist and past Massachusetts state legislator, Tom Gallagher has written a stunningly clear and concise book about American politics. It is self-published and he calls it a “pamphlet” in the tradition of George Orwell, “It is written because there is something that one wants to say now, and because one believes that there is no other way of getting a hearing”(1). Tom Paine wrote a pamphlet called “Common Sense” that inspired the American Revolution. Let’s hope that Gallagher’s common sense manifesto will inspire some clear thinking on the American left.
“The Primary Route” is both prescient about the Sanders candidacy and predictive of some of the benefits of that campaign and the reaction of the political establishment.
As a member in the 1970’s of one of the groups that Gallagher characterizes as “the various revolutionary parties structured for operating in a czarist dictatorship” I found Gallagher’s arguments resonating exactly with my own present perspective on the need for a viable American political strategy. We have all grown up a little, but fortunately maintained our desire for global change.
This is an easy read, 187 pages with great photos and tons of wry humor. Gallagher shrewdly puts the prologue in the back so that his own personal political history doesn’t prejudice you against his argument. “He supported who for President..;;???!!!” There is no peeking, please start from page 1. The subtitle of Chapter 1 is “To be or not to be? The American Left’s Hamlet complex.” The first sentence clearly states the thesis of the pamphlet: “This book is all about a simple argument that a group of people that I’m rather generically calling the American left absolutely has to figure out how to work its way into presidential politics if it is to be taken seriously” I couldn’t agree more, and Gallagher lays out the primary route, the Democratic primary as a way for the Left to be active in the biggest most spotlighted arena of American politics.
Gallagher argues that the “primary route” is an additive rather than a subtractive process: participation in the primary adds to the power of the Left and does not subtract its power electorally as a third party effort potentially does in helping to elect a candidate further from the interests of the supporters of the third party. In making his argument he details the history of third parties back to the 1800’s and tells us the story of the origins of the modern primary system, ironically in the year 1912 when the Socialist Eugene Debs got over 6% of the vote. He tells us the recent history of an independent Green Party effort by Ralph Nader and the Democratic primary efforts by Jesse Jackson and Dennis Kucinich. He even mentions the forgotten entrant in the 1992 primaries, the Mayor of Irvine California, Larry Agran. I remember Larry because I negotiated two labor agreements for the public employees of Irvine in the 80’s and because Larry was dramatically arrested for showing up at the Democratic primary debate that had excluded him.
There is a fascinating chapter that compares our electoral system to other countries in the world where third parties have been more viable, notably Germany. Here is the history of the Greens die Grünen and the Left party, Die Linke. I asked the author for permission to use unpublished chapters with my friends and comrades in the left to encourage them to engage in the Democratic primaries so that there would be a challenge to the corporate candidate, Hillary Clinton. Gallagher said wait for the book as he was seeking a publisher. No publisher ever picked up the book and by the time the book emerged, Bernie Sanders had announced.
Gallagher is almost prophetic. Over and over again his advice and analysis presages phenomena we are witnessing now because of the “Feel the Bern” candidacy. Post October 13 debate we were told by the NYT and other pundit paper and media outlets of the status quo that Hillary won the debate even though polls and focus groups resoundingly supported Bernie. Here is Gallagher: “On the conceptual level, the argument will be made that the more intense the ideological gauntlet we force the presidential candidate to run in the nominating process, the more we threaten the viability of the ultimate nominees in the final election. Implicit in this is the argument that we will be better off simply accepting the candidates that recognized “opinion leaders” present us with.”
The question about Bernie and any primary route challenges is what is left behind? How do we build on the excitement and momentum and grow it and sustain it? Here is Gallagher on “Beyond”: “Eventually we could imagine or at least hope, that if presidential candidates of the left were ever to become a routine and expected thing, the ad hoc, self-selecting aspect of the current nominating process might come to be seen as insufficiently democratic. We might envision a desire for something of a more participatory candidate selection process down the road, perhaps some form of organization that could maintain a measure of continuity from one presidential cycle to the next.” Gallagher does not preclude action on the local state and regional level, he just suggests and the Sanders campaign confirms the importance of entering the big tent and putting socialist ideas on the front burner.
The Primary Rout is a pamphlet that Antonio Gramsci would have been proud of, a simple articulate and humorous discourse that challenges status quo and “common sense” (usually ultra left) thinking on the American left.
I hope that we can drive sales so that a publisher picks this up and disseminates it throughout the country as part of Bernie mania.
Gallagher can be reached at TGTGTGTGTG@aol.com.
(1) George Orwell, Introduction to the British Pamphleteers Vol. I
In mid January of 1979 as the Advent battle publicly heated up I took a job at a metal parts manufacturer in Jamaica Plain (JP) called Sintered Metals Inc. I had been laid off by Advent in November of 1978 and had lived on unemployment and the adrenaline rush of the organizing. Now it was clear the plant was closing, and I had located a job at SMI, which was on Washington Street at the old Green Street stop on the then elevated Orange Line of the “T”. I could walk to work because my apartment was on Williams Street near Doyle’s Cafe, the famous JP watering hole featured in the movie, Mystic River.
What do 2 years of college in history and literature have to do with reading mikes, indicators or verniers?”
I was assigned to the third shift, 11 P.M. -7 A.M. I was a press operator running a machine similar to my press at Mass Machine except that this operation was not cutting pieces out of sheet metal. Sintering refers to a work process in metallurgy in which fine powdered metal particles are pressed together in the shape of a part, then sintered or hardened at high temperatures in an industrial oven. (Details here) It is an obvious advance over the laborious process of machining individual parts and has become quite common in the industrial world. The part I remember us making night after long night was the metal casing for a Zippo cigarette lighter (here and here). In 1979 there was talk in the plant that giant pressed metal operations would soon be making even automobile engine blocks, but I don’t think that ever came to pass because of the intense strength requirements. However sintering can be considered a precursor of 3-D printing/fabricating, which appears on its way to replace many traditional fabricating methods and applications.
I was interested in the production process but not stimulated enough to stay awake on the graveyard shift. I tried to combat my drowsiness with smoking and coffee. That didn’t work so I decided that the mental stimulation of crossword puzzles would help. Puzzles run in our family. My mother still does the NY Times puzzle from Monday through Sunday in lightning speed without Google search aids. She has even designed crosswords for magazines and makes up Acrostics for her nieces and nephews as birthday gifts.
I never really acclimated to the night hours. Some workers really like them and certainly getting off work on Friday at 7 AM gets the weekend going early, but my biological clock just never let me sleep in the day (here).
SMI was a family owned company founded in 1943. Myron “Mike” Jaffe was the owner. There weren’t more that 75 employees in production and maintenance in JP. The company had acquired another pressed metals firm in Gloucester called Sinterbond in 1978 and renamed it SMI North. They had the higher tonnage presses and JP handled the lighter work. We in JP were SMI South and the factory was a two-story brick building with 30,000 square feet of production space. In 1977 the workers in the South had voted on union representation with the United Steelworkers (USW) (here and here) and lost by 6 votes.
I had not heard of that union drive before starting at SMI, but I was there to organize. I soon found a soul mate in Normand Brown, a young worker about my age, who was a fluent Spanish speaker from Long Island who had spent time in Cuba. He was a Mechanical Inspector on the second shift, but soon after I got there he moved to third shift. We bonded immediately and started talking about bringing in the USW. The Company handed us a couple of issues. On February 20, 1979 they posted an opening for another Mechanical Inspector. This was a job that they had already posted to the outside public in the pages of the Boston Globe. Finding no takers at their poverty wages, they decided to bring the posting in house. Just the reverse of any decent union job bidding system that provides that incumbents get first crack. Ten of us applied on the third shift. The company offered me the job because of my two years of college. They passed over the applications of more senior and experienced workers in favor of the Liberal Arts college dropout. As I told the personnel manager when I refused the job, “What do 2 years of college in history and literature have to do with reading mikes, indicators or verniers?” The company failed to offer the job to any of the other ten employees. The issue of job postings was a sore point.
