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.