Jul 282014

onaschoutsmall  by Bill Onasch

Gathering for Fifteen and a Union
Fast Food is the fastest growing industry in American economic “recovery.” Most of its workers are scheduled for less than forty hours a week. The big majority are at or near the minimum wage. Virtually none have benefits such as health insurance, vacations, sick pay, or pensions. Most are so poor they are eligible for public assistance such as Food Stamps and Medicaid–and are encouraged by their employers to use these programs to subsidize the labor costs of highly profitable corporations. These issues led Fast Food workers across the USA to periodically strike and demonstrate over the past two years–and they sent delegates to a gathering in suburban Chicago this past weekend to plan the next phase of their fight.

An AP story opened,

“Comparing their campaign to the civil rights movement, fast food workers from across the country voted Saturday to escalate their efforts for $15-an-hour pay and union membership to include nonviolent civil disobedience. More than 1,300 workers gathered in a convention center in [Chicago suburb] Villa Park to discuss the future of a campaign that has spread to dozens of cities in less than two years. Wearing T-shirts that said ‘Fight for $15′ and ‘We Are Worth More,’ the workers cheered loudly and said they would win if they stuck together.”

Latoya Caldwell, a mother of four from Kansas City, was there. She has to work six days a week at Wendy’s to get in forty hours at 7.50 per. She can’t pay all of her bills on time out of her weekly check. That’s why she’s already been on short strikes three times.

Another worker interviewed by AP was Cherri Delisline, a 27-year-old single mother from Charleston, South Carolina, who already has worked a decade at McDonald’s–and earns 7.35 an hour, ten cents over the current Federal minimum wage. This sister had some definite ideas,

“I personally think we need to get more workers involved and shut these businesses down until they listen to us. To have a livable wage, it’s going to need to be $15 an hour. We make the owners enough money that they have houses and cars and their kids are taken care of. Why don’t (they) make sure I can be able to do the same for my kids and my family?”

Sister Delisline basically answered her own question. The bosses don’t have to do anything for a lone complainer–there’s plenty of desperate workers in line even for her low wage, no benefits job. But when all the workers organize for action–and get strong solidarity backing from working class consumers in the community–it’s a different story. Fifteen and a Union can become a reality. Among the Whatever It Takes tactics discussed in Chicago in addition to civil disobedience were more stay-away strikes of longer duration–and even sit-down occupations of their workplaces.

Readers familiar with American labor history will recognize these are “old school,” reminders of not only the mass civil rights movement of the 1950-60s that broke down racial segregation in stores, eating places, and public transportation but also the 1934 turning point strikes discussed in the last WIR, as well as the Flint sit-downs that paved the way for the first UAW national contract with General Motors. But these successes were so long ago abandoned by the mainstream union and civil rights movements that they now appear to be the Next Big Thing to the generations powering Fifteen and a Union Now.

In some areas the IWW has carried out impressive campaigns among workers at Starbucks and Jimmy John’s. The Retail, Wholesale & Department Store Workers recently won a representation election at a Subway in Bloomsbury, New Jersey and is fighting for a first contract. But SEIU, often collaborating with local Worker Centers and groups such as Jobs with Justice, is the main backer of the inspiring Fast Food strikes and demonstrations represented in Chicago.

This is a welcome departure from the strategy of the previous Andy Stern regime in that union. In his book A Country That Works, Stern dismissively wrote “class struggle mentality is a vestige of an earlier era.” Stern concentrated on convincing corporate management at the highest level that agreeing to recognize SEIU for at least a portion of their national workforce would bring “value added” for both sides. Such private sector deals he cut mostly fell apart; none did much for the wages and conditions of these “organized” workers.

When Stern decided to retire, offering his services to the Obama administration, he expected his designated replacement would be easily confirmed to carry on his new strategy. Much to the shock of many, Mary Kay Henry was instead elected the new SEIU president. She has been somewhat more open to “vestiges of an earlier era.” In keynote remarks to the conference Henry got loud approval when she said,

“A selfish few at the top are using their power to hold down wages, no matter how much that hurts families and communities across the country.”

