helenaworthen

An American woman of the Viet Nam War generation goes to Viet Nam 40 years later to teach and learn

Getting Ready 25 — July 28, 2015

Getting Ready 25

Getting Ready 25

The same question, what are we supposed to be teaching? is still the central theme of all communications between us and our hosts in Vietnam. This is the first question we asked back in February and we are still asking it. But now the deadline is approaching and in about 3 weeks we will be standing in front of classes and will have to open our mouths and teach something, whatever it may be. So the deadline is forcing clarification.

Just a glimpse into working conditions in Vietnam, as background for whether this is an urgent question or not: We’re reading an article sent to us by Julie Brockman, “The Right to Strike In Vietnam’s Private Sector” by Trinh Ly Khanh, published in the Asian Journal of Law and Society, DOI 10.1017/als2015. It says (page 5):

According to the VGCL’s finding on the minimum living needs of workers from 2012 to 2016, workers are only able to afford between 61% and 72% of minimum living needs on the regional minimum wage rate. According to the MOLISA Minister Pham Thi Hai Chuyen, the new regional minimum wage only meets approximately 60% of the minimum living needs of the workers (5).  

Employers, even ones where a contract has been negotiated, use the minimum wage as a standard. If something is a law (like minimum wage) it is considered a right; if it is not law, it is considered an “interest.” A living wage is not a right. Vietnamese minimum wage is among the lowest in Asia. Working full-time earns you enough to pay for about 60% of what you need to live.

How do they manage,then?

Here are expenses versus wages. From page 7: average monthly expenses range from VND4.78 million ($222) to VND3.31 million ($179). Wages range from VND5.94 ($276 ) in privatized state-owned enterprises to VND4.77 million (US $221) in foreign-invested companies. Note that “average monthly expenses” is not the same as “minimum living needs.” People are going without minimum living needs. “Expenses” means what you spend, not what you should be able to spend.

“Most workers either save only a small amount of money or are unable to afford the costs of living, especially in cases of sickness.”

An article “Strike Wave in Vietnam: 2006-2011,” by Kaxton Siu and Anita Chan in the Journal of Contemporary Asia, DOI 10.10880/00472336 2014, says, in its abstract, that “Vietnamese workers have to conserve energy due to inadequate food and malnutrition.”

So, back to the question of what we’re going to teach.

I sent my draft powerpoint texts for Chapters 1-6 of the Northouse book, Leadership Theory and Practice Seventh Edition (Sage 2016), and Joe sent his draft powerpoint text for Chapter 1 of the Gass and Seiter book, Persuasion: Social Influence and Compliance Gaining, Fifth Edition, (Pearson 2014). We had received an email saying that we were supposed to use these specific books and work through them, chapter by chapter, with one class for each chapter. Joe was getting started later on this because he had to special order the book, so he only sent one chapter.

So today we got an email back from Vinh who is working with Dean Hoa to get things ready for next semester. They have some problems with the vocabulary in Joe’s powerpoints and asked him to use simpler words. They want the first class for each of us to be an introduction to ourselves and the course, not a chapter summary. They want Joe’s class to use examples from labor. They want the first class to explain how students will be evaluated, and it appears that the evaluation will include multiple-choice questions.

I can definitely understand why they want Joe to use simpler words. However, the Gass and Seiter book is written in a chatty, insider cute way using cartoons and phrases that have humorous connotations. For example, one header goes like this: “The Debunking Function: Puh-Shaw.” The authors also use tech terms from social media like “buzz”, “viral metaphor,” “stickiness,” and “gaming.” There are no “simple” words that are the equivalent of these. In order to actually teach the book, Joe is going to have to use the words of the author. To substitute other words would be to fail to teach the book. If your assignment is to “teach a book”, it is also not ethical to try to make a bad book into a good book. No matter what you think about it, if your purpose is to make sure students know what is in it, you have to present it as it is. Maybe they will think differently.

My book is a deadpan slog through one approach to or theory of leadership after another. It does not have a cutesy-word problem. However, if there is an urgent need to teach students how to organize workplace unions and honestly represent workers in a fight against abusive, exploitative employers, then knowing a lot of different theories of leadership is not going to do them any good. It will be a waste of time. I was waiting until we got there to talk about this so I’m glad it’s come up now.

The problem with Joe’s book is bigger than its cutesy vocabulary and engaging discourse. Using the fundamental questions “For whom, by whom, and for what purpose?” I would say that these books are for students eager to become part of the corporate superstructure of the global economy and make a lot of money no matter how; that they are by professors of business, but also cynically designed and written to sell copies and make a whole lot of money, complete with new editions and high prices; and for what purpose – well, on the one hand, to make money for the authors, and on the other hand, to inoculate students (rather than teach them) with the discourse of “leadership” so that they will be comfortable in the corporate environment.

The first sentence in Northouse’s Introduction is “Leadership is a sought-after and highly valued commodity.” And indeed, it is; you can make a whole lot of money running packaged “leadership training” conferences, executive trainings, etc etc etc. He is completely unabashed about mentioning this. One of the theories that he spends a chapter on, Situational Leadership, has a little trademark TM on it every time he mentions it, and he notes that it has been used with 400 out of 500 Fortune 500 companies.

Northouse’s compromise in this edition (I had an earlier edition from the library) is to be consistent and call a manager a “leader” and his employees “followers” . But that does not change the power relationships between them, nor the conflict of interest the defines them.

Substituting “labor examples” for the examples in the Gass and Seiter book will not work. Tips on buying a new or used car? This is Box 1.2. It actually is a set of 16 tips, including things like “The sales person will act like he or she is your best friend even though you just met.” And, “The salesperson may leave the room a number of times to talk with the ‘sales manager.’ Maybe, maybe you could say that this happens in bargaining of any kind – and substitute a bargaining scenario. That might come under “table skills”, although that would be stretching it. It certainly isn’t anywhere near the core of collective bargaining. And this would be another example of seriously distorting the book in order to make it fit our purpose.

Vinh and Dean Hoa actually do not have copies of these books, so they can’t see them themselves. It sounds as if someone recommended them. We will have to ask them where the recommendation came from.

VInh asked if we could Skype, and we could in the next one or two days, but we’ve got grandchildren coming after that and will not be able to do any kind of computer-based work at all while that’s happening.

This is all part of learning what we are supposed to be teaching. It’s getting more and more exciting. I’m not kidding.

I asked Vinh to take another look at the class plan that I sent her back in May. I built that class plan around an early curriculum that they sent us. I think that curriculum was the one that had Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People in it. That was the only book in English on the syllabus. Anyway, here is my first class plan from that set of classes (I drafted 1-9, including Dale Carnegie). It has a lot of introduction in it:

Class 1: The Power and Limits of Positive Reinforcement

 

Is leadership a matter of getting people to do what you want them to do?

 

Story: “You can do anything with positive feedback.”

As this is our first class, I want to introduce myself. I will use this opportunity to tell you a story about some advice that was given to me by someone I met when I was just beginning to get involved in the labor movement.

Thirty years ago I worked as a professor in a large college in the San Francisco Bay Area. There are good jobs as professors but in the last 30 years, as neo-liberalism has come to higher education, more and more jobs became low-wage, insecure, temporary and lacking social insurance, specifically healthcare benefits. I had one of these bad jobs. One day when I was particularly angry about my job I was advised to go to my union, the teacher’s union. I went. I was not really hopeful and in fact introduced myself angrily to the president by saying, “You do nothing for us!” “Us” meant all the temporary, contingent professors.

The president of the union might have thrown me out of his office.

But he didn’t. Instead of throwing me out, he explained what they were trying to do. He invited me to attend a meeting and gave me some work to do. He encouraged me to become involved in organizing other professors like myself. I loved doing this. I worked hard at it. This was my start in the labor movement and it explains why I am here now, today, teaching about labor.

One day I got a phone call from the president of the union asking me to go to a nearby hospital and pick up a man who was being discharged and needed a ride home to his house. This man was named Billy Henderson. I knew him and liked him. He had been the previous union president. He had AIDS and had just found out that he had only a short time to live. This was news to me: I did not even know he was sick.
I picked him up and drove him home. When we got to his house he invited me to come in and have a cup of tea. Then he said, “I am going to tell you the most important thing you need to know in order to be a union organizer. That is, that you can get anyone to do anything using positive reinforcement.”

Anything? Really? I asked him for some examples, and he gave them to me. They were small things: getting a student to work harder by appreciating a little bit of work they had done, getting a union member to be more active by telling them they had a gift or a talent for something. All right, small things – but anything? He was sure, he said, that you could get anyone to do anything.

I left him that night alone in his house, facing the bad news of his diagnosis, but I couldn’t help thinking that partly as a way to thank me for coming to the hospital and picking him up, he had given me – a new young organizer with no background in the labor movement – something that he regarded as the most important piece of advice he had to give. Was it something meant specifically for me, since I have a tendency to try to get people to do things by criticizing them? But he didn’t really know me. So was it really more general – something I should keep in mind ever afterwards?

Here is what has happened: I have tried to keep it in mind ever afterwards. Of course, I have encountered situations where positive reinforcement was not enough. But overall, it’s surprisingly true – isn’t it?

Questions: Answer these from your experience.

What is meant by “positive reinforcement”? Give some examples.

Have you seen something happen to someone else when you gave that person positive feedback? How did they react? How did they appear to feel?

Have you seen it happen to yourself, where someone gave you positive reinforcement, and you responded? How did you feel?

What kinds of things do you need to know about someone in order to give them positive feedback? How do you find those things out?

What kind of person is good at giving positive reinforcement? What does that person have to be willing and able to do?

What kinds of situations would be hard to take care of with positive reinforcement? What do those situations have in common?

When would it be absolutely impossible to influence someone using positive feedback?

Assignment: Try giving positive feedback to someone. Choose someone who has the power to do something that you want them to do. It could be something for themselves (study harder, get some exercise) or something for their group (take notes in a meeting) or for another person (be a good friend to someone). Figure out how to give positive feedback to that person. See what happens. Note that you have to be sincere about what you are doing. Your positive feedback should be truthful, not fake. The thing you want the person to do should be within their power and not likely to harm them or anyone.

Write down what happens, what you felt like, and what the other person thought about it. If you have been honest and sincere in giving them positive feedback, there should not be any problem about being transparent in what you are doing.

Did it work? Bring your experience into class next week.

————-

We will see what happens. I am thinking about Vinh,who must be extremely busy right now, just finishing up one semester and now having to look ahead at these two Americans who seem to want to do things their own way.

Getting Ready 24 — July 26, 2015

Getting Ready 24

Getting Ready 24

We got our work plans from Vinh, signed by the President, Le Vinh Danh. We are called “Visiting Lecturer.” The semester will be from August 15 through January 31, 2016. This brings us right up to Tet, I think.

