San Diego Troublemakers Go to School

by on March 9, 2011 · 2 comments

in Education, Labor, Organizing

In that town called San Diego when the workers try to talk,
The cops will smash them with a sap and tell them “take a walk”,
They throw them in a bull pen and they feed them rotten beans,
And they call that “law and order” in that city, so it seems.

From the July 11, 1912 edition of the IWW’s Little Red Songbook,
the first stanza of   “We’re Bound For San Diego”

It’s really hard to believe that San Diego has the largest amount of “troublemakers” in the U.S. but last Friday, over 250 activists and union leaders gathered at the city’s first Labor Notes Troublemakers School to discuss “Labor and Community in Times of Crisis.” This was fifty more than attended the “school” in New York last year in April and dwarfed the March, 2010 gathering in Boston with 90 attendees.

With troublemaking schools still to be held in places like Madison (April 1st) and Chicago (mid-May), organizers say the recent vicious attacks on public employee unions, particularly in the mid-west, has awaken many complacent union members that their middle-class way of life is threatened by right-wing politicians and their corporate masters. From shop stewards to the Secretary-Treasurer of the San Diego-Imperial County Labor Council, Lorena Gonzales, union officials made up about fifty percent of the participants, with about a third being members of the American Federation of Teachers.

The nine hour conference held at San Diego City College attracted many students as well leaders of the city’s social justice organizations. Under the auspices of the nation’s foremost radical labor publication, Labor Notes, participants came for many reasons. Some, out of solidarity with public employees under the gun in Wisconsin, others to participate in the various break-out sessions on particular aspects of activism.

As in typical progressive conferences, the smorgasbord of issues seemed overwhelming, pushing participants toward unique, specific issues with which one can relate on a personal level: support for maquiladora workers, women in the workplace, labor and the environment, fighting Wal-Mart, social justice from people of faith, education reform, student activism, the California budget crisis, immigrant labor concerns, and so on and so forth, all important issues; yet, somehow almost too fashionable, too introverted, too many comfort zones of activism complete with plenty of statistics , personal stories and informational data,  but, rarely, it appears at such gatherings does this idiosyncratic process seem  very transformational – much less movement building.

It was as if the unions which were participating were beginning a few baby steps toward a broader “labor movement” in San Diego which is materializing in states where public employee unions are under attack.

Sadly, however, the power liberals had the morning and a few rank and file workers, with their rebelliousness and boldness, were relegated to late afternoon when most of the weary participants had gone home. Union officials with good salaries, professors, white-collar social justice activists who brilliantly articulate the problems, catalogue the needs, intellectually particularize the issues and usually base their actions on intention rather than outcome; yet, vary rarely do they outline, or even suggest, a confrontational path. From their particulars of reform actions, there is no path to a general shutdown strategy. They controlled the parameters of discussion and, thus, what little was debated about what exists today or alternative unionism.

In fact, after nine hours and tens of thousands of words, when the very last speaker, Doug Moore, of the United Domestic Workers of America, suggested a “general strike” in San Diego there was no applause or mummer of agreement among the thirty or so bleary-eyed remainees. It was as if those of us still there realized that there was no real labor movement, just an illusion of what should be. The fact that the Secretary-Treasurer of the county AFL-CIO Labor Council or any other union official didn’t have the inclination to sit and listen to the afternoon panel of young, committed rank and file union members who spoke of their skirmishes with management and union bosses alike in their struggle against the corporate state and its economic tyranny, was the real tragedy of this conference. It shows a movement used and betrayed by power liberals, well-paid reformers and faint-hearted unions officials who are afraid to state a simple moral imperative – such as “anyone who works should be guaranteed a living wage”- and, then, commit themselves to whatever it takes to produce that outcome.

