Organizing “War” Stories Are Critical History

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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