In addition to teaching 15 sessions of our own classes (“The Art of Leadership” – me, and “Community Mobilization,” – Joe) we will prepare lecture materials and help in three subjects: Principles of Labor Relations, two sessions of Bargaining Skills between trade unions and employers, and 2 sessions of Labor Relations Strategy. We will research curriculum, teaching materials and books for new curriculum subjects and rehearse four sessions for four subjects in the new curriculum. I think I know what that means: Collective Bargaining Agreements, Labor Contract Administration, Trade Union administration, and writing in Labor Relations and Collective Bargaining. The idea is to assist the faculty in learning teaching methods for the new curriculum. We’ll also conduct 6 sessions of simulations on leadership, bargaining, mediation and trade union administration for students and 2 academic workshops for students. They also want us to conduct 2 workshops sharing western teaching and research methodology for lecturers and make comments on their training programs.

Leanna, Hollis and Richard warned us that we were going to be busy. It looks as if we will be working morning till night. However, all of this seems possible. It is definitely the kind of thing we have done before.

I’ll need to re-sort my books that I want to bring, once I get back to California. Also, I have to make sure that I can access the University of Illinois library collections remotely. I have all the email correspondence with the librarians plus my Emerita card, so it should work. Turns out that I do not have access to the UC Berkeley online collections. I can take out books, though – but not take them to Vietnam.

Tan Duc Thang will host us both for 6 months and provide a stipend of 9M VDM per month per person, which is apparently generous and should cover basic expenses. They will also sponsor visits to Nha Trang city for 3 days in September, Da Lat for three days in November, and the Cu Chi Tunnel, HCMC for 1 day in January. We’ll have internet, desks, computers and business cards, student volunteers and a lecturer-translator, who I assume will be Vinh.

Pretty exciting. Pretty amazing. Lots to do, still. I’m on Chapter 6 of the Northouse book, trying to capture the main points of each chapter, make a few comments and get ready to move the text to powerpoints. Joe finally was able to get his book delivered. The first vendor, Valore, wouldn’t send it to a PO box and didn’t understand that in rural Vermont people in villages don’t have house delivery – you have to live out in the township to get Rural Free Delivery. Our house number is only a 911 address, not a postal address. Eventually, he bought it from Amazon although it cost him over $100 to get the book delivered overnight via UPS. It’s a lightweight paperback called Social Persuasion by Gass and Seiter. The cover gives away the tone of the book: Rodin’s The Thinker, looming over a carrot that is dangling on a fishhook from a line. Reminds me of Joe Martocchio’s book on compensation – the cover is a cartoon of a boss waving a dollar bill like flapping out a towel – the dollar bill is stretchy and twisted, and on the other end of it, a worker is trying to grab it.

The idea being incentives, I guess. Incentives and motivation, and it’s supposed to be a joke of some sort.

My book is more like a textbook, heavily structured as if for an online class with the same sections repeating in each chapter. It also cost nearly $100. No comment on that.

Descending into an intense work period before the grandchildren get here next Friday. We’re writing an article about City College of San Francisco for the Bayview, a SF community newspaper, urging people to enroll, especially in ethnic studies classes, because one consequence of the attacks on CCSF (I’m tempted to call it rape) by the ACCJC (Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges) which has been going on since 2012 is an awful drop in enrollment, from 100,000 students to 66,000, which means a loss of state funding, producing a downward spiral with classes getting cut and people getting laid off. It’s hitting ethnic studies programs especially hard. That’s due today. Then two Steward Update articles and we’re clear.

When the kids come it will be all swimming, kicking balls around, piling up rocks in the river, and cooking and eating.

Today, however is Jamaica Old Home Day, which means that there will be a parade, a barbecue, a ducky race (yellow plastic duckies, each with a number, dumped off one bridge and racing to the next bridge; you buy one and if your number wins, you get something) and a market, with music. Last summer I noted that there was zero commercial participation in this annual event – no booths sponsored by chains of any sort, no food that wasn’t cooked by someone we know, right there in front of us. Also, no one from further than a few miles away either in the parade or watching it – except state legislative representative Ollie Olsen, who lives in Londonderry up Route 30, and rode on a fire truck, I think.

Tonight we Skyped with Jan Sunoo who has been a federal mediator and worked in Vietnam and taught there. His advice: we are advocates for workers, not mediators between workers and management, not cheerleader for production. Frame the class as that, asking students to adopt the perspective of workers, if only for the class. That’s one of the class assignments. He suggests 20 minute lectures, short sentences that are easy to translate, followed by something students can discuss in groups and report on. He says they are very good at working in groups. His wife Brenda, who wrote the book about the women divers in South Korea, said that getting students to participate actively in discussions and not hesitate to comment, question and discuss will be one of our challenges. Students hesitate to ask questions because they fear that it will indicate lack of respect for the teacher – it will imply that the teacher did not present something completely. She noted that merely asking a question is one step in a whole ladder of dialogue activities: thinking critically, challenging, proposing alternative perspectives. Dialoging as we know it is something we will have to teach explicitly.

This makes me think of the four critical thinking questions that in the US we want students to ask all the time: Is it accurate? Is it consistent? Is it complete? Is it true (or good)?

I think that a lot of stuff from my book will come into play in this class. I’m glad I sent Vinh the pdf, but I haven’t heard anything from her about it.

“We’ve been through hell together” — July 21, 2015

“We’ve been through hell together”

“We’ve been through hell together”

Most names of individuals and organizations and businesses have been changed.

The first part of this story was told to us as labor educators when we were invited into Local 721 of an un-named International to provide contract bargaining and contract campaign training by the new leadership team prior to the contract re-openings. The events described here took place in the fall of 2001. It was told to us as background information, in order to prepare us for carrying out the training.

I include this here, in this blog about getting ready to go to Vietnam and teach “ Leadership” alongside Joe, who will be teaching “Social Influence and Persuasion,” to get into the nitty-gritty of what local union leadership can involve and the kind of courage that it takes to step up and actually do it. And also the vested interests that quite naturally, due to human nature, would prefer that you not step up.

As of the time that we were invited in, none of the new leadership of Local 721 had as yet stood for election in the positions which they now held. Instead, they expected that their positions would be confirmed at an upcoming General Membership meeting. Elections in this local were every two years, so the first full membership election that this group would face was scheduled for Fall 2003. In the next 18 months between the time we were invited in and that first election, these new leaders were looking ahead at major contract bargaining with most of their employers. This meant that they would be negotiating without having confirmed the members’ support for them as representatives through the test of an election. This made them want to implement a lot of membership involvement strategies in their upcoming negotiations. That’s what they called us in to help with.

Chicago at that time had a substantial candy manufacturing sector, making candies that were famous all over the country. The candy business was a hotbed of mob infestation. Up until at least 1989, Local 721 in Chicago, which has members in candy manufacturing and warehouse work, was a mob union. The PO or Principal Officer of Local 721 was a man named Rosetti. He was married to the granddaughter of the head of the Chicago mob. The mob used the union as a place to put their hit men; the hit men got jobs as business agents for the union, which meant that they got their health benefits and retirement plans through the union. When it came time to negotiate a contract, the hit men, accompanied by their bodyguards, would walk into the warehouse or the plant and things would get settled and the workers would find out later what they were getting or not getting.

It is important to understand that the mob was not pro-union. This was not about Robin Hood. The mob had their people on the management side. At one well-known candy manufacturing company, Miko Candy, for example, there was mob on both sides.

I was once shown a copy of a mob contract. It had an interesting clause in it that I’d never seen before. It was called a “security clause.” This didn’t mean union security, the clause which means that all workers in the bargaining unit must pay fees to cover the cost of representation even if they don’t choose to join the union and pay dues. This “security clause” said that the employer had to pay $250 per month per worker directly to the union for “security.” The money would go into a union fund. If you have 100 workers, that’s $25,000 per month. The union has complete control over that fund, whatever they decide to call it. Nothing in the contract says who has access to the money in that fund once it gets to the union. One way that an employer can cope with a contract like that is to note that the union has probably not made an effort to negotiate good wages for the workers, so it all comes out even anyway. You can save more than $25,000 per month by paying 100 workers $8.50 an hour instead of $10.00 an hour. Plus you save on payroll taxes. So as long as the union doesn’t push for decent wages, the employer probably won’t complain.

The membership of Local 721 did not have much experience of union democracy. Labor educators value union democracy. We tend to think that good, clean, active union democracy will both honestly earn the trust and commitment of members and mobilize the membership to fight collectively for good working conditions. Ultimately, we believe that “they may have the power but we have the people,” and the people are really the ones with the power. Also, labor creates all value, in case you were wondering. We also believe that in order for union democracy to work, a tremendous amount of education is required. In the critical moment when members decide what to do and what not to do, there is not a lot of time to ask or answer questions. The thinking and learning has to go on continuously, even if there is no crisis to confront. Leadership development has to go on all the time, at all levels. You need a deep bench of stewards, committee persons, organizers, volunteers – and that’s not even talking about executive board members or contract negotiators, to say nothing of presidents. So labor educators spend a lot of time setting up situations in which people can think and talk things over with each other and learn from each other and from people the union can connect them with.

Local leadership in the new reform context

Two of the people who will figure importantly in this story worked at Miko Candy during that time. One was Linda Brown and the other was Jose Lauro. Jose Lauro was a machine operator.

There had been a lengthy Justice Department investigation of this union, especially among the Chicago locals, that led in 1989 to a consent decree, requiring a direct election by the entire membership of the next President, which in turn led to the election out of which a reform candidate became International President. During this period, the FBI had taps on many phones in local union offices. One day in 1991, Rosetti, the Principal Officer of 721, was talking to his bookie when the FBI was listening. Usually this wouldn’t have mattered, but under the new reform International President, once he got caught, that was the end of him.

Local Union 721 then was put into trusteeship, or taken over, by the International and a man named Robbie, from another Chicago local, Local 703 was put in charge as Trustee. Robbie hired a man as Business Agent who had been a BA under Rosetti but who had been fired; his name was Simon Warren. It is not clear if Simon was mob or not. Simon’s wife Donna became the office manager at 721and bookkeeper.

Robbie also hired a young woman named Rhonda Hamilton who had been working for another big union, not the same group of unions that Local 721 was part of, as a business agent. She had both a college education and union experience and was well-known to be a good, activist person around the labor movement in Chicago. Maybe Robbie hired her because it would make him look clean. She says now that they told her, “You don’t get many chances to be a member of X union.” It seemed like a challenge. Getting hired would also make her a member, which gave her a vote and would allow her to run for office, which is the kind of thing someone might take into consideration. So she took the job.

Some people at 721 were concerned that Local 703 might move to merge Local 721 into it and swallow it up. Local 703 is a big local; it also represents warehouses, as do many of the 22 Chicago Joint Council 32 locals. So Local 721 was vulnerable. That made it even more important for the contract negotiations to go well so they would look strong and hard to swallow.