These union bosses, religious menders with their bandages for gapping economic wounds, professors of conscience and remorseful professionals work from the specific to the general. Small projects, secondary struggles, lesser campaigns toward small groups of workers because the general strike, an all-purpose confrontation, an expansive coalition, a proliferating physical attack on inequality and injustice, would cost most of them their position in the hierarchy as well as those at the top. Egypt is a general strike, Madison is a specific work stoppage – in spite of how much emboldened liberals want to portray it. If black, single mothers on welfare to work programs had taken the capital building, how long would they have been able to stay? Probably till the first pizza arrived and well before the sleeping bags were carried in. If teenage Latino and Latina youth who work at McDonalds or other low-wage service factories had camped out in Madison, how many of the public employee unions would have joined them?

Young Rank and File Union Members Challenge Systems of Power

The message lost to the 220 participants who didn’t attend the panel of inspiring young rank and file workers, was that power and injustice can be challenged, not just talked-about.  The go-homes, “I’ve had my say, done my panel”, political actors, who seemed uninterested in the future of their own supposed movement and those activists savvy enough to know that whenever there are young activists around they will be challenged, forced to re-think their complicity in the corporate state and its war economy also left early.  And so too did those activists who hang on celebrity, on hierarchy, on the words of “experts,” to articulate the timid parameters of the discussion and never ever give young people the space to even consider rising up and fighting back as hundreds of thousands of youth throughout North Africa and in the Middle-East are doing at this very moment.

A panel of America’s finest youth, union members who not only work to democratize and build social equality within their unions but see their local struggles, both personal and organizational, as part of the larger struggle for a labor movement in this county,  a movement which in turn will fight for a larger economic justice movement, as Martin Luther King, Jr. envisioned,  which could possibly bring down the corporate state – its inequality, its wage oppression, its wealth based politics, declining living conditions, shrinking educational opportunities and its obscene wars.

As with most lefty gatherings, the labor conference seemed to lack praxis – a merging of theory and action. There were lots of specific verbal exchange but no scheme of action, lots of individual theories and opinions but no attempt at consensus, no hint of conscientization, no effort to discuss or think about us as individuals, alone and angry, yet integrated in spatial or temporal history, in a system, a corporate state of privilege and exploitation – which can be, indeed, be brought down, as we see in Egypt and other nations.

It was a shame that the labor leaders, the local power liberals and social do-gooders  did not attend the rank and file gathering, tacked on at the end of the day. These young people are our true guardians of a worthy future. They know full-well if you don’t fight injustice and oppression on an individual level, upfront and personal, as they say, in your workplace or your neighborhood, from the bottom-up, inside out, nothing will ever change.

Having a job is not enough for Tony Perez and David Guiterrez of the Teamsters Union, Local 542; they not only fight for justice at their UPS workplace, forming a fellow employee group called “Workers Collective for Change,” which struggles with the increasing demands of management for more productivity as they lay off more and more workers, but also formed “Teamsters for Democracy,” which tries to tear down the exploitive hierarchies not only within their own International Union but also in the broader corrupt political system.

Also speaking at the rank and file forum was Jeff Graves, a union steward of the Services Employees International Union (SEIU), who said that the right-wing attacks on public employee unions was “a battle against all workers.” However, with that golden honesty which is inherent in youth, he chided his own union and others for not getting out and educating others what a union is all about. “One great union is the only way to go,” he said, “it’s the only way we are going to be able to fight the bosses and win.” He suggested we move away from the notion of “trade unions” and build worker organizations which included the skilled and un-skilled.

Another participant on the panel was Michael Anderson, a member of the Communications Workers of America, which has been locked in a bitter struggle with San Diego’s Channel Ten and its management’s vicious campaign to break the union, and, thus, be able to cut wages and drop benefits for most employees. He spoke about the illegal tactics used by the corporate brass, which included mandatory union busting meetings of employees and spying on the personal lives of workers, compiling a “list of fear” which targets those in most economic need, even listing an employee with an ill child and another who is Gay. He then spoke about the in-your face, actually the in-your-camera-lens, operation which puts the truth on Channel 10’s own video at live events with well placed signs, which the National Labors Relations Board said was a reasonable tactic and a component of free speech.

