Work Lessons from an Experienced Union Organizing Director

Police Brutality at the LA Justice for Janitors Strike in 1990

New Orleans        Talking with Peter Olney, a friend as well as a veteran labor organizer and former organizing director of the west coast based International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) where he retired in recent years, on Wade’s World was an important reminder of huge lessons we had both learned the hard way, but are cautionary tales for any and all efforts to organize, as well things worth remembering for any hopes to rebuild the strength of the labor movement.

One theme Peter underlined in our conversation was a reminder of one of the central lessons from some of the classic Justice for Janitors organizing campaigns directed by Stephen Lerner and a host of organizers within the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), both from their victories and defeats.  The lesson, simply stated, rested on the ability to leverage existing labor and union power in order to win organizing victories.  He cited the key role played in winning the janitors’ strike in Los Angeles in the 1990s played by the large and powerful Local 32BJ and its normally conservative, business union leader, Gus Bevona.  In reaction to police violence against strikers in LA, Bevona sent the message that 32BJ would strike the same companies where they had contracts and shut them down in New York City, forcing them to settle.  Additionally, the labor movement in Los Angeles was united behind the effort and had leverage of its own.

All of these conditions didn’t exist in places like Atlanta where the janitors’ campaign failed, but there are examples in many other big organizing projects as well.  The lack of real labor institutional buy-in and internal resistance from the hotel workers’ union was the Achilles heel of the HOTROC joint organizing campaign I ran in New Orleans.  Similarly, the UFCW’s lukewarm and arms’ length support of the Walmart effort I directed in Florida was also fatal, regardless of the success on the ground in both cases.  Campaigns like the long running McDonalds effort arguably are more imperiled because of the lack of union power anywhere and the failure of leverage to bridge that gap.  Peter felt the more recent OUR Walmart suffered from this as well.

Peter drew another lesson from his time as director of the seminal Los Angeles Manufacturing Action Project (LA-MAP) in the mid-1990s that was in some was related.  As organizers we often feel we are in a constant struggle with the labor bureaucrats.  Sometimes the top leadership is also offering more grudging than real support for organizing programs.  Their bread-and-butter is delivering to existing members, while ours is delivering new members.  That’s sometimes an irresolvable tension.  They have to be re-elected based on their ability to prove their case, and our work continues on our ability to deliver the numbers without roiling the base, a dynamite fuse that always seems to be burning without enough distance from the charge.  Peter felt in retrospect that more time and attention to this paradox might have salvaged LA-MAP.

Maybe, but these were all righteous organizing programs that won and deserved support and delivered results.  All union campaigns can’t check the boxes perfectly on leverage, internal and external support, but that doesn’t mean it’s not our job to push and pull them into practice.  Olney is right that we have to do better, but it’s a two-way street now as unions continue to weaken even more precipitously over recent decades and are totally imperiled currently with one reversal after another in labor law protections.  We have to be better organizers for sure, but we need better leaders to support and win these fights as well who are willing to take the short-term risks for the long-term gains and in these times, the survival of unions themselves.

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