Robbie groomed Simon Warren to be the successor to the Principal Officer position when they came out from under the trusteeship. He gave him access to insider information, visibility to the membership, and other typical advantages. When it came time for the election there were other slates – in fact, there were four slates – but Simon won.

Simon had recruited Jose Lauro to be on his slate. Simon needed a Latino and someone from Miko Candy. Jose had only been to one union meeting before he joined Simon’s slate. He knew next to nothing about unions in the United States. He was from a region of Mexico, Durango, where a lot of Mexicans in Chicago came from. Jose was a very good-looking man in his early thirties. The first time Simon asked him, Jose turned it down. But the second time he accepted, and he was on the winning slate.

Simon had also recruited a woman from Miko to be on his slate: Linda Brown.

Simon Warren’s slate won that first election. But two years later, when it was time for the next election, the slate ran again; this time, Jose was the top vote-getter, above Simon. Then again, two years later, the top vote-getter was Linda; Jose was second, and Simon third.

In the culture of this union everyone was aware of the oversight of the reform International President. He came out of the big local in New York. His local had led a successful strike against a major company in 1997 that made national news for months and is still regarded as an example of a well-run strike and campaign. Under this new President, not only Local 721 in Chicago but several others of the big Chicago locals had been put into trusteeship: Local 743 and Local 705 among them. The leadership of these local unions, who were reportedly connected to the mob, hated the new President and everything he did. There was both fear and hatred involved, and the forces in Chicago that were opposed to anything the reform President did were substantial.

Simon Warren and the Local 721 treasury

Under Simon’s leadership, the cash reserves of Local 721 had been drawn down from $3,000,000 to less than $500,000. This was primarily because of the hiring of staff; the local union staff was up to 12 at this point. But Simon’s salary was $98,000 per year as well. Between him and his wife Donna, who was the bookkeeper and office manager, they were taking about $150,000 a year home from the union.

In addition, Simon had bought a new building for the local offices and had it remodeled. Up until then, they had had offices in a big high-rise building on the West Side where a lot of unions had their offices. The new building at 9231 Ogden was a small, tight, good-looking brick building and closer to many of the warehouses where members worked, but buying it and fixing it up wasn’t cheap. It had a nice sky-blue meeting hall that could squeeze in several hundred people, with a kitchen along one side. It had an executive meeting room with an oblong wooden table and some soft chairs. It had offices for the Business Agents and a central office with a bullet-proof glass window and a door that opened with a buzzer. It had diagonal parking along the side of the building and was on a commercial street that ran along a nice neighborhood of bungalows with green lawns, trees in the parking strip, little restaurants and shops. The nearby main street, West Archer, had occasional McDonalds and Dunkin Donuts but more local shops than chains and some good ethnic restaurants and bakeries. In the near distance, planes from Midway Airport took off and landed.

The executive board (which included Jose Laura and Linda Brown, remember) was aware of this sinking of the cash reserves, but had not done anything about it except to ask to see the books. Simon’s reply had been, “Don’t you trust me?” As Simon’s wife Donna was the bookkeeper, there was no way to go behind him to look at the books. Rhonda Hamilton, who knew how to do this from her work at another union, had noticed the way the money was pouring out of the hole in the budget and had drawn up some charts that illustrated what would happen if they continued to spend money at this rate. She presented these charts to the E-Board at a meeting. No one said anything, but everyone noticed and remembered.

The Dues Assessment Issue and What it Led To

In fall of 2001, Simon called a general membership meeting to make a proposal about union funds: he wanted to raise dues and take a $5 a month assessment from the members. There was no doubt that the treasury was low; Rhonda’s charts had shown that. But a dues raise was likely to be controversial; while the warehouse workers made pretty good money ($18 per hour), the manufacturing candy workers made much less, between $9 and $12 per hour. However, according to the constitution and by-laws, a dues assessment had to be submitted to a general membership meeting. This general membership meeting was to be held on a Tuesday night.

At this point, the executive board of the union consisted of: Simon Warren, Principal Officer and Secretary-Treasurer; Jose Lauro, President, from Miko; Linda Brown, from Miko; Alonzo Marks, who was the son of a previous Principal Officer, prior to Rosetti; Lorena Arrigo, who worked at Waldo Pickle; Barbie Tolman, who had worked at Grassy Dairy and now worked at Red Devil Sauces; Alberto Fosco, also the son of a previous PO, who had worked at Major Wholesale Grocery Warehouse for a couple of years before becoming a business agent and who came from the famous Fosco family which had ruled a different union for generations; and Ron Derber. All the members of the E-Board were also business agents; this means that they stayed in touch with the members by doing representation work. As business agents, they made good money – many twice or three times as much as they made in their “day” jobs. It also meant that if they got fired as business agents (which Simon, as PO, could do), they would have no livelihood. So they were indebted to Simon for their livelihood.

On the Thursday prior to the general membership meeting Simon called a staff meeting. When he told the staff about the dues increase and assessment he was planning to present at the general membership meeting, Rhonda said in a whisper to Linda, who was sitting beside her: “This isn’t right. I’ve got to do something. You don’t have to stand behind me, but I’ve got to do it.” And then she stood up and told Simon that it was wrong for him to be taking home $98,000 per year and Donna taking home another salary on top of that, and wrong for them not to show people the books, and at the same time be asking the membership to pay increased dues and an assessment. Linda stood up beside her and agreed with her.

Simon blew up and adjourned the meeting.

After this meeting, Julio, Loretta, Alonzo and Alberto got together with Rhonda at the Dunkin Donuts across the street. They knew that this was a moment that they had to move forward or lose everything; Simon could fire all of them in an instant. They contacted a lawyer, got some advice, and made a plan. It was a complicated plan that involved a lot of preparation and a confrontation.

The Good Guys Win

Simon then called an emergency meeting of just the E-Board on Sunday afternoon. Although she had the right to vote, Rhonda, who considered herself somewhat of an outsider, since she had been hired from another union, did not go. This was part of their plan. She waited at a restaurant down the street.

At the meeting, the action went like this: There were seven people at the meeting. They were Simon, Julio, Linda, Alonzo, Alberto, Barbie and Ron. First, Simon called the meeting to order. Then, Linda pulled out her tape recorder, put it on the table in full sight of everyone, and turned it on. Then she made a motion that the power to fire or suspend business agents or staff be transferred from Simon as PO to Jose as President. Someone else seconded it right away and someone else called “Vote!” and before anyone could say anything, there was a vote, four to three. Barbie and Ron voted with Simon.

Simon was dumfounded.

What had changed was that now, Simon no longer had the power to fire the Business Agents. So they were free to do what they thought was right without fear of what he could do to them.

Then Jose showed him a list of charges that they had drawn up against him: financial mismanagement and other things. Jose told Simon that they wanted him to resign, and if he didn’t resign, they were going to file those charges with the International.

Simon took a look at the charges and exploded and then stormed out of the building, with the two Business Agents who had voted on his side, Barbie and Ron, with him.

There was a moment of quiet.

Then someone phoned Rhonda who was still waiting in the restaurant. No one knew quite what they had done or not done. Rhonda was the one who from her experience in other unions had probably the best idea of strategy, although even she felt she was a bit out of her depth here.

Rhonda then came back to the union hall from the restaurant and joined the others. This was unfortunate, because until then Simon had not had any evidence that she was part of this plan. While she was sitting with the rest of the four, Simon stormed back in, raging at them all. Sensing that this was a moment when things could go either way, Rhonda acting on instinct, stood up and screamed at Simon. It worked. Simon then left again.

Now the five people sitting in the Executive Board meeting room had a lot to do. They called a locksmith and changed the locks on the union hall. They went and got the computer that was in the business office and brought it into the meeting room where they took out the hard drive. They called Simon’s wife Donna at home and tried to tell her what they had done, but Simon had obviously contacted her already she was by now drunk and wailing for sympathy.

Ron, who had walked out with Simon, came back to the hall later that afternoon while they were still there. He felt angry that he had not been included in the plan; they had to explain to him that they didn’t know him as well as they knew each other, and so they didn’t know whether he could be relied on or not. But now he joined them.

At this point, looking back on it, you could say that they had won. They got Simon to resign and they got back in control of the finances. Soon enough, Simon’s lawyer called them and they arranged a settlement.

Now they still had the general membership meeting to face; it was two nights away, Tuesday night.

The General Membership Meeting

The new leadership group worked hard together to prepare detailed explanations of what had happened so they could talk sense to the members, who either knew nothing about what had happened or else might have heard rumors.

When the members arrived, they were met by the new leadership group. The new leadership told them what had happened. Their explanations were clear and kept it simple, without blaming anyone. Simon didn’t show up and his wife Donna seemed to be gone for good.

Without much fuss, Jose, who had already been President from the last election, was confirmed to take over the role of Principle Officer and Secretary-Treasurer; Alonzo became President; Lorena, Linda, Ron, and Alberto (called “Berti”) were the E-Board.

Oddly, the members didn’t seem to care much about the change in leadership. Most of the people at the meeting were workers from the candy factories who had heard that their plants were going to close. When it came to their place on the agenda, they wanted to know about whether they’d get any severance packages and what was going to happen to their meager health benefits. They looked tired and worried. When they spoke from the floor, they talked about how they were afraid of being laid off and having no income at all. Many were grandparents who had worked at their companies for twenty or thirty years. They hadn’t earned enough to have any savings. One of them had been chosen to speak on behalf of the others, and he pleaded with the new leadership to try to negotiate good severance benefits for them. Jose, who was now PO, listened to them and said, “Trust me.”

Facing contract negotiations.

The overall goal of all the confrontation with Simon had not actually been to get an investigation at the level of the International, even though they had written up the charges and threatened to file them. There was too much anger and bitterness throughout Chicago against the International, in other words against the new reform President, who in the name of cleaning up the Chicago locals had put several other locals into trusteeship. This made Local 721’s new leaders hesitant to bring down the International on them. It might have, for example, isolated them from other locals that were more actively trying to resist the President but which had a lot of local influence. The goal of this group was much more short-term: to get Simon to resign and get back into control of the local’s finances. That goal they had accomplished. So they almost felt they could take a breather.

But now the new leadership began to appreciate the other challenges that lay ahead of them.

The problem of getting decent severance packages for the workers in the candy factories was almost overwhelming. That whole industry was going overseas, leaving empty brick buildings on the upper West Side, full of rusting equipment. The severance clauses in the contracts were pitiful. Maybe there was a way to invoke the WARN Act, though, and get some retraining money for these workers — although the workers had been worn down by years of hard, badly compensated work and were not eager to learn new trades.

At the same time, the new leadership was looking at the expiration of seven warehouse contracts: Home Bargains (represented by Jose); Wasau (represented by Alonza); Certified (Alfredo); National Foods in Glendale (Afredo); National Foods in Bensonville, also known as Wizard (Berti); Better Foods (represented by Berti), and Major Foods (represented by Ron.)

