Olney Odyssey

By

To honor the memory of my great friend and comrade Jeff Stansbury, whose life took many of the same twists as my own, I plan to write a blog for The Stansbury Forum documenting the chapters in my own odyssey. I hope to touch on episodes and tales from my life, and the opinions I have developed based on that experience. And along the way, I look forward to hearing from others about the challenges our working class movement faces.

 

Trainer’s Table to the Bargaining Table #1

At the end of 2013 I retired as Organizing Director for the West Coast longshore union (ILWU). I put 16 years into the job, and it was the culmination of my 40 years as a labor organizer on the West Coast and in Massachusetts. Many times — and especially in my final years with the ILWU — I would find myself in dangerous situations and unusual places wondering, “How did I get here?” and “What a strange journey this has been!” A scab’s car would be speeding at me on a picket line, or I would be addressing a union meeting in the Mojave Desert, and I’d have to pinch myself and say, “You’re not in Andover any more.”

Andover is a small town 25 miles north of Boston. My family lived in the town, and I attended Phillips Andover Academy the most elite of elite prep schools, infamous for producing both Bush presidents and many captains of industry who, in turn, were usually descendants of captains of industry. I studied at Andover from the fall of ‘65 through my graduation in June of 1969.

In May of 1969, when the domestic uprising against the Vietnam War was at its height, some of my fellow students and I joined with local peace activists in town to protest the war. We handed out leaflets along the annual Memorial Day parade route, and I marched at the head of the parade carrying the American flag and wearing a peace symbol on my arm. Our actions created a huge stir. The local police were called out to surround City Hall in riot gear. Young townie Marines back from boot camp challenged us to physical fights, and the local Coffee Mill refused to serve peace protestors.

That was my coming out party as an anti-war activist. Back at school, the Dean of Students called me into his office after the parade to counsel me to be careful with whom I was associating.

Later that week the school’s sports trainer Al Coulthard was wrapping my ankle with athletic tape in preparation for a lacrosse game, and he offered some fatherly advice, “Pete, it’s good you like to protest the war, but don’t forget about the workers!” His remarks made no sense to me. What workers was he talking about? The most important workers in my life were the cafeteria employees in the student dining commons, and while I saw them daily I did not know their names and nothing of their lives. They were just there waiting to serve. Class wasn’t part of my lexicon.

Al’s words stuck with me however. I felt a deep affection for him because he had taken good care of me throughout my football and athletic career. When I got a “stinger” in my sophomore year, Al told me to do weight training to build up my shoulder and neck muscles so I wouldn’t experience the temporary lateral paralysis of a pinched nerve suffered upon a violent collision with an opposing football player.

In this time he told me stories about himself, his family– about riding in a truck and car convoy with his father during the Republic Steel massacre in Ohio in the 1930s. I was intrigued. Who was Al Coulthard and what was this working class thing? What were these unions he was talking about? Turns out that Al’s father was “Red” Coulthard, a Communist and the leader of the United Electrical Workers at the General Electric Lynn works giant turbine plant in Lynn, Massachusetts a few towns over on the north shore of the state. He was a labor leader who had fought to defend the left-led United Electrical Workers (UE) from the raids by the anti-communist International Union of Electrical Workers (IUE), a creation of the employers whose purpose was to raid and destroy the UE in the early fifties during the height of McCarthyism.

Al’s words resonated for me again later that spring when I was contacted by John Di Carlo, a local union carpenter from nearby Lawrence, Massachusetts. John had read about our anti-war protests in the local newspaper, and wanted to talk about working class politics and the need for radical change in America. This was a lot to think about for a young 18-year-old high school senior who had flirted with joining the Army if the draft came calling. But those were the times. Values and traditions were challenged and changed and people made life-altering decisions. I had begun my life’s odyssey, a journey that would take me from upper class suburbia to the mean streets of working class Boston, and ultimately to the labor movement in California and the West Coast.

“Sit down and shut the fuck up kid!”

Odysseys by nature include challenges and hard lessons and that summer I learned my first big lesson about working class politics in the United States. Invigorated by my reading of Marxism and heady discussions with other young radicals, I tried my hand at consciousness raising on my summer job after graduation from Andover. I worked as a janitor in the Charles River park apartments on upscale Storrow Drive in Boston, where it was my job to strip floors of their finish and then refinish and buff them.

