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Bread and Roses Heritage Festival, Lawrence MA

In a sense the heroes of Labor Day 2014 are the employees of the Demoulas Market Basket supermarket chain, from part-time baggers all the way up to CEO  P8280015 Arthur T. Demoulas, whose dismissal six weeks ago prompted a mass walk-out and consumer boycott that brought him back to the company’s helm.  It was an unusual example of labor solidarity, to say the least.

To re-cap, when Arthur T. was ousted as CEO by stockholders led by his cousin, Arthur S. Demoulas, middle managers walked out, truck drivers stopped making deliveries, baggers and clerks made protest signs during their shifts, and customers heeded the call of workers for a boycott.  Five weeks later, August 27, Arthur T’s bid to buy out his rivals was accepted and workers and shoppers returned to the stores scattered across Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine.P8280001

[See earlier post, “Bring Back the Boss.”]

I talked to two of the workers, Dave and Jordan, at the doorway of the Fort Eddy Road Market Basket in Concord, New Hampshire last Thursday, the morning after the deal was announced.  They run the produce department, but with no produce on the shelves they were spending their shift welcoming customers back to the store after a five-week boycott and strike.

Dave said he had been “ready to battle to the end,” and that in the end “we hit them in the pocket.”

“We won,” said one smiling shopper.  “Congratulations,” said another.  “Those asses don’t know their asses from their elbows,” commented a third.  “Thank you for your resolve,” added a fourth. Speaking of the customers who did their shopping elsewhere during the job action, Dave said, “We did it together.” 

“There’s a power there,” commented Robert Forrant, a professor of history at P9010074 UMASS Lowell, speaking four days later in the labor history tent at the 30th annual Bread and Roses Heritage Festival in Lawrence, MA.  The Demoulas story is “evidence of collective action, workers and consumers working together.”

If there are no workers, there is no production,” Forrant said.  While that may be as basic a statement about the power of labor as one could make, it’s not one that has produced many compelling and successful examples in Massachusetts and New Hampshire in the 21st century.  So far. 

“If I was a fast food worker, this would inspire me to think solidarity was possible,” said Forrant, who received this year’s Labor Day Heritage Festival Hall of Fame Award.

The festival also featured the first annual wreath-laying ceremony at the monument to the 1912 strike commemorated by the Bread and Roses Festival.  There, too, Demoulas workers were front and center.  “This monument speaks to me,” saidP9010115 Steve Paulenka, one of several company executives fired for instigating protests.  “Remember what they did and why they did it.”

We should also remember the summer of 2014, “when a whole lot of ordinary folks got together and made extraordinary things happen,”  Paulenka continued.

Professor Forrant says it’s too early to know whether the Demoulas struggle is one for the history books.  But in 1912, he said, no one knew the Bread and Roses strike would inspire workers decades later.   

Flowers laid at memorial to the 1912 Bread and Roses strike

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A strike by Fairpoint workers is still possible but negotiations have not ended, a union spokesperson announced an hour short of the strike deadline this evening.  “Make no mistake, this fight is not over,” Glenn Brackett of the IBEWP8020501 told a hundred or so union members and allies outside Fairpoint’s downtown Manchester office at 11 pm. “We will continue to mobilize until we get a contract that’s fair.”

Brackett said workers should return to work but that a strike could be called at any time.  Terms and conditions of the expired contract will remain in effect while negotiations continue.

“The company has been very unresponsive to many of the major proposals we have made,” Bracket said, P8020489 adding that the company’s attitude has been dismissive and antagonistic.  

He explained that the company had turned down a union proposal that would have saved the company millions of dollars.  

Fairpoint workers are represented by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Communications Workers of America.

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“Bring Back the Boss”

I have to cheer when workers take collective action to defend dignified working conditions.  So I was happy to stop by the pickP7300456et line outside the Demoulas Market Basket Supermarket in Concord for a chat with some of the workers this afternoon.

Three workers were out on the road, waving signs and collecting honks from motorists.   Others were by the doorways, hanging out with fellow workers who were on the job.  Workers are even making picket signs inside the store. They don’t have a union and the workers I talked to don’t want one.  This is the strangest strike I’ve ever observed.

Strangest of all:  their demand is to win reinstatement of the company’s paternalistic CEO, Arthur T. Demoulas, who workers say has treated them well.