On April 26, 1979 the company gave a measly profit sharing check. No raise, just a bonus. Normand calculated that in order for our wages to keep pace with inflation we needed a 10% increase. I was being paid $3.40 per hour, (Minimum wage for all covered, nonexempt workers in 1979 was: $2.90. US Department of Labor) which even at the time was way below the average US manufacturing wage of $5.63. These were the issues that we decided we would campaign on. We started a newsletter called the P/M Worker. The first issue came out in May of 1979 with a blaring headline: “Bonus is Bogus-Cash on the Line in ’79”. Normand did an excellent translation of the 5 legal sized pages into Spanish and we started after shift meetings with workers at Doyle’s Cafe.
We soon realized the obvious that we needed unity with the workers in Gloucester or unionization would be foolhardy because production could be readily shifted in the event of a job action or prolonged strike. There was no SMInc North Facebook page and no cell phones so we needed a way to meet the Gloucester workers up on Cape Ann, 40 miles away. Sports again came to the rescue of the working class organizer! Normand and I had heard that Gloucester had an industrial league softball team. In fact we heard that they were pretty good, and that they had a player named Kevin Goodhue who had had a tryout with the NY Yankees in the spring. Normand was a decent shortstop, and I had played first base until I was 15 and then switched to lacrosse. We decide the best way to fraternize with Gloucester was to challenge them to a softball game.
We assembled a team from SMI South, a multinational group of white, Black and Puerto Rican players to challenge the self described Gloucester Guzzlers. We called ourselves the Supremos or Boston’s Supreme Team, and we practiced in Franklin Park up the street from the plant. The game was played as part of what became a larger company picnic at Ross Park in Peabody on Sunday, July 15th. The owner of the company Mike Jaffe decided that he was going to umpire the game. This proved to be a fateful and interesting decision.
In mid June the company had disciplined me for wrecking parts and a die worth upwards of $1500. I admitted fault but protested that the punishment did not fit the crime as I had investigated how similar offenses had been handled in the past. No one had been disciplined. I issued a denunciation of the discipline as a slam on the union and an unfair labor practice. The owner responded with a letter laying out a whole list of my offenses including that of doing crosswords on the job. He argued that I was not telling the truth and linked it to my leadership role in trying to bring in the union. The implication was that Olney is lying about his work, and will lie to get you to join the union. So by the time we got to softball in July, Jaffe knew who I was and why I was at SMInc.
Back to softball. Gloucester had a far superior team and Kevin Goodhue, the Yankee prospect, hit several towering home runs out of the park, which in softball is not an easy feat. We were down by eleven runs very quickly. We only scored once in the first 4 innings while North piled it on. Then in the top of the 5th we staged a rally. Six runs came in, and I hit a double to drive in three more. I was the potential tying run on second when my buddy Normand singled to right, and I came around third to try and score even though I knew Kevin Goodhue had a rocket of an arm in right. I slid into home plate ahead of the throw, but I had violated a no sliding rule that had been explained before the game to both teams. So I beat the throw but I should have been called out. What would Jaffe, the owner and the home plate umpire rule? Maybe he thought I would run to the National Labor Relations Board if he ruled me out so after some hesitation he signaled safe with his hands held out flat. The Gloucester side was outraged as lowly Boston had tied the score. If we couldn’t agitate them about pay and benefits maybe we could get them to unionize over the owner’s blown call??!! But they scored one more run in their half and ended up winning 12-11 so their honor was preserved.
We did meet and talk union issues with some of the Gloucester guys but they seemed far more satisfied than their Boston brethren. The following month I got a chance to move to Boston City Hospital and become once again an elevator operator. When it came time to get a letter of recommendation from Charlie Gilman the SMInc personnel manager, he wrote a most bizarre letter of reference. In his final paragraph, he said, “I recommend Peter Olney for whatever job he thinks he is qualified for”. Something to be said for union activism and trouble making when it is time to go.
I have since lost touch with Normand Brown although I believe he ended up being a union leader with the International Association of Machinists (IAM). I’ll never forget the hot humid night of Tuesday, July 17th when he introduced me to the Sandinistas and the Nicaraguan revolution that would so much dominate the Reagan years and our activism as anti-imperialists. Norman came running up to me on the night shift to announce jubilantly that, “The Sandinistas have taken over. Anastasio Somoza is gone”. Before that moment I didn’t know who Somoza or the Sandinistas were and where Nicaragua was located. Worcester was West to me.
Next: Boston City Hospital: Going Up!
This article originally ran in ReVista the Harvard Review of Latin America Fall 2015
… as the men and women felt comfortable and before the temperature in the classroom reached sauna stage, the tone changed…”
The small, white-washed classroom at the University in Minatitlán, Veracruz, was packed with people who, although neighbors, had never met. They included members of a fishing cooperative, a pediatrician, a toxicologist from Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex), a biologist turned environmental activist, a couple of retired oil workers, a Pemex engineer, two medical students, neighbors of the local refinery, and community activists. They squeezed around tables set up with tiny voice recorders at the invitation of my colleague, the historian Christopher Sellers from Stony Brook University, who organized a witness seminar for a project on relations between Pemex and surrounding communities. I was in a supporting role, helping to manage the meeting and translate if necessary. I was also thrilled to visit for the first time Minatitlán and its twin down the road, the Port of Coatzacoalcos, the hubs of the oil and petrochemical industry in southern Veracruz and two of the most polluted cities in Mexico.
The reason for my excitement had its own history. Two decades earlier, as a fresh-faced graduate student in the history department at the University of California, Berkeley, I had decided to write a dissertation about the history of the oil workers of Minatitlán, the most important refinery in southern Mexico before president Lázaro Cárdenas nationalized the industry in 1938. During my exploratory research trip to Xalapa, the capital of Veracruz and the location of the archives I needed to consult, my project was derailed however. Every jarocho (the endearing term for Veracruz natives) I spoke to told me that staying in Minatitlán or Coatzacoalcos for any extended period of time was a terrible idea. It was particularly awful considering that I planned to bring my four-year old for the duration of the research, six months. I was skeptical until I met the friend of a professor who had children my son’s age. She was from Minatitlán herself but had migrated to Xalapa not only seeking better employment opportunities but also running away from the pollution that gave her children asthma and made their skin break out in hives with every bath. I switched the focus of my investigation to the history of labor, environment, and oil in northern Veracruz. I never visited Minatitlán until now.
Knowing the history of the place, I expected no surprises from the stories that the seminar participants were going to tell. The first round of anecdotes was formal and guarded, as one could anticipate. But as soon as the men and women felt comfortable and before the temperature in the classroom reached sauna stage, the tone changed and the mood became somber. Everyone in the room was sick, had been sick, or knew someone in their families who was sick. Their ailments, as the mother of my son’s playmates had told me two decades before in Xalapa, ranged from recurring skin rashes, to perennial allergies, to asthma, to digestive system discomfort, to leukemia. The pediatrician himself had had leukemia and when he realized that too many of his patients did as well, he began asking questions. He wanted to know how many leukemia cases existed in Coatzacoalcos-Minatitlán or whether there were other cancers in the region. It turned out that no such records existed: no numbers, no statistics, no cancer registry of any sort. No one kept track and no one encouraged him to do so either.
I have been thinking about those stories in light of the energy reforms enacted by President Enrique Peña Nieto and implemented by the Mexican Congress in August 2014. While there is no denying that Pemex generated great wealth for Mexico as a whole, the same is not unequivocal for Pemex’s workers and neighbors. As Minatitlán-Coazacoalcos demonstrate, ecological degradation followed the oil industry, eroding the local community’s health in the process. As the Pemex toxicologist explained in the seminar, the company, cognizant of the fact that the petroleum industry ranked among the most dangerous in the country, has made quantifiable strides in monitoring the health of its permanent workers and created a robust health system for union members. It never occurred to him personally, however, that neighbors of the refineries and the petrochemical plants deserved similar attention given that they were exposed to the same toxins the workers confronted on the job on a daily basis.
The shift in ideological and economic policy direction was jarring for Mexicans, controversial and contentious.”