My fellow workers were all guys from Southie, the traditional Irish American community of Boston. One evening during lunch the discussion turned to our low pay and lousy benefits. A couple of workers lamented the fact that the complex’s pet poodles were treated better than the cleaning help. I saw my opportunity to do a socialist exposure. I leapt up onto the lunchroom table and exclaimed, “The owners of these apartments treat us worse than the pets of their tenants. Our pay is pennies above minimum wage. You older guys have no pension. These abuses are the reason that we need socialism in America!”

Before I could step off the table, the lead janitor yelled, “Sit down and shut the fuck up kid!” After all who was I? I found out that I had no credibility to declaim on anything. I’d listened to Al Coutlhard because he was a constant and respected force in my life. But I had no such experience with my fellow janitors. They barely knew me, and we hadn’t bonded over common work place struggles. I had no street cred! An idealistic and naïve upper middle class kid had just been figuratively kicked in the teeth and taught a hard lesson about the working class. My education had begun.

 

In the next installment entitled, “Anne S. Bowman and the Unitarian Universalist Association,” how my grandmother’s search for a Sunday School led me to the barricades!

Thanks to Nelson Perez-Olney, Christina Perez, Lillian Rubin and Rand Wilson for reading drafts of this essay and offering invaluable editorial advice.

About the author

Peter Olney

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

This entry was posted in Mic check and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

20 thoughts on Olney Odyssey

  1. Great to hear how it all started. I was privlaged to be able to work with you a few times. I still draw from our time together and am a better person for it.
    I look forward to learning more Peter.
    Enjoy your retirement.

  2. I appreciate the honesty with which you describe your experiences and how you got here.

    I look forward to more posts and more getting to know you and look forward to working with you more in the continuing odyssey and adventure…

  3. Very nice start. As also one of your generation and recently retired, I look forward to more. The more open and complete you can be, the better. We all, of our generation, suffered much undue ignorance and many unnecessary mistakes due partially to the understandable political reticence generation of the previous generation of labor leftists. Let’s us not make that mistake.

    Joe Berry

  4. I had no idea your background in this regard. Very interesting to know the context of your evolving ideals and beliefs. Now in retirement, you must feel some sense of satisfaction and actualization of those early years.

  5. This is a story we all need to hear right now. I wish my dad had had the time do do something like this before he passed away. Thank you for sharing, and please keep writing.

  6. Wow – really enjoyed this first installment! Looking forward to more. Your story resonates with so many of us… moving from anti-war action to labor organizing. Your moment of “socialist exposure” occurred for me in a break room of unionized brewers in Baltimore, Md. 1973, (Black Label brewery)…. your “speeding scab car” struck me, sending me to ER during NY Local 1199 Hospital strike, summer 1984. I am curious: some New England activists have a family history that includes connections to the American Revolution and/or English Civil War. (I am one – ancestors who fought with Oliver Cromwell – apologies to my Irish friends.) Are there family stories that played a role in your orientation towards social justice?
    Anyway … I cud blab on and on …. looking forward to next installment.

  7. Peter, thanks for sharing your odyssey with the world. We need to hear more from people like you, fighters for the working class that don’t just talk the talk.

  8. Thanks so much for doing this Peter. I”m looking forward to every installment, at whatever rate and in whatever size they come.

  9. Peter,

    Thanks for sharing your blog. It’s interesting to know how you began, the connections to Philips Andover surprised me. I look forward to reading more.

  10. Peter, this is so insightful and I can’t wait for the next installment. What a lovely way to honor Jeff! Thank you.

  11. Great stuff, but there’s one major flaw: I wanted to read a whole lot more. But the words suddenly ran out. Keep ‘em comin’. Okay?

  12. What a thoughtful piece-such a terrific idea to share the moments when we got some help from someone to see the light–thankfully some of us like Peter, kept the light in view and keeps shining the light for others
    gene

  13. Wonderful story, Peter! So much I didn’t know about your upbringing. Can’t wait to read more!
    Jan

  14. Peter,

    Thanks for including me on your list. A very good read.

    Retired? When people ask me if I am retired, I just say that I no longer get paid for the work I do.

  15. Worthman, Potash, now you. Another one of my teachers retires. Looking forward to the rest of the blog – my course of study is not finished yet. More about the early New England years, please…like a trip home in a time machine.

  16. This is great Peter. Good advice for lots of folks–not only young kids.

    I look forward to the installments.

    in solidarity,

    goetz

  17. Peter,
    Reading your first essay brought back memories of you as a young idealist. Unlike many such young people, you continued on the path you started. I appreciate your honesty and clear sight. It comes through in the essay.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>