Organizers for the day-long community/labor conference, held last Friday at San Diego City College were stunned by the response–expecting perhaps 150 registrants, nearly 300 people turned out. “This is a good kind of problem to have”, said AFT member Professor Jim Miller, as he asked attendees to rotate seating so everybody could have table space during a lunchtime seminar entitled “Making Change at Walmart”. It was clear from talking to forum participants that recent events in Wisconsin have resonated locally.
Sponsored by the activist union publication “Labor Notes” and locals affiliated with American Federation of Teachers, the United Domestic Workers of America, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the United Food and Commercial Workers, the conference was billed as a “Troublemakers School”. Union members, students and community activists came together to attend seminars on Labor History, Maquiladora Workers, Women and Labor, Immigrant Rights, Walmart, Social Justice, Environmental Issues, Student Activism, the California Budget Crisis, Rank and File issues and Education Reform.
Crazy Union “Bitches” Bite Back
The Women and Labor panel, led by City College Labor Studies Chair Kelly Mayhew started off by reminding the audience that March, 2011 is the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory disaster, briefly describing the tragic events that led to dozens of female garment workers in New York being killed by a rapidly spreading fire, trapped in the top floors of a workplace behind doors that were locked to keep union organizers out.
Lorena Gonzalez, Secretary-Treasurer and CEO of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, spoke next, reminding the audience that she was both the first female and first person of color to hold her position. She told the audience that one factor that differentiated her leadership from past executives in the local labor movement was her willingness to speak directly to and not gloss over challenges facing organized labor. This willingness to confront adversaries, she told us, stems from the reality that women have to be more aggressive to get into leadership positions, and sometimes leads to not-so-subtle accusation that she and other women in the labor movement who speak out are “crazy union bitches”.
Ms. Gonzalez went on to talk about her life as a single mother and the determination required for women like herself to be successful both at home and in the workplace. She pointed out that one of the tactics being wielded by reactionary forces was an ongoing degradation via the media of single mothers, citing former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee’s recent comments about actress (and single mother) Natalie Portman being a bad role model for women, saying, “The only thing wrong with single motherhood is the poverty that usually goes with it.”
Geri Jenkins, with the California Nurses Association (CNA), spoke about strategies for mentoring women in the labor movement and encouraging them to be involved in leadership activities. She told the audience the best form of mentorship is “by example” in the workplace; leaders in her union are required to maintain at least a part-time schedule as nurses, over and above their organizing activities. Ms. Jenkins went on to emphasize that integrating social justice issues with union workplace activities is important, saying, “We’re the only society in the world that puts a dollar sign on peoples’ foreheads as a condition for receiving healthcare services.”
Camille Zombro, immediate past President of the San Diego Education Association (SDEA), told the assemblage that, despite the fact that 80% of her union’s membership being women, that she was the first female to hold the leadership title since collective bargaining came into force. She talked about SDEA’s drive to become more of a “working union”, with union policy and practice being driven by teachers in the schools rather by the leadership in a central office. Ms. Zombro spoke out against contemporary attacks on public employees, telling the crowd that, “The leading edge of this attack on public workers is an attack on women.”
Jennifer Badgeley, with Local 569 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), closed out the panel discussion by giving a perspective of a woman who works in the construction trade unions, which have been historically male dominated. From her point of view, the unique relationship of laborers with the IBEW, wherein work is directed through union hiring halls rather than employers’ human resource departments, presents a unique opportunity. New workers in this system are recruited through apprenticeship programs paid for jointly by both management and unions; by encouraging women to join and succeed in these plans, a pathway for leadership is being opened up.
The Call for a General Strike
The day ended with a wrap-up featuring Josh Pechthalt of the United Teachers of Los Angeles and Doug Moore, Executive Director of the United Domestic Workers of America. After Pechthalt gave his assessment of the overall political situation, jaws dropped throughout the room as Moore called for consideration of a general strike throughout California as a response to Governor Brown’s budget plans. This parallels a similar call by Wisconsin’s South Central Federation of Labor endorsing a general strike among its 45,000 members if Gov. Scott Walker’s controversial budget repair bill is made law.
General strikes have been rare in the United States. Strikes widespread enough to interrupt general commerce date back to the Great Depression of the 1930s when longshoremen in San Francisco, autoworkers in Toledo, Ohio, and teamsters in Minneapolis touched off protests that helped establish industrial unions.
But perhaps the most famous general strike occurred in Seattle, Washington at 10 a.m. on Feb. 6, 1919, when over 100,000 union men and women walked off their jobs. The strike shut down the city for several days. Streets were quiet. Most newspapers ceased publication, streetcars stopped running, and industry ground to a halt. Despite dire predictions of famine and rampant crime, conditions in Seattle were generally peaceful. Kitchens set up around the city fed all comers. The general strike ended after five days, according to the General Strike Committee, because of pressure from the international officers of the various unions, as well as the difficulties of living in a shut-down city.
It should be noted that the Seattle general strike had the effect of inflaming reactionary forces around the United States. Anti-syndicalism laws were passed and mob violence against union organizers spread throughout the country. The Seattle Union Record’s sympathetic coverage of the union side prompted federal marshals to suspend publication of the paper for several days, and its editor was charged with sedition. The city’s Mayor — who pledged that “anarchists in this community shall not rule its affairs”– resigned from office. He launched a cross-country speaking tour, hoping the publicity might even propel him into the Republican presidential nomination.
Sadly, the strike that began with such hope and proceeded with such calm ended with bitterness and repression.