The chain’s 71 stores have been open since the labor conflict erupted two weeks ago.  The issue is a conflict within the Demoulas family, which has been squabbling for years.  When Arthur T. was deposed by the company’s board, workers revolted, from management to entry-level.  The stores are open but the shelves are getting bare, especially since the regional distribution center is mostly shut down.

The Boston Globe has provided a useful chronology.

Austin, who was waving a sign on Fort Eddy Road in Concord this afternoon, said the struggle has “a lot P7300461 of union aspects,” but said the workers have no interest in forming an actual union.  Apparently they believe their interests are being adequately represented by others who are at the negotiating table with the Demoulas family and the Board of Directors. 

I told him my own activist career started, in a sense, as a participant in supermarket picket lines during the United Farm Workers boycotts of the 1970s.  He has heard of Cesar Chavez and says the Demoulas workers have had supportive visits from union reps.  

Demoulas workers say that under Arthur T. they have been treated well, prices have been kept lower than in other chains, and customers have been happy.  Their fear is that the Board will discard profit-sharing and other policies that make Demoulas a good place to work. 

Brianna, who has been working as a cashier for a year, has been happy with her wages and says there’s been no talk of unionizing.  She just wants everything to go back to the way it was. 

What I wonder is whether workers who have gotten a taste of their power will go back to what she called “normal.”  “Normal” has a way of changing.  

 

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I can’t say I ever dreamed about Joe Hill, the legendary songwriter and Industrial Workers of the World member. But on the hundredth anniversary of the verdict in a Salt Lake City court that would put him before a firing squad sixteen months later, he is once again in my waking thoughts.

It was probably Joan Baez singing about Joe Hill that first drew my attention to him. (No, I wasn’t at Woodstock, but I saw the film and listened to the record album.)

“The copper bosses killed you, Joe,

They shot you Joe,” says I.

“Takes more than guns to kill a man,” said Joe,

“I didn’t die.”

My sister brought home a 1968 Phil Ochs album, “Tape from California,” with his ballad about Joe Hill’s life. Like Joe Hill did so many times, Ochs put new words to a familiar tune, in this case the English folk song, “John Hardy,” which had also been used by Woody Guthrie for his “Ballad of Tom Joad.”

Ochs described Joe’s arrival in New York as an immigrant from Sweden, how he took up with the IWW “cause the union was the only friend he had,” and how he began writing songs to raise the spirits of union members.

Now, the strikes were bloody and the strikes

Were black as hard as they were long

In the dark of night Joe would stay awake and write

In the morning he would raise them with a song

The IWW – known as “The Wobblies” for reasons that remain a bit obscure – had a revolutionary vision of a single union that would unite workers across lines of race and national origin, across lines of gender, across industries, and even across borders to take away power from the capitalist class and put it in the hands of workers. As the final phrase of “Solidarity Forever,” a labor anthem written by an IWW member puts it, “We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old when the union makes us strong.”

The Wobblies believed in direct action, especially strikes, as the primary means for achieving power in the workplace and in the larger society. Their “anarcho-syndicalist” approach contrasted with the socialists who put up candidates for election.   But the radical movements of the early twentieth century found much in common. Eugene Victor Debs, for instance, was present at the IWW’s founding convention in 1905.

Joe played the fiddle and other instruments, but is not remembered as a musician. He was, however, a decent cartoonist and a brilliant lyricist, who took popular tunes and substituted new words.

Phil Ochs sang:

He wrote his words to the tunes of the day

To be passed along the union vine

And the strikes were led and the songs were spread

And Joe Hill was always on the line

The late folksinger and song-writer Utah Phillips used to say the IWW songwriters  used hymns because they had pretty tunes and wrote new words “so they’d make sense.” In that vein “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” becomes “Dump the Bosses Off your Backs.” The Doxology becomes,

Praise boss when morning work bells chime,

Praise him for bits of overtime,

Praise him whose wars we love to fight,

Praise him fat leech and parasite.

Joe Hill’s most famous song, “The Preacher and the Slave,” is a send-up of a hymn often sung by Salvation Army bands on street corners. During the free speech fights, when IWW members who were barred from using the same street corners to proselytize for the “One Big Union” took to the streets in acts of mass civil disobedience, Joe converted “In the Sweet By and By,” to “You’ll get pie in the sky when you die (that’s a lie).”

