Union Rap

Albert Vetere Lannon

© Copyright 2020 by Albert Vetere Lannon

Union sign.
(Labor sit-in at South Africa Airlines, 1985. I’m on right, with SF Labor Council Assistant Secretary Jeff Greendorfer on left.)

UNION RAP: Part 1 - A Family Tradition
Unions are getting a bad rap these days, often with justification. Corruption and embezzlement in the once-progressive United Auto Workers, individuals in other unions helping themselves to members’ dues for their own personal use, officials bought off by employers – these garner headlines while millions of workers with leadership true to trade union principles remain under increasing pressure to roll back the gains made over decades of struggle. Unions, which created the much-vaunted middle class in the United States, are now at their lowest membership levels since the Robber Baron Capitalism of a century ago.

I do not excuse the thieves ripping off their own members, but it’s worth reminding ourselves that union officials are subject to the same Get Rich Quick ethos as their business counterparts, the same corruption. When the Great Depression brought about the New Deal, with worker rights put into law for the first time, the post-war years saw working people buying homes and cars, sending their kids to college, enjoying first-ever health insurance and pensions.

While unions represented about 35 percent of the post-war workforce non-union employers raised wages and added benefits to compete for labor, and unions sought legislative gains for all workers with minimum wage, abolition of child labor, the eight-hour day and overtime pay, workplace safety, etc. The rollback began when President Ronald Reagan fired 11,000 striking air traffic controllers in 1981. Union-busting became a growth industry, and plant closures began decimating union membership rolls.

I was raised in a radical pro-union household; Dad was a communist founder of the National Maritime Union and had organized for John L. Lewis and the new CIO. My mother’s father was a Wobbly, member of the anti-capitalist Industrial Workers of the World, a copper miner in Butte, Montana. Family legend has it that during a strike a mine was blown up – Wobblies believed in direct action – and Grandpa Isaac quickly headed back to Finland, returning a few years later with a wife and a new name. I believed in unions. Some unions are undemocratic; others rely on rank and file decision-making. I have been in four unions in my lifetime and experienced both.

My first union was a Painters Union local in New York City, alleged to be mob-run. I was 18, soon to marry, and working as an apprentice painter in the Parkchester Apartments, upscale high-risers in the Bronx. I worked for Hudson Painting and Decorating as part of a crew of 20 or so painters.

As the apprentice I got the crap jobs, like painting closets. Closets don’t get very dirty so paint was thinned 50-50 with benzene, a known carcinogen (although unknown to we who worked with it at the time) and I got to do the closets. I was drunk by the third closet, and not in any nice way. All of us had burns on our butts from the benzene rag we stuffed in our back pockets to clean up little spatters. At the end of the day we half-filled a wash basin with hot water, poured in a dollop of benzene and scrubbed up. On slow days I cleaned paint pots in a vat of benzene, with a shield to protect my eyes. I have incurable multiple myeloma today, quite likely as a result of all that benzene exposure.

I was happy to see a first-ever coffee break in a new labor-management contract. A group of us were painting hallways and at 10 a.m. I sat down for my break. The other painters looked askance at me and kept schmearing Louie, the Foreman, came by and asked if I was sick. No, I said, I’m taking my break.

What break? he asked. I showed him the new contract. He took it with him. At noon I returned to the shop for lunch and Superintendent George was waiting for me to explain that it explicitly said “coffee break” and said that you couldn’t leave the work site to get it. Therefore, he said, if I had a thermos of coffee with me I could take ten minutes to drink it, but no coffee, no break. I asked, suppose I don’t drink coffee, suppose I drink milk? He said, No break, it says “coffee!”

At the end of the day I was laid off for a week as punishment. I called the local union and they backed the Super. Not a good first experience with a union. That soured me on learning that trade, and I moved on after a year-and-a-half to the Bronx Zoo Reptile House.

I had been a budding herpetologist, keeping snakes at home and being mentored by an older boy across the street, Carl Herrmann, who may have had at some point the largest private collection in the city. My buddy Johnny-Boy De Maria joined us hitch-hiking on snake-hunting expeditions to the Ramapo Mountains and New Jersey Pine Barrens. I even went on an expedition with Carl to Okeetee, South Carolina, when I was 13, helping to catch a near-record size Eastern Diamondback Rattler which got Carl a job at the Staten Island Zoo Reptile House, where I spent that summer as a volunteer. (For more, read Snake Hunting in South Carolina at http://www.storyhouse.org/albertl6.html.)

The Bronx Zoo Reptile House was a dangerous place to work, with escaped venomous snakes, angry crocodiles and an inattentive Head Keeper who thought that anyone who read the New York Times was a Red. Zoo keepers also had no way to progress, no steps to increase income, and that was a major issue in 1958 contract negotiations between New York’s zoos and museums and the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Workers (AFSCME) District 37. With the employers’ strategy to win public support on the basis of animal cruelty – no care, no food – the union crafted a sensible strategy: to send the zoo keepers in to do basic care from 6 to 10 a.m.

The strike began, and on the second day the union rep told the keepers to stay inside. Since the strike was largely for the keepers’ issues, that didn’t sit well with those who were walking the picket lines in support. Common sense told me we might have a problem and I left the Reptile House to visit the pickets at zoo entrances and quickly picked up on the mood. My first organizing effort: I went to all the keeper’s work areas and pulled them out to the picket lines. The animals were fed and cared for, and we were just sitting on our butts listening to the radio.

The strike lasted four days and we were summoned to a mass meeting to hear about a settlement. Wages would go from $3,250/year to $3,500, but there was nothing to address the keeper progression issue which was at the heart of the strike. District 37 recommended a Yes vote, and called for the Ayes and Nays, without a secret ballot which was not required at that time. From where I sat the Nays had it but the union rep declared it passed and the strike was over.

So my second union experience was not a good one either. After a year-and-a-half holding King Cobras by the tail and tracking down other venomous snakes on the loose, we were tested for the anti-venom. It turned out I was highly allergic to the horse serum it was then made from, and the cure could kill me faster than the bite, so that career came to an end and I went to work for my father-in-law and his partner in a non-union direct mail shop.

A fire in our East Bronx apartment forced my then-wife to drop out of college and get a job so we could afford a replacement apartment in Astoria, Queens. Soon afterward we decided to move to the West Coast. My parents and sister had moved to San Francisco three years earlier, and we had borrowed my father-in-law’s car and driven cross-country in 1958. We had fallen in love with Los Angeles, with pastel-colored houses and flowers and hummingbirds – big stuff for a couple of New York street kids! The plan was to stay with my family, work, and save to move to L.A.

My arrest at the May, 1960, protests against the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the resulting political activity, took us to Berkeley instead, and when I realized that Berkeley bore little relationship to the real world, to San Francisco a year later. It didn’t take long to embrace San Francisco’s contempt for Southern California. One result of the anti-HUAC bust was creation of STEP, Stand Together for Education & Progress, a progressive worker adjunct to the rising student movement.

We distributed newsletters at community college night classes, and were among the first warning about the drive towards war in Vietnam. When the Retail Clerks went on strike at J.C. Penney in San Francisco, we helped on the picket lines, did shop-ins, and followed strikebreakers reciting Jack London’s definition of a scab:
After God had made the rattlesnake, the toad and the vampire, He had some awful substance left with which he made a scab….

I worked in a non-union direct mail shop, The Smith Company, which did a lot of mailings for Republican clubs, including announcements of showings of HUAC’s propaganda film, Operation Abolition. I passed that on to our anti-HUAC group and a “truth squad” was always present with flyers debunking the movie. When someone, probably the angry young biker who ran the postage metering machine, put Kennedy literature in a Nixon mailing, the company did a security check, and I was told there was “no room to grow” for me with the company.

I worked a couple of other jobs, and then settled in at Merchandising Methods in San Francisco’s South-of-Market district, working in the warehouse of a direct mail company. There were four of us in the warehouse, one part-time, and as many as 20 women table workers, depending on business. The company shorted me on a promised raise after three months, and I complained about it to my father. Dad was working at a union shop, Zellerbach Paper Company, under contract with Warehouse Local 6 of the progressive International Longshore & Warehouse Union.

He took me to meet Local 6 Business Agent Keith Eickman, a man who was to become my friend and mentor. Keith did not think that a legally-appropriate bargaining unit could be limited to the warehouse without the table workers. He said the only way to organize just the warehouse was to strike for union recognition. I told them that of the four of us, two were for the union, one was a supervisor, and the part-timer would probably quit.