Those of us who live in San Diego will soon see labor unions under the gun as well. As the local ideologue Carl DeMaio, who once worked for Newt Gingrich and several right-wing think tanks, finance’s a ballot initiative to fracture public employee unions. Also, the city council’s cowardly repeal of the Wal-Mart accountability ordinance has left the local grocery workers, represented by the UFCW, in a precarious position as they begin contract negotiations with the major grocery chains. The increasing incursion of the predatory, low-wage Wal-Mart ogre was what led to the 2003 bitter strike which saw 70,000 walked or were locked -out in over 900 stores. San Diego has 14,000 unionized members of the UFCW.

Several old-timers, organizers from the days of union strength, spoke about the need to “retake the labor movement,” asking “does the leadership reflect the membership?” Fred Collins said, “our unions are weak because we allowed it to happen.” He urged everyone to join a labor teach-in scheduled for May 1st. Meanwhile, Gregg Robinson, a member of the American Federation of Teachers, reminded everyone that government in its taxation policy must help the unions create a more equitable society. He pointed out that the San Diego Equality Alliance recently released data which showed that if 13 hedge fund CEO’s who each make over $1 billion yearly in salary – not including their assets – were taxed at the same rate as a firefighter, we could fund 13,000 additional teachers for our children.

Renters Union Calls for Living Wage for All Who Work

To our members in the Renters Union, collective bargaining is something you do at a swap meet. Even though 80 % of them work, most at two jobs and even among the 15 percent on social security, a third have part-time service work; only one of us belongs to a union (and that’s me – the National Writers Union, which doesn’t even have a local in San Diego). Several times among members, I have heard disparaging remarks about the demonstrations in Madison; a kind of resentment, not so much that those professionals and public service workers in the capitol rotunda are over-paid or a part of the reason for the financial crisis, but, rather,  that they have the ability to really fight back about their situation.

Debbie Grey, spoke up at our Saturday meeting, saying “the middle-class is perhaps, for the first time, beginning to experience the exploitation and abuse which the working poor have experienced for over 30 years, since Reagan’s revolution for the rich.”  She speculated that while they have the will and means to fight back, only time will tell if they have waited to long – while the corporate state has consolidated its power. “You see, when push comes to shove, they will back down,” another member said, talking about how the occupiers simply moved out the capitol building after they ordered to do so. Another commented that the state legislators were “meek and quiet” when one of their own was attacked by police while on his way to his office.

Almost a quarter of a million families in San Diego County, 30% of our local population, cannot afford a decent life, the Center for Policy Initiatives (CPI) reported in its “Making Ends Meet” report in 2010. Of those living below the poverty standard, 88.7% of non-retired households have at least one person in the family who works, over half of them at full-time jobs.  The CPI study reports that $15.38 an hour is the minimum wage necessary for 2 adults, an infant and preschooler to meet a basic self-sufficiency in the San Diego region, factoring in the cost of housing, transportation, child care, health care, and other basic family needs. A single parent with a preschooler needs a minimum wage of $21.77 to live outside of poverty.

The Renters Union asks why collective bargaining is limited to trade and public unions. Why not real collectiveness to bargain (demand, really) a living wage for every person who works in the city of San Diego. While only the federal and state governments have the statutory power to force an employer to pay a minimum wage, we can, as a city, try to simply make a living wage a condition of obtaining a business license, which is not a right but a privilege given by the community – like a driver’s license or fishing permit. Or we can demand our state legislators from the community put forth a bill which gives local jurisdictions the ability to set minimum wages based on their unique circumstances – such as San Diego’s highest cost of living to wage ratio in the nation or its second highest housing market in the state. Or the unions can finance a state initiative for local commissions to set living wages.

Most every speaker during the day-long conference, from the area’s top labor leader, Secretary-Treasurer Lorena Gonzales, to Rabbi Laurie Coskey, of the Inter-Faith Committee on Worker Justice, to Fred Glass, communications director for the California Federation of Teachers, alluded to the need for a living wage but not one person, not one organization or union, made the slightest suggestion about how we begin to get there. It was like declaring a destination without a map; telling folks that we all agree that as human beings we need to use the bathroom in a safe, secure place and bathrooms are available – but not revealing to anyone where they are at or how to get there.

