Organizing “War” Stories Are Critical History

ACORN Canada Staff

Boston      Since the ACORN Canada Year End/Year Begin staff meeting was in Boston this year, we have taken advantage of the location to invite some of the old hands of organizing to share their stories and perspectives from decades of experience in the work.  We started with Bill Pastreich and Mike Gallagher for a fascinating couple of hours at the SEIU Local 615 hall near Boston Commons.   I wish I could write all of what they shared, and luckily within the next week it will be on ACORN International’s YouTube channel, but for now here are some golden nuggets from this dialogue.

After a fashion I could say that Bill Pastreich was the only organizer I ever worked for, even if it was only for six months and across the state in Springfield, where I organized for Massachusetts Welfare Rights Organization (MWRO) and he was the head organizer for the whole shebang based in Cambridge.   Bill shared his organizing trajectory from the New York City social worker to Peace Corps in Peru, where his job was to organize unions there, to the United Farm Workers where he worked on the New York City boycott, to graduate school in Syracuse University in an amazing organizer training program the likes of which is unimaginable today .

At Syracuse they had an OEO grant to train organizers and brought in the legendary Fred Ross and Saul Alinsky as the “professors” along with Warren Haggstrom, one of the great theorists of community organizing.  The students were involved in various organizing experiments of sorts in the lower income neighborhoods.  In one pilot they stumbled into the fact that welfare recipients wanted spring clothing for Easter and there might have been some precedent for such allowances.  To their surprise the response was huge with hundreds of people suddenly responding and joining to sit-in at the welfare office where to their even greater shock, they won and left with a promise of Easter clothing.  All of which prompted hundreds more to seek out the fledgling organizing project to demand that for themselves and more.  This was in 1965.  The National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) wasn’t founded until June 30, 1966 by Dr. George Wiley pulling together disparate welfare advocates and groups from around the country.  Wiley had been a professor of chemistry at Syracuse in addition to the leader of CORE there and then nationally.  Bill brought that experience to building welfare rights in Boston and elsewhere in 1968 riding the tide of a movement there that sustained him for more than 40 years in the work much of which was in the labor movement in Boston initially then on Cape Cod with a hospital and health care local and more recently here and there with the AFL-CIO, including a stint working with me on our Walmart organizing project in Florida some years ago.

Michael Gallagher’s route was also circuitous beginning with the Contract Buyers’ League in Chicago, a little known effort today, but an interesting organizing program started by a priest there on consumer ripoff issues for the poor in the late 1960’s where Mike Gecan, now with the IAF, started, and our old comrade and friend, Mark Splain, also worked.  Mike worked for an SEIU local in Rhode Island briefly then back to school then with Massachusetts Fair Share in the early mid-1970’s, a multi-issued effort started by Barbara Bowen and Mark, with some different twists than ACORN, but an earlier adapter of what was then the revolutionary “canvass” methodology devised by Marc Anderson and CBE out of Chicago which fueled the organizations growth quickly throughout Massachusetts, until internal tensions separated the organization, its mission, and founders, and we all ended up working on the Jobs with Justice Campaign and organizing projects among low waged workers.

Mike led the Canadian organizers through the roots of the work with the Household Workers Organizing Committee I tried with domestic workers in New Orleans in 1978 to win more compliance with their coverage under the Fair Labor Standards Act for the first time, and how he, Mark, and others stumbled onto women doing similar work in Boston who turned out to have check pickup and jumped to join the nascent independent unions we were then forming.  That organizing drive and later strike at Suburban Homecare led to us expanding the work into Chicago and the story hasn’t stopped yet after 400,000 homecare workers have become union members in the decades since in the single largest success in labor growth for our generation of organizers.   Mike’s story of work in Los Angeles and the outrageousness he, Kirk Adams, and other organizers felt at working with Mark on an outrageous goal of signing up 15,000 home care members in that County in 90 days and with a 1500 person convention to launch the organizing drive that a decade later ended in the largest union election (74,000 workers) since the heydays of the CIO drives of the 1940’s.