Steve Green and I picketed for six weeks, through Thanksgiving and Christmas of 1962; the part-timer quit, and a company supervisor tried to intimidate us, wielding a knife while standing in a nearby doorway. After a month, Keith had us maintain a one-person picket line, alternating days with casual jobs out of the Local 6 hiring hall that were passed up by members. I worked in the hold of a couple of ships, humped whole frozen tuna fish, and avoided hides, considered the worst possible job in the industry. (Merchandising Methods did end up a Local 6 union shop years later, table workers included.)

Keith convinced us that we were not going to win this time around, inducted us into the union, and sent us to work. I ended up at Russell Bolt and Manufacturing Company, a nuts and bolts warehouse. There were two steady workers, and sometimes a third was added. I learned to drive a fork lift, and to use a longshore hook to catch the heavy boxes by the metal strap around them and drag them to me. It was heavy work, but it was a steady job, and I was a willing worker.

Charlie, my co-worker, had little interest in the union except for the wages and benefits we received, and I became the Shop Steward by default. There were few grievances, although the relationship between workers and bosses was never warm. Bob, the Supervisor, was fairly easy-going but Dan, the boss, was a hard-ass. One of the biggest labor-management issues came when I saw one morning that a long row of pipe shelving holding heavy pallet loads of nuts and bolts three high was bellying out.

I told Dan about it and his response was to stomp on my foot to see if I was wearing required steel-toed work shoes, I was. He ordered me to get to work. I was working that aisle with a fork lift, pulling boxes and stacking them on a pallet. I took a bathroom break and stopped to BS with Charlie, who was in a little corner area next to the bathroom where special orders were handled. Suddenly there was a loud metallic sound. We looked over and the shelving where I had been working went over, knocking down the next, and the next, in a domino effect.

The head guard on my fork lift had been mashed into the steering wheel. If I had not been goofing off for a moment, I would have been killed! Bob came out from the front office hollering for us, to see if we were safe. A minute later Dan came out with a handful of orders and clambered over the rubble to see if orders could continue to be filled. State safety inspectors, called in by Keith Eickman, issued numerous notices of safety violations. That event made me workplace safety-conscious forevermore.

Not that we didn’t do unsafe things. Sometimes shipments would come in cardboard kegs with the weight stenciled on them. It became a contest of sorts with Charlie as to who could carry the most across the floor. We were young, therefore immortal, and I managed 264 pounds. My lower back arthritis remembers it well!

As a Shop Steward I regularly attended and participated in monthly Stewards’ Council meetings, volunteering for everything. I initiated an Activities Committee which set up a Local 6 bowling league, a softball team, and held socials at the union hall. It was such a success at involving younger, inactive, union members that the rank and file Board of Trustees, with the support of the officers, gave us $500 to move forward. Local 6 Secretary-Treasurer George Valter had a fit, however, when I used most of that money to hire the John Handy Quintet -- recent stars of the Monterey Jazz Festival -- for a Sunday afternoon jazz concert at the Fisherman’s Wharf longshoremen’s hall. The concert was great, and, luckily, we broke even.

The ILWU strongly supported the Civil Rights Movement, and many members, including me, participated in a number of actions in support of opening jobs up to black workers at the Sheraton-Palace Hotel, on Auto Row, and in other sectors. Dr. Martin Luther King visited the Longshore Local 10 hall and was made an honorary member in 1967. The waterfront shut down in protest when King was assassinated.
The next dispute at Russell Bolt came in 1965, when I was selected as a rank and file Overseas Delegate. The union had begun sending rank and file teams to different countries with letters of introduction to meet with unions and workers and report back on conditions, building international solidarity. Along with Leo Labinsky from Canada and Shoji Okazaki from Hawaii, who had never left the state, I was scheduled to go to China. ILWU President Harry Bridges, however, wrote a column in the union paper critical of China, and the invitation was withdrawn. A few months we were sent to Great Britain for three weeks. I extended my ticket to include Berlin, Prague, Paris and New York, while Okazaki extended his to take him around the world.

In London, while touring the waterfront with officials of the Transport and General Workers Union, we were met with a mocking Three cheers for the red, while and blue from the dockers’ rank and file, while in Liverpool we met with a leader of the influential Unofficial Committee, Jack Dash. The Unofficials enforced safety and manning limits when the official union dragged their feet. They were currently opposing night shifts, with the slogan: Even dogs get to sleep at night!

Leo Labinsky went to Scotland while Shoji Okazaki and I went to Wales, meeting with the local Secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers, Dai Francis, who planned a mine tour for us the next day. That night, however, there was a mine explosion in a Rhondda Valley pit and 31 miners perished. Okazaki and I didn’t know that until we arrived at union headquarters in the morning and President Will Whitehead took us in tow. While government and Coal Board officials pondered the cause of the explosion a rank and file union committee was meeting to facilitate identification, funeral arrangements, and prompt relief payments to the families of the victims; employer or government representatives were not allowed in. We were escorted in and introduced: “A couple of Yanks, but good guys,” Whitehead declared, and we were privileged to see militant rank and file unionism in action.

After the official trip and extensions I returned home to my seven-months pregnant wife to find out that while I was gone I had been fired and then reinstated at Russell Bolt. Local 6 contracts provide that employee members taken off the job for union activity – on a negotiating committee, elected to fulltime office, or appointed staff -- retain their employee status and remain on the seniority list. Russell Bolt’s lawyer reinterpreted that clause to exclude Overseas Delegates because they were not specifically mentioned. Keith Eickman took up the grievance and won, so I returned to a hostile work environment, but with a steady income and much-needed medical insurance.

When things had settled down and our first child was born, and work was good at the union hiring hall, I summarily quit Russell Bolt, telling them on Friday evening that I wouldn’t be in Monday. I was unemployed for a few weeks, and Sidney Roger, editor of the ILWU’s newspaper, The Dispatcher, asked me to cover the annual Local 6 convention for him. He knew my writing from the Overseas Delegate reports. I wrote the story, and then Sid spent a day teaching me how to write journalism. And paid me for the day!

I was eventually dispatched from the hiring hall to Woolworth’s Pacific Distribution Center in South San Francisco, where Chief Shop Steward Vince La Magra welcomed me and told me to keep a low profile during the 90-day probationary period. He kept me so insulated among the 150-odd employees that some thought I was a management spy! I was a good worker and one of the few the company kept on and allowed to make seniority. I always believed in doing a good job so that if the company came after me it would be clear to the workers why. Then Vince appointed me Assistant Shop Steward.

Issues at Woolworth often had to do with management’s superior attitudes; supervisors insisted on being called Mister while addressing us by our first names. I found out their first names and began using them whenever I had to interact. It didn’t take long for that to spread through the huge facility. A new supervisor was assigned to shadow me as I filled open stock orders. I worked deliberately below my usual speed and he asked me one day, What would happen if we imposed a quota? Without blinking I said, We’d strike. End of discussion.

The 150-member workforce at Woolworth’s had its share of good workers and those who depended on the union to protect them. We sometimes lost grievances we should have won and we sometimes won grievances we should have lost, but we took the victory when management rolled over. Stealing was always an issue, and management instituted an inspection of lunch boxes and the like as we were punching out at the end of the day. I added little toys borrowed from my two kids, making sure none were similar to those carried by my employer. Dolls and teddy bears and such. When lined up at the time clock the next day, I respectfully refused to open my lunch box. They had no just cause to inspect me, I argued, and blanket inspections implied we were all not to be trusted, After some back and forth I relented; I would not open it but handed it to them and said, Go ahead. One supervisor’s face turned red as the toys appeared and they waved us all through without further inspections.

There was theft from the company, and I clothed my kids with Buster Brown from the shelves I filled orders from: it was justified as making up for wages we were not getting, making the company share a bit of its profits. I justified it with a line from the play Marat-Sade: What are a few looted mansions compared with their looted lives? I believed then, and do now, that profit is the difference between what it costs to make something, mostly the cost of labor, and what it can be sold for. Profit, therefore, represents mostly what workers do not get for the value they put in. (Years later, in sobriety, I made financial amends to Woolworth, now also believing that stealing was simply wrong.)