An important companion to the Fast Food struggle is the movement promoting a fifteen dollar minimum wage that would, by law, lift unorganized, as well as many unionized workers, out of the ranks of the working poor. There have, of course, been important local victories on this front in SeaTac and Seattle, Washington where a hundred thousand low wage workers are now on track to 15–in many cases nearly doubling their income. 15 Now formations are popping up across the country.

These two parallel but complementary movements are the leading edge of efforts to regroup the working class for serious struggle around what I have called the trident approach–fronts in the workplace, community, and, in the case of the minimum wage, the political arena. Victories will not only bring sorely needed gains for the working poor. The solidarity they are arousing in unions and the community will lead to advances for all. They deserve our support.

A Public Disgrace
My friend Adam in the Twin Ports, a Steelworkers rep for janitors at a large Duluth hospital, sent me some background on a story posted on our companion Labor Advocate blog. He wrote,

“Yesterday [Saturday] we held a march and rally in support of the 27 custodians and grounds keepers whose jobs are being threatened with outsourcing by the University of Wisconsin-Superior. The UWS administration says this is to cut costs because of their budget crisis, but at the same time they’re making this proposal the top administrators gave themselves 12% raises. Each individual administrator’s wage increase is equal to the annual salary of one and a half janitors. It truly is an outrage, and it’s believed that the real reason they’re proposing this is because the state-wide UW system is looking to launch a wave of outsourcing, and they’re using UW-Superior (the smallest school in the UW system) as a trial run. We had about 175 people participate in our protest…”

East Side Freedom Library
Perhaps believing he was doing penance for the ruthless exploitation of workers that made him one of the richest men in history, Andrew Carnegie donated public libraries housed in beautiful buildings to towns across his adopted country. One was on the East Side of St Paul. It no longer fits in to the plans and budget of the St Paul Library system but they wanted it to be preserved for a similar purpose. As Peter Rachleff was looking for new projects since leaving the history department at Macalester College after three decades or so of service, the concept of the East Side Freedom Library was born.

The East Side has long been at least a first stop for immigrants. In Carnegie’s day they mainly came from Europe. Today most come from Africa, Asia and Latin America. Understanding the past and present challenges of immigrant workers is important to the future of our class as a whole. That’s right up Peter’s alley as both a scholar and active supporter of present day immigrant rights struggles. He and Beth Cleary negotiated a fifteen year lease of the building.

The ESFL website explains,

“The ESFL’s mission is to preserve and promote knowledge about the East Side – its history, residents and institutions – through educational collections and programs. The library will house non-circulating research collections that appeal to interested general learners as well as scholars, with innovative databases and finding aids that make using the collections fun and vital. Story is a major theme of the ESFL, and the telling and gathering of stories, through formal interviews, workshops, and small-scale public performances, will allow local residents and interested publics to learn more about the work and residential histories of the East Side.”

But before these plans can be implemented, Peter and Beth have to make good on lease commitments. The city Library set only a token rent but require major structural repair and renovation, including a new roof and much stone and brick work. We’re talking big bucks here– beyond the pocket depth of a couple of retired academics. They’ve applied for a St Paul STAR grant but this requires matching funds. To at least meet the match, there’s a Raise the Roof to Open the Doors fund drive.

Peter has devoted a lot over the years to raising material support for various worker struggles. He deserves assistance on this worthy effort. I urge you to check out this unique project and, if you can afford it, pitch in to help pull it off.

That’s all for this week.

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Check out our digest of news stories about working class and climate issues, posted Monday-Friday by 9AM Central. on our companion Labor Advocate blog.

Our sole source of operating income is reader contributions. If you can help please visit the KC Labor Donate page.