Would they be able to put together campaigns that will enable them to negotiate these contracts from a strong position? For example, Major Foods – which is the huge food supply company whose trucks you see all over the highway, that provides mass food to hotels, universities, and restaurant chains – has initiated an “incentive” system that is likely to tempt workers to compete against each other for speed in the warehouses, resulting in more injuries that will be hard to document, retirement of older workers who can’t or don’t want to keep up, and sooner or later, the establishment of new, higher work targets because Major Foods will say that the work targets achieved under the incentive system are “normal” and “minimum,” not targets at all. Think about how much investment in time and energy it will take to get these workforces to be able to bargain from a strong position under those circumstances!

Could the new team work well together? These were people with very different backgrounds and some very different characters, but they worked together. Rhonda was hopeful. She said, “We fight and argue, but it’s nothing; we’ve been through hell together.”

Our program was working with them at this point, analyzing contracts, costing proposals and getting in touch with members to distribute surveys asking what they would be willing to do, for example, to organize meetings and learn about what was coming down the pike.

But Remember the Guy Who Had Only Been to One Union Meeting Before Getting on the E-Board

But remember Jose, who had worked in the candy factory? The guy who had been a machine operator at Miko? He had only been to one union meeting before he was recruited to be on the E-Board as someone from Miko. He was a very good looking guy in his thirties, fit and attractive. At the general meeting at which he was made Principal Officer and Secretary-Treasurer, he wore a nice gray suit and a dark blue shirt with a gray tie. Since he had been taken over Simon’s position, the powers of Simon to hire and fire and oversee the treasury had been transferred to him.

So it was not a whole lot later (a matter of weeks), right in the middle of the preparation for the contract campaign, that Jose went into the bank account, took all the money, and disappeared. People said he want to Ecuador because there is no extradition agreement between the US and Ecuador.

And that was that.

End of story

Labor education used to be, like many of the outreach or extension services of land grant universities, free or so low-cost that individuals could avail themselves of it. No longer. Our program, like many others, was being directed to charge what we felt were prices comparable to prices charged for executive training programs. In other words, if an organization couldn’t pay, we were gone. So we stopped working with Local 721. I kept in touch with Rhonda for a while, but she was pretty busy and not too happy with us.

Twelve years later, I came across this story in my files. I had taken it down as notes from conversations with the people at 721 while it was happening. Some people might say that I shouldn’t post this story anywhere. They might say, for example, that the labor movement gets enough bad rap without repeating stories about mob unions. Or they might say that this is a depressing, bad story about people behaving badly and we don’t need depressing stories these days, depressing stories will only make people feel hopeless. They might say, “What’s the point? Why spread a story like that around?”

I would answer that this is a story about how hard it is to lead a good union and there are quite a number of brave people in this story who were doing the right thing in the face of heavy odds. You have not only the employers trying to push down working conditions and scaring your members as they face layoffs in old age without decent pensions and healthcare, but you have predatory organizations like mobs hovering around trying to suck out any kind of petty cash that they can get, playing nickel-and-dime power games that ultimately feed off people who are making barely enough to scrape by. It’s amazing how the smell of money, even a little bit of money, can attract the lowest of the low. But we know that – that’s how our economy works. And in the middle of that dreadful scene, you have some brave people. These brave people are willing to step forward and speak up and let people see their faces, and sometimes actually do things.
Remember how Simon just blew up and adjourned the meeting? He was a paper dragon; they confronted him and he went up in flames. His wife hit the bottle. Those were the enemies – all it took to blow them away was some careful planning and a little collective concerted activity. And then of course, when Rhonda screamed at him when he came back the second time. She screamed at him and he went away.

But how about the old man who came to the General Meeting after work that evening and stood up and spoke for the rest of the people who worked at Miko? He addressed the Executive Board, which was focused and preoccupied on how their actions were going to be perceived when they got rid of Simon, and tried to get them to look at the bigger picture: what was going to happen to all the laid-off workers at Miko? That’s the real job of the union. I remember that he stood there in his work clothes, a thin old guy, African American, with hands hanging down as he spoke, not making gestures – a tired guy. He ha brought some members with him, also in their work clothes, also looking tired. Up on the dais, Jose, in his shiny gray suit, actually said these words to them: “Trust me.” A bad sign if there ever was one.

And how about the four co-conspirators who went to the Sunday afternoon Executive Board meeting that Simon called? They had planned what they were going to do, but they didn’t know what would happen. They had spent a lot of time figuring out what to put on the list of charges against Simon. They had had to figure out exactly how to frame those charges, so that their threat to file them with the International would be credible. They were walking into a major confrontation with someone whom they were going to accuse of, effectively, stealing. They were prepared but they were taking a great risk, and whatever happened, they were going to have to stand together and push through the moment and keep their eye on ball. These were brave, thoughtful people.

How about Linda Brown, the women who pulled out the tape recorder and slammed it on the table – and turned it on? That took guts. She was probably so angry at that moment that she was shaking, and her anger overcame her fear, and somehow, she didn’t drop the tape recorder or fail to push the right button. Then she had to look up and make the motion.

And how about the motion itself, the motion to remove Simon as PO and replace him with Jose? It had to be worded right. Then the motion and the second and the vote had to go boom-boom-boom, before anyone could intervene. It had to happen very fast, and it had to happen exactly right, before Simon figured out what was going on. The co-conspirators had to be right on top of what to do next.

And how about Rhonda, waiting in the Dunkin Donuts to see what was going to happen? Imagine her sitting there with her cell phone on the table beside her. She was probably going over the list of all the things they would have to do should the move against Simon be successful: call the locksmith, change the locks, get the computer, call Donna to make sure that she knew what had happened. She was also probably trying to figure out what she would say if Simon, who didn’t as yet know that she was involved, called her from the meeting. And what would happen if the motion was successful and she decided to pretend that she hadn’t been involved – would she just show up at work the next day and act surprised? Imagine how she felt when the phone rang.

To me, this is a story about some brave people trying to carve out a space of honest representation in a universe where their ability to do so is constrained by just about every force that stands over them. Nonetheless, they try. There is a point at which their anger pushes them past boundaries that would have intimidated them in the past. It pushes them to confrontation and action. Luckily, they prepared. And then it turns out that their enemies – their personal enemies, not the system that empowers those enemies – are vulnerable because they have become over-confident and careless, and in fact it turns out they are cowards themselves.

Nothing could have prepared them, however, for what Jose did. The gray suit was a warning; his “trust me” was an even more serious warning, but there was a mistake that had been made earlier which might have avoided the calamity at the end of the story. Jose had been recruited from Miko because they needed a Latino, and he looked really good. He had social skills and people knew him. But he had only been to one union meeting. He found himself on the Executive Board, and soon enough, President of the union, without ever been active in the union.

As a labor educator, however, I would say that there was a way to prepare against this. It was a weakness in the leadership development pipeline, evidence of a lack of investment in labor education to develop a deep bench so that when there are calls for someone to step into the leadership, plenty of people are ready to do it, people who are known to the rest of the union and who have been tested in conversation and discussion. That way you don’t have to “get a Latino” at the last minute. You’ve got a half dozen already trained and tested and interested in the job.

Oh, well.

And besides, up to a point, they won, didn’t they? They got the mob out of the union, elected a Board that actually represented workers, brought in labor educators (which usually means a commitment to a certain level of internal organizing and transparency) and were working on a serious contract campaign that would involve lots of member participation.

And then the good-looking guy with the nice suit who said “Trust me” turned out to not only capable of strategic planning with his fellow union members, but was capable of pulling off a little strategic planning on his own. I imagine him in the union office at night, alone with the computer, transferring the money. I’m not exactly sure how you do this, but he did it. Maybe bit by bit.

Maybe he just went to the bank, presented his credentials, and they put the money in a bag for him. Like a robber.

I Googled Local 721 just now to see if it still exists. The most recent links are to the building on Ogden. One link says that Local 721 has 2,432 members, 9 employees, and 0 assets – zero. That was 2002. Nothing since then.

Rich Egeland: A ticket to the fight — July 20, 2015

Rich Egeland: A ticket to the fight

What I am posting below is written by a close friend of ours, Rich Egeland. We first met him when we were teaching labor education in Chicago. As you can see from this, he took advantage of just about every labor ed opportunity that came along.

Rich and I were chatting on line about his current adventures in his union, IBT (International Brotherhood of Teamsters) Local 705, which represent the over-the-road drivers, the people who drive those huge trucks all over the country. He himself drives a tanker truck. Every now and then I try to imagine what it’s like to be out on the icy roads of a Chicago winter night, or during a summer thunderstorm, driving a truck around those weather-beaten, cracked and pot-holed freeways. I asked him if he would write something about his life in the union that I could put in this blog.

His union, IBT 705 is a “live” union, not one that has been totally buried under a single regime. IBT 705 actually has elections, and people run for office, and although the activity around the elections gets intense and there are some wild stories of people engaging in physical confrontations, the newly elected leaders do take office and the old incumbents move out of the building, so union democracy actually does happen there. The energy around elections should be seen as evidence of the value placed on actual bottom-up representation of the membership.

Looking ahead at our time in Vietnam: When we talk about the need for bottom-up organizing, grassroots worker representation and all those other things that we imagine will grow out of freedom of association, it’s important to know what the unions that develop through freedom of association may actually look like. In bottom-up self-organizing and representation, the fight is likely to happen right there at the bottom. There’s nothing easy about it. It’s rough, and  education is not the magic silver bullet, either. Rich has been taking classes and now teaching classes for years; he’s got all the education you need,  but it hasn’t lessened the intensity of the fight. He brings his education into the fight and does what he can because it’s his union.

So here is a serious individual, someone who has put a life into this union, writing about his experience. It’s not full of happy anecdotes. Instead, it illustrates what I mean when I say that our system of labor relations, for all our freedom of association, is just a “ticket to the fight.” Read this as being about the fight, and what it takes.

My Union Life

Rich Egeland

Though I did not grow up in a union household, I did learn about unions from my mother and we lived those union ideals. We learned that striking a business was the last resort and one that was never to be taken lightly. We learned that workers will do their very best at their jobs because that is how they support their families. If the company fails, then they are out of work and the family suffers. We learned that an honest day’s work is fulfilling and can bring great joy to the family as they reap the benefits of the worker. Their happiness is my happiness.

She used to take us to picket lines to bring water and sandwiches to the people and made sure that we looked them in their eyes. We saw fear, hope and steadfast purpose in the eyes of these people. We saw the gratitude in their hearts when we gave them these seemingly small items. These gifts of kindness were and are appreciated and the memories of their thankfulness are still remembered by me this very day. My wife and I carried on the tradition of bringing relief items to strikers and their families even now.

