Tag Archives: Bay Area

Art and Activism


Oakland   Every once in awhile if you are searching for new paths, you are going to have to change directions in order to find the way.  At least that’s what I thought in agreeing to go to a day-and-a-half conference in Oakland on art and activism, organizing and culture.   An invitation from old friends and comrades, Gary Delgado and Gina Acebo, was too good to pass up since I needed to be in the Bay Area anyway, and it was a fascinating day.

Jumping to the bottom line, despite meeting a great bunch of talented, committed, and razor sharp artists and cultural workers, there is still no denying that there is a huge gulf that would have to be bridged to create genuine dialogue much less fruitful collaboration.  Nonetheless there were scintillating hints time and time that it could be worth the effort.

It was also fascinating to just be a part of the process and get a sense of the many ways that all of us as blind people are still groping at the elephant.  Listening to Jeff Chang of Stanford and a great panel of folks talk about the impact of Culture Strike on the immigration reform efforts around the DREAM Act and SB1070 in Arizona was significant, but essentially in their attempt to evaluate the impact of their contribution they were describing one room of a giant house without fully understanding the rest of the architectural layout around them.  It was also struck me as interesting that understanding the cultural process and how it evolved and created change, they were oblivious to the similarities of the same evolution and development on the organizing and political process believing it was simply marked by court solidarity events and feeling that cultural change preceded social changes rather than being inextricably linked together.  As I said, this was too short a meeting for people to really be able to learn a common language and see the linkages, but an education regardless.

Jeff Change of Stanford talking about Culture Strike

Among the highlights were seeing how guerilla artistic interventions had been so effective in the demystifying the Japanese experience at the Asian Art Museum, listening to a digital games designer who developed games that looked at gender roles and change, hearing the passion of labor photographer and journalist David Bacon for his efforts to effectively tell the stories of organizing today, participating in what seemed a hokey exercise that turned very powerfully into a lesson about how different experiences and work could connect in the same narrative, and more.

Big props to the organizers who pulled the pieces together with nothing but their own commitment and the willingness of all of us to come together (what a relief not to have outside funders involved or in the room distorting the discussion!).  This is the way conversations start and changes in perspective – and direction – develop.

Anna's digital games for social change

Connecting experiences into a story

David Bacon talking about labor photography and journalism

Gary Delgado one of the conference organizers



Union Organizing Depressions in the Bay Area

Former SEIU official Sal Rosselli

San Francisco   One conversation after another with union organizers, organizing directors, and veteran labor activists in the Bay Area over a 24-hour period was enough to trigger a profound fog of depression over any hopes for labors near term revival.  There were a long list of symptoms with no consensus on the full nature of the disease and even less feeling that any hopes for a cure were imminent.

No small consideration among the confusion and consternation still revolves around the bitter and enduring internecine struggle within the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and its huge California healthcare local headquartered here.  A rerun election is still pending between SEIU and the rump local headed by former SEIU official Sal Rosselli.  Despite the quixotic odds of Rosselli, succeeding war drums are beating throughout the Bay and beyond.  Rosselli has fashioned an amalgamation or affiliation with the International Association of Machinists (IAM) which not only provides them institutional cover within the AFL-CIO but some ballast from its ever quotable and brash President Buffenbarger.  One knowledgeable source told me that the Machinists had committed the resources of 100 paid organizers to work for the Rosselli local, which will no doubt be doubled, tripled, or quadrupled by Mary Kay Henry at the SEIU International level and everything that Dave Regan and his SEIU incumbent local can throw at this as well.

If this wasn’t enough SEIU drama, I also repeatedly heard stories of fights between Regan’s local and the largely public employee members of SEIU 1021 in the Bay Area as well as over political candidates and other area strategic concerns.  Political organizers I know well were claiming that the price tag on independent expenditures on a San Francisco County supervisors race  is at the center of the dispute, and one in which the rest of labor including the central body and the building trades have joined, will likely register at $1 million, which is shocking for a local race at that level.  Mediators, money, consultants, and others are sticking to this fracas like ants on honey with no resolution in sight it seems.

No doubt the message is already coming through the fog.   While the house of labor is sliding into the Pacific, there are huge battle royals not for growth but to arrange the deck chairs on the Titanic.

How about the Walmart organizing campaign which some argue is the only really big effort being engaged anywhere by unions?  I was shocked and surprised to find that the warehouse and distribution workers that are being targeted by the campaign in California are not the directly owned and operated distribution centers run by Walmart where they have huge investments and skin in the game, and where we had a lot of experience in Merced and elsewhere, but the contract warehouses and port breakdown centers which Walmart could abandon at the first hint of organizing.  I could get no real confirmation that the overall and longterm commitment of UFCW to this campaign and organizing this company had measurably increased since the efforts we managed with WARN and the Walmart Workers’ Association in Florida.  One wag talked about too many “Hegelian strategies” at the top of unions that were grand visions without no real world on the ground understanding of the work and workers that would move organizing progress.

march against Wal-Mart in Los Angeles

At the point one organizer started talking about 50,000 unorganized garment workers in Los Angeles County and no one was clear whether HERE or SEIU was really the union for garment workers, but everyone was clear that no one was even vaguely thinking about organizing but a garment worker center in LA with less than 150 members, I knew it was time to change the subject to almost anything else other than whether or not the new hope for labor is coming out of California these days.