Will the oil sector reforms bring change for the better? To answer that question, we need to know what the reforms entail and what prompted the government to undertake them. The reforms amended the Mexican Constitution in two ways. First, they broke the monopoly that Pemex had on hydrocarbons (oil, natural gas, and petrochemicals). Second, they allowed private investment, both foreign and domestic, to return to the industry. The shift in ideological and economic policy direction was jarring for Mexicans, controversial and contentious. Weeks of demonstrations, marches and protests framed the Congressional debates and with good reason. Mexico decreed the first major nationalization of petroleum in history, coming after three decades of conflict among the workers, the state and the foreign oil companies, amidst the first social revolution of the twentieth century (1910-1920). The decision to nationalize the oil industry in 1938 catapulted president Cárdenas to the pinnacle of the pantheon of revolutionary heroes among Mexicans. He remains there to date despite more critical reviews by historians and sundry academics. The public’s attachment to the principle of national ownership of the oil industry, therefore, cannot be under estimated, however critical ordinary Mexicans are of Pemex, the oil workers’ union and the government.
President Peña Nieto knew that a strong nationalist flame burns within every Mexican, so he promulgated the reforms in such a way that he could truthfully claim that he was not privatizing Pemex and that he was not denationalizing oil. The language of the constitutional amendments was careful and specific yet flexible. Arguing that he was retaking Cárdenas’ words, Peña Nieto drafted an amendment that reaffirmed the late president’s stipulation that no concessions would be granted to private parties, but he added that the nation could assign contracts to private companies directly or through Pemex. In all cases, the contracts would declare that the hydrocarbons in the subsoil belong to the nation.
Thus, Peña Nieto assured the Mexican people that Pemex was not privatized. It continues to exist as a state-owned company, but it will collaborate and compete with private firms, both foreign and domestic. Investors drilling on land and offshore also will not own the crude or natural gas they find. Those products will be owned by the nation, so Mexico’s oil riches continue to be nationalized. However, private interests will gain access to hydrocarbons through contracts signed with the government or Pemex. The language of the contracts, therefore, will determine if a private company keeps a percentage of production, pays a set price per barrel of crude or cubic meter of natural gas, pays extraction or export taxes, etc. As critical journals like the weekly Proceso and the daily La Jornada, have noted, the contract is the undefined and crucial concept in the reforms, the artifact that will contain the details that could undo Pemex if it can’t compete against transnational oil companies.
One goal of the reforms is to obtain new technologies. Observers believe that the government wants two technologies specifically: “ultra deep” offshore drilling and hydraulic fracturing. Although Pemex has been drilling off the coast of Tabasco and Campeche since the 1970s, the crude that the companies are seeking now lies at 2900 meters (9500 feet) below the surface (by comparison, the British Petroleum-Deepwater Horizon well that exploded in 2010 was at 1500 meters, or 5000 feet). Mexico estimates that 50 billion barrels of oil are buried in Gulf waters ready for retrieval with cutting-edge technology.
“Unconventional” oil, specifically shale oil extracted by using the method known as hydraulic fracturing, is another priority for Mexico. The process involves injecting water, sand and chemicals at least one mile into the earth to crack the shale and release oil and gas. The technology is water intensive, using two barrels of water per barrel of oil captured. It also creates toxic waste that can contaminate the water table when it is re-injected into the bedrock to protect the environment aboveground. And it provokes earthquakes. A New York Times article dated April 4, 2015, for example, reported that Oklahoma had surpassed California as the shakiest state, experiencing 5,417 quakes in 2014, a remarkable increase from 29 tremors in 2000. The difference in that decade was 3,200 wastewater wells dug to bury the poisons brewed through “fracking.” Industry analysts believe that there are 150 million barrels of shale oil in northern Mexico, but Pemex has been able to bring only one well into production. If the company acquires advanced technologies through joint ventures or contracting, what will happen to local communities?
The Gulf of Mexico and the deserts of northern Mexico are sensitive ecosystems. The Gulf is an important fishing ground for both the U.S. and Mexico. As the BP spill of 2010 and the 1979 Ixtoc 1 blowout demonstrated, accidents in the Gulf are deadly for workers (eleven died in the BP blast; one worker died and four were injured in recovery operations for Ixtoc 1) and harmful for coastal communities dependent on clean beaches and water for their livelihoods. In Tabasco and Veracruz, fishermen affected by Ixtoc 1 saw stocks recover after three years, although the fish they caught were not the same species as those previous to the spill, according to biologists from Mexico’s national university. The effects of the British Petroleum spill on the Louisiana fishing fleet are still being fought over in court, five years after the accident.
In Northern Mexico water is already at a premium. Industry analysts, in fact, declared to the online trade journal “DrillingInfo” in December 2014 that the lack of water is an issue for the Sabinas and Burro-Picachos shale fields of Coahuila. That area is rural hence ranchers and farmers, in addition to the border cities along the Rio Grande, will have to compete with oil companies for water. Moreover, as the New York Times reported on April 11, 2015 the Rio Grande under strain from the drought affecting the U.S. Southwest so that by the time it reaches the Gulf, it is but a trickle. Research about the maquiladoras on the border also show that the Rio Grande is severely polluted by industrial waste, compromising the health of communities on both sides. Adding the burden of fracking to the Rio Grande and local aquifers will mean that those localities will have even less potable water and more toxic waste. Under any standard such conditions spell hardship for local populations.
Lastly, there is violence to consider. By most accounts, the Mexican drug cartels that traffic along the Tamaulipas-Coahuila-US border have diversified their criminal activities to include fuel theft. As the Financial Times of London pointed out in a November 12, 2014 article, the shale fields “encroach on cartel turf” and could be dangerous for workers. One anonymous executive confessed that in the undisclosed area where his company provided services to Pemex, workers arrived by helicopter, escorted by the Mexican military. But despite the risk to workers’ lives, consultant Emil de Carvalho told the Financial Times that no company would shy away. The firms would simply adjust their budgets to include security personnel. There is simply too much money to be made to be derailed by the prospect of violence against workers. If Nigeria is an example, Mexican and foreign oil workers’ safety will be secondary to extraction.
The reforms might achieve the ultimate goal of filling the coffers of the Mexican treasury with oil profits, but as the Minatitlán witnesses revealed, the local costs might be very high.
…and the fact that the community and the workers were one and the same,…”
Soon after the Red Sox collapse in the fall of 1978, my employment at Advent ended. 18 of us were laid off in what was termed a seasonal production downturn. Rumors were swirling throughout the facility though that the company intended to move to the haven for runaways in New England, “Live Free or Die” New Hampshire. New Hampshire at that time was a conservative bastion and still is a right to work state with a very low percentage of unionized workers. It is a very different place from its western neighbor Vermont, a state with progressive traditions and a much higher union density, much of it because of the machine tool industry in the Connecticut River valley that was heavily organized by the union I was in at Mass Machine, the left- wing United Electrical, Radio and Machine workers, the UE (as we have linked before to the UE, here is an oral history of Ernest DeMaio, head of the United Electrical Workers Midwest District 11).
Talk inside Advent was that the company was already building a new factory in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. I have learned that such rumors are always worth tracking down. Barbara, a comrade and sister organizer had also been laid off. Instead of doing a “Google” search we climbed in a car and set out for Portsmouth exactly 56 miles away. We drove around likely sites where construction was going on and found a huge clearing, the Portsmouth Industrial Park, on Heritage Road off Route 1. I barged into the construction trailer and inspected the floor plans on the draftsman table. There was also an artist’s drawing of what the new building would look like. The workers told us that the building had been under construction for 1 1/2 to 2 months. The concrete foundation had been poured. Yes indeed, Advent was coming to New Hampshire. Nowadays I would have taken a snapshot of the foundation and the floor plan with my “smartphone”, but in 1978 our word would suffice. We had the company red-handed. We knew the number of the real estate parcels and the name of the real estate developer. We were ready to blow the whistle on Advent’s plans to steal away with no notice to the workforce.