My mother’s real parents died when she and her four siblings were quite young. Her older sister was about 11, she and her twin brother were about 9 and her youngest sister was less than a year old. Grandpa Joe and Grandma Edna were my mother’s aunt and uncle so they adopted the twins. If it wasn’t for the good job that grandpa had, I do not know where my mother and her brother would have ended up. By the way, Grandma Edna was a “Rosie the Riveter” at the torpedo plant in what is now the Ford City Shopping Center on the southwest side of Chicago. Grandpa used to go into negotiations knuckles first and Grandma Edna was not far behind in her work place. You didn’t mess with them.

My maternal grandfather was a truck driver (Teamsters Local 705 Freight division, my own local!) and the first time that I rode in his truck was when I was about 5 years old. The noise! The smoke from the exhaust stack! The rumbling of the powerful truck as we rode! I never felt anything like it before in my young life! My grandfather was shifting the old fashioned twin sticks and the manual steering! I knew that I wanted to be a truck driver just like him. As I grew older, I had other opportunities, some of which my grandfather never had but people like him paved the way for the following generations.

I finished high school and went to college ( and subsequently flunked out). I lived in a nice house in the suburbs of Chicago and had plenty of opportunities that others worked and fought for. Then I wanted to be independent so I got out of my parents house and started to make my way on my own.

My first real job was that of a steelworker at Ryerson Steel (Joseph T. Ryerson and Son, Inc.) and I thought that I made it! This was a real job with benefits and since I was engaged, I knew that I could start and maintain a family. It was not a union job then but it was a good place to work. This was a finished steel fabrication house as opposed to the steel making of a mill. We got the steel from the mills and processed it to our customer’s specifications.

I had lots of “capacities” (job titles) which included, “hooker”, “lander” “shearman” “burner” “craneman” and “swinger.” Job titles in the steel industry are the best too. “Hooker” and “lander” are people who bring the steel to you to process. The hooker hooks it up and sends it down the way by use of the overhead crane to the lander or someone who lands the lift. The shearman operates a machine that cuts the steel to a specific length. The burner used a torch to cuts shapes in the steel (my favorite job) as per the orders. The swinger is the truck driver who moves the trailers around and supplies the plant with delivered items.

I wanted to be a truck driver for the company but the management personnel said no. When I asked them why, they had several reasons and none of them made any sense. So I kept asking and they kept saying no.

The plant personnel were in the midst of one of several union organizing drives and I jumped in on each and every one of them. The three drives were unsuccessful and the head chopping ceremony soon followed. I was within an inch of their focus when the attitude changed.

I read the collective bargaining agreement the company had with the delivery drivers and noted that it said “all drivers” and not specifically the delivery drivers. I called the agent at Teamsters Local 705 to let him know that I was doing bargaining unit work and that I did want into the union. He kept coming up with reasons why I couldn’t so I asked others who knew about unions if it was so. It was not so, which led me to asking time and again. I’d call up the local 2-3 times a week and sometimes every day, for two years. Now, one would imagine that they would take all comers but not this guy.

One Saturday morning my foreman came up to me and lamented that they did not have any drivers available for a hot load that had to go to the main plant 16 miles away. I told him that I could take it. He asked if I had the license for it and I did so he said I want you to take this load there ASAP. I took the load to the main plant, dropped it and picked up an empty trailer and came back. I kept the paperwork too.

That Monday I called the hall and told them what I had done. Sam was incensed that I took his guys’ work but I told him that I was ordered to, and what choice did I have? That same day my superintendent called me into his office demanding why I took the load and if I didn’t like it there, I could choose a door since we don’t need a f**king union here! That’s all that I needed. I did as my boss requested of me, and I was threatened with retaliation because of my union affiliation. The following Monday I was on the street delivering the processed materials. I made it after almost 3 years of trying! I would not have made it if the foreman didn’t mess up either.

The union agent came by shortly after that and noted that I could get off of his back. That provoked me so I told him that I wanted to be shop steward. He almost dropped his cigar out of his mouth. He said that we didn’t have enough members to have a steward but I read where you have to have 29 members for an election. He could appoint one if we had less. He didn’t like that one but it was the law. He made me his “point man” so he could skirt the issue.

I became the official steward shortly after that because we had an election and a new agent was given to us. Then I became chief steward and then got onto the contract negotiating team. It was a lot to ask but the more I did the more I learned.

We were permanently replaced some years later and I ended up in the tank haul division of Local 705. I still volunteered for anything and everything that the local wanted me to do and the principal officer asked me if I wanted to go to school to learn more about unions. I leapt at the chance! The first year had about fifteen 705 members in attendance. Some of these did not finish the first semester, but I did. I asked for the next session and was granted permission to attend. The following year came and I was one of 3 members who still attended. I asked for more and was told that I could take all of the classes that I wanted just as long as I brought back good grades. All of my grades up until them were A’s so I kept going. These were certificate classes so there was no diploma.

A little while later, the National Labor College partnered with the University of Illinois at Chicago so I got the certificates translated into grades and these because credited classes. I kept going until I finally graduated with my bachelors Degree in Labor Studies in June of 2006.

I waited a year and asked the local for the Master’s program. They said yes so I completed my master’s degree in their three year time frame. I asked for the PhD program but have not heard a word since so the answer is no. That’s a real shame too but I went far further than I ever would have though possible and I can thank my grandfather for this feat.

I’ve been very busy with my degree helping anyone, anywhere and at anytime. My own local is keeping me at arms length because they are afraid that I might take over one day. My own International body holds me in disdain as they know that there is no controlling me. They do not have dirt on me so I can’t be pressured to accept their substandard ideals.

Indeed I could run my local but for now, I’m teaching classes, helping others get their jobs back when their agents don’t seem to want to. My phone rings at all hours of the day and night by people who have heard of my helping and though sometimes I am very tired, they do get the help they need whether it is my help of I can direct them to where they can get help. Sometimes it gets difficult as I work 12 hour shifts 5 nights a week but I know that it is appreciated.

I’ve gone all over the country because of my education and have taught classes at various places. It is fun and the look in the eyes of the students always amazes me. They have the same look as the strikers that I remember from way back when. I can thank people like my grandfather for this opportunity and the dedicated professors who helped me along the way. My thanks to them will be using my education and experience for others so that they too can enjoy their lives in the best way possible.

_____________

Getting Ready 23 — July 17, 2015

Getting Ready 23

Getting Ready 23

Settled into more or less a schedule.

Beautiful weather here in Vermont. Rain every few days, then the river water gets cold. A couple of days of sun heats up the water. Swimming is easy, whether down in the park where the water is warmer or up at Pikes Falls where it’s pretty cold but the waterfall is worth it. Raspberries are in, every day a quart’s worth. Blueberries will be here in the next few days. Already I can get enough for breakfast every day. The corn is now ripe as far up as Massachusetts, 3 for a dollar at Dutton’s.

Mornings, I read Angie Ngoc Tran or Tim Pringle and Simon Clark’s book, The Challenge of Transition: Trade Unions in Russia, China, and Vietnan, Palgrave Mcmillan, 2011. This is the book that we need to read. Joe found it at the UCB library and has sent for a copy for us to own, although it costs nearly $100. I will provide some excerpts from it later. Then I work on my class. I’ve done 4 draft powerpoint texts, using the textbook as required, going chapter by chapter. It will be possible to get ideas across using this textbook.

Then lots of email. I’ve sent off three papers – one to Adrienne Paavo in Canada, about the Polk women’s labor ed conference; one to Labor Studies Journal, about the big survey I did last winter of labor education programs; one to WorkingUSA about the Metro Strategy and Lave’s Communities of Practice, as organizing strategies. Lots of work, come to think of it. I have a book review to do, an article with Joe on City College for SF Bayview, and then we’re supposed to do two more Steward Updates for Union Communications before we go back to CA. Grandkids arriving in 12 days.

Talked on the phone with Katie Quan today, who gave us introductions to two people, one of them with the ILO.

Here’s something from the Valley Post website, that demonstrates how much explanation you have to include in every communication about unions in the US, due to how little people know and how much misinformation is out there:

http://valleypost.org/2015/07/18/350-workers-will-go-strike-starting-july-22

This is a website run by Eesha Williams, a local journalist and also author of a really good handbook for people who want to write effectively about the real world and get it out into the public mind – that is, journalists:

http://www.amazon.com/Grassroots-Journalism-Practical-Manual-2nd/dp/1878585630

We used his book in classes in Illinois.

Notice how in his article about the upcoming possible strike includes explanations, such as, right there in the second paragraph, “Strikes by union workers happen when a majority of workers vote to go on strike.” You might ask, did he really need to explain that? Unfortunately, yes, he did – because one of the anti-union myths that people get drummed into their heads is that unions “cause” violence and workers are “forced” to go on strike.

Also, further down: “Nonunion workers can be fired for no reason.” This is probably the biggest misapprehension of them all – that employers are somehow bound by what is “fair” and therefore can’t fire you without a good reason. Wrong. They can fire you for no reason – unless you have a union.

So Eesha manages to get this basic information into a short article about an upcoming strike. Note that he also does not give the actual name of the business, but he does explain where its money comes from: it’s a “government-funded agency.” Actually, it’s a non-profit healthcare provider. This gives him the opportunity to mention how many people in Massachusetts make over a million dollars a year and could afford to pay higher taxes, and also how prevalent suicide is, making such support urgent.

He does give the websites of both the business and the union. Usual normal mainstream journalists would give the name of the company but not the name of the union. Or they’d get the name of the union wrong, just for the fun of it. Here, he treats them even-handedly although he does quote the union organizer, Jerry Levinsky, whom I know from UALE conferences, a good guy. Nice to see his name out there!

Today, however, there’s another announcement: after 8 hours of bargaining, an agreement is reached and the strike is called off. So it worked!

http://www.seiu509.org/

The weather is great. If I don’t write anything for a while, it’s because every day is just another day like today, which is fine.

Getting Ready 22 — July 12, 2015

Getting Ready 22

Getting Ready 22

This will be about Angie Ngoc Tran’s book, Ties that Bind: Cultural Identity, Class and Law in Vietnams’ Labor Resistance. Cornell Southeast Asia Publications 2013. This is the book I needed to read, although it is too dense for me to have been able to get through before now because I didn’t know enough to have places to hang what she’s telling me. She has interviews, library research, photographs, collections of documents from both Vietnam and in the US, etc. It’s clearly the work of many, many years, maybe a lifetime of trying to understand what happened. She begins the book in the 1920’s, looking at labor protests under the French, then moves to the RVN period (1954 – 75) after the Geneva Conference, and then to the period starting in 1986 when the Doi Moi policy began. In each period, she asks:

Who were these workers? How did they rely on cultural identities (native place, gender, ethnicity, and religion) to bond with each other? How did these ties engender collective action in times of need and desperation? What role did skill levels play in labor mobilization? With regard to class, were workers aware of belonging to a working class with shared interests, and if so, when did they become aware of this? What were their forms of protest, including forms of protest based on knowledge of an use of law? (page 63).