In October, 1966, the American Nazi Party announced itself in San Francisco, with plans for an October 22 rally at Civic Center. News articles carried the address of the local leader, “Lieutenant” Alan Vincent, on 14th Avenue in the Richmond District. I paid Lt. Vincent a visit, posing as a potential recruit, listening to diatribes against blacks, Jews, peace creeps and the media. Two giant swastika flags dominated the living room we sat in. I left with a handful of propaganda, mostly warning white people about the coming Black Revolution. Then I wrote an article about my visit under a pen name for a local left-wing weekly. And decided to do something about the October 22 rally.

With an African American shop steward from Local 6, Henry McKnight, we formed an ad hoc October 22 Coalition and sent out a call for a counter-rally. The response was huge, and on that Saturday every time Nazi leader George Lincoln Rockwell attempted to come up out of his camper to speak he was pelted with whatever was handy. The police finally told Rockwell to leave or they wouldn’t be able to prevent a riot.

UNON RAP: Part 2 – Labor Pie-Card

Resurrection City tents.

Resurrection City, tents erected on The Mall in Washington
by the multi-racial Poor People’s Campaign. (Billy E. Barnes
Photographic Collection (P0034), North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)

My family was living in St. Francis Square, a 299-unit apartment co-op put together with seed money from the ILWU in an effort to ensure affordable and integrated housing in the Western Addition redevelopment area. Woolworth was part of a Master Contract covering, with Teamster allies, some 25,000 Northern California workers. The Master Contract expired at midnight, May 31, 1967, and intense negotiations were underway. At 9 p.m. that evening LeRoy King, a St. Francis Square neighbor and an ILWU International Representative, knocked at our door.

Would I go to work for the union in the morning? There was a small office workers local whose staff member, Dick Lynden, had died; six office worker contracts expired along with the Master Contract and there had not even been meetings to draft proposals for negotiations. I said yes and in the morning went to Woolworth to tell them I wouldn’t be in, then reported to the Local 6 headquarters at 255-9th Street, South-of-Market.

I contacted the Stewards at the six offices and set up a series of meetings to draft demands. Meanwhile those 25,000 warehouse workers went on strike for three weeks, finally reaching an acceptable settlement. Five of the employers said they would go along with a past practice of giving the office workers the same percentage raise that the warehouse workers got, but the sixth, San Francisco News, refused to let the warehouse workers return to their jobs until the office contract was settled as well. That was on-the-job training with a vengeance.

Local 6 Business Agent Joe Muzio sat in and assisted me, letting me think that I was making the decisions, and deferring to me when I opposed the past practice of percentages and insisted on an across-the-board wage increase as the warehouse workers had gotten. I brought a proposed settlement back to the half-dozen office workers, and they were happy about winning the hard money wage increase, even though it was a lesser amount than the warehouse got.

Wrapping up the negotiations, I settled into servicing the offices and trying to organize new ones, with limited success. But I learned the skills needed to be a successful union rep and organizer, number one being a slogan from President Chili Duarte: “Democracy is gruesome! The membership is never wrong, even when they’re wrong!” I was not a “union boss,” and made sure to include the members on all decision-making, from grievance settlements to contract negotiations. That’s the kind of union I understood the ILWU to be, and it worked for me just fine.

The ILWU maintained a one-person office in Washington, DC, to push for improvements in federal laws like the Longshore and Harbor Workers Compensation Act, which regulated payment for injuries in the nation’s second-most dangerous occupation. The office also fought to protect ILWU jobs by opposing limits on log exports to Japan, and to improve safety regulations. Jeff Kibre, the long-time ILWU Washington Representative, died in 1967, and as the new year began I was offered the job. We vacated our St. Francis Square apartment, packed up, and moved across the country, settling in an Arlington, Virginia, apartment.

The apartment complex turned out to also house most of the Soviet Embassy staff, and the FBI regularly approached other tenants to recruit as spies on the Russian wives and children. I was a one-person office and the United Electrical Workers DC Rep, Millie Hedrick, taught me some of the ropes. Don Chang, aide to Republican Senator Hiram Fong from Hawaii where the ILWU was a major political force, took me in tow, introducing me to free haircuts, underground shuttle travel from the office buildings to the Capitol, and Bloody Mary and Welsh Rarebit lunches at the Carroll Arms.

I soon found out that no action was pending on the Longshore & Harbor Workers Compensation Act, and braced liberal San Francisco Congressman Phil Burton on it at some fund-raising party. Burton had been drinking and turned to Women Strike for Peace activist Donna Allen, saying, “Donna, this young man doesn’t think I know how to do my job!” Allen looked him in the eye and said, “Phil, you’ve been a great disappointment to us….” and went on from there. A proposed bill was introduced by Burton the next day, but in such haste that it had the previous year’s dates in it. In my three-and-a-half years in Washington – the Nixon years -- no action was ever taken on necessary amendments to protect waterfront workers.

We did get help from Northwest Congressmen opposed to banning log exports to Japan, work several longshore locals depended on. On the day of the vote in the House of Representatives, I sat in the gallery and watched two Congressmen argue and cut the deal – there would be limits on log exports, but not as severe as originally proposed.

In addition to those things that directly affected the union, I had the freedom to work on other things consistent with progressive union policies. I was part of a Poor People’s Campaign support group, and watched Resurrection City – the tent colony established by thousands of multi-racial activists – as federal troops razed it to the ground. I met amazing people at the Poor People’s Campaign: Peggy Terry from Appalachia via Chicago who ran for Vice President on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket with black militant Eldridge Cleaver in 1968; Reyes Tijerina, who led the Chicano contingent and sought to restore property rights to descendants of Spanish land grantees, and who led an armed assault on a New Mexico courthouse to free imprisoned activists the year before. There were massive peace marches.

I was in my office when Martin Luther King was assassinated, and watched the anger in the majority African American city explode. I seriously had to resist joining them. I caught an early commuter bus to Arlington, watching the National Guard troops rolling into the city as we fled. The uprising resulted in 13 deaths, over a thousand injuries, and 7,600 arrests. Coincidentally or not, it was not long until crack cocaine began flooding America’s ghettoes.

After a year in Arlington I asked the union for a loan and we bought a town house in the planned new town of Columbia, Maryland. James Rouse, the developer, was outspoken against the Vietnam War, and said that Columbia would be racially and economically integrated. It took about three months for me to become disillusioned. The developer put his profits first, and while we had elected town councils they had no power. African Americans were referred to as “The Interfaiths” because they lived in apartments subsidized by the religious community. My effort to bring the Greenbelt Grocery Co-op into Columbia was shot down by the rents the new town would charge them, leaving the only shopping choice the for-profit Giant Foods. I ran for the local town council, expressing all my discontents, only to have my opponent say, “I agree with everything Al Lannon says” – but she was acceptable to the Rouse Establishment, and beat me two-to-one.

One day the driver of the shuttle bus I was on mentioned that President Nixon was coming the next morning to visit Columbia. His helicopter would land in one of three places; that decision would be made at the last minute in the interests of safety. With the war still raging, I saw this as a chance to protest. I called the local peace organizations but they felt there was not enough time to organize anything. I made a big Peace Now sign and taped it to the top of our station wagon, and in the morning began shuttling between the three possible landing sites,. Soon I had an entourage of police, Secret Service and who-knows-who following me from one place to the other. Nixon never showed up, but his Secretary of Housing came in the afternoon; I was already at work in Washington.

I maintained contact with the Labor Attaché at the Soviet Embassy, Victor Mesheriakov; trade and good US relations with the USSR were important to the ILWU. He invited me to the annual celebration of the Russian Revolution, and I went. I had been handing out flyers for the Farm Workers’ grape boycott the week before and was startled to see tables piled high with fresh grapes. I asked Mesheriakov about it and he went to consult with higher-ups. He returned to tell me, proudly, that all those grapes had been flown in from the Soviet Union especially for the occasion. Yeah, right.

I met Marvin Rogoff at a Washington fundraising dinner and we had an immediate argument as to whether or not a certain union head had the right to call himself a socialist. Marvin came from the non-communist left, worked now for the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, and had been on the educational staff of the Ladies’ Garment Workers Union. We ran into each other often, leafleting for the United Farmworkers’ grape boycott, on the support committee for the Poor People’s Campaign, and in the newly-formed Washington Labor for Peace. Labor for Peace announced itself against the Vietnam War with a full-page ad in the Washington Post, topped with a photo of a US soldier’s haunted upper face and the words, A Rich Man’s War and a Poor Man’s Fight. The Post didn’t quite know how to handle it and insisted on listing the signers’ addresses with their names. That was no problem for me – using my G Street office address – but caused problems for quite a few signers who worked for AFL-CIO unions supporting the war.