Bill Onasch is a paid up NWU member

Bill Onasch is a paid up NWU member

Jul 232014

onaschoutsmall  by Bill Onasch

The editor may take a break but the news doesn’t. Without even getting in to the atrocity of the Israeli invasion of Gaza, or the shooting down of an airliner by as yet unidentified bad guys in Ukraine–well covered by the mass media–I posted about three dozen stories in the resumption of the news updates this morning on our companion Labor Advocate blog.

A Moving Tribute to the Past Inspires Today’s Fighters
My road trip to Minnesota was not a vacation but, despite the physical challenges shared with most of my age group, it was nevertheless exhilarating. I was there to attend the observance of the eightieth anniversary of the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters strikes. I was also there for the seventieth and seventy-fifth celebrations and I hope I’m available for the eighty-fifth.

A couple of useful brief overviews of the pivotal strikes were written for the occasion, by an old friend Peter Rachleff, On strike! 80 years ago Minneapolis goes union, and a series of articles in Socialist Action by a newer and younger friend, Lisa Luinenburg. There was also a good effort made by a Minneapolis Star-Tribune reporter.

There’s been plenty of good appreciations of this historic victory written over the years. It was a focus of Charles Rumford Walker’s 1937 excellent class history of Minneapolis, American City. The chapters devoted to it in James P Cannon’s History of American Trotskyism give valuable insight of how the strategy and tactics were developed. The most widely read and highly respected book by a central strike leader is Teamster Rebellion by Farrell Dobbs.

I was privileged in my youth to make the acquittance of Dobbs and Harry DeBoer, who was wounded in the same police massacre that killed two and wounded dozens of others. I was also able to spend many hours of discussion about 1934 and much more with Vincent R Dunne–who liked to be called Ray–one of three brothers who played a crucial role in building Teamster Power that transformed Minneapolis from an open shop town in to a bastion of militant unionism. Ray was one of the old-timers who helped me to decide once and for all to sign up for the duration on the just side of the class war.

I am very pleased that an important book about 1934 with much new information and analysis is now available, ‘Revolutionary Teamsters: The Minneapolis Truckers’ Strike of 1934,’ by Bryan D. Palmer. I first ran across Palmer’s prolific historical writing through the first volume of his biography, James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left, 1890-1928 and I later heard him speak about that book and briefly met him at a conference in Toronto a few years ago. He took a break in preparing the second volume about Cannon to get his latest out in time for the anniversary.

As C Wright Mills professed to do, Palmer, who is a professor at Trent University in Ontario, is objective without claiming to be detached. Like Peter Rachleff, Palmer is a diligent, respected scholar who is also immersed in the living working class movement. I heard him speak at four different events in Minneapolis and he did a splendid job, including responding to questions. Every WIR reader should read this book. I got my copy at MayDay Books in Minneapolis and it’s available from Powells online if you can’t find it at your local bookstore.

There were five events scheduled over four days of celebration. I was able to attend four.

* On Thursday evening there was an SRO audience in a big meeting room at the Minneapolis Central Library for a panel discussion “A Fresh Look at the Minneapolis Teamster Strikes After 80 Years.” Moderated by Peter Rachleff, panelists included Minnesota historian Mary Wingerd, who wrote the introduction to a new reprinted edition of American City; William Millikan, author of Union Against Unions, a history of the bosses’ nefarious Citizens Alliance; David Thorstad, who became a close associate of Ray Dunne during his final years; and Bryan Palmer. A lively discussion after the presentations was concluded only by the closing of the building.

* Time got a little tight on Friday as many Remember 1934 activists joined in a 4PM emergency protest against the Israeli invasion of Gaza. Perhaps as many as a thousand turned out on short notice from the Palestinian community and the peace movement. We had to leave before the end to hustle to the University campus for a special addition to AFSCME Local 3800’s regular labor film series that presented footage from not only the Minneapolis strikes but other victories around the same time in San Francisco and Toledo–and a huge, but ultimately defeated national textile strike the same year. There were comments after the films by Joe Burns, author of two excellent books, Reviving the Strike and Strike Back, as well as Bryan Palmer.