We rushed back to Cambridge and roughed out a flyer to be distributed the next morning at the gates of Advent. Copies were made with the most current technology, a mimeograph machine with an electronically etched stencil! Nowadays a twitter message and Facebook would probably bring the bad tidings to the workforce. The flyer was entitled, “Advent is Moving” and it lambasted the company: “Advent has been planning for a long time to move. THEY HAVE TOLD THE WORKERS OF ADVENT NOTHING. What was Advent planning to do, lay us all off in February, move the machinery and start production in New Hampshire??” At the bottom of the flyer was the slogan “Stay or Pay” and a call for a meeting with Art Stewart, the plant manager in the cafeteria at noontime on Friday, January 19th.
Friday came quickly. The cafeteria was full of almost all 600 employees. We made sure that some of the members of the Cambridgeport Advent Committee were in the room. They had long protested the toxic emissions from the Emily Street facility and had forced the company to install expensive air quality filters. The buzz briefly subsided into a hush when Peter Sprague, the cavalier capitalist owner mounted a table to address the workers. He could not have foreseen the audacity of the majority immigrant workforce and certainly he did not expect that Comrade Bruce would mount the table opposite him to go point counter point with him. Sprague charged through the Advent talking points: the need for a modern single story facility, the desire for a less hostile community and the overly regulated business environment in Massachusetts. Bruce was able to point to the greed that was driving the move, and the fact that the community and the workers were one and the same, endangered by toxic substances on the line or in their neighborhoods. But fundamentally what carried the day was the fact that Sprague never had any intention of telling the workers before hand about the decision to shut down. In an interview later with the Boston Phoenix Sprague said, “We didn’t tell them before now because we needed the production, and we figured they might walk out. And they would have been out of work anyway – so what difference does it make?”
Raw anger at Sprague’s hubris overrode any of the corporate competitive arguments.
As Bruce agitated the workforce, the climate became more heated and Sprague dismounted from the cafeteria table and left with Art Stewart to the jeers of the Advent workers. Sprague had no plans to meet with the workers again. In official written communications the company was holding out the promise of a modest severance package as a condition of the workers finishing work and staying on until February 15th, the last day of production.
The fight against the runaway began on several fronts, legal charges and a mass protest at the “golden dome”, the historic Massachusetts State House on Beacon Street. The question needs to be asked why red hots like us were not pushing a factory occupation strategy? I guess in our new deference to the “mass line” we thought that the workers would not take such action because of the fear of losing the proposed severance package, but in retrospect, as with Mass Machine the occupation strategy was probably a very plausible route and something that might have appealed to the temperament and experience of some of the workers. In our urgency to discard the left sloganeering and idealist socialist appeals and root ourselves in the day to day struggles we had lost sight of the fact that often a spark of imagination and daring is just what folks need to rise up and defend their interests. That can be the role of leadership, not getting way out ahead of folks but always testing the waters and respectfully pushing the envelope. Probably an opportunity lost to capture the imagination and support of the public that was aggrieved with the beginnings of a new wave of capital flight.
Instead on Friday, January 26, in the dead of winter we organized a bus caravan to the State House, leaving after work. The City of Cambridge authorized the expense of renting the school buses. Every press and TV outlet in the greater Boston area was present. Politicians joined our rally and then we were given a meeting with Governor King’s Secretary of Economic Affairs, George Kariotis. Ed King had been the Chairman of the Massachusetts Port Authority – Mass Port and was seen as a business friendly candidate who would restore the economy after the term of the pointy headed liberal Michael Dukakis who he beat in the Democratic gubernatorial primary.
When confronted with the demand to Stay or Pay, Kariotis responded that, “We cannot force him to pay you severance pay; we cannot force him to build a plant on a vacant lot anywhere else. We have no legal means to force a company to do these things…” Furthermore Kariotis stated that he wouldn’t want to have that kind of power because it would scare potential businesses away from the state. After the Kariotis meeting Bruce addressed the workers outside in bitter cold near the monument to the Massachusetts 54th regiment, an all black unit that fought in the Civil War. Fleischer said, “The struggle will continue. It is clear that we have no friends here.” Certainly in speaking of Governor King, he was right, but several state legislators had joined our rally and Saundra Graham, the African American state representative from Cambridge was all over our struggle offering support and encouragement at every turn.
The father daughter attorney team of Harold and Robin Kowal filed a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) charge arguing that the move to New Hampshire was in response to the workers organizing. This was an extremely plausible theory that was well documented in their brief to the Board. They asked for injunctive relief to stop the movement of plant and equipment to Portsmouth so that in the event our charges were found to be bona fide and the remedy was “status quo ante”, the company would not already be in New Hampshire. Ironically the company was defended by the same law firm that had defended Mass Machine, Tepper and Berlin, and the wily old silver fox, Alan Tepper, again prevailed and the charges were dismissed.
We are representatives of the face of the troubled working class…”
With prospects dim for any rescue of the jobs and any commitment to hire displaced Cambridge workers in New Hampshire, it was time to celebrate each other and our community and persevere in fighting for the best severance package and Trade Readjustment Act (here and here) monies. TRA subsidized unemployment benefits up to 70% of normal wages for a period of 52 weeks in the event of loss of employment due to the impact of foreign competition. There were no clear measures of foreign competition, but there were certainly clear measures on the decibel meter of loud protest. Advent workers were in the news and raising their voices, they were the squeaky wheel that got the TRA regardless of any objective analysis of the reasons for the job loss. In fact the authorization for TRA for the loudspeaker workers came on February 15, the same day as the shutdown.
On Saturday night, February 10, 100 workers gathered at the Black Elks Club in Cambridge for a final hurrah before the shutdown. The theme of the party was “Saturday Night Proud of Our Fight” Every nationality was represented and Marco Castro summed it up for all when he said, “We are representatives of the face of the troubled working class. We are in trouble right now and would like to be helped, because tomorrow I’m going to go to work for another company for five years and that company may runaway too.” Nevertheless there was a certain pleasure in the achievements of the workers as the final edition of On the Line pointed out, “All of us will remember when we sent Sprague, Ed ‘Bulldog” Cobb and Art Stewart running from our cafeteria meeting. We are proud of our fight and will carry its lessons with us wherever we work in the future.”
Even after the shut down Advent workers remained in the public eye and appeared at a State House Senate Commerce and Labor Committee hearing on plant closure legislation that would give workers 1 year advance notice of closure, minimum severance of one week’s pay for each year of service and a 15% of one year’s company payroll as a contribution into a community assistance fund to be tapped for workers in the case of a runaway or shutdown. The bill never became law but it was a harbinger of future legislative fights in Massachusetts and later for me in California in the early 80’s when the wave of shutdowns and relocations would shock the industrial working class.
Next Olney Odyssey #16 – Sintered Metals Inc., Softball and the fall of Somoza
For the latest news on Greece, the bailout and what to expect next from The Guardian of London
Syriza’s defeat in its recent non-negotiations with the Troika was disturbing, though not unexpected. From day one, I was the “pessimist”, according to my friend, arguing that major concessions would strengthen other left formations like Podemos and encourage new ones, and for that reason would not be forthcoming from The Troika. My heart was hoping to be proved wrong; my head told me not to get my hopes up.
Nevertheless, this experience is an opportunity to raise some fundamental questions about the nature of the world in which we live and the people power that will be necessary to change it. Specifically, a democratically elected government with a firm mandate from its electorate to reject austerity was essentially ignored. Those who represent financial power, and/or are ideologically committed to austerity and “neoliberalism” (here & here) imposed their will upon Greece.
Question #1: Was a “Grexit” possible? While several writers on the left argued that it was, I initially saw nothing that convinced me that Greece could go it alone. While I hoped someone would draw a persuasive parallel to what Iceland and Argentina had done, with a handful of suggestive exceptions I did not find it in my searches of the abundant Internet discussions on the subject. The Syriza parliamentarians who voted against Tsipris didn’t seem to have a case other than righteous anger either.
Question #2: I initially asked, “Why didn’t Syriza have a contingency plan?” If public statements more-or-less reflected private thinking, there was no Syriza anticipation that there wouldn’t be a deal. In an early statement, Yanis Varoufakis suggested that the negotiators were reasonable people, equally committed to a fair Europe, and that serious Keynesian proposals accompanied by necessary domestic reforms (tax collection, retirement and others) that wouldn’t further punish the poor and working class would provide the basis for an agreement.