That ad seemed to spark an upsurge in anti-war union activity, and our next project was a labor primer on the war, with resolutions adopted by various unions, including a newspaper ad from Bay Area unions headed We’ve Had It! That, in turn, led to calls to form a national Labor For Peace organization from peacenik senators George McGovern and Alan Cranston, with Marvin and I as unpaid staff. We worked together for months, learning to respect and admire each other. The AFL-CIO suffered a schism during this time, with the liberal United Auto Workers leaving the federation to join with the conservative Teamsters and a few other small unions in a short-lived Alliance for Labor Action. It became clear to us that the AFL-CIO was pressuring their members to stay away from us, and to tag the upcoming founding conference as a fringe ALA operation, not in the interests of the real labor movement.
Marvin and I agreed that we couldn’t let that happen, and we contacted UAW Secretary-Treasurer Emil Mazey to rescue the situation. Mazey came to the founding meeting and successfully converted it into an organizing committee for a national labor peace organization. That came a couple of years later, broader than anyone thought it could be, and – maybe – played a role in finally ending that disastrous conflict. Marvin and I remained close friends until his death, taking pride in the work we did and finding that people of good will can, and must, work together without letting political labels get in the way.

I count two other major accomplishments during my Washington time. The Occupational Safety and Health Act was being considered by Congress, and many labor organizations were testifying at the hearings, proposing this or that change. I wanted to do something different, something dramatic. I considered bringing a bag of blood and bones from some butcher shop and dumping it out, but decided that would probably get me arrested. I had, at a previous hearing on the war surtax, stapled a tea bag to the front page of my statement of opposition, suggestive, I hoped, of the Boston Tea Party.

When I arrived in Washington the final stages of a consensus standard for longshore safety on the docks was being put together by a government-run labor-management committee of representatives from the industry. I was new and most of the ILWU’s input had come through the International’s Research Director Barry Silverman. Since consensus standards meant lowest common denominator, they were pretty weak, without even toilets on the docks, The ILWU’s longshore division had a much stronger set of safety rules hammered out in negotiations with the employers.

While the consensus process had involved a number of unions at the beginning, by the time it was wrapping up only two remained, the ILWU and the East Coast International Longshoreman’s Association, represented by Safety Director Joe Leonard. I reviewed the files and when I went to testify in favor of OSHA – the draft of which called for implementation of consensus standards – I made a credible case that workers and their organizations were not really decisive in the process. That caused a stir, and the final law contained a line ensuring that any consensus standard had to have real worker/union input and participation. (I later used that line to block implementation of consensus standards on West Coast docks, with the support of the ILWU.)

My third memorable achievement came when I, along with a Ford Motor Company lobbyist, attended a Rules Committee meeting at the Capitol considering free trade. That meeting was cut short because it was the South Carolina delegation’s annual red snapper and gumbo luncheon with the president. As the Ford lobbyist and I were walking down the corridor we saw camera lights and a gathering crowd. I realized, It must be the president. It was two weeks after the US invasion of Cambodia, a dangerous escalation of the Vietnam War. I told the Ford guy, “Better get away from me, this is a once in a lifetime chance.”

It was Nixon, and I worked my way through the growing crowd until I was just several feet away, and shouted, “Peace Now!” I watched his suntanned smile simply crumble as the Secret Service hustled me away…and let me go.

One of my duties in the Washington Office was liaison with the International Longshoremen’s Association. The ILA has a checkered reputation, with ties to organized crime. I noticed in a Manhattan phone book one day that an “ILWU-Independent” was listed. News to me. I asked Joe Leonard about it and he shrugged it off, “They ain’t there no more.” I visited the site and found a tiny storefront shared with something-or-other trading company, and no one home.

I attended the 1971 ILWU Convention in Hawaii when ILWU President Harry Bridges was making efforts to deny Secretary-Treasurer Lou Goldblatt the presidency should Bridges die or retire. A top-level delegation from the ILA was invited, and showed up with call girls to help convince delegates that a merger would be a good thing. The membership didn’t agree, and a subsequent convention mandated retirement for both top officers as a way to break the impasse.

I had decided that I either had to be like everyone else in Washington to be effective, or get out. Keith Eickman, now Local 6 Secretary-Treasurer, offered me a position in Salinas, California, where two large plants were not getting serviced well and more organizing needed to be done to build the division. I accepted, and we sold our Columbia town house and bought a ramshackle house in Prunedale, nestled in the hills north of town, in Fall of 1971.

Local 6 represented about 300 workers at McCormick-Schilling Spices and 150 at Nestlé Chocolate. Schilling had moved from San Francisco some years before, and the union was successful in securing job rights for employees willing to move to Salinas. As a result there was a strong union presence, mainly carried by African Americans who had made the move. Nestlé workers had been in another union and, dissatisfied with the representation, voted for Local 6 in a government-run representation election. Because of the distance from the closest union office in San José and limitations of the elected Business Agent in that division, Nestlé workers still felt under-represented and were grumbling. Both companies, in different ways, were used to doing things their way without union input.

Schilling was the first place I saw the term “Human Relations” on a door instead of “Personnel.” I introduced myself to HR Manager Roy Lorenz and, in our conversation, he declared, “We really don’t need a union here; we run a democratic factory.”

Really? I asked. So…workers get to elect their supervisors? Workers can fire their bosses?” Lorenz looked at me as if I had just landed from Mars. I continued: “As long as you can fire the workers and the workers can’t fire you, it’s a dictatorship, maybe a more-or-less benign one, but a dictatorship none-the-less.” Lorenz chewed gum furiously. Chief Steward Dula Broussard, who had been in the union for years, tried to hide her smile.

Nestlé was more old-fashioned: the boss was the boss was the boss. The inflexible Plant Manager, D. Bill Husted, was assisted by the more manipulative Lou Causey, who had a talent for seeming sympathetic even as he implemented Husted’s restrictive policies. Two very different companies with two very different challenges; I had my work cut out for me.

I needed to show the Nestlé members that the union could be effective, that the company could be called to account. My experience in Washington on the Occupational Safety and Health Act came into play. On my first visits to the plant I was struck by the high noise levels around the production lines. I borrowed a sound meter from the University of California’s Labor Occupational Health Program. The noise standard limit was set at 85 decibels over eight hours, and I registered much higher noise levels in a number of work areas.

I called in Cal-OSHA and they posted notices of violations in most of the areas I pointed to. It was the first time that Nestlé had been graphically shown to be wrong, with the official notices daily reminders. The company started passing out ear plugs and other protections.

One day a woman at Nestlé, Dorothy Henke, collapsed on the production line. An ambulance was called but the line never slowed. Two weeks later her doctor released her to return to work, but the company balked, insisting that she be cleared by the company doctor as well. I was told that this had happened several times before and those workers never returned to their jobs. The plant nurse faithfully carried out company orders. The company doctor, as expected, said Dorothy was unfit to return to work.

Dorothy came to the union office reluctantly, but she needed her job. I noted that the collapse might well be related to the noise levels. I went to the Local 6 officers and recommended a medical arbitration. They were reluctant at first because of the high cost of bringing in medical experts, but when I argued that this could make or break the union at Nestlé, it was agreed to, and approved by the rank-and-file General Executive Board. Chief Nestlé Steward Marcos Simonides was thrilled.

In the arbitration Nestlé’s loyal doctor went so far as to say that Dorothy had been stepped on by a horse when she was nine years old and that was the source of her collapse. The Cal-OSHA noise fines, although minimal, clinched the case and the company was ordered to put Dorothy Henke back to work, albeit without back pay. When I braced Bill Husted about a return date, he lost it for the first time I ever saw, his hatred for the union breaking though his usual reserve. There was applause when Dorothy took her place on the production line. That success inspired the dozen lab workers to join the union, led by Norman “Skip” Ambrosini, who became a good friend and ally.

It was the early 1970s and returning Vietnam vets were a growing part of workforces, including at Nestlé. They had a different, more confrontational, attitude towards company rules. Many wore their hair long, or grew beards. Lou Causey was away for months implementing a Nestlé takeover of a bottled water company, leaving D. Bill Husted on his own. The Plant Manager, invoking Food and Drug Administration regulations, ordered long-haired men to wear hair nets “like the girls,” mustaches to be neatly trimmed, and no beards. When the workers balked at shaving their beards, Husted had the plant nurse start sewing heavy fabric lower face coverings, unsightly and uncomfortable. The workers had no problem with the hair nets, which frustrated Husted, but wanted to keep their beards and mustaches. The affected workers came to the union and asked for help. The FDA would not tell us what could be right, but would cite the company if they were wrong.