It was Joe Hill, who “more than any other one writer, had made the IWW a singing movement,” according to Joyce Kornbluh, editor of Rebel Voices: an IWW Anthology. His songs, and others, were printed in The Little Red Songbook, new editions of which the IWW would put out from time to time. The publication’s was designed so workers could easily fit it in their pockets and take it out on picket lines or in jail cells. (I’m proud to say I have a song in the 38th edition, on sale from the IWW.)

“A pamphlet, no matter how good, is never read more than once, but a song is learned by heart and repeated over and over,” Joe wrote in a letter from his prison cell. “I maintain that if a person can put a few cold, common sense facts into a song, and dress them … up in a cloak of humor to take the dryness off them he will succeed in reaching a great number of workers who are too unintelligent or too indifferent to read a pamphlet or an editorial in economic science.”

In addition to “The Preacher and the Slave,” Joe Hill is remembered for “There is Power in a Union,” “Casey Jones: Union Scab,” and “The Rebel Girl,” a song inspired by Concord native Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.

Joe Hill on Trial for Murder

When John Morrison, a Salt Lake City shopkeeper, and his son Arling were killed at their store on January 10, 1914, Joe Hill was living and working nearby. A victim of a never-explained gunshot wound received the same night, Hill was arrested and charged with the crime.

“In reality, there was virtually no evidence to suggest that the police had the right man,” writes William Adler, in an excellent biography, The Man Who Never Died: The Life, Times, and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon. “The state’s case was entirely circumstantial and leaned heavily on the theory that the younger

Morrison, in the moment before he had died, had fired the shot that had torn Hill’s chest. But the prosecutor could not prove that Morrison’ gun had been fired, let alone that Hill had been at the store. Nor could the state show a motive, or produce the murder weapons, or elicit testimony that positively identified the defendant. In short, the state failed to meet Utah’s statutory standard for a cased based on circumstantial evidence; that the chain of proof ‘be complete and unbroken and established beyond a reasonable doubt.’”

Hill insisted he had been with a woman that night and would not divulge her identity out of a sense of honor. Whether he had a naïve faith that the American system of justice really did put the burden of proof on the prosecution, or whether in some sense he desired martyrdom, he failed to mount an effective defense. “Like many Wobblies,” Adler writes, “Joe Hill was principled to the point of recklessness.”

Adler holds that Joe Hill chose “apparently came to believe, consciously or unconsciously, that he could better serve the union by dying. And later, once it was clear that he would not be getting a new trial, he perhaps came to see his death as necessary, or at the very least as valuable propaganda for advancing the cause of industrial unionism. The cause needed a martyr, someone to incite his fellow workers, to inspire them not to mourn but to organize, and he cast himself in that swaggering role.”

Adler says “The irony of Hill having taken on the role of good soldier in the class war was as inescapable as the penitentiary. For he was on trial for his life for a crime that had nothing to do with politics. Yet his prosecution, baseless as it was, in the end was about nothing but politics: about a partial judge … abetting an ambitious prosecutor to make the case that State of Utah v. Joseph Hillstrom was as much a class action against the IWW as it was a murder trial.”

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, “Utah was the first state to resume executions after capital punishment was reinstated in the United States in 1976, when Gary Gilmore was executed by a firing squad on January 17, 1977.” It is also the only state that has used a firing squad in recent times.

Many more rebels have been jailed on trumped up charges since Joe Hill’s day. And as has become terribly clear, plenty of people have been sentenced to death for crimes they did not commit. Since 1973, 140 people have been exonerated and freed from death row. How many innocent people are still under sentence of death is impossible to know, but a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences estimates it could be more than 4% of the death row population.

As for Joe Hill, “Death imbued his life with meaning,” Adler concluded. “What, after all, attests more powerfully to a righteous cause than the willingness to die for it?”

On June 27, 1914 Joe Hill was found guilty of the murder of John Morrison. He was killed by a firing squad on November 15, 1915.

Phil Ochs:

Yes, they lined Joe Hill up against the wall
Blindfold over his eyes
It’s the life of a rebel that he chose to live
It’s the death of a rebel that he died.

Ochs may have gotten a few facts wrong, but hey, it’s a folksong, and it worked for me.

The song Joan Baez sang at Woodstock is from a poem written by Alfred Hayes in 1934.  The labor icon appears in a dream.

