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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John Beam, Veteran of ACORN’s Heroic Era

entergys-white-bluff-coal-plant-in-redfield
Entergy White Bluff Plant

New Orleans     More than 15 years ago during the HOTROC organizing campaign for hotel workers in New Orleans, I worked with an organizer named David Keiffer. Dave had been around a number of organizations before partnering with me and flying an AFL-CIO banner at the time with stints going back to the AM/FM canvass program in Tampa when we built the WMNF radio station there, then years with ACTWU organizing textile workers in the South, and a breakthrough campaign organizing asbestos workers with the Laborers in New York City. Dave had a mythical turn of phrase that cushioned his constant tinkering with his spreadsheets, and would refer to organizers and organizing drives as belonging to the historic, heroic era of this or that.

The phrase comes to mind as I think about the passing of John Beam, another veteran of ACORN’s first dozen years of organizing in Arkansas and beyond, clearly in Dave’s sense and every sense I can image, a key organizer in the heroic, founding days of the organization in the United States. John’s passing follows other veterans of that era now in recent years including Dewey Armstrong earlier in this year and Jon Kest almost two years ago now. These were great organizers in their day and we won’t see their like again or benefit from the kinds of contributions they made very soon in the future.

For many years John and I would joke about the coincidence that we had a multi-year streak of always sharing my birthday in August together. He was from Dallas and had driven up to be interviewed on a Saturday in the early 1970’s on my birthday. He hadn’t been long out of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois outside of Chicago. Later he’d actually took that trip we children of the West always talk about and in fact traveled one way and another deep into Latin America. He was always ready to go. Another one of my birthdays in 1974, we spent driving to the Missouri Bootheel, that small piece of delta land that juts along the Mississippi River into Arkansas and is more south than anything else. We had tried our first baby steps at expanding ACORN by answering the call from a group there called MDEM, the Missouri Delta Ecumenical Ministry and recruited an organizer from Chicago who John trained on a quick drive in Mabelvale in Pulaski County outside of Little Rock. He had done all right, but clearly it wasn’t working out in the Bootheel for any of us, so we had drawn the short straw of going up, closing down this brief trail balloon called the American Community Organizations for Reform Now, and sending him on his way as well. That was just the way John and I celebrated the passing of another year!

John spent years working for ACORN. He opened up one of our earliest expansion offices in the 20/80 push in Memphis, Tennessee. Heck, maybe that was on my birthday, too, but I may be making that up! He worked later as one of the early ACORN Regional Directors, based in New Orleans after 1978. He was part of the mix and mayhem of the New Orleans jobs action that led to arrests and mess as we pushed Mayor Dutch Morial for summer job for youth.

But, if I tried to remember perhaps John’s most epic piece of organizing for ACORN during those heroic days, it was in the delta of the Arkansas River organizing the Protect Our Land Association (POLA) and SHAP, ACORN, standing for Save Health and Property. Arkansas Power & Light, then part of Mid-South Utilities, and now Entergy, submitted a proposal to the Public Service Commission to build what they called “the world’s largest coal-fired power plant” at White Bluff on west side of the Arkansas River midway between Pine Bluff and Little Rock. We were already fighting AP&L and other utilities on inflation-driven rate hikes for our members, right and left, and initially jumped into this fight because we were convinced that it would raise our members’ electric rates yet again. We operated the campaign on every level, researching the stock ownership and opening a front of the campaign at Harvard and with other Ivies that were big holders. Steve Kest, our research director, was reading reports of damage to cows under the lines in Europe and studies about sulfur emission damage to crops in Sweden. We were outsmarting and out hustling the company at every turn. The company for its part was intent on constructing a “slurry” line eventually and until then running 100-car trains that would move coal from the Powder River basin and the giant Fort Union coal deposit in eastern Wyoming. North Dakota, and Montana, where we also engaged allied groups of farmers and ranchers in the fight.

ACORN was never an advocacy group though, it was always a membership-based, membership-driven organization, so no matter how many bells and whistles we might develop for the campaign, the organizing would rise or fall on whether or not we could get farmers and rural residents downwind of the proposed White Bluff plant to organize with ACORN and lead the fight. That was just the kind of job and challenge for John Beam, and he delivered big time, driving miles and walking the long distances up country roads to farmhouse doors and talking to families about what White Bluff would bring down on them, how it would affect their crops, and the impact on the health of their livestock and families. I will never forget the shock on the face of the local AP&L office director in their small office in Stuttgart in the middle of the eastern Arkansas rice growing region when John and I along with others followed about 25 farmers into his office demanding more information on the plans and no movement until we were satisfied.

They wanted to fly some of the farmers to see the Paradise plant in Kentucky, and not only did we blast them on the plant’s environmental record, but packed the small planes with our farmers and just tore them up. The campaign brought us our first front-page story in the Arkansas Gazette. We won huge reductions in size and increased protections from the plant, and were able to counter AP&L at every turn.

John left ACORN in 1982 some years later. He married Polly Chase, another former organizer, and later a nurse, who was from Rhode Island. They ended up in New York City. Our paths didn’t cross as much over the last few decades. I ran into him a couple of times in ACORN’s Brooklyn office. He wrote some proposals for New York ACORN. He even ended up directing a joint project based at Fordham University on education for some years with us.

Nonetheless in my mind, jumping out of our old cars onto the shoulder of eastern Arkansas highways to talk to a couple of more farmers or walking into the cafes where they were having coffee early in the morning and talking about White Bluff and finally beating that company like a drum thanks to John’s great work in the fields and farmhouses, will always feel like his finest hour with ACORN.

And, he will be missed.

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