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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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.

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