This is a book I should read more than once. In order to get a grasp of it, I am reading it with two concerns in mind, for starters.

One, I’m noting that she’s got some focus on the textile industry. That happens to be important to me because I worked for UNITE (before it merged into UNITE HERE and then split again) in Philadelphia, a city that had at one time been a major textile and garment industry center. This was in 1998-99. Even at that time, we were losing shops every week. What I was told was that in the 1970s the Joint Board (a collection of local unions) had 30,000 members. By the time I was working there, it was down to 1,200 and dropping. Elsewhere I have described the beautiful things that people made in those shops: alligator handbags, Sunday bonnets, men’s full-length cashmere winter coats, drum major’s top hats. Some of the people in those shops were third generation, sometimes working side by side, mothers and sons and daughters. To them, the union was the world of their life. But it was draining away – to Vietnam, and now I see how. In the 1960s’, working with the AFL-CIO and the CIA, the US gave a loan of $6 million AID money to Chinese-American and Taiwanese business owners to set up textile factory in Vietnam – this is just one example, a factory where there was a huge strike that led to a general strike in 1964. The US agency was called USOM (US Operations Mission). It worked with a right wing Vietnamese union, the leadership of which tried to get “militarized” – meaning armed? –  in order to be part of the fight against the communists who were coming from the North. The commnists came to work in factories as cadre and do organizing. Not only US money and “technical assistance” was given to get the textile industry going in Vietnam, but actual tools and equipment were sent over. (Problem: Vietnam had a huge long history of textile manufacture – why did they need US assistance? Probably to modernize. Also, it wasn’t the Vietnamese who needed the industry; it was the Chinese-American and Taiwanese business owners, and their investors, who saw the opportunity and took it.)

So that’s where our industry was going, along with a whole lot of money, and it turned into a war.

The other thing I am looking for is organizing tactics. These organizers were really courageous. There seem to have been about 5 different labor unions or labor confederations in Vietnam in the 1960s (this is when “the war” as we know it was heating up). They are identified as right-wing, anti-communist, left-leaning, communist, etc. The communists were coming from the north, getting jobs undercover in factories, and doing organizing. They would be thrown in jail when exposed, or would have to move on to another factory. They learned multiple languages to speak to different ethnic groups and across dialects. They studied, produced newspapers (changing the name of the newspaper but keeping the same initial letters of the name) and propaganda material, and had women’s and men’s sections. There were also Catholic socialists who would be described as left-leaning.

Some of Trans’ interviews with older cadre who were part of this sound like organizers here. One guy whom she interviewed says:

In Vimytex, as an electrician, I had the opportunity to roam freely around the factory to fix electrical problems, and interact with about 1800 workers…(page 94)

When we’re doing a labor ed class here, and we do the “Mapping your workplace” exercise in order to help people figure out who can communicate with other workers and which workers are going to be hard to reach, we always discover electricians or other skilled utility/maintenance workers who move around the workplace. Or they might be people doing photocopying or delivering mail or emptying wastebaskets, too. So that’s not all that different.

But in the next sentence, he says:

Tran Khai Nguyen (the direct leader of Luru Que) was also an electrician, who established the first communist cell in this factory. But he got caught and (was) tortured to death in Hoa Hoa military detention center (94).

So reading this book does not help me answer my question, “What are we supposed to be teaching? What do they need from us?”

Tran talks about a “class moment,” by which she means “the process that participants undergo when discovering class consciousness during protests” (86). She is still asking about the role of cultural identities in this process, distinguishing between cultural identity solidarity (Polyani – type) and class solidarity (Marxist). I too have tried to look closely at that moment, although I haven’t called it a class moment. I would argue that “discovering class consciousness” is actually learning, so I would call it a learning moment, not a class moment. I would say that what you learn is about class. Using Activity Theory (all this is in my book, in great detail), I would say that what she calls a “class moment” is that moment when the differences of class become sufficiently visible to the learner that they cannot avoid recognizing them, breaking away any false consciousness that they may be invested in. (Tran talks about “thick” and “thin” false consciousness on page 62, “thick” being when the worker sincerely adopts the ideology of the employer and believes that they and he are on the same side; “thin” being when the worker pretends to agree with the employer’s ideology.) I would say that a “class moment” happens when, speaking in Activity Theory terms, the two opposing activity systems become visible, and the “subject” – in the sense of actor, first person, “I” – can see what he or she (or they, since it’s collective) are up against. Sometimes, when the two systems become visible, they are all laid out there including the history, the communities from which they sprung, their laws, customs, resources and above all their purposes. And you can figure out what side you’re on. Other times, it’s just a sudden hint that makes everything clear, producing the moment when someone says, “Oh, I see. I get it.” Like when your boyfriend breaks up with you and you finally realize, “Oh, you really don’t love me, do you? Hmmm, guess I’d better get going.” A moment of clarity.

It’s like the first time you walk into someone’s house who is really rich – really, really rich, and you see that they apparently think it’s necessary to have whole rooms with nothing in them, or a six-car garage, or a “home theater” or a extra apartment for a live-in maid. You say, “Wow, I get it.”  This is what you think you actually need, wow.

Another moment when the whole thing was laid out for me, unfortunately, was when I marched in the Labor Day Parade in Iowa in about 1996. The parade was made up of union workers, all strutting their tools, uniforms, vehicles and flags. The electricians unfortunately had dressed up some of their members as rats, complete with pointy face masks with whiskers. Rats represent scabs, and they had the rats running along beside the float and the good union electricians in their uniforms stood on the floats and pretended to bash the rats with baseball bats. The idea is that the rats were stealing union jobs. Well, the parade took a long route from the State Capitol to the State Fairgrounds, through a poor and immigrant neighborhood. The street was lined with people who showed clearly the impact of joblessness or lack of decent healthcare on their faces and bodies. Lots of Asians and Latinos but also poor whites. I don’t remember many African-Americans, come to think of it. The houses were sagging and the yards were full of weeds. Some people had brought chairs, especially wheelchairs, out onto front porches. Here and there was someone holding a sign: “Lost my retirement,” or “No health insurance.” These were definitely people who lacked union jobs and would probably take anything in order to eat. Imagine how the rats looked from their point of view. The marchers in the parade even threw penny candy and kids scrambled in the street to pick it up.

Eventually the parade wound up at the State Fairgrounds and everyone got sodas and hot dogs. The crowd milling around the food tables testified to the preciousness of union-negotiated benefits: kids with braces and glasses and fancy sneakers, wives wearing tennis skirts that showed off long, strong legs, sandals that showcased pedicures. Shiny pickups in the parking lot. No one in a wheelchair. No one even looked old.

Nasty choreography, but a “class moment,” for sure, although this one was not in a protest. I guess that most of them time, you have to wait for a protest to see a class moment. But in reality, they’re choreographed all the time, sometimes by a parade organized by the Big Labor, sometimes by the guardhouse at the entrance to a gated community, sometimes by a red-lined neighborhood or a city limits sign. Go to a theater performance where the tickets cost $40 or $90 each and it’s all middle-aged white folks; that’s a class moment, too.

Now that we have our specific assignments, we know what we are supposed to look like we’re teaching. In the meantime, I’ll keep reading.

Getting Ready 21 —

Getting Ready 21

Getting Ready 21

I had sent an email to VInh, asking her as clearly as I could about how the assigned textbooks (the ones listed on their week-by-week curriculum) are going to be used.  Would the students each get a copy of the book to read? Or a photocopy? Or a translation? Or should we teach about the book, critically, situating it (who publishes this kind of book, who buys it, who reads it, what’s it for? For whom, by whom, and for what purpose? etc.)? Or are we supposed to “teach the book” itself, replacing students actually reading the book itself by reproducing it for them?

Originally, the only book in English on my class’s reading list was Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, and I wrote up a critique of it (it’s about how to sell things to people) and sent the critique, along with a some other ideas about how to teach leadership, to Vinh. It would have been hard for me to teach Dale Carnegie without critiquing it. For example, there was a whole section in which John D Rockefeller tries to placate a committee of workers following the Ludlow Massacre by talking sweetly to them, and according to Carnegie, he succeeds. It’s supposedly an example of winning people over.

Then we received a revised curriculum with different books on it.  When she first sent this replacement curriculum I got the two books listed for my class, one by Peter Northouse book and one by Robert Palestini,  via the Link system of the Berkeley public library.

I  read both of the books. The Robert Palestini book is not a good book for a college class. It is not a good book at all, in fact. I think it might have been his dissertation, but it would not have been a good dissertation. It has the aura of a quickie job for an online EDD program, something from University of Phoenix. I’ve read a few of these recently. They look like dissertations, with all the bells and whistles, but they have crummy research questions and don’t produce any new knowledge.  Palestini 10 interviews with football coaches, both college football and professional football. He sets up four “models” of leadership and then tells us which model matches the behavior of each coach. But football coaches are not good examples of leaders, especially not for students who are trying to learn how to take responsibility in a workplace and advocate for workers. Coaches have coercive power over their team members, can threaten them with loss of funding for school, and are famous for abusing students, including sexual abuse in at least one case, Joe Paterno from Penn State, who made headlines last year. Paterno is included in Palestini’s book. To me, college football is a kind of violent show business that is irrelevant to getting an education, and the coaches are simply the managers or bosses of those programs. This has nothing to do with leadership.

The other book, Introduction to Leadership: Concepts and Practice, by Peter Northouse (Sage), was better. However, what I got from the library is the 2009 edition, not the 2015 edition. It was a kind of workbook with exercises in each of the ten chapters which help the student evaluate and assess their own leadership qualities. These exercises looked like fun. It would provoke some good discussions in a freshman communications class. However, all the examples or leaders are from the US (except Nelson Mandela). The biographies are too short to really give an idea of why the person is considered a leader. For example, the bio of Mandela tell us that he endured prison with a good spirit, but never explains why he was in prison in the first place. Third, as usual, the author seems to think that “leader” is synonymous with “manager” or “employer.” Northouse says things like, “The leader’s employees…” or “As a leader, you will want your employees …” If you are an HR manager, you may think of what you are doing as leadership, but you are really managing them, not leading. Leading, in a union context, cannot be ultimately coercive. Union members are not employees. This is an entirely different relationship.

So I read both books and returned them to the library, thinking, “There has been a mistake here.” Then we got an email from VInh today, reinforcing that we are to teach the books listed on the revised curriculum and explaining how to do it. Specifically, I am to teach Northouse’s Leadership Theory and Practice (a 2015, not the 2009 edition) and Joe is to teach Gass and Seiten’s Social Influence and Compliance Gaining. We are to “teach the book”, meaning follow the text chapter by chapter. We are to create powerpoints and send them to Vinh a few sessions in advance and she will translate them. Yes, they want us to use these books.