* In past commemorations local Teamsters leadership stayed at arm’s length. Not this year. Teamsters Local 120, now a mega-local that absorbed the Local that had won in 1934, gave substantial support to the Remember 1934 Committee. On Saturday, they held a picnic for their members and then later marched from the Star-Tribune printing plant to the site of the Bloody Friday police massacre–which was also the venue for the Remember Street Fair, running from 4-10PM. The Local 120 contingent was escorted by a brass marching band and a fifty-foot semi-rig and upon arrival gave their greetings. As with two previous Street Fairs at that location in 2004 and 2009, the stage was a revolving mixture of history lessons, remembrances of specific strike participants, poetry, and music ranging from hip-hop to Aztec dance. It was a family friendly affair with games and balloons for the kids. Tables offered literature and a truck offered food to the several hundred coming and going.

* The Sunday Family Picnic Gathering, in a lovely setting in Minnehaha Park, appropriately began with a lunch–donated and served by the UFCW. During the informal milling around it was learned that there were several ATU members present–so, of course, we had to have some group photos. As the chow line thinned out, the Picnic MC, Randy Furst invited us to sit for some professional quality music. A couple of cats closer to my age range–Pete Watercott and Neil Gelvin–did a lively fiddle and guitar warm-up for social justice troubadour Larry Long. There was more music later from the Twin Cities Labor Chorus and the Wisconsin Sing Along Group–who especially like to sing in their state’s Capitol.

There were a number of brief speakers who surprisingly obeyed the timekeeper when she held up her STOP sign. Some were involved in current class battles such as the Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en La Lucha (CTUL) who just won an important breakthrough in bargaining rights for Target’s contract janitorial service. A sister from SEIU’s home health care workers organizing committee spoke optimistically about a representation election covering thousands of these low wage, no benefit workers next month. Peter Rachleff talked about the project for a East Side Freedom Library targeting immigrant workers in St Paul–which I will say more about in the next WIR. There were remarks by Bryan Palmer and Dave Riehle on the relevance of the lessons of 1934 to such struggles today.

But the centerpiece of the program was Respecting the Descendants. There are no known living 1934 Teamsters strikers. But most of those six thousand strikers left behind some progeny. Most may not know of their family connection with this historic struggle but patient hard work located dozens who did and more than fifty were present at the Picnic. Each were introduced and some made brief remarks. They were all given a framed design for a memorial marker to be placed at the site of Bloody Friday. Even the most cynical among the audience could not avoid being deeply moved with the honoring of these descendants who were proud of their connection.

I was unable to make the final event Sunday evening–a meeting at MayDay Books for Bryan Palmer to speak more extensively about his book. From what I hear it was well attended, with serious discussion. Some books were sold and signed by the author.

I can’t do more than this superficial report of the events within the confines of a single WIR. I want to stress that this was no ritual observance. No body got paid for the countless hours of work that went in to this successful celebration. No body’s career was advanced by recalling the days when workers, at least briefly, chased the cops off the streets of Minneapolis. The folks I know who helped pull it together did so out of a deeply held conviction that the lessons of our 1934 ancestors can help us to revive a fighting working class movement. And that is a precondition for tackling all the overarching threats we face today. In future editions I will raise some of my thoughts about how components of the 1934 heritage can be intelligently applied in action.

I can’t close without expressing gratitude to my long-time friends Gladys McKenzie and Dave Riehle who, despite being up to their ears in time sensitive responsibilities, graciously put me up in their home and made my duty a pleasure.

That’s all for this week.

Free digital subscription to the Week In Review is available through RSS

Check out our digest of news stories about working class and climate issues, posted Monday-Friday by 9AM Central. on our companion Labor Advocate blog.

Our sole source of operating income is reader contributions. If you can help please visit the KC Labor Donate page.

Bill Onasch is a paid up NWU member

Bill Onasch is a paid up NWU member