“Joe Hill ain’t dead,” he says to me

“Joe Hill ain’t never died,

Where workingmen are out on strike,

Joe Hill is at their side.”

Yours for the O.B.U.

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Bread and Roses

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Memorial Unveiled at Bread and Roses Festival

Labor history is about struggle, not just victories, says historian and labor activist Dexter Arnold.  But the victory of workers 100 years ago in Lawrence MA is still worth remembering and celebrating.

“In January, 1912, 20,000 workers, mainly Southern and Eastern European immigrants, nearly half of them women, walked out of the mills and walked intolabor day 2012 09 03 008 history in a strike that captured national attention, won important economic gains, and created a new pattern of labor activism in Lawrence,” Brother Arnold said this afternoon at the unveiling of a monument dedicated to what has become known as the “Bread and Roses Strike.”  Uniting across lines of language, gender, and ethnicity, workers won improved wages after going on strike when textile mill bosses cut their pay.

Memory of the 1912 strike animates the annual Bread and Roses Festival that draws thousands to a Lawrence park, just a few blocks from the mill buildings where workers wove wool fabric.  This year’s festival, in the centennial year of the historic strike, had special significance for the activists, historians, civic leaders, and artists who have kept the festival going.  And where else would you hear a high school girls choral group sing “God Bless America” and “The Internationale” in the same set? labor day 2012 09 03 028

“Outsiders marveled at what was happening on the streets of Lawrence,” Arnold said of the nine week strike that rocked Lawrence a hundred years ago. “They marveled at the cooperation among members of different ethnic groups, at the workers’ enthusiastic militancy and effective organization, at their determination and courage in the face of brutal repression.”

The walkout was not spontaneous, according to Arnold, but followed agitation by militant members of the Industrial Workers of the World.  In fact, one thousand Italian workers attended an IWW-organized meeting the night before the strike began and voted to strike if pay was cut.  The IWW sent in experienced organizers later, and the strikers received tremendous support from workers in other communities. 

“Solidarity was crucial but the strike was won on the streets and in the neighborhoods of Lawrence” Arnold said.

An injury to one is still an injury to all

The importance of community mobilization is just one of the lessons we can learn labor day 2012 09 03 049 from Lawrence.  Steve Thornton, a Connecticut labor activist who has been researching IWW history in that state, highlighted another: the importance of organizing immigrants and low-skilled workers.   The American Federation of Labor, the dominant labor organization of the early 20th century, focused on native born, skilled workers, ignoring most of the women and immigrants in the workforce.  Lacking the vote, they found their voices in the workplace through direct action, which Thornton called “an under-utilized tool in our toolbox.”

“People’s victories come first and foremost from people’s movements,” Thornton said, not from elections or legislation. 

Of course, if all you knew of the labor movement came from this morning’s Labor Day Breakfast in Manchester you might draw the opposite impression.  This is an election year, and nasty, anti-union politics have nearly prevailed in New Hampshire over the past two years.  And while Brother Thornton might be right that victories come from movements and direct action, big defeats can come at the ballot box.  Election of anti-labor candidates in November will pave the way for backwards motion that would need years of organizing to reverse.  So perhaps it was fitting that the breakfast felt a bit more like a political than a labor rally.  The stakes are high indeed.

 

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Yesterday Speaker of the House Bill O’Brien accused unionized postal workers (or what he called “union thugs” in a Facebook post) of messing with his mail delivery out of political spite. 

Today, the Speaker received his mail right on schedule, delivered by Ron Pritchard, President of National Association of Letter Carriers Branch 72.  

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5-5-12 038 “Don’t trust your employer to say everything’s all right,” says Al Bouchard, a member of NH COSH and an advocate for workers injured by chemical exposure.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Re-Awakening the Spirit of 1912

NASHUA — Keeping their fingers crossed that the biggest legislative battles of the year are behind us, union members and labor allies rallied in Nashua on May 5 to raise spirits for whatever struggles lie ahead.  The “Solid as Granite” rally drew about 75 people to the Greeley Park band shell. 

The mood was defensive and defiant sixteen months into an intense State5-5-12 004 House battle that isn’t over yet.  “We will not be intimidated.  We will not go away,” shouted Mark MacKenzie, president of the NH AFL-CIO.  

