Posts Tagged ