The henna tattoos are fading from my hands but the enchanting memories of my recent trip to India are not. The blurring henna is a reminder that I spent seven days in the exotic state of Rajasthan, and the city of Udaipur, the “Venice of the East” as it is known in India. Family and friends had gathered to celebrate the “love marriage” with all the ceremony of a traditional “arranged marriage” of our young friends from “the East,” the bride from Mumbai, India and the groom from Boston, Mass.
There were many unforgettable moments. The groom travelled by elephant, a traditional custom, with both families as his entourage to greet his bride. The bride was lovely and stunning four days in a row as she greeted her blushing groom. Also, there were the larger than life palatial venues such as the City Palace, a fusion of Rajasthani and Mughal architectural styles where the Sangeet event, traditionally the bachelorette party was transformed into an international talent show. In contrast to the epic wedding there were local village scenes that were so mind-twisting I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me. These were visual images that at first glance didn’t make sense. Images so raw they moved my heart and awakened my soul.
These were the women who lived and worked in and around the Pichola Lake Village. Draped in a neon colored or print patterned sari unique as every woman was elegant and beautiful. The fluorescent hues were as stunning as the dark side of women’s forecasted future was bleak in this male-dominated society.
Not once in the seven days did I see the same sari or combination of sari fabric worn. It was as though each sari was created for each of the 600 million plus women on the sub-continent, including women performing hard physical labor. Yes! Women toiling at work digging ditches waist deep, laying bricks, or maintaining streets were wearing beautiful saris. Eye-popping fluorescent greens, yellows, oranges, reds blues and hues of every shade. And different combinations of fabric, such as silk, chiffons, cottons, crepe georgette and bold prints gave new meaning to “brilliant” and “style”.
While I felt sheer terror thinking that I was going to die riding in an auto-rickshaw, it became apparent how relatively “safe” I was compared to the women working in the streets. As they worked in the trenches, there were no orange cones to alert the chaotic traffic that there were WORKERS AHEAD! It was easy to imagine women being maimed or accidently strangled by flowing cloth. Work, women’s work, dignified work; women laboring and thriving in beautiful saris.
When asked why women wear saris when doing hard physical labor, a young woman retail worker said that it is customary to wear them no matter what a woman’s occupation. In the same conversation she mentioned that wearing the sari was not without controversy. When worn traditionally, a portion of the woman’s midriff flesh is typically exposed thus potentially inviting male sexual advances. In addition, desirable or not, the 6-9 meters of fabric could become a hazardous liability even “life threatening” in a tangled domestic dispute. In a society where the mortality rate for young girls 1-5 years old is 75% higher than young boys- how much more dangerous can a sari be?
Having been instructed on how to wear my own sari, I could relate to it fitting as tight as a lover’s hold. Elegance notwithstanding, its tightness can be stifling, cumbersome and somewhat oppressive! The sari wraps over and around a fitted waist-to-floor petticoat that matches its color. In addition, there is a choli, a tightly fitted short blouse worn under the sari that dates back to the 10th Century. The sari colors, prints and degree of rhinestone dazzle are a matter of the taste and desire of the buyer. Last but not least are the many safety pins. These magically hold the yards of pleated fabric strategically together with the effect being the ultimate in grace and dignity.
The little time I wore the sari and watching women manage them taught me how attentive one must be, especially newbies. My anxiety prompted a nightmare in which I dreamt my sari did unravel like a spinning top with the first misstep while dancing. Imagine my surprise when a party sofa collapsed underneath me the very next night. Later when my Son told me I had landed as gently as the sinking Titanic, I was secretly pleased I hadn’t worn my sari that night!
However, the most unforgettable memory was the visual contrast of luxury inside the palace hotel compared to the squalor and poverty outside the hotel walls. I imagined this is the type of contrast that Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha from the 5th or 6th century BC must have seen when he ventured outside his palace walls. Siddhartha was a young prince, forbidden by his nobleman father to go outside the family’s palace, ever. As might be expected this unreasonable demand fed his natural curiosity even as a young child and he eventually rebelled and secretly leaves. What he discovers is disturbing, confusing, and exciting. He is witness to suffering heretofore unknown to him, and chaos, or is it chaos? Profoundly moved by what he sees, feels, whom he meets and what he learns Siddhartha renounces his birthright and begins his spiritual journey of self-discovery.
As we journeyed into the Pichola Lake Village in the “Tuk Tuk” (auto-rickshaw) for the first time, the comparisons between the palace hotel and shanty dwellings were obvious- The Third World abutting The First World.
The contrasts in India are like that, starkly black and white with opulence up close to devastating poverty, sleeping side-by-side, dependent on each other, and their unequal embrace. Inside our pristine palace hotel were Olympic pools, a luxury spa staffed by cheap labor from Bhutan, doting staff, abundant Indian cuisine, and sprawling manicured grounds. Outside there were cows and bulls eating from heaps of foul smelling trash dumped on the side of the road as dogs lay sunbathing on the same fly-ridden waste. Mounds of plastic-riddled trash were being burned within feet of huts, shanty’s, open-air markets, and pedestrians without apparent concern for citizens being exposed to the toxic smoke and gases. There was human and animal waste on the streets and the water was rarely potable. Drivers were shooing begging children away from our Tuk Tuk . These were children whose vacant eyes, bare and swollen feet, and open palms betrayed their caste and fate in life.
Outside the palace hotel was a breathtaking and totally sensual experience, inexplicably alive and resilient yet juxtaposed with the sobering realization that the crushing disparities between the haves and have-nots are very much alive in India.
Son for Pop Boy for Cop
Killed by a Black Man
Killed by a Cop
Was some BASE justice done
In the death of this young one?
The People knew
Forget me Not
Popular education and action
Who asks somebody, “What did you learn at work today? “We of course ask our children, “What did you learn in school today?” We ask our spouse, “How did it go at work today?” or “Did you get through work without too much stress and strain? What did your idiot boss do today?” but never “What did you learn at work today? “Veteran labor educator Helena Worthen has written a book with a catchy title that betrays a profound theme. She is a representative of a committed cadre of labor educators who believe they have more to learn from the lives and experiences of labor than they have to teach in a didactic classroom setting. Miles Horton, the founder of the Highlander Center in Tennessee, is perhaps the tradition’s most notable practitioner. His school spawned two generations of leaders and activists; the CIO labor organizers of the 30’s and the civil rights activists of the 50’s and 60’s like Rosa Parks, a Highlander Center trainee.
This tradition places a premium on understanding and helping workers themselves process their experiences in work and in struggle. The educator/organizer is a facilitator not a didactic or mobilizer. He or she is the teacher who helps workers reflect on their own experience and gain confidence to confront an employer class that wields arrogant and capricious power over their very work lives. These are skills that come with years and years of deep interaction with thousands of workers struggling to win a shred of dignity while earning an income. These are the skills that are essential to any rebirth of the labor movement. We need armies of apostles who believe in the importance of this kind of action oriented popular education that Worthen so aptly describes.
Worthen presents four theories of learning to help give a framework for examining some very compelling case studies. Kolb’s learning cycle, Communities of Practice, Work process theory and Activity Theory are all dynamic models that provide framework to labor educators and organizers. Worthen counter poses her four theories to “Tarzan” theory which posits that all learning is an individual responsibility and based on will power and attitude not the broader social and class context that conditions knowledge acquisition and power. In contrast, Worthen says that the “four theories that I like say that learning happens through social interaction, through discussion, trial and error, the power of community, the creation or destruction of tools, conflict and new history, and that power matters. None of the theories that I have presented have anything to do with trying hard or being intellectually gifted.” Enough said!
“What did you learn?” goes on to illustrate these theories with some very rich social practice brought to life with extensive quotes from worker combatants. Workers in downstate Illinois organize a social service agency with a two-year election fight, strike and lockout; “I learned so much about my town and the people in it. I wouldn’t trade the experience I gained in public speaking or the friends I made. It was sure a learning period in my life and I am grateful for it.” Children of public sector union members in AFSCME write college scholarship essays about what their parent’s union has meant for them and the lives of their families: “I went to the rally that my mother wanted me to go to, and it turned out she was up on the platform speaking, I was so proud of her I started to cry”.
Union apprenticeships as “shared learning”
Chapter 9 paints a poignant picture of the learning differences between a job-training program and a union building trades apprenticeship. As I discovered when my son Nelson sought to become a union electrician, “Applying to a formal apprenticeship program is as complicated as applying to college. Some are as selective as the Ivy League.” The rewards of entry are immense because union apprentices get paid well while working and are required to attend school to consolidate the lessons learned on the job. The union is invested in the success of the apprentice because of the investment in training. One of Worthen’s interviewees stated, “They want you to stay healthy so you can work a long time. When I worked non-union they didn’t give a crap about you. Your body would be dead at the end of the day.” Worthen distinguishes union apprenticeship where there is a community of practice and shared learning with the non-union apprenticeship programs like the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) that operate in typical school based learning fashion where individual competition and grades are used to select who gets employment.
One can argue with Worthen’s application of particular theories to the learning process, but what is so rich about this volume is that it stimulates a discussion of the fundamentals of organizing. I have often argued with university based labor centers that they need to put aside their perpetual strategic organizing workshops that explore corporate research, corporate leverage and communications but have no curriculum that teaches and explores the basics of worker organizing. Corporate research and corporate leverage are the easy stuff. Any of the massive crop of Ivy League activists can do that! They were trained to be masters of the universe and those skills are part of their training. Nothing and nobody prepared them for the hard job of winning the hearts and minds of workers, growing leaders and helping them get the courage to engage in struggle in their workplace. These “forbidden lessons of labor education” need not be forbidden to community and labor organizers. For those who believe organizing is more than Facebook hits or twitter feeds this is a must read. I am gifting it to all my colleague field organizers at the ILWU. Solidarity Forever.
Mass Machine was a classic “hot shop”. In labor parlance “hot shop’ indicates a workplace where the issues and the anger is such that the workers want change and the task of the organizer is to give voice, understanding and organization to that “heat” so that the workers can form a union. It took a worker losing a digit under a repeating punch press to spark the heat, but the dissatisfaction with the wages and the abusive treatment of supervisors were longstanding. Mass Machine (MM) was not a big shop, 60 total workers in tool and die, maintenance, production, shipping and receiving and the sweeper, all working one shift. Unlike workplaces with hundreds of workers, multiple shifts, buildings and departments, MM was very manageable for four organizers!
That did not mean that the challenges of language, race, fear and uncertainty were not there. In some ways the 60-person shop was a good learning microcosm for young and inexperienced organizers like my comrades and me. The winning formula was simple: unite the Italians and Puerto Ricans and split the white ethnics, mostly Irish American. The Puerto Ricans were very united and their leader was Luis Collazo, who had been in the USA for a while and was from Ponce, PR. He sported what we used to call a classic D.A. (Duck’s Ass) haircut enriched with shiny gel. He was respected as a high production worker and commanded the loyalty of his Boricua brothers.
The Italians and Puerto Ricans generally had a playful relationship somewhat based on the fact that their languages were very similar. I worked side by side with Miguel Santos, a young Puerto Rican also Ponceno. Miguel spoke no English and I spoke no Spanish at that time. He spoke to me in a considerably decelerated Spanish and I responded in my Italian standard. We did fine. I can’t say I did as well initially with the Italians. They all spoke either Beneventino or Avellinese, the dialects from their cities and villages out side of Naples. That was a foreign language for me, far more foreign than Puerto Rican Spanish. But Sabado, a younger worker from Benevento, who spoke Italian standard and Neapolitan dialect, became a friend, and he was able to galvanize the Italians. He even wrote a flyer in Italian ripping the company’s disrespectful treatment of workers: “Per quanto tempo ci facciamo essere trattati come bestie, che sono chiamate alle 7:00 e rilasciate a pastoreggiare alle 4:30″ (how long are we going to allow ourselves to be treated like beasts of burden called to work at 7 and then let out pasture at 4:30). I think the pastoral metaphor resonated well with the Italian cohort.
In the run up to the election in late June we used a lot of flyers. Our newsletter was called the Workers Voice of MMS or La Voce Operaia di MMS. At this time there was no Voz Obrera en Espanol because nobody in our team spoke Spanish. But the Puerto Rican workers told me not to worry that they were doing fine with the Italian and kind of enjoyed it. Later we published full-page newsletters in all three languages with detail on the major happenings in the facility. The workers looked forward to the newsletters and especially the famous Fred Wright UE cartoons (here, here and here). The newsletters were probably overkill in a factory of 60 workers because there is no paper substitute for face-to-face conversation in organizing. We organized in the grungy bar on Northampton Street; that’s where a lot of the most senior workers, mostly Irish American hung out. The Italians had me over to Sabado’s house for an evening discussion prior to the election at their home in Hyde Park. Meetings away from work with the Puerto Ricans were held at Lechoneria Los Reyes under the Orange Line elevated at the Egleston stop.
Election day came for the UE Union on June 28, 1973. A National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election day and the vote count is one of the most cathartic rituals in American working life. Casting aside the obstacle course of company threats and promises leading up to the election, the actual election ritual itself is chock full of emotion and pathos regardless who wins.
Each side chooses an observer to witness the actual balloting. The Company chooses a worker from the proposed bargaining unit. If the company chooses someone that the Union has been counting on as a union supporter let alone a core organizing committee member that is an ominous sign. At Mass Machine, the company chose a trusted “company man” who we had not seen as a supporter. I was chosen to be the UE observer because of my relationship to the Italians who were considered the swing vote. The observer is charged with challenging any voter who they believe is not eligible to vote. Often the Company will mobilize laid off workers or supervisors to vote. In the case of Mass Machine the workforce was so small that there was not much room for chicanery.
The observer is not supposed to speak to voters so I was focused on body language and making eye contact as a way to divine the votes. One of the older Italian workers who I was friendly with received his ballot and as he faced me on the way to the voting booth erupted in to a full-bore Fascist salute ala Mussolini. I took that as a good omen!
The vote count is excruciating no matter how many times you experience it in workforces large and small. In the case of Mass Machine the voting took less than one half hour and then everyone gathered in the company lunchroom for the count. The owner, David Knights was there with his attorney Alan Tepper and several other management personnel including Pat Caizzi, the Italian American floor boss. Our UE organizer, Michael Eisenscher and almost all the workers were in the room. The NLRB government agent dumps the ballots on the table and sorts the Yes and the No ballots. Then the agent holds up each ballot and calls out Yes or No. As the count proceeds everyone is waiting for one side or another to get to the majority of the votes cast. Once that number is exceeded the winning side erupts in often joyous screaming and cheering. At MMS most of the workers broke into cheers and David Knights cast an angry glance at Pat Caizzi and left the room in a hurry. We celebrated in the lunchroom and quickly moved to the bar on Northampton for drinks all around.
We had won the vote 39-20. I later learned from poor Pat Caizzi that he had told the owner that he had the Italians by the “coglioni” and that they would vote as he told them to. The Italians voted en masse for the union, and we had our victory. Caizzi admitted to me later that he was happy that the Union had come in. It made his job a lot easier and he got a pay raise.
Next Organizing in the heat of Boston August for a First Contract at Mass Machine.
Election day, 2014, was not ending well for Nat Bates, a mayoral candidate in this largely non-white city of 100,000 long dominated by Chevron. The small crowd of supporters gathered in his storefront campaign headquarters on Macdonald Avenue was beginning to look rather glum. The big box cake, with white icing and lettering proclaiming Bates to be “Our Mayor,” remained unwrapped.
The 83-year old African-American Democrat, who has been Big Oil’s best friend on the city council, had every reason to expect early returns much better than the numbers his campaign manager was posting on the wall by 10:30 p.m. on Tuesday evening.
For many weeks, Richmond voters have been bombarded with full-color brochures touting Bates’ four decades of business friendly leadership. His final mailer listed more than fifty local ministers as campaign supporters. They were joined by U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, Contra Costa County Building Trades leaders, Richmond police and firefighters’ unions, and the Chamber of Commerce.
Nat Bates gazed down on the citizenry from countless billboards, like a ubiquitous successor to “Big Brother” in George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984. His ads popped up on the inter-net, on local TV and radio stations; large numbers of Richmond voters got YouTube videos featuring his homilies. On election day, the Bates campaign—or Moving Forward, Chevron’s PAC– deployed paid canvassers and sign-holders, plus free rides to the polls. An impressive number of Richmond residents sported “Bates for Mayor” signs on their lawn.
Most helpful of all, Moving Forward spent much of its $3.1 million budget attacking candidates fielded by the 10-year old Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA). (For details on Big Oil’s carpet-bombing of the electorate with green-and red-baiting mailers) Banding together as “Team Richmond,” termed-out Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, Vice-Mayor Jovanka Beckles, and Planning Commissioner Eduardo Martinez urged voters to create a stronger progressive majority in city government by electing their slate, Tom Butt for mayor, and Jael Myrick to a fourth open council seat. RPA refuses to accept any donations from business, large or small. While frequently allied with RPA members on key council issues, like making Chevron’s Richmond refinery safer, Butt and Myrick have yet to take that pledge.
A Richmond Rattlesnake
The scale of Chevron’s spending–to defeat low-budget municipal candidates–was so jaw-dropping that it drew national media attention. From Bay Area newspapers and The L.A. Times to Bill Moyers and Rachel Maddow and a visiting U.S. Senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders, everyone agreed that Richmond was ground zero for corporate-funded negative campaigning in the post-Citizens United era. Maddow, among others, feared that Big Oil’s unrestricted spending here would be “crude but effective.”
Meanwhile, as they have done in previous election cycles, friends of Nat Bates in the Black American Political Action Committee (BAPAC), the Richmond Business PAC, and a group called Black Men and Women (BMW) joined the hit-piece pile-on, in more low profile fashion. One of their mailers derided the RPA slate, Butt, and Myrick as the “Richmond Plantation Alliance”—even though 3 of the 5 candidates so described are black and/or Latino. BAPAC urged voters to elect the “independent thinkers” financed by Chevron instead.
This same pro-Bates coalition sent out a brochure, with a coiled and hissing snake on the cover; it warned Richmond voters to “Beware of this Arkansas Rattlesnake” (aka the Arkansas-born Butt). Pre-election website postings by BAPAC strongly implied that Butt, a local architect and Vietnam veteran, was a white racist who cares little about poor people and only looks out for himself and “his elitist, wealthy friends”
By October 30, Butt’s mainly small donors had raised about $60,000 for him. Even with an additional $25,000 in local public matching funds, his total campaign spending will be one-thirtieth of what Chevron spent on Bates & Co. Chevron’s failed investment in re-taking city hall works out to about $72 per registered voter–and far more if actual turn-out is calculated instead. Either way, that’s a drop in the bucket for a global company with $21 billion in profits last year. As for having “wealthy, elitist friends,” I bet that Chevron CEO John Watson, a Richmond native but current resident of San Ramon, counts far more in his social circle than Tom Butt because Watson’s total compensation was $24 million last year.
A Martyr Like Malcolm?
By 11 pm on election night, neither Bates nor Corky Booze, Nat’s city council ally, were pleased with the way things were trending. They each faced humiliating defeat, by growing margins, in their respective races with Butt and Myrick. With half of Richmond’s precincts reporting, other council candidates backed by Big Oil or real estate interest groups were also losing to “Team Richmond.” As the mounting vote totals for RPA members McLaughlin, Beckles, and Martinez were announced, there were audible groans, gasps of dismay, or cries of “Oh my God.”
A man in a football jersey insisted that “it’s just half time–we’re going to come on back in the third quarter.” With his friend Nat slumped wearily in a chair a few feet away, looking deflated in the harsh florescent lighting of the storefront, Booze didn’t foresee any second half rally by Team Bates. Instead, Corky began spin-doctoring about the RPA’s unexpected success. “I truly believe that the amount of money Chevron spent made them beneficiaries of a sympathy vote, “ the Richmond junkyard owner told me. “Chevron did not play this game right. When you attack people, they get a sympathy vote.”
Coming from someone much criticized for his own disruptive bullying, city council filibustering, homophonic hectoring, and general hostility toward female colleagues, Corky’s post-election reflections were long on self-pity and short on personal insight. “They made me the bad guy—this big black man attacking the little white lady,” Corky complained. “Gayle [McLaughlin] acts like the little old lady next door no matter how mean she is.”
Booze did credit the RPA with a strong ground campaign, if one over-reliant on volunteers he claimed were imported from Berkeley and Oakland. “The progressive group started campaigning a year and a half ago,” he noted. “The RPA was very serious…they played very dirty with me and Nat. They had 8 or 9 people at every polling place, handing out slate cards, with a special emphasis on people who couldn’t speak English.” According to Corky, the net result is that Richmond “has turned into Berkeley 100%.”
As the gloom deepened at Bates headquarters, Corky ratcheted up his martyrdom routine. “There’s no place for a guy like me because I’m too outspoken,” he lamented. “You won’t know what I’ve done for this city until I’m gone…I kind of feel like Malcolm X. No one will realize what I’ve done until I’m killed off.”
Not long afterwards, Bates himself gave a slightly more graceful concession speech. He nevertheless managed to imply that, because of low African-American voter turnout on Tuesday, his own community had let him down. In the meantime, Booze was expressing his personal sympathy for Bates, who will now be serving out the remainder of his four-year council term as a lone voice for Big Oil. “I feel sorry for Nat. This is his last go-round and he is going to be miserable. They’re going to destroy him and I don’t think he deserves that. Just remember, Tom Butt is a very vindictive guy.”
A Bash In The Baltic
At Butt’s post-election bash, there was little speechifying but the mood was much more celebratory. The news there was, of course, good, not bad. About 1:30 in the morning, available totals showed Butt winning with 51% of 11,000 ballots counted. Bates was running second with 35%. And, a third mayoral candidate, Uche Justin Uwahemu got nearly 13%–although he did not tip the election to Butt by “dividing the black vote”–as local critics of Black Women Organized for Political Action claimed after BWOPA endorsed the lawyer, management consultant, and immigrant from Nigeria, rather than Nat.
As BWOPA president Kathleen Sullivan told me earlier in the day, at a polling place where she was stumping for Uwahemu, “I’m so tired of people trying to run the race card all the time. Folks in Richmond just want something different.” (For final totals in this and other Richmond races)
Tom Butt’s victory party was held in the Point Richmond section of the city, which is the new mayor’s home turf. There under the low ceilings of a century old tavern known as The Baltic, the usually laconic Butt was having the last laugh—and dance—with the help of a catchy tune concocted by several musical friends. Entitled “The Arkansas Rattlesnake,” this campaign song cleverly embraced BAPAC’s negative branding, added a driving snare drum beat, and vocals punctuated by exuberant “hee-haws.”
The Butt campaign’s hillbilly ditty lampoons Bates for having “so much oil on him, he can get through every doorway in town.” As friends, neighbors, and volunteers for Butt began to drift out after midnight, the song’s musical refrain was still booming throughout the dimly-lit bar:
“I am ‘The Arkansas Rattlesnake,’ living in your town.
I’m just trying to stop Chevron from burning the whole place down.
I am ‘The Arkansas Rattlesnake,’ doing the best I can, trying to help the folks in Richmond get over that Nate Bates man.
I am ‘The Arkansas Rattlesnake,’ crawling on the ground cause those folks from Chevron are trying to put me down.
I know the good folks of our city won’t let that deal go down.
You got ‘The Arkansas Rattlesnake,’ you got the best around!”
In an email message to supporters on Wednesday morning, Butt professed to be “genuinely surprised” at his victory He noted that he trailed Bates by nearly 2,000 votes when both sought re-election on the city council two years ago—and the RPA lost its bid for two council seats. Butt credited this year’s success to a collaborative effort with the RPA that mobilized “voters turned off by Chevron, impressed with the remarkable progress Richmond has made in recent years, and tired of City Council meeting disruptions” aimed at discrediting that body’s now expanded and reinvigorated progressive majority.
I was privileged to spend three October days in Algiers, the capital city of the northern African state of Algeria. I participated in two days of meetings and press conferences hosted by the Algerian Workers Party and their dynamic leader Louisa Hanoune. Louisa turned 60 this year and as she likes to say she is as old as the Algerian uprising, which began in 1954. While she leads a small left wing party she plays bigger than the numbers of militants in the Parti des Travailleurs (PT) (here, here and here). The press conferences during our meetings were widely covered in both the Arabic and French media. Television and newspapers the next day carried reports of her remarks and positions.
There are two memories that transcend the substantive discussions with delegates from Germany, France, Catalonia, India, Pakistan, South Africa, the United States and Palestine.
Prayers - Having never spent time in a Muslim country before I had never heard the prayers. In Algiers as in the rest of the Muslim world, there are prayers six times a day. In the time I spent there I did not hear prayers until the final morning of my stay. On that morning I arose early to get ready to go to the airport for my flight to Paris. I finally heard the haunting, amplified sound of the first prayer of the day, Fajr at 5:19 AM. I opened the window of my room at the El Safir, a former French colonial luxury hotel and looked out over the Port of Algiers. The architecture I was looking at was the same as the architecture I would see in the tourist centers of Paris except that in Algiers the old palatial dwellings of the “pieds noir” (here and here), the French colonizers, were now occupied by the people with their laundry flying from the windows to dry. Friends have told me that the same phenomenon exists in other cities in countries liberated from European conquest like Hanoi in Vietnam where the same French architecture was predominant prior to liberation.
I confess that I never heard the other five prayers of Sunrise, Dhur, Asr, Maghrib and Isha. There was no competing street noise or meeting discussions to muffle the prayed of Fajr.
The Din of Translation – The international labor meeting of course needed to be translated. Budget did not permit the use of remote headsets and booths ala the United Nations so simultaneous translation was done by expert translators sitting with clumps of participants who required a particular language. We were part of two press conferences conducted in Arabic by Louisa Hanoune. Arabic was translated into French and then a French speaker translated into Russian for a trade unionist from Byelorussia. Simultaneous translation was done into English. An English speaker translated into Spanish, the second language for the delegate from Catalonia. All those languages floated and palpitated in the air as the Algerian media filmed and audiotaped the words of the leader of the Parti des Travailleurs. The noise was a deafening din of Babel but all in service of international solidarity and understanding.
I had viewed the classic movie directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, The Battle of Algiers. The film was made in 1966, only four years after liberation (here and here. It was filmed right up the street from my hotel and in the Casbah in the hills of Algiers. On my last night in Algiers we were given a tour of the Martyr’s Monument dedicated to the liberation struggle that is the subject of Pontecorvo’s film. I have never seen a museum quite like it. The walls are covered with photographs of men and a few women all of who were under thirty at the time of their martyrdom. The museum is a source of national pride and our guides; members of the Workers Party took great pride in leading us thru all the exhibits. Then they drove us down the hill to our hotel at breakneck speed dodging women in shawls and headscarves crossing the street. Their parliamentary plates enabled them to fly through police roadblocks while we all held on for dear life. Our driver, a member of the PT spoke Arabic and some French, but his native language is Berber (here, here and here, the first language and ethnic roots of the vast majority of Algerians.
Leaving Algiers I flew to Paris where I spent a fabulous week with my wife, Christina. We stayed in a tiny studio in Montmartre. A friend had tasked me with finding some Algerian fabric for her, but my meeting schedule didn’t permit me to do so in Algiers. There is of course a huge Algerian community in Paris so I figured I could find the fabric there. I was hunting the fabric in a street market in the Belleville section when I stopped and in my halting French, asked, “Where do I find Algerian fabric? The African woman I was speaking with responded without pausing, “Stalingrad”! Stalingrad is a Metro stop and neighborhood with a large Algerian community. How ironic that I was hosted by the Trotskyist PT in Algiers and was directed to Stalingrad in Paris! Algiers deserves more time and another visit. I barely scratched the surface.
This is the 3rd of a 3 part Q&A between Mike Miller and Peter Olney on Mike’s experience in the Movement and his recent return to the area for the 50th anniversary.
Peter Olney (P): Why isn’t the California model of Latino empowerment a guidepost for the Southern states?
Mike Miller (M): What makes you think we have Latino empowerment? We have more Latino politicians. But, for example, farm workers are now in many ways worse off than they were in the 1960s when the United Farm Workers (UFW) was at its peak strength. It got its power by organizing workers and boycotting growers. Electoral and legislative engagement were expressions of that power. The strike and boycott were more important. I don’t see Latino power in California with that kind of capacity.
(P): Can you tell us about the state of the labor movement in the South under “right to work” laws? Do you see any positive organizing going on?
(M): The successor to Delta cotton as a major employer of Delta blacks was catfish farming. The mechanical cotton picker and chemical fertilizers eliminated many, many jobs in cotton. About 175 cotton plantation owners flooded their land and turned it into catfish farms. At the peak, they employed more than 5,000 people, 90% of them black.
The work was difficult and dangerous. Rapid hand movement on the assembly line led to carpal tunnel problems. Speed-up led to bad knife cuts and, at the worst, lost fingers. Indignities in the workplace (no doors on the stalls in the women’s bathroom, asking permission from a supervisor to take a bathroom break, workers called derogatory names) were reminders of the worst period of second-class citizenship. Workers were forced to show up and then hang around waiting for a shipment to arrive. During the wait-time, they weren’t allowed to clock in, so they didn’t get paid. Poor pay and no benefits were standard.
Between 1985-90 there was an extended organizing drive and strike that finally led to a contract that increased pay, defined work hours, overtime, and created a pension—which hadn’t previously existed. Most important to the workers we met, they now had a voice. The arbitrary and capricious behavior to which they’d earlier been exposed was no longer possible because they had a union.
We met with nine of the women who’d been through the ’85-’90 organizing, including Sarah White, one of the original two organizers, at the United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1529 in Indianola. Mary Young, the first person to step up as pro-union, was married to a member of the Steelworkers Union. From him, she learned about authorization cards and the benefits of having a union. Sarah White tells her story in a rich contralto voice. She now speaks in behalf of the union at various places; we reconnected at a panel at the reunion.
Eddie Steel, the UFCW field rep, is an inspiring guy; he joined the women and was a gracious host. It was an incredible afternoon; I was on the edge of tears from some of their stories. Here are some of the things they said; I wish I’d had a tape-recorder!
–“we stood together, we were in a bond together, and by the grace of God we made it.”
–“I just had that fear in me. That fear had me going. I had the fear about talking to people at work. I talk to anyone now.”
–“We had to fight ‘em tooth and toenail; we was out there for months in the cold 1990 first big strike. They was surprised; they didn’t think we was going to do it when we struck. But we was family; we have to stick together…I seriously don’t know where we’d be without the union.”
–“No one can do you any of the old way; you have a chance to speak up for you; you have that respect; [the union] does make a whole lot of difference.”
–“I used to snap at people and I had to learn how to treat my brothers and sisters…you come up under a good leader and you just watch your leader some; just have to be a follower [for a while] and we have to learn how to give each other respect.”
–“I’ve been fired three times; I was young at the time. The work was hard; you didn’t know when to come in; [if] they didn’t have the product you had to sit and wait; they didn’t put on the clock. [When I was approached about the union] I said Okay. Respect—it mean the world to people who been treated so bad.”
–“You got to read your contract, and I learned knowledge is power and if you know you’re right, then you’re right…I had to put that fear to the side and speak out.”
–“If I had to work at a place where there wasn’t a union, I’d be organizing one. [With a union] we have issues and problems, but we get it fixed because of the strength within us. Together we stand; divided we fall. With us being union, we have a voice; without a union we have no voice.”
–“Everybody is not a leader; everybody’s not going to come out, but you as a follower, you look at that leader to come out of your fearness. I’m not going to remain a coward because the strong leader is someone I’ll come up under. So much has to do with the strength of your leader.”
–“I associated with bold people and stick around those bold people and some of that will rub off on you.”
Steel emphasized his accountability to the membership because they elect him and pay his salary. It was a refreshing contrast to the world of unaccountable nonprofits that depend for their money on foundations.
The industry has shrunk due to foreign competition and increased costs of feed. In 2003, domestic producers accounted for 80% of the market; today, only 20%. While down to a little over 700 members in the catfish plants (of a 1,600 potential), the union still has an industry-wide impact because non-union places want to keep it out. And in the unionized places they are still in constant struggle with their employers. The UFCW local has also expanded to organize nursing homes, chain grocery stores and other establishments.
I hope this local grows. It is addressing what I believe to be the central issues now facing black and other working people in Mississippi—whether or not they will have union representation.
On the critical side, my perhaps over-sensitive ear caught a little bit of the “do for” mind-set that I think is a central problem facing the American labor movement. When I asked how members reacted when their grievances took as long as three and four years before resolution, several people talked about the difficulties that arose. While they keep the members informed, it is “the union”—in some ways a third party—that is representing them. Eddie Steele’s strength as an advocate may also be a weakness because they depend too much upon him.
A labor panel at the reunion included Sanchioni Butler, a lively African-American woman organizer for the United Auto Workers (UAW), which now has an organizing campaign at the union-hostile Canton Nissan plant whose work force is largely black. UAW is moving carefully after their recent loss at a VW plant in Chattanooga, TN. Hopefully, they learned some lessons from that defeat. The major one is that you build power through relationships, and you can’t build relationships when you give up the right to meet people in their homes—something they did in Tennessee as part of a deal they cut with Volkswagen to insure employer neutrality in the organizing drive.
Busses took reunion participants to a site demonstration one afternoon. Community support is a strategic part of the campaign, and this was an example of it. Because of such support, a fired worker was recently reinstated in his job.
Danny Glover, who participated in the reunion, was part of the rally at Nissan. (By the way, he makes a major contribution in many settings.)
In a recent UFCW campaign in North Carolina, organizer Gene Bruskin got Latino and Black workers to overcome past tension and achieve a major victory at a Smithfield pork plant.
Right-to-Work makes organizing difficult. You can piss-and-moan about it, or look for ways around it and positives in the negative. A big positive is that people have to want to pay dues to the union. If you can get a free insurance policy with the same benefits as those who pay for it, why not take a free ride? So you need something different from “insurance policy unionism.” You have to return to the days when members were co-creators of their union, and people spoke of the union as “What are we going to do about ‘x’?” rather than “What’s the union going to do about ‘x’?”
Julie Chen’s disclosure of her past history of cosmetic surgery has caused quite a stir and has resulted in numerous accusations of her “denying her heritage” and being “white-washed” from the Asian community as well as further questions regarding additional surgeries beyond the double eye-lid procedure she had done in her 20s. In fact, it’s a double-bind for Julie Chen because she’s penalized for not appearing “white” enough according to the news director and agent who both noted her “Asian eyes” as a quality that would prohibit the viewing audience from relating to her and demonized by the Asian community for “giving in to Western standards of beauty.”
You just can’t win.
It’s a complicated issue of race and gender entanglement that everyone is responding to since Chen isn’t being accused of just giving in to any ordinary ideals of beauty but to specifically Western ideals of beauty. Women are already penalized for not fulfilling society expectations of beauty, but when they try to address this inadequacy through practices such as cosmetic surgery women are then accused of being vain and shallow. Since her disclosure, Chen has had to respond to additional questions about a nose job, cheek implants, chin surgery, and veneers. But in this case the vanity is linked to racialized notions of beauty. It’s a catch-22 that doesn’t really give us space to talk about the real issues at hand such as gender discrimination or racial discrimination – what are the real underlying cultural values at work here? Why are there beauty standards that any woman needs to live up to? Why does a non-white representation of an “American” cause so much fear and anxiety? Why is cosmetic surgery an industry rooted in the idea that individuals are inadequate and need to fix the problem?
It was brave of Chen to talk about an issue that is rooted in racial discrimination and the very real pressures she faced as an Asian woman in the work place. But with the ensuing discussions of is she “Asian” enough, we’ve lost sight of the real issues at hand – how race and gender get tangled up together. In terms of racism, we see what it looks like in everyday life and for gender we see how women, regardless of their race, are held up to specific kinds of beauty standards. We see how Chen was judged as a racialized woman in her workplace, but the problem of beauty standards has gained little attention. This is similar to the maelstrom of racialized discussion with the crowning of the American-born Nina Davuluri as our newest Miss America. Her historic achievement as the first woman of Indian descent to win has caused many to question what it means to be an “American” if Davuluri represents our ideal woman. The racist comments toward Davuluri illustrate the fear behind living in a truly diverse society. In fact some of our citizens can’t even get their racism right and the accusation of being an “Arab” is thrown around as the universal “other.” And still other members of the South Asian community note that Davuluri would never win in India for being too dark skinned.
We still have much work to do in understanding and living with diversity in our country, but it is clear women are caught in the middle. A more collaborative space is need for women and men to discuss these issues and to acknowledging the different ways gender and race work together in our society. For the moment, however, women just can’t win, especially women of color.
I had intended to continue to roll out the story of organizing Mass Machine Inc. into the United Electrical Workers in June of 1973, but the 40th anniversary of court ordered school busing in Boston forcefully interrupted me. The Boston Globe in particular has been running a lot of multi-media remembrances of the busing crisis. I decided that OO#9 had to deal with the busing crisis as a retrospective. We will return to the Odyssey chronology in #10, but it is important to mark September 12, 1974 with some commentary.
It was that fall day in Boston that the buses rolled carrying black students from Roxbury to South Boston High School where they were met by mobs of white youth and adults throwing bottles, bricks and stones. The rest of 1974 and into 1975 was consumed with white racist mobs assaulting buses and blacks. The rest of the next decade was marked by outrageous acts. In 1977 Theodore Landsmark, a prominent black attorney was assaulted in front of city hall during an anti-busing rally by a white youth who attempted to impale him on a flagpole carrying the stars and stripes (here and here) In 1979 Darryl Williams a 15-year-old high school football player was shot and paralyzed by a sniper’s bullet after scoring a touch down at Charlestown High School. There were numerous attacks on blacks moving into white sections of Dorchester, and into the white neighborhoods of East Boston and Hyde Park. All these incidents put a spotlight on the racist segregated character of Boston where blacks knew that it was not a good idea to be caught in South Boston, the traditional Irish-American neighborhood after dark or in broad daylight. The Cradle of Liberty was not such a cradle for people of color.
Court ordered busing was not conceived as a broadside against latent Boston racism, although it certainly revealed all of that. It was the result of a lawsuit by the NAACP that alleged separate but unequal schools for black and white children. The concept was to eliminate disparities by breaking the segregation of neighborhood schools that reflected the segregated neighborhoods of the City. Federal Judge Arthur Garrity was an Irish American who made the ruling and issued the court order. In a lengthy finding in June of 1974 Garrity documented the “separate but unequal” character of the schools. No question that the white Boston School Board had funneled resources to the white schools at the expense of schools where the enrollment was minority majority. The documentation in his ruling shows the depth of the segregation. In most cases schools were 90% white or black. Since the 50’s black community leaders like Mel King and Chuck Turner had fought the School Committee to cough up the resources to improve the schools of color and to make logical changes to existing school boundaries that would have naturally integrated schools. Finally the NAACP filed a lawsuit in March of 1972 entitled Morgan vs. Hennigan. Morgan was the lead African-American parent plaintiff and James Hennigan was then the head of the Boston School Committee.
The case was made that there were inequities in the existing quasi apartheid system; blacks schools suffered from the comparative lack of resources. Busing would force a redistribution of resources and equalize the schools. So ordered by the courts. Most of the left and liberal organizations took a position of supporting busing as a way to end segregation.
The opposition to busing was led by the infamous Restore Our Alienated Rights or ROAR. ROAR became the political vehicle for a whole slew of opportunist white Boston politicians. Louise Day Hicks of the Boston School Committee who later was to run for Mayor using the slogan: “Every little breeze seems to whisper Louise”. John Kerrigan, the Chairman of the School Committee. Elvira “Pixie” Paladino from East Boston, a largely white Italian neighborhood and Jimmy Kelly, a building trades guy from Southie who later became a City Councilor. The official appeal to the white community was one of fighting for neighborhood schools, for the right to stay at the home school. Judge W. Arthur Garrity was seen as a pointed headed liberal imposing his rule from his comfortable suburb of Wellesley, Massachusetts. In a famous public moment School Committee Chairman Kerrigan rolled out a chart showing the racial composition of schools in Boston and Wellesley. The comparison was telling; 35% of Boston school enrollment was people of color, 1.8% of Wellesley’s schoolchildren were minorities. In fact there was a busing plan that addressed these inequities called Metco that transported students between wealthy suburbs and urban high schools. But it was a voluntary program and very limited.
“Paper positions on politics are made more powerful by the actual ability to move change in the real world”
The organization that I was part of took a different tack from the rest of the left. We argued that busing was an attack on the whole working class. We looked at the massive inequalities between the suburban schools where Garrity and his family lived and the urban schools for all students white, black and latin. We posited that the busing plan was an attack on workers driving them to fight each other over crumbs rather than fighting for real improvements in the City’s schools. Because of our anti-busing stance we were ridiculed by the rest of the left for siding with the racists. Certainly it was hard to stomach the racist attacks and our position was hard to defend in the emotional moments of that year.
We didn’t shirk from propagating our position at ROAR rallies and wherever people were marching in opposition to busing. The leaders and members of ROAR certainly differentiated our position. One of our members was beaten severely with a baseball bat for distributing a flyer questioning busing but opposing the racist attacks. Several of our members had to be relocated from South Boston under threat of being burned out of their houses. We tried to walk a very difficult and maybe impossible line of opposing busing as an attack on the working class, but also opposing the racist nature of the anti-busing movement. Looking back I think that the physical attacks on us were not so much driven by a quibble with our anti-racist position, but more because we were hated as Reds.
Paper positions on politics are made more powerful by the actual ability to move change in the real world. Our position had little impact except in left wing debates in the new Communist movement. But if there had been a union local or a community organization that united people of color with whites that could have opposed the racism but argued for a radical redistribution of educational resources not just busing kids around then there might have been the basis to advance a position similar to ours. That would have required organization that certainly we and the rest of the left did not have.
One exemplary organization that did grow out of the busing crisis was the Boston School Bus Drivers Union affiliated with the United Steel Workers of America. Prior to forced busing there was a very limited bus driver work force. Children walked to their segregated neighborhood schools. In 1974 hundreds of bus drivers were put on to deal with escalated need for transport across the city. This workforce was a reflection of Boston demographics with major representation from all the neighborhoods and women and men. In 1977 when their pay was cut by 88 cents per hour, organizing began to form a union. The organization became a living, breathing example of multi-racial unity because as one leader of the drivers said, “We were all being stoned together”! They issued a famous flyer that was distributed to children to pass to their parents calling for an end to racist attacks (Link). The Local became a beacon for a multiracial revival of the Boston labor movement in the 1980’s, including playing an active role in supporting the historic Mel King for Mayor/Rainbow Coalition campaign.
“Our correct analysis of the class inequities between suburbs and the Hub led us to downplay the history of racial inequity…”
Dialing forward forty years what was the result of busing? Did it serve to equalize resources and the quality of education in the Boston public schools? Did the forced busing crisis force Boston to shed its veneer of cultured liberalism and come to grips with the deep-rooted racism in its neighborhoods? Busing exposed the racism of Boston, and the Hub was labeled by many as the most racist city in America. Quite a shameful label for the birthplace of the American Revolution. While Boston’s racial profile has improved in the last 40 years, the schools probably haven’t. And because of white flight to the suburbs and the Catholic schools the system is almost completely children of color, 87%, even though Boston remains a majority white city.
Certainly one thing busing did not do was confront the ocean of inequity between City schools and the wealthier suburbs. Those inequities remain to this day as they do in all urban/suburban areas in the USA promoted by policies whereby schools are largely funded by property taxes.
So do these continuing inequities and deficiencies absolve our position against busing? NO. Our correct analysis of the class inequities between suburbs and the Hub led us to downplay the history of racial inequity in the City’ schools and the roiling racism that led many in the white community to follow the demagogic lead of ROAR and the South Boston Marshals. In fact our desire to find a common platform to unite the working class missed the fact that such unity is only built upon the recognition of the inequities in every facet of life. The recent events in Ferguson, Missouri are hugely illustrative. The shooting of Michael Brown has peeled back the outrageous practices of small communities surrounding St Louis, some like Ferguson that are majority black. The municipal coffers are fueled by random traffic stops of poor blacks that lead to arrest warrants and cascading fines. In short there is a new Jim Crow!
Recently Richard Trumka, the President of the national AFL-CIO traveled to St Louis to address the Missouri State AFL-CIO convention. In a powerful speech (here and video here) he explained to delegates, “We must take responsibility for the past. Racism is part of our inheritance as Americans. Every city, every state and every region of the country has its own deep history with racism. And so does the labor movement.” Trumka got what we scientific socialists missed in Boston, that it is only through fighting racist terror and inequitable treatment that the working class can fight together against its corporate enemies. Contrast Trumka’s sharp denunciation of inequity and white racism to the equivocating musings on the 40th anniversary of busing of newly elected Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, “ At some point, we need to have a conversation about what busing did to Boston and not be afraid of the conversation. I know black people that are still angry about busing. I know white people that are still angry about busing…. They are angry on all sides”. (Boston Globe September 13)
Busing was a blunt and ineffective instrument in dealing with the historic racism of the Boston School Committee and the white political establishment. The court order arose however in response to years of community advocacy and struggle. We had no freedom to influence the broader question of the inequities between suburbs and urban schools that we pointed to so of necessity we needed to dedicate our selves to opposing the racist attacks, pointing out the inequities and holding up the example of the Boston School Bus Drivers. 40 years hindsight coupled with the events of Ferguson focuses the mind.
Next OO#10 and back to 1973 and organizing the UE at Mass Machine in the heart of Roxbury.