(It now appears there was a “Plan B,” that never got further than being a five-page memorandum from Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis to Prime Minister Alexis Tsipris. Varoufakis now says that he was not “authorized” to take steps to implement the plan. (More on this below.) At the same time, he and others indicate that in order to implement Plan B secrecy would have been required in order to prevent intervention by the Troika.)
Question #3: Why didn’t Syriza use the little leverage available to it in the EU when there was a vote to continue economic sanctions against Russia? As I understand it, such a vote has to be unanimous. Since it passed, I assume Greece’s representative voted for it, giving up the leverage his vote might have offered the Syriza negotiators. And wasn’t there an opportunity to float a new possibility: Greece joining with the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) countries giving them a presence in Europe?
Question #4: How could a Plan B be given legs without secrecy? In the subsequent Internet buzz around Plan B, critics say that Syriza/Varoufakis should not keep secrets from the Greek people. That’s more easily said than done. Let me tell a story from a different time and place to illustrate the problem.
In a major 1930s strike at a General Mothers Fisher Body plant in Michigan, union leaders told their members a lie about where the sit-down (occupation of the plant) was going to take place. They knew company agents had infiltrated the union. The strike organizer used the infiltrators to send the company’s security guards and police to the wrong place so that the planned occupation could take place unimpeded. Should the organizer have told the members the truth, thus alerting General Motors to the tactic? I think not. But it is a difficult question: under what circumstances should a democratically elected leadership or an organizer lie to its people? And if there is a very good reason for secrecy, for how long can declining to tell the truth be justified? (Obviously in the auto plant case it was for a very short time.)
Question #5: Were Syriza negotiators’ hands tied by the contradictory Greek polling results that showed strong majorities for an end to austerity, and similarly strong majorities for not leaving the Euro? And, if so, why wasn’t there any campaign to diminish the latter in order to strengthen the negotiators’ position? Only at the last was there a referendum that clearly represented rejection of austerity, but didn’t cross the bridge of abandoning the Euro.
Question #6: Why wasn’t there much, if any, international solidarity action? Why, for example, weren’t international longshore unions, which have a strong tradition of acting in solidarity with struggles that have no relationship to their “bread and butter” issues, asked to call a one-day refusal to unload German goods in the ports of the world? Within Germany, why wasn’t there a strong demonstration of support for the Greeks? (In fact, it appears quite the opposite was the case: polls suggest that a large majority of the German majority of the German people supported Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble — shades of the disintegration of international solidarity at the commencement of World War I.)
Question #7: Why wasn’t there massive non-violent disruptive direct action by the social movements within Greece that would both have strengthened the negotiators’ hands and precipitated similar action in other European, if not further, countries? Here let me quote at some length from Leo Panitch who penned these words from Athens for the July 15 issue of The Bullet. (Panitch is no crazy sectarian—he is editor of the Socialist Register, a research professor at York University, Canada, and a long-time commentator on Canadian Broadcast Corporation radio and TV.)
Not only the party but also the social movements were in a state of suspended animation from February to June as everyone waited for the outcome of the negotiations. This was not something engineered from the top. One very senior minister privately expressed to me his disappointment that the social movements he had expected to light a fire behind him had become largely immobilized. Indeed, the 20 page political resolution passed at Syriza’s refounding conference in the summer 2013 had concluded by saying that the party was not a slingshot that would impel its leaders into the state and leave them there but rather the enabler of a “diverse, multidimensional movement of subversion” without which those in the state would not be able to accomplish much by way of political, economic and social transformation. That there was little spontaneous evidence of this was no doubt a relief to some in the government; but to others it was troubling. There were especially some highly capable Syriza leaders who deliberately remained in the party apparatus in order to facilitate this. But the difficulty of doing this was not just a matter of the rest of the leadership’s preoccupation with the negotiations but also the lack of capacity among Syriza activists for animating the creative plans from below to which the state would need to respond.
Question #8: Why did, as Panitch puts it, “some highly capable Syriza leaders [deliberately remain] in the party apparatus to facilitate” independent mass action? The Devil is in the details: these leaders should have been outside the party apparatus, in leading positions in mass organizations funded by their members and the Greek people, accountable to these movements. When John L. Lewis, leader of the 1930s emerging industrial union movement, confronted General Motors, Lewis ally Frank Murphy, then-governor of Michigan, told Lewis he would have to use the National Guard to remove the workers from their sit-down strike. Lewis responded that the sit-down would continue, and that he, Lewis, would stand in the GM plant window so that his body would be among the first to fall from bullets aimed at the strikers. Murphy backed off; the strike was won. Who was there to hold Tsipris and Syriza’s feet to the fire? (By the way, I’m well aware of Lewis’ undemocratic practices in his own union.)
Question #9: Is neoliberalism so dominant internationally that even Keynesianism is fringe radicalism? To read the press in the United States, with the exception of Paul Krugman’s regular op-ed column in the New York Times and a few others, one would think so. It did not matter that Syriza was not proposing a “socialist” solution. They were “radical”, “immature”, and “unreasonable” anyway. Ironically, Germany has abundant government interventions in its domestic “free market”; evidently the Greeks don’t deserve the same. Are we in a truly hegemonic world context totally controlled in the essentials by multi-national financial and corporate institutions rather than the tenuous, and in flux, world suggested by Immanuel Wallerstein, a highly regarded scholar?
Question #10: This one is of a different nature, and has to do with Greece’s complicity in its mess. Who is responsible for the failure to collect taxes, especially the taxes on the wealthy? Are there pension abuses that are indefensible? The question of complicity is the one usually raised by conservatives, and thus, and also usually, dismissed by liberals and radicals. But that’s not good enough. This is a much broader question, and applies in depth, for example, to the question of corruption in Africa, Mexico and other emerging nations around the globe.
A Note on Electoral, Legislative and Regulatory Agency Politics
… our experience is with mobilizations that momentarily capture attention and …
The role of electoral politics, in particular, in building mass organization and movement raises thorny and unresolved questions. I’ve been around long enough to remember being told that the Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern, Jesse Jackson and other Democratic Party campaigns, as well as third party efforts like those of California’s Peace and Freedom Party and the Green Party would help build “a movement”. To the best of my knowledge, none of them did, for two reasons. First the logic of running major electoral efforts is one of “mobilization”, not “organization”. Second, in every case of which I’m familiar, the candidate has called the shots in how the campaign should be run, not those who think they can build a movement out of it.
In the case of Syriza, Varoufakis says he presented a five-page contingency plan to Tsipris and failed to get his authorization to put legs on what was at that point simply a memorandum. So I don’t think any of us is in a position to know whether the Greek economy could have survived the process of dropping out of the Euro and returning to the Drachma. Everything now written on that question is mere speculation reflecting the initial bias of its author.
But we can know something about the politics of the conflict between Syriza and a majority of the Greek people, and The Troika. Everything was controlled by the “parliamentary party”, rather than in partnership with the independent mass-organizations/mass movement whose leadership evidently completely deferred to Tsipris on the question of organizing mass domestic and international support for debt relief that coordinated with what was going on at the negotiating table, but was separate and independent of it (what I call an “outside/inside strategy”).
Syriza claimed that it understood the necessity of the mass movements remaining autonomous; there seems to be no evidence of that. In the absence of a mass non-violent disruptive direct action campaign aimed at German banks and other appropriate targets, with the addition of support from longshore unions that might have refused to unload German products, with the addition of some kind of international boycott aimed at carefully targeted products, we have no way of knowing what might have been won at the negotiating table. Further, the contradictory ideas of getting substantial relief and remaining in the Euro community could have been pried loose in the course of a campaign. Campaigns move people; polls are only static pictures of where they are at a specific moment in time.
It appears that Syriza thought “reason” was going to prevail–the occupational hazard of having academics and intellectuals at the center of your policy-making who are accountable only to themselves. (In contrast, I told friends from day one that the Troika was not going to budge because if it did it would strengthen Podemos and all the other left forces now emerging in Europe.) All we got was an ad hoc mobilization called at relatively the last minute by Tsipris and the Syriza central committee, as distinct from a mobilization by the mass organizations that was part of a six month campaign to defeat neoliberalism. When leadership is centered in the parliamentary party rather than parallel and in tension with the mass organizations, that’s the result you get. (In California, in the Electricity & Gas for People Campaign, all our Sacramento allies–both legislators and public interest advocates–told us not to have a mass action in Sacramento to support lifeline legislation. We did it anyway. Afterward the very same allies told us the action dislodged the bill from being stuck in committee, and moved it forward. It’s not international, but it’s a parallel experience.)