Recently, calling the Wisconsin governor’s assault on public workers “a war,” Jean Ross, a nurse in Madison, told Laura Flanders on her television program “they are trying to ruin unions so there will be no voice for the middle-class.” Meanwhile, Michael Moore, on the same program agreed, called the Wisconsin attack and the subsequent 15 day occupation of the capitol building, merely a skirmish in a “30 year war, begun by Ronald Regan to destroy unions.” He suggested that rather than unions drawing inward, running for cover in a desperate, self-centered effort to protect only their own salaries and benefits, when Regan opened fire on the air traffic controllers in 1981, “every union, every working person….should have shut the country down.”

In San Diego, the labor fight goes far further back as Jim Miller, a member of the American Federation of Teachers and author of the San Diego labor struggle book Flash: A Novel, told the gathering about one of the longest and bloodiest campaigns against labor rights in the nation’s history. In 1912 the San Diego City Council passed an ordinance aimed at organizers for the Industrial Workers of the World (wobblies) which prohibited public speaking within a 49 square block area of downtown San Diego. Over 5,000 people protested, 46 were arrested and the city council then allowed police to arrest (and often beat) any organizer or free speech advocate they came across within the city limits. Faced with overcrowded jails, the city’s oligarchy led by John D. Spreckels, financed vigilante groups who kidnapped and brutally beat wobbly union organizers and eventually broke the union in San Diego.

In other countries, particularly in Latin America, unions are a vital part of the infrastructure of change and democratic mechanisms; yet, they too suffer from the world financial meltdown and the squeezing of multi-national corporations for every greater sacrifice on the part of workers. In response to this economic crisis, the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) has announced a “collaborative project” to build hemispheric solidarity and integration (“Nuestra America”) of all employees, whether union members or not. Organizers from several nations will be touring the United States all month, visiting 10 cities – including San Diego on March 24 & 25. Sponsored by Union del Barrio (, the two day worker’s unity conference will highlight not only worker rights but how healthcare, education and food security are all part of the quality of life issues unions should be addressing. The all-day Troublemakers School, under the banner “putting the movement back in the labor movement,” was a beginning for San Diego; now, let’s all roll up our sleeves and get out and cause some real trouble about low wages and high prices in the corporate state.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Laurie Macrae March 12, 2011 at 11:45 am

I am guilty, guilty, guilty as charged of leaving the School for Troublemakers after the luchtime presentation on Walmart. I looked at the program and saw there would be presentations at the end of the afternoon that I would like to attend, but I recognize my limitations ( I’m not young) and figured I wouldn’t be fully present by then. It was nap time for granny.
Nonethe less, I appreciate the critique you have made and I have a few notes of my own to add.
You opened with a verse from the Wobblies Little Red Songbook, and referenced Jim Miller’s novel. Really, how about some original source material? Read Emma Goldman’s autobiography and get the harrowing description ofa participant. Goldman would never go back to San Diego and was more frightened by her treatment here than by her many arrests in other places during the course of her long life as a Troublemaker par excellence.
You use the term “Power Liberals” and I like it. But there should be a similar moniker for “Power Radicals”, those who sat on their hands and gave credence to the likes of Mike Aguirre when he began his attacks on local public service unions. Now we have Carl De Maio, spouting the exact same rhetoric. De Maio, who I addressed in my comments during the morning session on Women in the Workplace, has used women as the literal poster representation of union pension abuse. Aguirre called working with women “like herding kittens” and was sued for sexist behavior in the workplace by several female fellow workers.
CPI, a labor think tank you quoted late in your critique and a cosponsor of this event, has done a terrific job of raising conciousness on the living wage issue. They have clearly said that anyone who works deserves a living wage and they have mobilized labor and city coucil support behind the issue, so its not been ignored.
I share your concerns about actions based on intentions. The faith-based community that uses phrases like “moral authority” was all too willing to make compromises with downtown developers and Father Joe’s ghetto rather than address systemic affordable housing issues. Rent Control, DUHHH!!
Enough for now.
Peace, Laurie


annagrace March 12, 2011 at 5:07 pm

Great post Laurie. I hope we hear more from you.


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