I contacted other Nestlé unions and found out that their big Fulton, New York, plant had a variation of hair nets called beard nets, which worked fine and were not unsightly and uncomfortable. They sent two beard nets and after checking with the workers, I presented them to Husted as a solution to the impasse. He rejected them, insisting that the face masks be used, hoping that would force the employees into shaving.

Working with Stewards Ambrosini and Simonides, we plotted a first-ever lunch time demonstration in front of the plant. It would be an unofficial, spontaneous action, with me showing up after it had started, allegedly in response to a call. I would also arrange for press coverage. Over a dozen affected workers, wearing the company masks, paraded in front of the plant carrying home-made signs reading, FDA Rules – Yes; Nestlé Gag Rules – No. Other workers in the lunchroom watching muttered, “They’re gonna get fired.”

No one was fired, the local press covered the event, but Husted was unable to be wrong. I caught him alone in a hallway son after and said, “Bill, why not try the beard nets as an experiment, reserving the right to discontinue them?” I could almost see the light bulb go off over his head, and the Fulton beard nets went into effect and stayed.

Problems at Schilling were both similar, and different. When a significant number of workers packing chili powder developed allergic reactions, HR Manager Roy Lorenz’s attitude was, “Some people shouldn’t work here.” I prepared a questionnaire and most of the employees responded. People who had no previous allergies developed them with cinnamon and with chili peppers and powder. I did some research and found little on cinnamon, but plenty on chilis. The result of a grievance meeting was creation of a work station where the employee’s hands went under a hood, with a ventilator on top, to pack the jars while keeping their faces out of contact.

In one section of the plant a dozen lines packed boxes of spice packets, a conveyor belt feeding them all onto a carousel where workers sorted them, then strapped a half-dozen boxes together to set on a pallet. Women, who were paid less than men for “light work” did the sorting while a male operator ran the strapping machine. But often the man might take a bathroom break and the woman did the strapping. The lines never stopped. A strapped unit weighed about 12 pounds.

One day a woman member who worked the carousel questioned the lower rate of pay, and I filed a grievance on her behalf. The company resisted, and I had them come out to the carousel where the woman demonstrated her proficiency with the strapping machine; her pay was raised appropriately, and soon there were women fork lift drivers and shipping clerks as the strength of the union melded with the rising women’s equality movement.

The union had a solid core, but there were tensions between Mexican American and African American workers, and between men and women, who were over half the workforce. With contract negotiations coming up, and some solid union victories in grievance meetings, we were anticipating tough bargaining from the company. We needed something to unify the workers. Blacks were saying that the Mexicans wouldn’t strike, that this job under any conditions was thought better than working in the fields. Men said, The women will never strike. I needed something.

Schilling, in its paternalism, had everyone rotate shifts, from days to swing to graveyard, monthly. This played havoc with working mothers schedules, with sports activity, with sleep and digestion, and workers said, We want fixed shifts. The newer workers, knowing they would be on nights, also knew that, with time, they could move to days. I arranged for buttons proclaiming, We Want Fixed Shifts! and just about everyone wore one. It did the job of unifying the plant and management backed down at the end, also granting a decent wage increase.

While I was having successes in building the union at the two plants, organizing was a different story. One of my assignments was Lipton Tea in Santa Cruz, a large plant that had left San Francisco to escape the union years before. I had a contact there and spent several days a week in Santa Cruz visiting workers in their homes before swing shift and after day shift.

I wasn’t getting much traction at Lipton, but one of my contacts had a husband who worked up Highway 1 at Big Creek Lumber Company. He said they wanted a union, bad, and I got the okay from Local 6 to try to organize it. The Big Creek work force was about evenly divided between white, African Americans and Mexican Americans; the union had overwhelming support from the whites. The company brought in a union-buster who proudly proclaimed his right-wing John Birch Society membership, and he beat us.

I did not then remember a story my father had told me about his brief time heading up the CIO Maritime Organizing Committee in 1937. The ILWU, which had established mid-west locals, was taking on the International Longshoremen’s Association, which had segregated locals in the South. The ILWU was multi-racial and pro-minority rights, making contact easily with the black locals. But when the vote came, the ILA prevailed. CIO organizers were told that if they were in one integrated local, they would be powerless and at the mercy of racist union bosses. In segregated locals, they at least had some control over their work lives.

The union-buster met separately with the three Big Creek racial groups, telling the non-whites that this was the best job they ever had and the alternative, if the company chose to fold rather than give in to this commie union, was for them to go back to field work on the artichoke farms.

I had some contact with the United Farm Workers Union during that period, but kept it quiet because of the ILWU’s joint warehouse negotiations with the Teamsters Union, which was trying to take over UFW jurisdiction on behalf of the employers. I saw many big and burly Teamster toughs in line at the bank to cash their checks. At one point the UFW held a big rally and I took photos for The Dispatcher. I had recently gone
snow camping in the Sierras and editor Danny Beagle gave me credit as “Photos by Nanook.”

The UFW was not only targeted by the Teamsters. Four non-Hispanic Revolutionary Union members came to Salinas to radicalize the UFW members. They began with a showing of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, believing that the film would turn people anti-capitalist instantly. Only one person showed up, the right-wing janitor at Nestlé who was interested in film.

The wannabe revolutionists did make the front page of the daily Salinas Californian. One of their group had gone into the fields to proselytize for his cause; he wore a jacket with a hammer and sickle superimposed over the UFW’s Aztec Eagle. (A decade before, at a mass meeting to discuss a progressive white response to the new Black Power slogan in the civil rights movement, I confronted RU leader Bob Avakian who was handing out flyers basically saying, We can’t join our Black Brothers on the rooftops shooting cops, but we can raise money for their guns. I told Black Panther leader Bobby Seale, who was nearby, “That’s a great program – let’s you and him fight! We’ll come to your funerals!”)

With little movement on the organizing front, with the Local 6 plants stabilized and no big issues looming, and with my wife’s determination to go to college and become a nurse, we moved back to San Francisco and I began organizing wherever needed in Northern California, driving the 100 miles to Salinas every Thursday and staying overnight to take care of union business and collect dues.

UNION RAP: Part 3 -- The Buck Stops Here!

Radification meeting.
(Chairing 1988 Contract Ratification Meeting; Rank
and File Advisory Committee Chair Nick Jones seated.)

A group of production workers at a San Francisco natural foods wholesaler wanted to organize, and I was meeting with them, going over who did what to establish the unit. They told me, “Then there’s John, the shipping clerk; he’s in the union.” That didn’t make sense so I went to see John who said he thought it was strange that the others were not in the union, that he told the Business Agent – a heavy drinker like me -- about it, that the BA met with the head of the company and then told John, “Not to worry, forget about it.”

That was not the kind of union representation I could organize for, so I resigned from staff, returned to working at Woolworth’s, and made plans to run against that BA in the union elections two months away. The BA, an old-time lefty, got the workers covered under the contract, with thousands of dollars in back pay, but I beat him soundly in the election. He, for old times sake, was put on the International Union’s staff as a do-nothing organizer. (An irony: when he died a dozen years later, I, as Local 6 President, conducted his memorial service at the union hall. It was hard, but I found some good things to say.)

It was 1975 and now I answered directly to the membership. Other BA’s had reorganized their routes so that I, the newcomer, got the most problematical and/or least likely to vote houses; I fought to have Woolworth’s on my route because of my history there, and got it. I visited all the houses on my route and established contact with the Stewards, took care of grievances, conducted several successful arbitrations (the only officer to handle his own cases; others went to the union lawyers), and did some organizing.

There was a Master Contract Northern California warehouse strike in June, 1976. A couple of days into the generally peaceful strike word came in that management was shipping product from Golden Grain in the East Bay and Folger’s Coffee in South San Francisco. The word went out to picket lines: converge on those plants.
Several hundred Local 6 members were milling around the Folger’s parking lot when I arrived. Supervisors were loading pallet loads of coffee into non-union trucks with fork lifts. Rage was in the air.