We lack the mass-based, multi-issue/multi-constituency organizations that have the capacity to engage in sustained struggle with corporate power and win. With some relatively timid exceptions, we have little experience in the last 50-or-more years with mass-based organization. Rather, our experience is with mobilizations that momentarily capture attention and may temporarily paralyze the status quo with disruptive direct action. Think here about Occupy. Contrast it to the industrial unions of the 1930s that both could call upon members to engage in militant action with little fear of major defection, AND that had broad support among the people in the rest of the country. Mobilizations that are unconnected to mass organization may win particular battles, often important ones. They have not changed the relations of power that is a pre-condition for major economic victories over poverty and deprivation, let alone restructuring of the economy as a whole.
Mass based organizations have four major strategic expressions which are central to their power in addition to electoral, legislative and regulatory agency politics. These strategies are:
1) Economic action: strikes, boycotts and corporate campaigns that have specific targets and are supported with deep commitment by a specific workplace or community constituency that is directly affected by a targeted corporate actor.
2) Mass, nonviolent, disruptive direct action: the purpose of such action is to demonstrate that “business as usual” will not continue so long as a particular wrong isn’t righted.
3) Public shaming: designed to isolate a target from his social and cultural environment, these are tricky but can be highly successful. A CEO of a corporate exploiter can be publicly shamed at his place of worship. But it’s important that this be done in a way that doesn’t lead his peers to rally behind him.
4) Alternative institutions: these can be as small as a neighborhood buying club or as major as the Mondragon system of cooperatives in the Basque region of Spain (here & here). They include bartering, pooling resources, credit unions, burial societies and a host of other communal institutions that deepen interdependence and a sense of community among people.
To return to electoral politics and legislative or regulatory body lobbying: it is important to use the tools of mass action rather than “insider” lobbying or closed door negotiations that are isolated from the very people most directly affected by the outcome of these negotiations.
The lesson: don’t let “inside the Beltway” logic determine your tactics.
My own view is that engaging in the electoral arena is the last act in the drama of creating and sustaining social change that benefits “the 99%”, and significantly dismantles the power of the now-reigning oligarchy that seems otherwise impregnable EVEN WHEN it grants concessions.
All politics is local. All politics is global. The recently closed library in your neighborhood or town reflects the failure to have an equitable and just tax system at local, state and national levels. The passage of NAFTA reflects the inability of progressive forces in hundreds of districts to hold accountable their members of Congress; ditto for Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
The specific issues that engage people in a mass-based organization must be immediate and specific. Proposed solutions must be believable and winnable in a relatively short period of time. These issues are what shift people from non-participation to engagement. These campaigns are essential if we are to reach beyond the choir, the activists who now can be counted upon to show up for a demonstration.
Once engaged in a lively organization that builds community around values of human dignity, justice, equality, security, democracy and freedom everyday people will be willing to undertake action on issues that require lengthier campaigns because they more deeply engage entrenched power. A relative handful of people can shut down a neighborhood store that carries shoddy merchandise and refuses to accept returns. A fairly large number of people is required to make Wells Fargo Bank and the other big banks stop the foreclosures that resulted from their bad loans.
Action on global issues has to be translated to local targets. If a successful mass movement, comprising mass-based organizations around the world or at least around the country, is to be built its targets have to have local actionable handles so that local people can win agreements without waiting for some national or international victory. For example, even a block-club can get a boycotted product off the shelves of the neighborhood corner grocery. Or a local city government can decide to move its funds from a bank or disinvest from a polluter.
In the absence of such formations, I fear that we will continue on the downward course the world has embarked upon. Whether it is climate change, diminishing potable water, growing concentration of wealth and power in an ever-smaller financial and corporate elite that is targeted for change, the result will be defeat.
Dreams Deported: Immigrant Youth and Families Resist Deportation
UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education, Los Angeles, California is the third book in a series on immigration and the immigrant youth movement
Leave it to Mexicans to find humor in the most tragic and oppressive moments. The “Pelucon Trompudo” has become the nickname for Donald Trump in the wake of his insults directed at Mexicans. Literally translated it is the long nose snout with a wig! In other words a “pig with a wig”! The pollsters and pundits say his remarks resonate with a segment of American society tired of political correctness. But it is a deep-seated fear of the Other that drives this dehumanization of fellow beings. What is an antidote for this narrowness that finds full flower in vile racism and resentment? In my years of organizing breaking down prejudice and distrust is a matter of working together and/or engaging in struggle against a common enemy. Sometimes though stories of tragedy and pathos can open hearts. The recent shooting in Charleston, SC in a black church during Bible study and the dignified and magnanimous response of the victims’ families seems to have rocked the prejudices of many white people and led to the removal of the Confederate flag. This important new book from the UCLA Labor Center is an appeal to the American public’s sense of decency, humanity and fair play.
Dreams Deported: Immigrant Youth and Families Resist Deportation is a new publication from the UCLA Center for Labor research and Education, known as the UCLA Labor Center. Edited by Kent Wong and Nancy Guaneros, Dreams Deported is the third in a series of powerful books that highlight the travails of immigrant students and their families. The cover is a striking photo of Renata Teodoro, a Brazilian immigrant tearfully reaching through the fence at the US Mexican border to embrace her deported mother. Although the personal accounts are largely of Mexican immigrant youth and families there are also tales of Peruvian, Bolivians, Indians and Armenians. One common thread is the horrible plight of families broken up and forcibly separated by immigration status. Another is the deliberate public action of courageous undocumented young people who refuse to remain in the shadows.
One chapter tells the story of Ju Hong, a Korean immigrant, who interrupted a speech by President Obama before Thanksgiving 2013, in San Francisco. He shouted:
“I need your help, Mr. President. Our families are separated on Thanksgiving. There are thousands of people, undocumented immigrants, families that are being torn apart every single day. Please use your executive order to halt the deportations for all 11.5 million undocumented immigrants right now.”
Obama in that moment continued to claim that he did not have the executive authority to stop deportations although he had instituted Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and soon after would institute Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA). DAPA and an expanded DACA were both enjoined in February 2015 by South Texas Federal District Court Judge Andrew Hanen, an uber Republican.
Dreams Deported: Immigrant Youth and Families Resist Deportation will not persuade the vicious Pelucones Trumpados of this world to soften their views of immigrants, but for the vast majority of fair minded Americans this book is a testament to the human spirit and a call for radical immigration reform that preserves family unity.
No review of Dreams Deported can fail to mention the leading role of the UCLA Labor Center in fighting for justice for immigrant youth. The Center has served as a launching pad for the Dreamers movement and deserves tremendous credit for being out front on these issues.
There is also a music video by Aloe Blacc a Grammy nominated recording artist entitled “Wake Me Up”. The video features Hareth Andrade one of the immigrant youth featured in the book.
Dreams Deported: Immigrant Youth and Families Resist Deportation can be purchase here through the UCLA Labor Center
“In the strawberries, one dies alone.”
In April, 1993 Cesar Chavez died. In October, 1995, John Sweeney became the President of the AFL-CIO. Although the Arturo Rodriguez-led UFW was a minor supporter of Sweeney at the convention that elected him, nothing connected Cesar’s death to Sweeney’s election. But without the conjunction of those two events, there would have been no UFW/AFL-CIO strawberry campaign. Its very existence was rooted in happenstance. That should not surprise anyone interested in politics. Machiavelli claimed that half of politics was luck, or as he called it, fortuna. In the case of the strawberry campaign, at first it seemed like good luck, but by the end, for those who hoped for UFW and AFL-CIO renewal, it was surely bad.