So I now am ordering  the 2015 edition from the publisher, for about $99, including shipping. When it arrives, I will work up a set of powerpoints that follow the book. Joe is trying to order the Gass and Seiten book. There is a mix-up there because the vendor won’t send to a PO box, and here in rural Vermont, people who live in the village all use PO boxes. You only get RFD if you live out in the mountains. His book also costs about $100.

Well, from one point of view, it’s a lot less work than writing my own class, which was what I thought I was supposed to do. I had actually drafted 9 sessions of a class and sent it to Vinh last May. I probably wasn’t clear about what I wanted her to do, and come to think of it, it probably isn’t her job to do what I wanted her to do.

However, what this probably means is that we do an enormous amount of informal interacting of one sort or another, which is fine and may be more important anyway.

As soon as I get a chance I’ll summarize what I’ve read of the Angie Ngoc Tran book (I’m on page 99) which tells me, basically, that the Vietnamese have a vast amount of history and experience doing organizing under very harsh conditions. The closest I can imagine from US history is the CIO organizing during the 1930s, or maybe the IWW. So it’s not as if they don’t already know what goes on.

We are in Vermont now, settled into the house on Factory Street, walking around the town and saying hello to people. We were last here in April, when we came up from NYC on the train after the AAUP conference. Areas around the house that were cleared down to the dirt, and left bare then, are now waist-high in ferns, Queen Anne’s Lace and raspberry stalks.

Getting Ready 20 —

Getting Ready 20

Getting Ready 20

Sitting in lobby of non-descript hotel in Windsor Locks, Connecticut. Landed at Bradley last night on Southwest after leaving Oakland an hour late, followed by sitting on the tar mac in Chicago for at least one extra hour, so went to bed about 3 am. Going up to Vermont on AMTRAK which comes through Windsor Locks at 2:30 his afternoon. We continue to experiment with ways to get from California to Vermont without having a car or a place to park a car near an airport. Adventures in transportation.

So far, all the people we have dealt with have been great. People are great; weather is hot and humid; planes, trains and automobiles are something to get past.

I have been reading two books, one to sharpen my sense of anticipation, the other to clear my mind. The first is Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle. The cheerful, outgoing, enthusiastic tone in which he describes his adventures is an inspiration and a model. He is so interested in the world that he will undergo nearly any discomfort – cold nights sleeping on the ground in the Cordillera, high winds that would blow you off a mountain trek, earthquakes, meals made of strange animal parts, seasickness –to find out what’s around the next corner. On this voyage, he’s primarily a geologist, but his eye sweeps not only the coastline and the ridges of mountains (and he can evidently see them flow into the forms they take today, from what they were millions of years ago, so that we see them too, in fast motion like an animated cartoon) but everything under his feet as well. And he tells us what he hears: for example, the sudden absence of birdsong when he walks from the sunlit edge of a forest into the dark old growth.

Darwin’s job is to see what is there and note it. Literally, that’s his job assignment, his ticket aboard the Beagle. But there are lessons to learn about organizing your research, too. The famous story of the beaks of the finches on the Galapagos is a sharp lesson in the importance of getting your categories right – if your categories go wrong, you can be blinded to what’s there. “Once off the path, your wanderings are endless,” said someone, probably Lao Tze. Darwin notices differences among the beaks, but it is only when someone suggests to him in a chance conversation that the differences correspond to the different islands where he collected the birds (yes, he kills them and takes them back to the Beagle to study them; he kills lots of creatures) that he realizes that he has nearly lost an important piece of information, because he has not been tagging them by island; he’s just been putting all the finches together in one bag. This was one of the critical moments in the development of the theory of evolution, although he didn’t come up with that until later. Mixing up the finches would have destroyed the evidence that the shapes of the beaks corresponded to different islands. As it turns out, he’s only half way through sorting the finches, so the category of the island of origin isn’t lost. But it was close.

The other book is Ursula LeGuin, The Dispossessed, which I read every 10 or 15 years to see what it can tell me. Talk about great books! Written in the early 19970s, published in 1974, middle of the Cold War, early in the embargo against Cuba but during the Vietnam war, it’s about life in an anarchist society on a moon, Annares, which circles a planet, Urras, that feels a lot like Europe. It focuses on the life and work of a physicist, Savek, and his wife and children. He is a creative genius, an Einstein (who figures as someone named Aisenstain who lived 400 years ago on the planet Terra) who is working on a general Theory of Simultaneity, a mathematics that bridges time and space. This book gives you the society of Annares, warts and all, famines, work assignments, children’s dormitories, even to letting us see a public debate about whether or not Savek should be allowed to visit Urras, where he might share his invention.

LeGuin, the daughter of Theodore Kroeber the anthropologist and friend of Ishi, the last California Indian, creates both whole social worlds, complete with histories, in her novels and requires her characters to move through them, encountering every privilege and tribulation that they embody. She imagines the world and then visualizes them. Every time I think, “How is she going to get out of this fix?” she is able to find a way.

Speaking of books, we sent a long list of the titles of maybe 60 books to Vinh, saying that these were books that we would try to bring to Vietnam. They are all contemporary labor books, lots of steward training, organizing manuals, bargaining handbooks, some about low wage labor and global trade. All very bottom-up stuff. We asked her to mark which ones they had or which ones she thinks they’d like. The list came back almost overnight, with many books marked priority #1 and #2. Books specifically about US labor law were not what interested her, but she marked nearly all of the other ones. I was very heartened by her choices. It sounds as if she wants basically all the same kind of stuff that we use in our classes here.

We sent the same list to George Saxton who had said he would pass it to the State Department to see what books he might be able to along on his delegation in November. He warned me that he has no storage and no transportation, so that may not work. We will have to spread as many books as we can around our luggage, keeping under the 50 pounds limit.

Now we’re on the train, going through miles after mile of green fields and forests, up to Vermont. The farther we go, the cooler it gets. However, it would still be nice to have an ice cream sandwich. I go to the café car to see what they’ve got for ice cream: nothing. The attendant says that the train loses power so frequently that anything frozen would melt and have to be dumped.

Getting Ready 19 — July 5, 2015

Getting Ready 19

Getting Ready 19

I was sent a video https://vimeo.com/126371846

August, 2012: Miners at the Lonmins platinum mine in Marakana, South Africa are represented by the NUM, National Union of Miners, which has been MIA from the point of view of the miners. Workers want wage increases and ask to negotiate with employers. There’s a minority union, AMCU, that represents workers at other mines. The Lonmins miners strike. The employer won’t negotiate, won’t speak. Strikers retreat to a “mountain,” a rock outcropping on communal land within view of the mine. The police, at a high government level, and the mine owners, collude. That is, the government, using the police, and the mine owners collude. Some government officials, including those who had been activists in the age of Mandela, are shareholders in the mine if not actually board members. The film uses evidence made available through a Commission of Inquiry, including police footage and footage captured by journalists, plus footage of the inquiry and interviews. One of the journalists who is credited with some of the footage is also visible in the police videos, walking among the strikers with all his cameras.

The miners are armed with sticks and short spears and wear blankets, if they have them. They also sing.

The police basically trap them and massacre 34 of them on August 16.

If you want to see footage of dramatic moments of choice, eloquence, and courage, watch this film. We’ve heard of moments like the ones where the striking miners in West Virginia knelt in the face of armed police; this is a film full of moments like that, and more.

Facing the inquiry later, the people responsible – commissioners of police, etc – respond like corpses as if their skin, right down to the bones, has gone cold. They are like well-dressed dead people.

There was Ford Foundation money in the making of this film: JustFilms and WorldView. There’s a facilitators guide put out by the National Union of Metalworkers SA, which I will try to get. Manny Ness, who was on the list of some 60 people who got the email, said that the director’s name is Rehad Desai; he is also an activist in the Democratic Left Front, which supports a socialist transformation of South Africa. He is at rehad@icon.co.za

After the massacre, workers continued striking for 4 weeks, got wage increases of 7% to 22%, and started a wave of wildcat strikes throughout the country.

When something is so emotionally moving that I have to scramble to keep it in focus so I can calm down to think about it, I usually find some part of it to replay slowly several times in my mind, to analyze. In this case I’m thinking of the speech made to the striking miners by the AMCU leader, who comes to them where they are sitting (maybe 1000 of them?) on “the mountain,” the rock outcropping, the morning after he has been on the radio in a conversation with a spokesperson for Lonmins and the president of the NUM. In that broadcast, which is included in the movie, it certainly sounds as if all three – the representative of Lonmins, and the presidents of NUM and AMCU – have agreed to go to the strikers and, in return for them agreeing to go back to work, start to hear their grievances and negotiate. The Lonmins representative does not show up. The president of the NUM comes, but does not get out of the big truck – some kind of armored vehicle driven by the police. He speaks through a loudspeaker and then leaves. The president of the AMCU gets out and comes toward the strikers. He speaks. They speak back and forth. They talk. At one point, he falls on his knees before them. The exchange between them creates a shift in the stalemate and makes it seem as if there can be movement toward negotiation. Thinking about this speech makes me want to cry.

Another thing to look at is the way the striking miners walk together. They crouch a little, as if they are dancing. They’re holding their weapons, spears and sticks, so it reminds the Western observer (me) of images of men dancing a dance about hunting. But they walk in a line, several abreast, and the line straggles out for hundreds of yards. They keep the line at one point in the film despite being bombarded with tear gas. Later, they are in a line like this when the police start shooting at them.

Take a deep breath. What if we looked at this film and asked, “What does ‘social dialog’ mean?” That’s a term that is used often in the curriculum we are working with in our Vietnam classes. I think they use “social dialog” to mean negotiation.  Dialog means people talking to each other. What does talking to each other look like? What the AMCU leader does is an example of talking. Yes, surrounded by guns. How does the idea of ‘social dialog’ accommodate the possibility of guns?

Also starting to read Angie Ngoc Tran’s big powerful book.

I’m wrapping up doctors’ appointments (cardio, PT, onco, eyes, pharmacy, etc etc etc because I am 71 years old these days and shit happens), ordering prescriptions, putting stuff into boxes to store so that the tenants, Katy and James, can use our closet while we’re gone for 6 months.

From across the hall I can hear wild cheering from Joe’s study; he’s listening to the Madison rally for Bernie Sanders. Sounds like a lot of really mad, happy people. We’ll see. Bernie has drawn huge crowds, but gets hardly any mention in the newspapers, which are obsessed with Hilary Clinton.

Before dinner, I go down to the gym. It’s the 4th of July and a guy who finished up about the same time I do says, “Happy Fourth of July.”

I say, “What are we celebrating?” I’m thinking of “Bombs Bursting in Air,” and a recent email by Mike Eisenscher at USLAW about the war economy.

“Freedom and independence,” he says. “That’s what I came to the US for.”