We could have gone all night with these true stories and in fact they lasted lifetimes!

Bill Pastreich

Michael Gallagher


Celebrating Barbara Bowen

Barbara smiling in Melbourne next to the head of the Australian Labor Federation

New Orleans     There is no way that anything I can write would do complete justice to the life and work of Barbara Bowen, my friend and comrade for over 40 years, but luckily I don’t really need to because her life and work was about justice and she lived it exactly that way from beginning to end.

My path first crossed Barbara’s in mid-October of 1969.  I used to hear her tell the story of being sent from Boston where she was working with Massachusetts Welfare Rights Organization to Springfield, where I was working, to see if she could help out in some way during a large action demanding winter clothing for adults that was hitting its climax on the same day as the Vietnam Moratorium.  The short story is that we didn’t win and all hell broke loose, but Barbara used to tell the story of breaking clear of the riot and finding a telephone booth in the middle of the chaos to put a collect call into Boston for whatever reinforcements might be available to get me and others out of jail and do whatever it might take.

In 1970 when I moved to Boston as head organizer, I lived on Rutland Square in the South End one or two units above Barbara and my other old friend and comrade over all of these years, Mark Splain, who she married around the same time.  Over the many decades our paths would always be interwoven and crisscross continually.

After I left to move to Arkansas and found ACORN, she and Mark and others ended up in Chelsea founding Massachusetts Fair Share, a landmark organization in the 1970’s.  When she and Mark left Fair Share, they worked in various capacities with ACORN.  We all worked on jobs campaigns.  We founded the United Labor Unions together, with Mark and Barbara in Boston, me and Danny Cantor, Kirk Adams, and Cecile Richards in New Orleans, Keith Kelleher in Detroit and then Chicago, and Mike Gallagher a little bit of everywhere along with many others.  Barbara did stints with SEIU and the AFL-CIO.  Around 2000, I convinced her to join me at the Organizers’ Forum where she worked for a decade as its coordinator until she retired at the end of 2008, as she told me then, “…because she could.”

Barbara in Moscow assembling the troops before we head to the next stop in Red Square

The other day talking to Mark about a list of email addresses, I asked him if he wanted me to edit the list and make up a shorter one, and he replied that it didn’t matter, “Barbara doesn’t have an enemy in the world.”  That phrase stuck with me.  It was precisely correct.   People loved Barbara.  She was a sweetheart.  Leading delegations around the world with the Organizers’ Forum she was always willing to go the last inch of the last mile to make sure it worked, that people were taken care of, and that it all came together.

But, if that conjures up an image of a laid back, California girl who was in the first avant garde women’s class at Pitzer College outside of Los Angeles, and a “helping hand” VISTA volunteer, all of which she also was, you didn’t know Barbara Bowen or at least you didn’t know enough about Barbara Bowen.  The Barbara Bowen I knew and worked with all of these years was a stickler for details with a thousand questions, both large and small.  My first day on the job as her boss in Boston in 1970, she asked me to look at a flyer she had made for a meeting, something she had probably done a couple of hundred times at the point.  I remember telling her she should probably be showing me how to make the flyer, rather than the other way around!

But whether it was details on the menu in Kolkata or the rooming arrangements in Jakarta, she always included me and wanted input.  If she had a question you heard about it, and she forced the plans to be crystal clear so there was alignment of my big picture, “it’ll all work out world,” and her details, planning, and preparation.  It was easy to appreciate why on all the houses that Mark and Barbara built in Boston, Washington, and then finally in Stinson Beach how Mark might be architect and master builder, but Barbara would be permits, general contractor, bookkeeper, and finish painter and punch list person.  On the three international dialogues I have done since Barbara’s retirement in Thailand, Vietnam, and Egypt, I’ve always warned people in the first orientation that they were going to miss experiencing the trip that they would have had if Barbara had been with us….