I consulted with another BA, Mitch Peters, who quickly left the scene. It seemed to me that things were going to blow up, and that it would be better to do so in an organized confrontation. I hastily made the rounds and recruited over 30 members, including the Folger’s Chief Steward, along with some of our leftist critics. Time to put their bodies on the line.

We stormed the loading dock, knocking supervisors out of the fork lifts and dumping the loads of coffee. The Plant Manager came out to the loading area with a half-dozen executives demanding a halt. A case of coffee upside his head sent them scurrying back into their offices. With the loading stopped and more police on the way, it was time to leave. Only one person didn’t and was arrested inside; the Chief Steward, who went too far into the plant and was cut off. Police were shooting pepper spray indiscriminately as we successfully exited.

More members showed up. including Local 6 President Curtis McClain who announced that we would sit down non-violently in front of the trucks. Lefty Alicia Matzger rushed to a nearby store and returned with several dozen hard hats; they did not prevent our getting clubbed. The police, called in from every jurisdiction in the area, included helicopters and dogs, and were clearly angry that they had been caught by surprise, so they took us hard. Three cops picked me up, one on each arm and one holding my legs. I said, Drop my legs, I’ll walk. They dropped my head instead. Thirty arrests, a dozen more across the Bay, It was past lunch time in jail, where radio news of the action preceded us, but trustees brought us cheese sandwiches, and smiles, anyway.

In the 1976 election I didn’t campaign; consensus was I was doing a good job and would have no problem being re-elected. I scoffed at other BAs as they made the rounds touting their credentials. I didn’t realize that campaigning was a necessary part of the process, and came in fifth with four to be elected. I prevailed in a runoff election, and learned a valuable lesson; I would not make that arrogant mistake again!

When Local 6 President Curtis McClain was elected to replace retiring ILWU Secretary-Treasurer Lou Goldblatt, Keith Eickman became Local 6 president. A decision was made to reduce the size of the San Jose Division, putting the San Carlos-Redwood City area in the renamed West Bay Division. Five more houses were assigned to me, giving me the largest route of any BA. I complained about that to Keith; he smiled and said, But you can handle it.

One plant, Adhesive Engineering in San Carlos, brought out my safety concerns. When I first entered the work area my nose started running and eyes started tearing. I asked the Steward what kinds of chemicals they worked with to make epoxies? He gave me a list, told me about skin rashes and such, and I researched them, then called for a grievance meeting with management. I went down the list, what the chemicals did and what the legal exposure limits were. The plant manager sat there silently, but it wasn’t long before respirators and other safety measures were instituted.

Unbeknownst to me and the workers, the young assistant manager had been arguing with his boss for better safety conditions for months. Without knowing it, we handed him the ammunition to get the changes made.

Shedd Foods was another problem house. The Sunnyvale mayonnaise-making workers had a lot of grievances, the workplace was sometimes not up to FDA or safety codes, and there was general discontent. The plant’s production was at the bottom of their six-plant roster. The plants were sold to the Dutch conglomerate Unilever, and when contract negotiations began Unilever demanded a $3 per hour wage cut or they would close the plant. The local Shedd management had come up through the ranks and didn’t much like Unilever either, so we hatched a plan.

We would accept a wage freeze, with a cost-of-living review in a year, and eliminate some restrictive work rules to reduce overtime costs. In exchange we wanted a true Labor-Management Committee. Many companies had instituted such committees but retained complete control of them. Our plan was a committee of equals, with meetings called by either side, agenda set by both sides, and the union’s right to use the grievance procedure if agreement could not be reached.

Local management and their Distributors Association negotiator accepted the plan and it wasn’t long before Shedd was a better, cleaner place to work, with far less grievances, and comfortably in the mid-range of Shedd’s mayonnaise plant production, sometimes even topping out at number one.

The biggest problem plant was Heublein in Menlo Park, vodka manufacturers who were growing fast and letting a lot of new workers make seniority. The result was that several wannabe revolutionary groups who hung around the hiring hall hoping for a chance to radicalize the working class had people working at Heublein, filing grievances – real and imagined -- against the company, and complaining about union representation which they saw as reformist and not revolutionary.

The most bothersome to me personally was James Ellis Johnson, aka “Taboo,” a former Communist Party bodyguard for Angela Davis. He quickly became a Steward and filed a grievance that contradicted itself and was unwinnable in any form. I explained that to him out of management’s hearing, but he identified me as a clear class enemy, muttering “racist motherf----r” whenever I passed him on the production line. “Taboo” later went on a CP-sponsored trip to East Germany and came back convinced that communists and capitalists were both racists; he quit the union and the Party, and joined the U.S. Army.

Another group, Venceramos!, made me their target when I refused to get Local 6 involved in a court case of a member, Heublein employee Mort Newman, convicted of harboring a fugitive and sentenced to five years. Venceramos! members had attacked police taking a sympathizer to a court date from Chino State Prison, killing one and wounding another. Newman renewed union activity when he was released and was eventually elected a Business Agent. Democracy, I was reminded, is gruesome! At one point there were a dozen “revolutionary” groups operating in Local 6, with one point of unity, that the elected officials were misleaders keeping the masses from seeing the need to overthrow the capitalist system.

(For the tragic story of “infantile leftists” in the union, read Angela’s Children: How the Communist Legacy Turned Against Itself In A Once-Strong Union, http://www.storyhouse.org/albertl11.html.)

Keith Eickman, a daily target of the ideologues, decided to retire at the end of his two-year term in 1982. His wife Nina, a poet and teacher, and his daughter Robin, had both died of cancer. I was seen as his successor, although I never saw myself in that leadership position. Retired ILWU Secretary-Treasurer Lou Goldblatt openly supported me, and Keith and his best friend, International Rep LeRoy King campaigned vigorously for me.

A “Rank and File Coalition,” uniting East Bay Latinos with Communist Party union activists, ran an open CP member against me, BA Joe Lindsay from the East Bay Division. Lindsay carried his division, but I prevailed in the West Bay, South Bay, North Bay and Salinas Divisions, and was elected. I well remember my first day in that office, with a little sign on my desk, The Buck Stops Here. Even with the able help of Office Manager Janet Tobin by day’s end my head was tied up in a huge knot. Old grievances were being resurrected for the new guy to solve, BAs were jockeying to protect their turf, the Left groups were already touting me as a sellout.

I settled into the job, working closely with Secretary-Treasurer Leon Harris, a cautious African American who had worked at Kaiser Aluminum in the East Bay and who moonlighted as a preacher. He was a good moderating influence on my wilder ideas. Angry at someone I composed a nasty letter and shared it with Leon. He said, That’s a good letter – why don’t you wait until tomorrow to send it? I followed his advice, saw the flaws the next morning, and never sent that letter.

If the lefties in the union had disliked me when I was a Business Agent, they hated me now. I spoke their language and kept an eye on their various papers to see what cause-of-the-month might be coming up. Rather than take them on when a motion was made to set up a committee to support this, that or the other – and thus expose myself as a fascist misleader – I let the motion go to a vote without any comment from the Chair. If it passed I appointed the maker of the motion Temporary Chair of that committee. Invariably that was the end of it.

I was drinking red wine pretty heavily and went drunk to my first East Bay membership meeting as president. I realized how vulnerable that made me, and worked to control my daytime drinking. (For my drinking career, read Drink. Drank. Drunk. Came. Came To. Came To Believe. at http://www.storyhouse.org/albertl15.html.)

UNION RAP – Part 4 – International Solidarity

Marching for justice.
On the March: I’m fourth from right, in the white cap, between activist nun Charlene Tschirhart
and radio personality Casey Kasem.

It was the Reagan Years, and union-busting was a growth industry. Still, Bay Area unions spoke out against injustice, including a sit-in at South Africa Airlines protesting apartheid. In 1985 I was invited to be part of a trade union delegation escorting an exiled labor leader, Hector Recinos, back into El Salvador where a civil war was raging. He had been arrested and tortured and his wife and daughter “disappeared ” before his exile for leading an electrical workers’ strike. Right-wing paramilitary groups roamed the capital city, San Salvador, and our hosts warned against vehicles with deeply tinted windows. Ellen Starbird, Ann Coughlin and Ignacio de la Fuente were Bay Area union leaders I knew and trusted, so I agreed, even though it was under the auspices of a left-wing rebel support group, CISPES.