In her eulogy at Cesar’s funeral, Dolores Huerta declared that Cesar died so that the UFW might live. It is a dubious claim—there is no indication of a Chavez suicide—but her meaning was not lost on many of the mourners. Under Cesar’s direction, the UFW had backed off organizing farm workers in the late 1970s and early 1980s, had lost most of its contracts by the mid-80s, and was, at the time of his death, no longer a force in the fields but rather a cross between a farm worker advocacy group and a mid-sized family business. As long as Chavez was alive that was not likely to change. Once he was gone, the UFW was free to make an effort to get back in the fields again.
They began, as they had to, by trying to improve their reputation among undocumented workers. Originally a union of mostly Mexican-American grape pickers, they had officially opposed “illegals” in the fields before 1975, championing the use of the Border Patrol against them and even setting up their own patrol on the Arizona border for a few months in 1974. That policy changed in 1975 with the passage of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA), which made all farm workers, including the undocumented, eligible to vote in farm worker elections. But the changed policy never completely undid the original damage, and since the leadership of the union in the early 1990s continued to be Mexican-American and there were, by then, few Mexican farm workers left in the union, the UFW was considered by many farm workers, a “pocho” (slang used by Mexicans to describe Mexican-Americans) organization.
Thus, the UFW’s first step back into the fields was to take a leadership role against Proposition 187, the 1994 California initiative that denied State benefits to the undocumented and their children. Having made their new sympathy for the undocumented clear, the union won a new contract in the Central Valley roses, fought a victorious campaign in the mushrooms, and even signed a vegetable contract with their old nemesis, Bruce Church Inc. (although on close inspection the contract seemed to cover only a small percentage of Bruce Church workers). In 1995, the UFW leadership was lathered up, in the starting gate, and ready to race.
John Sweeney was also ready to go. Having won the AFL-CIO presidency with a rousing pledge to replace the conservative ways of the old bureaucracy with a new aggressive campaign to organize the unorganized, he was looking for an easy early victory. The UFW seemed to promise one. Relying on Rodriguez’s account of UFW popularity in the fields, and with no alternative assessment available, he went all in, put other organizing on hold, and committed his troops to what promised to be an opening victory for the New Voice coalition. As Gilbert Mireles, author of a pretty good (but also the only) book on the campaign, puts it: “It was almost inconceivable [to the strategists at the top] that workers would not be in favor of the union.”
The Not So Hot Shop
Working in the strawberries is not easy, even by farm worker standards. It is not only that people are bent over all day, or down on their knees, or squatting on their haunches. A lot of farm work is like that, and it makes people old in a hurry, and sooner or later ruins most backs. But what makes strawberry picking especially difficult is that people are paid individually according to how much they pick, rather than by the hour or collectively according to how much the whole crew picks. “En la fresa uno muere solo”, a friend of mine once told me, “in the strawberries, one dies alone.” My friend, a celery cutter who worked alongside his wife in the strawberries every year before the celery season began, was contrasting the work of a berry crew with the work of a piece rate vegetable crew. In the vegetables the crew is paid for every box it cuts and packs, and the workers divide the pay equally among themselves. Their work is a joint, collective effort. The crews are well organized, and stay together for years. These crews, known for their intense internal solidarity, were the heart of UFW strength in the 1970s. In contrast the strawberry crews are barely crews at all, as it is every picker for her or himself, and often there is competition over who gets the good rows. Primarily as a consequence of this relative lack of internal solidarity in the structure of the crews, the UFW, even at its height, could never maintain contracts among strawberry workers. But in 1996, Rodriguez and Sweeny, and the people around them, chose to make strawberries the defining fight in the UFW’s attempt to re-enter the fields.
They thought it was a hot shop. They got that idea towards the end of the 1995 strawberry season. Most of the workers at a medium-sized ranch, VCNM farms, had walked out of the strawberry fields in protest against the fact that they were being paid below the industry standard and because of their displeasure with a particularly hateful foreman. They immediately won their wage increase, and with UFW help, they filed for a representation election. Unopposed, the UFW won that election 332 to 50. Ignoring the history of trouble that the UFW had had holding on to strawberry contracts, AFL-CIO and UFW organizers quickly decided that strawberry workers were eager for organization. And besides, strawberries were much like grapes, a specialty crop that would be relatively easy to boycott, unlike the staple lettuce, which had proved hard to boycott back in the UFW’s days of power and influence. Moreover, the institutional wisdom of the UFW was that boycotts and the threats of boycotts—and not the power of the workers in the fields— had been the key to the UFW’s early success.
Even in retrospect, it doesn’t seem like such a terribly wrong decision. Except that it reflected a relative ignorance about the character of farm worker struggle. During the harvest season, when the growers are vulnerable, farm workers will often engage in slow downs, or short walk-outs (paros), to try to increase their wages or in protest against some grossly bad working conditions. Especially in crops that have to be picked quickly when they are ripe (like strawberries) a short walk-out can put enormous pressure on the grower (whose entire investment is tied up in a successful, timely harvest) and often win immediate concessions. But win or lose, the workers usually go back to work quickly. These short protests do not mean that workers can maintain their commitment over long periods of time. In the fields, they are frequent and brief. They are far different from a walkout or protest in a factory which happens with much less frequency but usually is capable of lasting a longer period of time, and is often an indication of a great willingness to organize. The UFW organizers, with little recent experience in the fields, and the AFL-CIO strategists with almost no understanding of the dynamics of farm worker struggle, mistook a relatively common farm worker paro, and an unopposed election victory to mean much more than it did.
Many of the problems that followed were inherent in the structure of strawberry production, another reason that the UFW had had trouble in the berries before. Agribusiness is not a single industry, it is a string of mini-industries, and strawberries have their own special story. They demand great care; people around Watsonville say strawberry production is more like horticulture than agriculture, and therefore most strawberry farms are relatively small. On these farms the owner or manager directly supervises the work to ensure, as far as possible, high production and good berries. These small farmers—a majority of whom are Mexican and usually ex-pickers, themselves—hire their own workers, often employing relatives or people who came from the same small town that the boss came from in rural Mexico. This gives the farmers considerable influence among their workers, but at the same time, the small farmers have very little power within the industry. Power lies in the hands of the people who own the coolers and market the berries. A strawberry is wasted (that is, unmarketable) unless it gets to a cooler soon after it is picked, and so the owners and managers of the coolers have become the directors of the whole production process. (Coolers are multi-million dollar operations and there are about a dozen of them in the Pajaro and northern Salinas Valleys.) The cooler owners usually secure loans for the small growers, often lease them land, and always provide them with essential technical support. They then charge the growers for cooling the berries, shipping them, and selling them. So, no surprise, small growers teeter on the verge of bankruptcy, while the cooler operators keep getting rich.
How this system works against union organizing was demonstrated shortly after the UFW election victory at VCNM farms. Five days after the election, the grower ploughed under about a fourth of his acreage, then stonewalled the obligatory negotiations with the union, and declared bankruptcy. All the workers lost their jobs. The very next year the land was leased to another grower who hired a whole new work force. Hundreds of workers who had voted to be represented by the UFW had to find work at other companies, where some of the most militant were blacklisted. Among the Pajaro Valley’s several thousand strawberry pickers, word travelled fast.
Nevertheless, in 1996, in the season following the VCNM paro and vote, the UFW proceeded on the assumption that they were working in a hot shop. Forty organizers, their wages and expenses paid by the AFL-CIO, went into the fields in what union insiders called a “blitz campaign” arguing that if everyone signed up in the union then the companies couldn’t plough under all of the fields. They hoped to win a bunch of union elections quickly.
It was not to be. The cooler operators and the big growers, fearful of a UFW victory and a return of the high wages and worker control over production typical of the UFW’s golden years in the 1970s, went on a counter-attack. They funded a bogus anti-UFW workers group, they raised wages and improved working conditions, and, most effectively, they hired some of the ex-VCNM workers as “labor consultants” and sent them into the fields to tell other workers how they had voted for the UFW and lost their jobs. By the end of the 1996, despite a massive effort by the UFW, the union was unable to get enough support on any farm to file for a representation election.
Talk of the hot shop ceased.