“The litmus test appears to be whether they are perceived as champions and organizers around the rank and file’s basic needs or not”
Massachusetts Machine Shop, Inc. was a small metal stamping factory on Albany Street opposite Boston City Hospital in the heart of Roxbury, Massachusetts. The company manufactured washers, burrs and shims of all shapes and sizes. The Knight family of Marblehead had owned the company for generations. Total employment was 60 workers toiling in an old four-story brick factory building whose parking lot abutted the giant Stride Rite shoe corporation across the street.
Mass Machine was not a citadel of capitalism at the commanding heights of the economy, but a lot happened in the three years that I worked there from 1973-75. Our organizing there generated a lot of lessons and also a lot of illusions. I say our organizing because the factory was “salted” by four of us, all with different political outlooks. Salting is an old term that refers to the practice of politically conscious organizers going to work in a factory, mill, mine, hospital or other service workplace to organize a union or strengthen the existing union. The metaphor comes from “salting” a mine to bring out the richness of the ores or “salting” a wound to exacerbate the sores. Salting is the richest term, but “industrializing” or “colonizing” are oft used descriptors for this political practice which has a long history on the American left. There is a fine biography of Hapgood Powers entitled “From Harvard to the Ranks of Labor” by Robert Bussell, that recounts the odyssey of a Harvard student who participates in some of the most epic battles of labor in the 20’s and 30’s as a worker and an organizer.
My choice of Mass Machine as a place to “salt” was not the product of any deep reflection on strategy or any thought of paralyzing capitalism by striking at key sectors of the economy. At the time if I had been in one of the many Maoist political formations I would have been directed to seek work at one of the three “Generals” in the greater Boston area. General Electric has a massive manufacturing operation (albeit downsized today) that makes giant gears and jet engines in Lynn. General Motors had an assembly plant in Framingham. The Fore River in Quincy was home to the giant ship builder, General Dynamics. All these facilities were well stocked with left wing agitators. At the time I was working at NECCO in the fall of 1972 I was part of the Red Lantern Collective in Cambridge. The collective took its name from the title of a revolutionary Peking Opera performed on May 1, 1970. We were all radicals out of Harvard grappling with how to be revolutionaries. One thing that was respected and exalted was the process of transforming yourself, betraying your class background by becoming a worker and organizing. So when I met up with some left-wingers working at Mass Machine who were committed to organizing a union there, I jumped on board. They were welcoming of me as my command of Italian was considered a big asset, a third of the workforce was from the region of Catania and the cities of Avellino and Benevento.
In late January of 1973 I began my employment at Mass Machine Shop. I was hired as a punch press man. I fed sheets of metal under a cutting tool that cycled up and down when operated by a foot pedal clutch. My press was manual and I was handling heavy metal stock that was cut into washers. Other presses at Mass Machine were automatic, running thinner stock off of coils. The presses all had individual electric motors, but the old overhead belts that had been driven by a universal shaft were still hanging from the ceiling. The problem with the presses was that the clutches were not precise and the cutting tool would sometimes cycle on its own creating the possibility of danger to the digits. My first week on the job, the punch repeated on me when I had my left thumb in the die area. I escaped with a slight wound, but the scar reminds me of Mass Machine to this day. One of my fellow workers was not so lucky. The small factory was abuzz when Pat Caizzi our foreman commanded Salvatore Masi, the long time maintenance mechanic to clean up the blood and skin from the die area after an employee’s finger was chopped off. Sal was upset and let everyone know that he did not like being forced to confront the gore of the unfortunate accident. In an industrial setting, the maintenance mechanics play a key role because workers rely on them to keep their machines running, and they have the run of the factory so they become message carriers. Sal had been a loyal Knight family guy, but now he was talking union.
There were four of us who were the industrial salts all with differing political perspectives, but when it became clear that there was “heat” among the workers, a desire to organize, we had to figure out what union to work with. We knew that the International Association of Machinists (IAM) and the United Steelworkers (USW) represented metal manufacturing facilities. However we found that there was a Local 262 of the United Electrical Workers with small manufacturing facilities in the Boston area. This was an amalgamated local with many smaller to mid size shops in its membership unlike a giant single corporation/single plant local like the unions at the 3 “Generals”. The winter meeting of District 2 of the United Electrical workers was to be held on a weekend in February at a hotel in Framingham. We asked the union if we could attend and were invited to meet the delegates from all over New England. After the usual formal agenda issues of new business, old business and Good and Welfare were dealt with, International Representative Don Tormey was asked to make his report to the District. Tormey was a legendary organizer and leftist who had traveled all over the country and Canada (hence the designation International Rep) organizing and representing workers. Tormey must have known that we, young impressionable leftists, were in the audience. He launched into a denunciation of capitalism and its evils. He linked it to the challenges that UE members were facing in their workplaces. We were heating up! Then he wrapped up his remarks by blasting the control that capital and the government exercise over workers and concluded by declaring that, “We need a dictatorship of the proletariat.” We decided there was no need to interview any other unions. We drove east back to Boston warming to the task of organizing our fellow workers into the United Electrical Workers, the UE.
I have often wondered thinking back on Tormey’s speech as to whether he was regularly accustomed to reveal his politics so openly to all the members of the UE District Council and the rank and file. After all even in the ranks of the UE like any other trade union in the United States there is a huge spectrum of political opinion. Did Brother Tormey fear that being so open about his socialist politics would make him prone to attacks and possible retribution? He certainly must have experienced the challenges of the Red Scare McCarthy period in this country when Communist labor leaders and unions were public enemy number one. In studying history though it appears that many Reds have been open about their politics and still held in high esteem by more conservative union sistren and brethren. The litmus test appears to be whether they are perceived as champions and organizers around the rank and file’s basic needs or not. I have seen other union leaders who have openly displayed their left politics but forgotten to tend to the needs of their rank and file, savaged by worthless opportunist opponents who fill that vacuum in leadership of the day-to-day struggles.
The most famous example of this dynamic in the UE was the case of Bill Sentner (here and here) who was the leader of the UE District based in St Louis during the red scare of the early fifties. Try as they might the local power structure, politicians and employers could not dislodge the open communist, Sentner. The rank and file supported him and was not surprised about his political affiliations because they had never been a secret. It was only when the UE national leadership perceived his presence as a problem that he stepped down. The same is true for the legendary leader of the March Inland in Hawaii that organized all the plantation sugar and pineapple workers into the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) in the 40’s and 50”s. Crew cut Okie Jack Hall was an open communist and yet no amount of red baiting including directly from the US Senate that was to approve statehood for Hawaii could dislodge him from the favor of ILWU members. There is something to be said for sinking deep roots with the workers, sharing their lives and fighting with them for better conditions of life and work. It does wonders for one’s credibility on a host of issues including socialist ideas.
Next OO#9 – Winning the UE at Mass Machine and a first labor contract in three languages