He came from Vietnam. He tells me that when the Communists came, they took all the books in his house and burned them on the front lawn. He got here through a program that let people who had been in prison for more than three years to come to the US with their families. He said they had 14 houses in Saigon, stolen by the Communists, and the price of bribing the officials to get the houses back was nearly as much as the houses brought on the market once they were able to sell them.

He now teaches at Berkeley and has an office on 4th Street.

I told him what we were going to do in Ho Chi Minh City at Ton Duc Thang University. “We’re going to teach labor relations.” He seemed to think we might do some good. He said that a big problem in Vietnam now, at work, was sexual harassment.

He noted that the President of Vietnam is in Washington right now, meeting with Obama. “It’s a chess game,” he said. They are trying to surround China. He used a word from Kung Fu to describe why the Chinese are building these islands right in the middle of the sea off shore Vietnam. The gesture he made, of striking someone in the hip and knocking them off balance, said it all.

We exchanged contact information.

Sometimes I sit in the front yard, or in the back yard, and can’t imagine why I would ever want to leave and go anywhere.

Getting Ready 18 — July 1, 2015

Getting Ready 18

Getting Ready 18

Actually rented a car, a little white thing. Drove the 400 or so miles down the Central Valley to LA. Haven’t done this for years, not since we came back to California from Illinois in 2010 and went car-free. We usually go by train, taking the San Joaquin 715 from Emeryville or Richmond, a beautiful ride along the Delta. They have tables, wifi, big windows and a café car that is well-stocked at least on the way down, less so on the way up when they don’t have time between runs. The train tracks end in Bakersfield and you have to get on a bus to go over the Tehachapi, but that’s not really as bad as it sounds. Union Station in downtown LA is big, old and beautiful, as good as a movie set, and on your way to catch the city bus to Jake’s house you can walk through Olivera Street.

But this time, since we had a lot of visits to accomplish, we drove. Turns out in retrospect we could have done everything on public transportation, virtually door to door. The Metro goes into Long Beach, stops 50 yards from where Hollis and Leanna live.

Yes, we saw orchards going dry, a hillside of fruit trees starting to lose their leaves, and fields where rows of trees were pushed down, roots in the air, dead branches tangled. Further down, dead branches cut and stacked. The California Aqueduct, full of water, cris-crossed Highway 5. Hand-painted signs saying “Water = Jobs!” and “No water, means higher food prices!” All of which are true, but not the point. And then there would be fields full of rich green stuff. Someone’s getting water, but not the next guy.

Stayed one night with Mona and Martin in Eagle Rock and then headed south to Long Beach where we planned to, and in fact did, engage in a nearly 24-hour marathon conversation with Hollis Stewart and Leanna Noble. They are our predecessors at Ton Duc Thang. They were actually the first pair of labor educators invited to come there to try to teach. They were able to describe and explain things that others have not been able to explain and correct many mis-impressions that we had.

It is not going to be possible for me to capture the twists and turns of this conversation, which included many references to Max Elbaum’s Revolution in the Air and other historical markers. Joe and Leanna, and probably Hollis too, go way back, although Hollis is from Arizona and did his early political work in community organizing. However, I can say that by the time we left mid-day on Saturday, I felt as if I understood what their experience in Vietnam has been. My experience might be very similar, or maybe not. One thing that is different they are both union-based and community-organization based labor educators, not academic labor educators. I count as an academic even though I never actually studied labor, or labor history, or labor studies or any of this history-related social science in a formal way. I got my labor education from people around me who were involved in a movement but I applied it in University extension teaching. Yes, there were a few union-based classes that I attended: The AFL-CIO Organizing Institute, for example, and a great week-long AFT Summer Leadership Institute, and a couple of UALE Women’s Schools. But my political education has been essentially crowd-sourced.

A funny story: when I first got involved in the union at Peralta, in Oakland, I realized that I knew practically nothing about what everyone else seemed to know, which included the history of the US, the California legislative process, and anything about labor. So I went out and bought a book – Hobbs, Locke and Mill, actually, a huge hardback volume with a dark blue cover and the title in gold. I never finished reading it. Instead, I worked with a team organizing part-time faculty up and down the state. About the same time I was teaching an English 1-A class at Peralta. It was a summer school class that met every day, full of great people – a Nigerian woman, Vietnam vets (this would have been in the 1980s), single moms on AFDC, Oakland blacks, Asian girls – and one skinny white woman who always wore a shabby raincoat, sat in the back row and let her hair fall over her eyes. After a few days I began to really count on this person because after the discussion bounced around the class for a while, she would always come up with the best, clearest possible way of expressing the issue and offering a next step. But this seemed to make her uncomfortable. A few days she would skip class, then show up, then skip some more. One time when she did show up I chased after her after class and said, “Your comments in class are really good – who are you, where do you come from?” She was trying to walk away from me but said, “I can tell what you’re trying to do, but you really need to read Freire.” At that point, I had never heard of Freire.

After that, she never came back to class. I have always assumed that she was one of the Weather Underground people who had spread out all over the country and were trying to start new identities. Talking to me was the last thing she needed. But this is what I mean by crowd-sourced. People tell me things.

Joe, Leanna, Hollis and I agreed that next spring we would propose giving a workshop on labor in Vietnam at Labor notes and at the UALE annual conference.

On Leanna’s advice, I am going to take a different approach to my class. It’s not going to be the story-based approach. I had been planning to find or create a set of stories illustrating aspects of leadership, and build discussion questions around those. But one of the problems with doing it that way are that the stories that I’ve come up with – Wagner Dodge, the firefighter, who lost 15 out of 17 men in a wildfire; Machiavelli; King Lear, some others – are mostly stories that are critical of leadership. They are good tools for figuring out whether the person who is in charge of your project, or your life or your army, deserves your allegiance. This is not what is going to be useful in this class. In this class, people need to recognize and practice positive leadership behavior.

So Leanna suggested using my book, treating the various case studies not as illustrations of how people learn solidarity and class consciousness, which is what they are in the book, but as stories in which different people play different leadership roles. I tried looking at the power plant chapter that way, and saw that there were plenty of ways in that chapter that different people took different leadership roles. All identifiable actions, with consequences.I even have photos.

Nancy Augustine, who was the shop chair at Osan Brothers in Boyertown when I worked in Philadelphia at what was then UNITE, just happened to call me that very morning – at 8 am, which was early for me, but it was 11 am for her in Philadelphia. Nancy was the young woman who led the action that forced the boss to pay people their vacation money. I dedicated my book to her and to Penny Pixler, of whom more another time. Osan made pants – thousands of pairs of men’s pants. They employed about 125 people. The two brothers who owned and ran the factory were really low-life characters, as many owners and supervisors were in shops that were just barely limping along in a dying industry. Nancy led this action, and then lost her job in a layoff (the factory re-opened making American flags) and wound up working in a non-union grocery store.

I’m going to use the story of her leading that action in my class. People were angry and upset, actually in tears, when they got the news about their vacation pay. She reserved a VFW hall on a river out of town (a good place for a bar), and sent around a call to bring people there on Saturday afternoon. I brought boxes of union T-shirts up from Philly and met her there, along with the BA for that shop, an older guy with a terrible cough. I can go look up his name; I think it was Jerry. He was a good guy who had been a real old-style organizer back in the day. He was excited – he said, “This makes me feel alive again.” Out of 125 workers, at least 50 showed up at the VFW hall.

The main characteristic of them was that they were fearful. Fearful of talking, having an opinion, doing anything – but they were also between a rock and a hard place. Traditionally, the shop – all the garment shops – would close during the first two weeks of July and worker would get paid for the two weeks in advance. People made reservations down at “the shore,” meaning along the Atlantic coast in New Jersey and Maryland, in RV parks and campsites, and paid deposits, and looked forward all year for a time of not going to work. But the brothers, this time, said they couldn’t pay two weeks, only one. That meant people wouldn’t have enough money to go on vacation. They’d have to cancel their reservations and lose their deposits. This was like driving full speed head on into a brick wall. What would the kids do on the hot summer days? The alternative was to express displeasure. But for a fearful individual, expressing displeasure is terrifying. Nancy started the meeting, talked, walked up and down in front of them, told the whole story – how much money the Osan brothers were making, the big house they’d just bought, the effect on everyone’s families if they had to cancel vacations, what the Osan’s might do next time if we let them do this, and how different it would be if everyone stuck together. Sticking together meant wearing a union T-shirt on Monday. One point she made was that two weeks’ vacation pay was in the contract – all they wanted was for Osan to honor the contract. She talked for 20 minutes or more. I didn’t talk – I sat there in the back with my heart in my mouth. Neither did Jerry (I think the old BA’s name was Jerry.) We watched. But when Nancy held up a black T-shirt that said UNITE on it in red, Jerry and I stood up and held up more T-shirts.

“Don’t you want to wear one of these on Monday?” Nancy was saying. Maybe one or two people said yes. Then more. Eventually, everyone took one – “Here’s another one – give it to someone who wasn’t here today and tell them to wear it on Monday.” People took two. As they walked out and went to their cars, they were holding up the T-shirts and trying them on.

On Monday, Nancy called me, ecstatic. Most people had worn their T-shirts. As garment workers, they not only wore them but decorated them – ribbons, cut-offs to reveal navels, sleeves slashed and fringed. Nancy said that the Osan brothers opened the door of their office and looked out at the shop and said, “Oh shit.” And slammed the door.

What happened next was a bit ugly. Vince Osan called a meeting. At the meeting (I was there) he pled poor, warned people that he’d have to close the shop, told them that they should be grateful to have a job. Then Nancy spoke, and reminded people that all we were doing was asking them to honor the contract. Then there was a vote: yellow ballots with YES or NO on them. The way Nancy framed it, the question was, “Should Osan honor the contract?” We counted the ballots right then and there. The YES vote won.

Osan paid the full two-weeks vacation money, but it wasn’t over yet. Lynn, the daughter of John Fox, the President of the Union, was eager to be in charge and wanted to make everything nice. She was also the vice-president which means she was the person slated to step in when John retired. He had written a constitutional amendment to make sure that the vice-president became president if he retired mid-term.  Lynn came up to Boyertown and tried to make it seem as if the vote hadn’t taken place. But it had. Nancy, I and Jerry were all in that meeting and Nancy caught Osan lying a couple of times and actually confronted Lynn, too.

No happy endings to a story about a labor dispute in a dying industry, where everyone is making less money than they need to live decently and the Osan’s themselves were not really getting rich . But the morning of the black T-shirts, when scared people did something brave, and the morning of the votes, when the same people wrote down “Yes” and told the boss he had to honor the contract, were a big deal. It was possible to say, “We won.” Jerry, who died only two weeks later (he was a compulsive smoker and had had raging lung cancer for a long time but avoided doctors) said it was the happiest moment he could remember.

That shop where Nancy worked is not all that different from the shops in Vietnam, and one of the things that Vietnamese workers experience is failure to pay their Tet holiday money that enables them to travel home to their villages.