We brought Recinos, a gentle man who had served as Secretary-General of the union federation FENASTRAS, in without incident, and attended the union conference he was there for. Many believed that the unions, as a third force, could bring about peace in the shattered nation. All was quiet until mid-afternoon when an electrical workers’ union official came into tell us that his two sons had just been arrested. They were Boy Scouts involved in distributing food to needy families and that made them, in the eyes of the authorities, pro-rebel. Our delegation went to police headquarters, with a tank in front of it, to demand their release. I had a camera with a telephoto lens but when I went to take pictures of the heavily armed police, their guns rose menacingly and I put the camera away.

On Sunday we were having breakfast at an open air market and ran into one of the conference attendees, who would only identify herself as Loli. She took us in tow, commandeered a taxi-van, and took us around. Our first stop was a hill overlooking the capital where, Loli told us, suspected rebels were thrown off the cliff. We also found out from several sources that American aid to the military was often sold to the rebels by that same military. Loli told us she was not political, until her brother was ordered by two military men to buy them some liquor. He refused; they cut his throat.

Flying home I wrote a report on the trip from a union perspective to preempt CISPES from controlling the news and, exhausted, gave it to Local 6 Office Manager Janet Tobin, one of the few people who could decipher my handwriting, to mimeo and mail to the Local 6 stewards. The failure of US pro-military policy in Central America in those days has now led to the refugee crisis; those destabilized countries have been taken over by drug gangs who burn their insignias onto the legs of pre-teens to claim them for the gang.

At home, companies were demanding impossible concessions and, even when a union caved, eventually closed anyway. A showdown was shaping up at Leon’s house, Kaiser Aluminum. Our 150-member plant was the tail of a national dog with contracts with major unions who had all granted wage and benefit cuts to the company in hopes of preserving jobs. When our contract negotiations came up the company simply said, It’s your turn. They wanted major wage and benefit concessions.

At a meeting of all the officers and Kaiser Aluminum shop stewards I urged that a strike be authorized at a meeting of all the employees the next morning. The workers need to retain their self-respect, I argued; they will be fighting with each other if we just roll over. Some concessions are going to be unavoidable after the other unions’ settlements, but maybe we can reduce them so no one’s budget is severely impacted. Leon said the workers would never strike. BA Mort Newman said he saw the merit of my argument, so we should lie to the workers to get them out. The shop stewards were mixed, with no one standing up for a strike. We ended the meeting with no unified plan, a rare occasion.

I was up half the night writing out a speech, something I never did. I wanted to be absolutely clear: there would be concessions, but maybe we could reduce them. I have always believed that if you give people all the facts, they will make the right decision. When recommended settlements went to the rank and file the written summary had to include even corrections of misspellings. I never wanted to be in the position of having workers say, You didn’t tell me. I knew from the other Kaiser unions that permanent replacement of strikers – a powerful strike-breaking weapon -- was not the company’s intention, or my recommendation to strike would have been very different.

A full house listened attentively the next morning, a Saturday, listened thoughtfully to my recommendation that they vote to strike against the concessions while the House Committee and other officers sat silently. A few questions were asked and honestly answered, and the members voted almost-unanimously to strike. They walked out a few days later and we monitored the situation closely. No drinking on the line, no violence; meanwhile meeting with the employers as they began to modify their hard line.

After three weeks it looked like the strike needed settling pretty soon, and marathon negotiations produced a recommended settlement that considerably reduced the concessions. No wage or benefit cuts, the key issue. A packed house meeting listened to my report, then voted by secret ballot to accept the agreement and end the strike – by a bare three vote majority! Any arguing in the plant would be over whether they should have held out longer, a far better debate than would have taken place if the union had rolled over.

The day came early in my presidency when I stopped drinking, after a thousand unsuccessful tries. I did not go to recovery meetings, and my disease went crazy. Increasingly my energy was going to just not drinking while I watched helplessly as my family and my career headed for collapse. Two representatives of Socialist Action, Trotskyist arch-enemies of the CP, approached me. They wanted to take the anti-war movement, now focused on US intervention in Central America, away from the communists, and wanted my help. They appealed shamelessly to my ego, saying they would make me a Big Man, and I said Yes. The plan was for a mass protest in San Francisco, and we set a date for a larger and broader meeting to get things moving.

The CP’s coalition held its own founding meeting that same night, but the crowd in the Local 6 hall was bigger and broader. That led to negotiations between me and SA rep Carl Finamore with Berkeley’s mayor, Gus Newport, and CP rep Mark Allen. We named the coalition, Mobilization for Peace, Jobs and Justice, and hammered out a program for an April 25, 1987, mass march and rally under four slogans: We agreed on a list of speakers, including United Mine Workers President (and now head of the AFL-CIO) Richard Trumka, Newport, and myself, and shook hands that neither side would try to add speakers. Newport and I would be two of eight co-chairs, bringing in other peace and social justice groups, along with religious, LGBTQ, disabled and other activist communities.

On that Saturday morning some 50,000 people gathered on the side streets of Market Street to march with the Mobe. The ILWU’s International Convention had ended the day before and many delegates, including hundreds from Hawaii, stayed over to join the march. It was peaceful and dignified, ending at a huge rally in front of City Hall. At the rally Gus Newport approached me with an obviously drunk man in tow. This was a representative of the American Indian Movement, Newport said, and he had to be added to the speakers’ list. I responded that we had a deal, no additional speakers. Newport called me a “racist motherf----r” and I responded, “I’ve been called worse…by better.” The other co-chairs agreed to allow the self-professed AIM speaker five minutes on the program. Newport and I never spoke again.

The Mobe was never really able to challenge the CP’s dominance in the rest of the country’s anti-war movement. Our next march was much smaller, parading down Mission Street led by the UFW’s Cesar Chavez. Meanwhile my marriage and career were collapsing, and I was helpless to do anything about it. All my energy went into not picking up the drink. Union elections were coming up in November, 1988, and the leftist coalition had united behind East Bay BA Jim Ryder, a PhD who had gone to work as a warehouse janitor to do relief work for exiled Chilean leftists after the military coup.

When my marriage hit the rocks in July, 1988, I ran away to a motel and got blind drunk. I was broken, and facing a hard election seemed overwhelming. I decided not to run, but to run for West Bay BA instead. Seeing my weakness, the Left-Latino coalition ran a candidate, David Schermerhorn, against me and he won, lasting just one term before they dumped him. Woolworth having closed, I went to the hiring hall and was dispatched with a large group to Hiram Walker Liquors in Burlingame. I was apparently the first Local 6 President to actually return to work in the industry; I did turn down a job offer from the employers as a Stockton supervisor.

At Hiram Walker, going to recovery meetings and staying sober now, I was a worker among workers, just doing my job while trying to rebuild our marriage. The company, to my surprise, let me make seniority, and Sonny. a sober union member, and I met at lunch to keep us both from temptation. When the company announced they would be closing within the year, I knew I had to make a change. I obtained my high school GED, began taking night classes at San Francisco State University, and looked into whether I could support myself by teaching labor studies. I had done some guest teaching for the programs at SF State, SF City College, and Laney College in Oakland, and did okay. I left my broken marriage and was living in the SF State dorms.

I prepared a new class for Laney College and they accepted it; between the three schools I would make ends meet. Two weeks before classes started I received an urgent call from Laney: their half-time Labor Studies Department Chair had a personal emergency and there was no one to teach any classes. Could I take over? I sure could, and that began a new twelve-year career, with tenure and – thanks to Chancellor Bob Scannell who really wanted me -- benefits. I also served one semester each as Labor Studies Department Chair when needed at SF State and City College. I married a sober woman and we lived in a Mission District flat, less than a block from where my buddy from the late ‘60s, Dave Castro, was shot and killed by a pair of crooked undercover Drug Enforcement Agents. (For that story, go to Not Just Another Dead Junkie at http://www.storyhouse.org/albertl3.html.)

I had an evening class at City College of San Francisco, but the semester was delayed due to a janitor’s strike by the Service Employees International Union. I went to the downtown building, which was closed, with no SEIU pickets. A half-dozen Labor Studies students showed up and I did a tutorial on striking; we made signs and held them up to passing traffic. When the dispute was settled and classes officially began a few days later, I insisted on being paid; I was there and did my job. I may have been the only instructor paid for that evening.
I immediately joined the Peralta Federation of Teachers and, because no one else was interested, became a delegate to the Central Labor Council of Alameda County, headed by Judy Roveda Goff who became a good friend and a major Labor Studies supporter. At Central Labor Council meetings I was struck by the reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of each meeting: …with liberty and justice for all, SOMEDAY!

