Organizing Strategy Based on Solidarity and Power

1ilwu1-1024x768Houston   Thinking about various strategies to rebuild the labor movement is a painful pastime for many organizers, but talking to Peter Olney, the organizing director for the International Longshoremen & Warehouse Union, the fabled 60,000 West Coast dockworkers’ powerhouse, on my weekly radio show recently was a good primer on the basics for holding your own and moving forward.

Another painful footnote of labor’s troubles was inescapable in the run-up to the AFL-CIO’s convention in Los Angeles with the release of an impassioned and sharp tongued letter from the President of the ILWU to Rich Trumka, the federation’s president, disaffiliating the ILWU from the body after 25 years of membership. The issue for the ILWU was essentially the lack of solidarity.

Solidarity is so rare in the modern dog-eat-dog, struggle for survival, last-man-standing labor environment that it almost felt nostalgic to hear Olney express so clearly this essential, but too often forgotten, fundamental principal of labor.   The old adage of “an injury to one is an injury to all,” like the fight for an 8-hour day, harkens to an earlier day for labor it seems, where storied unions like the ILWU could talk with some credibility of how a “general strike,” like the great effort they led in San Francisco is still possible.  Part of the ILWU’s last toss of a brick through the window of the house of labor spoke to a series of disputes that they had experienced with other unions, most notably the Operating Engineers, where they felt the toothlessness of the AFL-CIO had isolated their members to fight on their own to protect their work and classic jurisdiction.  In a labor movement torn asunder by the defections to the Change to Win alternative federation, the SEIU and HERE disputes within C2W and in northern California and with their own local union, and a host of other discouraging debacles, a simple plea for more solidarity from a union that has often led the way in showing the huge strength of solidarity in supporting the efforts of farmworkers to organize, South Africans to end apartheid, and a score of other efforts, has a surprising amount of power and resonates as a potential source of strength.

In talking about organizing, Peter and I could easily agree on the critical need to focus on distribution plants in organizing Walmart, despite the fact it is hard work with fewer headlines.  In looking at the organizing strategy for ILWU, Peter was clear that he starts his strategic analysis from an obvious, but often forgotten cornerstone, by looking at where his union has power that they can leverage to organize additional workers.  Certainly, this was the key to the ILWU’s historic drive inland from the strength on the docks to the warehouses where their loads were taken from the ship hulls.  Now moving from their pocket of power on the docks, they are looking to organize hazardous materials workers who clean the ships and surrounding areas.  Makes sense doesn’t it, but it’s surprising how often even the best organizers forget the fundamentals in trying to look at future targets.  We found ourselves talking about the plight of independent truckers that are servicing the major ports and the efforts to organize them by the Teamsters and others that has now been stalled by court action.   Peter is too much the diplomatic ambassador of labor solidarity for me to have asked him the obvious question about whether or not the ILWU power on the Pacific docks might not be the critical factor along with community support in any successful, future organizing effort by these abused drivers.

Solidarity may be an increasingly distant dream, but moving forward from even the shrinking islands of strength that we have in the growing ocean of the unorganized are lessons from Peter Olney worth remembering for all organizers.


Resistance, Solidarity and ACORN at Occupy

Mail AttachmentNew Orleans Perhaps the easiest organizing I can make right now as an organizer is that the Occupy movement needs to prepare to meet the resistance.  Well, maybe it would be even easier to mention my concerns about the fact that winter is approaching in many areas, but later for that.

In the last week 400 riot cops swept through the site in Melbourne, Australia and obliterated the encampment.  The reports and pictures from Oakland were somewhat horrific with their own body count.  Atlanta saw more than 50 arrests in another political turn of the wheel that literally pulled the ground out from underneath the Occupiers.  In both of the American cities the excuses were prompted by reports of crimes in the encampments.  Having survived Katrina, I’m still skeptical until I hear more about these alleged incidents to know whether they were real or rationalizations.

Staff PhotojournalistOakland is the right battleground for Occupy, so let the fight be engaged there on this issue where the support base is potentially among the largest one can imagine for this movement.  3000 people gathered during the night to retake the park and the conversation circles about next steps that were photographed and sent out by David Bacon were telling.  It was also gladdening to see that Occupy Wall Street in New York City undertook a solidarity march in support of the Oakland Occupiers.  Good politics and good organizing!

No doubt general assembly’s in all Occupy cities are having planning discussions on how to respond to political and police attack.  This will be hard ground to hold, and we can’t allow the right tactical response to distract from the main thrust of the movement.

Mail Attachment-1Meanwhile we have the feel good moments and ridiculous asides that one can find alongside any movement.  The Times had a story with pictures of families taking their children to “experience” something of how a movement feels.  Ok, I believe in that, too!  I hate to think how many meetings, marches, and similar events our children plowed through before they were teenagers!

For ridiculous asides it is hard to beat the fake Fox fury that my old friend, Megyn Kelley, and others are trying to summon by trying to find ACORN lurking somehow behind and underneath the Occupy Movement.  A denial by the spokespeople at Occupy Wall Street was not enough of course, but it was nice to see a blogger for the Washington Monthly do such a good job debunking this madness and putting a needle in their balloon in the piece called “When in Doubt, Blame ACORN!”