With two right-to-work-for-LESS bills tabled in the State Senate, prospects are good that Speaker of the House Bill O’Brien’s anti-labor onslaught has been stopped.  But the Speaker, who recently took other proposals sidelined by the Senate and re-attached them as amendments to other measures, 5-5-12 011 may have more tricks up his sleeves. 

“Do not let up on any of us,” said Rep. Mary Gorman, one of ten local Representatives recognized for their “dedication to the middle class.”

The role of unions in creating and defending the middle class is by now well established.  Labor would be making a mistake, however, if it fails to connect with the issues facing people who aspire to the middle class.  Diana Lacey, president of the state’s largest union, was the only labor speaker who explicitly linked labor’s agenda to the needs of the poor.  5-5-12 012

Lacey, whose mom migrated from Mexico, also linked labor’s agenda to the importance of stopping the Arizonification of America.  She was also the one who mostly clearly identified labor with “the 99%.” 

MacKenzie also understands that labor’s fortunes are tied to other sectors, including “the religious community who care about the labor movement.” 

“That’s how we gonna take back the state of New Hampshire,” MacKenzie said.  I’m not sure we ever really had it, but his point is well taken.  With O’Brien already running again for Speaker, the 2012 election is looming large for labor. 

Other speakers included Robert Sherman of the Nashua Federation of Teachers;  Paul O’Connor from the Metal Trades Council at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard; Magnus Pardoe of the Nashua chapter of SEIU 1984; Ed Foley of the Sheet Metal Workers; Ed Barnes of the Mail Handlers; Craig Lange of the new union of Community College adjunct faculty; and Laura Hainey of the AFT.   Matt Murray, editor of NH Labor News, served as emcee.  Gerry O’Connor spoke about growing up in Lowell and made reference to the “Bread and Roses” strike of 1912.

If the New Hampshire unions are working hard to stand their ground and defend the4-28-12 008 status quo, labor activists and scholars a few miles south are looking back to 1912 in order to look forward.  The 100th anniversary of the landmark “Bread and Roses” strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts has occasioned a variety of cultural programs, including last week’s  Academic Symposium.  300 people ranged between several buildings in the city’s historic mill district for workshops on topics as diverse as “Music and Culture and Labor History,” “The Strike and Immigration in the Classroom,” The Importance of Strike Activity in Building New Unions,” and “The Legacies of Labor’s Response to Racism.” 

One hundred years ago thousands of workers, mostly immigrants and about half women, walked out of Lawrence’s mills when employers cut their pay.  According to the Bread and Roses Centennial Committee,

What started as a wage protest quickly became a fight for better conditions both on and off the job. The strikers angrily complained about mistreatment by overseers and a job pace that made them work “like horses.” They also objected to a premium system that held part of their expected earnings hostage to month-long production and attendance standards.

After eight weeks of strike activity led by the Industrial Workers o4-28-12 007f the World, the bosses gave in and granted a 15% pay hike, with the biggest raises going to  the lowest paid workers.

The Centennial is “an incredible event for my family being able to reclaim our own history,” said Donna San Antonio, whose grandparents participated in the 1912 strike and who now teaches educators.   

While there were plenty of professors at the symposium, everyone present seemed eager to apply scholarship to current struggles for workers and immigrants.  That group includes the last unionized textile workers 4-28-12 015 in the city, 500 UNITE HERE Local 311 members working at Polartec.  “We continue to fight for bread and roses in our community,” said Juan Williams, who spoke at a lunchtime plenary that also featured AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. 

At an afternoon workshop other Polartec workers explained that they have better benefits than non-union workers in the city and that the union helps them solve workplace problems.  “If you have no union and someone doesn’t like you, there’s no way to defend yourself,” said a worker named Tony.   Another worker, Anya, said she has developed leadership skills through her union activity. 4-28-12 039 “Thanks to the union I have the opportunity to go anywhere to express myself,” she said. 

Formerly known as Malden Mills, the company where the Local 311 members work had a massive fire in 1995.  In the aftermath, the company shrunk from 2500 workers to 1000 and got bought out by Versa, a private equity firm which tried to cut benefits.  But the union is hanging on.

Labor’s resurgence is an essential ingredient of halting the drift toward plutocracy and lifting up the spirit of 1912.

In the words of James Oppenheim’s now famous poem,

No more the drudge and idler,

Ten that toil where one reposes,

But a sharing of life’s glories:

Bread and roses, bread and roses.

 

 

 

 

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