The AFL-CIO Buys the Company
While organizing was going badly in the strawberries, the UFW was doing very well at what it had been doing ever since they were pushed out of the fields in the mid 1980s: organizing among liberal supporters and Democratic Party politicians. Although they were unable to launch a strawberry boycott—the ALRA forbid boycotts of growers where the union had not already won a representation election—they did manage to generate enough pressure to win statements of support from 14 supermarket chains (including Lucky’s and Ralphs), various State Legislatures, and a few California City Councils. Favorable stories in major publications focused on the poverty of strawberry workers and welcomed a UFW return to the fields. Robert Kennedy’s son, Joseph P. Kennedy, visited the strawberry fields amidst nostalgic accounts of his father’s support for the UFW 31 years before.
But their greatest success was with the notorious Monsanto corporation, owners of one of the larger strawberry companies in the Pajaro Valley, large enough to own its own cooler. Monsanto, infamous for its genetic engineering of staple crops like corn and for the production and a wide selection of dangerous agricultural chemicals, was highly vulnerable to an AFL-CIO style corporate campaign. In a series of high level negotiations between Sweeney, Rodriguez, and Monsanto CEO Robert Shapiro, with direct intervention in support of the UFW by Vice President Al Gore, House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, and veteran Democratic Party fixer, Mickey Kantor, Shapiro agreed to sell the company to David Gladstone and Landon Butler, whose regular business—investing AFL-CIO pension funds—was completely dependent on the good will of John Sweeney. (The Wall Street Journal reported that Monsanto loaned the money to buy the company to Gladstone and Butler, so that it was actually a silent partner in the new outfit.)
Gladstone (Butler quickly dropped out) changed the name of the company to Coastal Berry, signed a neutrality agreement with the UFW, visited his Watsonville strawberry fields, and both personally and on official company stationery informed his workers that they were free to vote for any union they wanted and that the company would not interfere in any way. Amidst much quiet celebration among UFW and AFL-CIO officials, UFW organizers turned all their attention on the 1,200 Coastal Berry workers. Finally, a year a half into the campaign victory seemed near.
Very soon a new problem surfaced. Although the AFL-CIO could buy the company, they could not buy the company’s supervisors and foremen, the people who managed the picking and packing in the fields. Such people were deeply threatened by a possible UFW victory, as their control over hiring and firing would be either completely eliminated or highly limited by a UFW contract. Supervisors of production, deeply knowledgeable about the intricacies of strawberry horticulture, they had significant power in the fields, independent of upper management. They augmented that power through their ability to assign people to a small number of privileged jobs, like driving the trucks between coolers and fields, or checking the finished work of the pickers.
Moreover, through their ability to hire and fire they also had great influence among the pickers, themselves. Very often a supervisor or foreman would hire his relatives or people who came from his same Mexican hometown, and these groups of workers formed tight cliques within the larger crews. Such groups sometimes owed even more than their jobs to their foremen or supervisors. On occasion a foreman had arranged for them to be smuggled across the border, and even loaned them money to pay the coyote. Familiar with Watsonville, the foremen knew where the new arrivals could find places to rent, and sometimes a foreman was not only the boss but the landlord. Workers dependent in so many ways often could be mobilized against the UFW, and soon after the Coastal Berry campaign began it became clear to UFW organizers that the workforce was badly divided.
David Gladstone couldn’t do anything about it. He knew nothing about agriculture and had to hire someone from the industry to run the company. The man he hired, Dave Smith, came from the Dole Corporation with an anti-UFW point of view, which almost anyone who knew enough about agriculture to run the business would have shared. Smith issued a series of mixed messages that served to enlarge the power of the supervisors and foremen. What followed was a kind of Marx Brothers movie of dispute and division. Fist fights in the fields. Competing paros between anti-UFW forces and UFW supporters: one day the truck drivers would walk out and thereby halt production; the next day UFW workers would walk out and production would also stop. Supervisors would fire workers; Gladstone would have them rehired. Sweeney unable to understand why Gladstone couldn’t follow through on his pledge to keep the company neutral threatened to take away Gladstone’s union pension business. Other growers, delighted by all the problems, and even financing some of the UFW opposition inside the company, sued Gladstone for collusion with the union. Gladstone spun like a top. He joined the UFW in appeals to the ALRB one day, and refused to discipline anti-UFW workers who had attacked UFW loyalists the next.
In the midst of the turmoil the contras established their own union, and filed for an election. The UFW, citing the pressure in the fields, refused to participate. The contra union, called El Comité, won the July, 1988 election 523 for the Comité against 410 for no union. Many legal challenges followed. There were disputes about the inclusion in the election of off-season Coastal Berry workers in Oxnard. Eventually, during the 1999 season, there were two other elections with both the Comité and the UFW on the ballot. The Comité won both of them: the first 646 to 577 with 79 ballots for no union; the second 725 for the Comité and 616 for the UFW. A year later, March, 2000, a judge agreed to separate the Oxnard division of Coastal Berry from the Watsonville division, and awarded the UFW representation rights in Oxnard (where the union had won the vote) while giving the Comité representation rights in the bigger Watsonville division. It didn’t much matter. The UFW had been defeated. The AFL-CIO pulled out. The Strawberry Campaign was over.
Who Were the Outsiders and Who Were the Locals?
The contra victory was not all muscle and bully-boys. They had one argument that seemed to take hold among many strawberry workers. They claimed that the UFW was a group of outsiders with little understanding of the actual situation in the fields, and interests quite apart from the interests of ordinary workers. One of the most difficult problems for the UFW and the AFL-CIO was that the more money and people they threw into the campaign, the more they tended to reinforce this contention of the contras. In April, 1997, when thirty-five thousand people marched in support of the UFW through this town of some fifty thousand people it was mighty impressive. But the overwhelming majority of those thirty-five thousand were people from out of town, and what was impressed upon the locals was not only the strength of UFW support, but the union’s position as outsiders in the community. When the AFL-CIO paid for forty organizers to come to town, and spent about $100,000 a month on the campaign (about $12 million in all) they became the biggest new business in the area, a business that was run by outsiders, by city folk, who had little understanding of this rural place. When the 1996 union summer program brought Chicano college students to Watsonville, it deepened the workers’ belief that the UFW was a Mexican-American organization that had little understanding or sympathy for the overwhelmingly Mexican strawberry workers. In contrast, said the contras, we live and work right here, we are your neighbors and relatives who have your interests at heart. It was to a large extent a phony argument, but it convinced a lot of people.
What were Sweeney and Rodriguez to do? The more they threw into the campaign the more they appeared to be outsiders. It is all so sad. Strawberry workers would have been better off if the campaign would have won. Workers throughout the USA would have benefited if the New Voices organizing drive had not bogged down in the fields of Watsonville. The opportunity was there. Chavez was gone; Artie Rodriguez honestly wanted to bring the union back into the fields. But he couldn’t overcome the burden of the union’s history and culture. Sure, many older workers remembered the UFW’s golden years, and wanted to bring the union back. Many other workers understood the need for a union, and were not fooled by the appeals of the contras, who they could see were led by supervisors and foremen. But the UFW had been out of the fields too long and were not sensitive to the differences between workers in different crops. They did not have a big enough group of local supporters in the fields, and did not have the democratic structure and culture necessary to build such a group. They had been damaged by the blitz campaign. For too long they had spent their time learning the ways of politicians in Sacramento and Washington, and not enough time listening to workers in the fields.
One last story
In the midst of the campaign, I was visited by a UFW staffer who had lived in the union center at La Paz for many years. She wanted to see if I would organize a house meeting. In the midst of the conversation I told my visitor that I hoped that the union won and I would do what I could, but I couldn’t whole-heartedly support the union until they had locals.
“Locals, what do you mean?” she asked.
“You know, where the workers who are covered by union contracts can vote for their own officials, who have control over most of their local dues, and have a certain amount of independence within the union.”, I said
“Oh, that might be a good idea, but the workers aren’t ready for that,” she answered.
Now, in 2015, the union still doesn’t have locals. Every official and staffer in the union is appointed. No farm worker can be elected into a union position. Add up the years. The UFWOC organizing committee was established in 1966. The union was granted a charter as an independent union in 1972. It is now 43 years later. When will the workers be ready?