I tried to thank the Council for that support by winning a six-month sabbatical to write a history of the Oakland-East Bay labor movement, published in 2000 by University Press of America as Fight or Be Slaves, a quote from African American labor leader A. Philip Randolph. At a bookstore promotion of the book, I met a retired teacher who had, for years, muttered under his breath at Labor Council meetings: …with liberty and justice for all, SOMEDAY! He didn’t know until that evening that his idea had caught on. A friend and long-time labor movement colleague, Ellen Starbird, filled in for me during the sabbatical and, following in my tradition, got us in trouble of the best kind.

A cargo ship, the Neptune Jade, had been loaded by non-union dockers in Liverpool after 500 union members had been summarily fired and became the world-wide target of an angry labor movement. Dock workers at port after port set up picket lines and refused to unload the ship. It finally came to Oakland in 1997 and met a similar reception. Ellen had organized a Labor Studies Club with colorful tee shirts and led a delegation to meet the scab ship, along with many other groups and unions.

The Pacific Maritime Association took photographs and instituted law suits against all those they could identify – including the Laney College Labor Studies Club. Needless to say, the officials at Peralta were not thrilled, but pressure from the PFT and Labor Council neutralized them. I said I would represent the Club, knowing that the legal fights would take place much higher up and I just had to stay in close touch. That meant I received copies of “discovery” evidence, and I received a video cassette of the peaceful protesters at the pier’s gates from the PMA lawyers. But about half-way through the scene suddenly shifted to home movies of semi-naked sunbathing at a fancy house. Pressure from the ILWU finally made the law suits go away. Every time there was a court hearing the waterfront shut down!
With summers off, no kids at home, and two incomes, we did a lot of traveling while also putting time in to continue building the Laney Labor Studies program by visiting union meetings and pitching the program. (For stories of those travels, see Me and Ishkabibble and the Wild Places at http://www.storyhouse.org/albertl.html.)

I taught labor history, grievance handling, collective bargaining, and the like based on my own experiences. I found that collective bargaining textbooks bore little relationship to any reality I had known, and wrote a real-world coursebook for use in my classes. I also did segments and short courses on labor culture, showing pro-union films like John Sayles’ Matewan, period amusements like The Pajama Game, and powerful documentaries like At The River I Stand, Martin Luther King’s support of striking Memphis sanitation workers at the time of his murder. I encouraged the writing of stories and poems by hardened shop stewards, with gratifying results. Pat Wynne brought her Labor Chorus from San Francisco to back up a collective reading of the history of the 1946 Oakland General Strike. I tried to mix history with practicality and with some fun, and the program built a devoted following. I still retain friends from that student body.

UNION RAP: Part 5 – Retirement…?


(Photographer unknown)

I had become dissatisfied with my second marriage and believed in sobriety that I had choices. I moved in with my Local 6 mentor Keith Eickman rent-free and decided to retire at age 63 in June, 2001, when I would have ten years of tenure, nailing down my retiree health benefits. The Peralta Federation of Teachers had negotiated excellent health care coverage, and the Peralta Retirees Organization protected it.

I scouted out Tucson in December, 2000, looking at neighborhoods and recovery meetings. I knew Arizona was a right-to-work-for-less state, but saw that Tucson was a somewhat more liberal town than Phoenix. I was gifted with a number of plaques from various labor organizations when I retired, but the one that meant the most to me was a little one from the workers at Nestlé I had received when I stepped down as Local 6 president over a dozen years before.

I rented a small unit close to downtown and immediately made contact with unions and support groups. I joined picket lines in support of stage hands and laundry workers, and became closely involved with the Southern Arizona Alliance for Economic Justice, headed by Maritza Broce. I also joined with Quakers and others to lie down in the streets – a die-in -- when the US invaded Iraq in March, 2003; the love of my life, Kaitlin Meadows, had just moved to Tucson to be with me and was wondering what she had gotten herself into!

Kaitlin and I ended up in Picture Rocks, a rural “outlaw” working-class community of mostly-manufactured homes northwest of Tucson. There I chronicled community news, and did other community support work while we pursued mutual interests in archaeology and poetry and she opened a studio in town, Kaitlin’s Creative Cottage, for art classes that were more about bringing out the creativity of a growing tribe of older women.

I was once told, “Lannon, you’re a shit disturber.” I replied, “If there’s no shit there’s nothing to disturb.” Two local issues brought my activism back into play: opposition to a new multi-billion-dollar Interstate 11 which County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry and the Arizona Dept. of Transportation want to build through the Avra and Altar Valleys, affecting some 25,000 people and a lot of wildlife – and all to facilitate sending jobs to Mexico. A telling thing about the Pima County power structure is that Huckelberry is an employee, albeit a very highly paid one, of the elected Board of Supervisors which is on record opposing any new freeway in Pima County. Good people have stepped up to carry on the fight, including affected members of the Tohono O’odham Nation.

The other issue I stumbled into when I attended a Marana Town Council meeting for reasons I don’t recall; Marana is the closest town to Picture Rocks. A group from Silverbell West, a small rural community like a tiny Picture Rocks outside the town limits, was there to protest plans to build a landfill – a garbage dump – literally across the street from their homes. The land was sold to the DKL dumpsters by Marana Vice-Mayor Herb Kai, and the Town Council annexed more than twice the necessary land, but not Silverbell West, leaving them without legal voice or vote. I offered to help.

My research showed ties between the parent company of the developers and organized crime figures in the Northeast – which was later admitted to me by DKL’s Larry Henk. That caused some commotion, and DKL’s lobbyist, attorney Michael Racy -- who also represents Pima County and other public and (conflicting) private entities -- made me his target.

Silverbell West’s sole advocate on the Town Council was Republican Carol McGorray, who lived in the upscale Dove Mountain area. McGorray organized a community meeting on the dump, and DKL’s execs showed up uninvited, with Racy as spokesperson. He insisted on speaking, and Racy proceeded to red-bait me – labeling me a Communist by deliberately mixing me up with my father who had died over 40 years before. I braced him at the podium, calling him out for the liar he was, and he shut up.

At the next Town Council meeting I showed up with a new tee shirt, red with a lightning bolt on the front. Kaitlin inked the words The Red Menace Returns on the back. When I addressed the Council, the words were right in Racy’s face, and he later made a quasi-apology, blaming the shortcomings of online research. I also brought five bottles of water; I opened one and put one drop of leachate – what garbage dissolves into – into it, mixed them up and offered the Council Members a drink. No one accepted and I made my point: how can you impose on others risks you are unwilling to take yourselves?

The dump ultimately was approved 4 - 1; in the next Town Council election I went to a candidate’s meeting at the Abbett Library with a flyer blasting incumbent Democrat Russell Clanagan’s role. Clanagan had led us to believe he was with the Silverbell West residents but then voted for the dump. I passed out 49 flyers; Clanagan lost the election by 48 votes.

Kaitlin took good care of me when I sneezed and broke two ribs and was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, an incurable blood plasma cancer that sucks the calcium out of my bones. After two-and-a-third years of chemotherapy that became increasingly hard to cope with, I discontinued treatment and we moved to Julian, California, a small mountain town in San Diego County where Kait has roots and friends; a safe place for her when I am gone. The oncologist said I have months, not years, but all any of us really have is one day at a time. The Corona virus pandemic makes that clear.

I don’t expect to get involved in controversial issues here in Julian as I end my days, but, looking back, I think I did some good despite my own demons. I still won’t cross a picket line, ever. I vote on issues, not parties. I tell police fundraisers on the phone that if I had money it would go to Black Lives Matter. Times change, and worker organizing is happening in hostile places like Wal-Mart, Amazon, and the fast food industry, with and without traditional unions. That’s how it began, and begins again. As long as there are greedy and tyrannical bosses, workers will find ways to organize, to pool their collective strength and challenge management’s prerogatives. As Ralph Chaplin’s anthem written over 100 years ago says:

Labor Union YES logo.

When the union’s inspiration through the workers blood shall run,
There can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun;
Yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one,
But the union makes us strong….Solidarity Forever.
P. S. I’m here in Julian less than two months and already wrote my first Letter to the Editor of the local weekly challenging a columnist for opposing unions and negotiated defined-benefit pension plans for workers. I have two small pensions, one private and one public, which, with Social Security, enable me to live in this delightful little village. It’s in my blood….

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