My point is not that she was just a details person or a meticulous note taker, planner, and so forth, because that was not the core of the woman.  At the heart of the woman was character and courage.  Once she was convinced of the plan, had it clear, and committed to it, she was fearless and unstoppable.   Once she was in, she was all the way in.

In the late 1970’s and early1980’s, US Air had something called “Liberty Fares.”  For $700 for 14 days a passenger could fly anywhere throughout the US Air system from Boston or Providence to New Orleans or Phoenix or Memphis or whatever.  It often meant circling back to the Pittsburgh or the Philly hub.  Obviously USAir meant the ticket to work with one flyer, but as a fledgling union and community organization, we were “up in the air” and could keep various folks flying from place to place endlessly during that period just by passing them off to our fellow travelers in the hubs or wherever the connections aligned.  You can imagine the stories, but the best and boldest often featured Barbara.  In the post-9/11 world this is unimaginable, but Barbara would talk her way onto one flight after another with nothing but moxie despite the fact that the ticket seemed to be in a man’s name and often with little or no ID.  She had the ticket, and for her it was a ticket to ride, and if she had a problem with one flight, she would walk away and jump another one.

Anyone who underestimated Barbara or her toughness did so at their peril!   Like I said, you had to be careful with Barbara.  If you asked her to go through a wall on an action, once she was clear where the wall stood, how it worked, and that it was important, then that wall was going down, one way or another.  Barbara had your back, front, and sideways!  I hate to think about the number of times she went on unemployment to do the work, including once with the Organizers’ Forum.  I can’t even imagine the times she maxed out credit cards or whatever.   I loved that woman.  There was no quit or whine to her.  Ever!

It took me forever to realize that almost all of our international dialogues were too close to her daughter’s birthday and often had her doing crazy things to get home in time or in at least one case, missing the event entirely.  She was an elected member of the school board in her community for years, but it took me almost that long to hear her mention it and talk about it.  She was never going to put herself ahead of the program, even when it was just the two of us figuring it out.

I’m glad on the back end, especially now, that she and some of the women in Kolkata moved to a better hotel after our wild experience at the Great Eastern (now torn down!) and that she took an extra day to go to Agra when in Delhi and a couple more to see the Iguazu Falls at the border of Brazil and Argentina.   For all of the times I may have taken her for granted for 30 years as a friend and colleague, I was glad that in the 10 years with the Organizers’ Forum for the most part I could feel like, I did right by her.  People loved her and could appreciate her contribution at every level.  She saw the world in India, Indonesia, Brazil, Turkey, Russia, South Africa, and Australia, and like all of us it made us better organizers and better people.  We all became clearer about the larger community where we live and work.  We had great experiences together.  She was fun, and she had some fun.

Thank goodness!

In Sydney I had noticed her walking uncharacteristically slowly up a stairway near the harbor.  I asked her about it then, and she just said she was being careful.    The next year when she called me to say she was having some health issues, she reminded me of that conversation and how even then is seemed there were starting to be coordination problems.

Luckily she and Mark got to do some traveling in Europe and Hawaii.  They visited with friends.  She got to her college reunion.   When I saw her last fall she was still fawning over Tera’s children and delighted over Manuel’s pending wedding.

She was a great organizer.  She was a wonderful woman.  She was friend, mother, wife, comrade, and sister.   She had a great life, just not enough of it.

My life is better for having known her and all she did with and for me in large and small ways over 40 years.  Like so many others, I will carry the flame forward for her into the future and spend the rest of my life time and work time paying back her loyalty, faith, and trust.

Over recent years Barbara and I learned together how to say and understand “hello,” “thank you,” “democracy,” “union,” “justice,” and “freedom” in many of the world’s languages.  Her life and legacy has meaning in all of those words and every time they are spoken in the struggle of people everywhere.  And, anywhere those words are spoken, sung, or shouted, the heart and soul of Barbara Bowen will still stand strong.

Barbara admiring the fresco in the cathedral in St. Petersburg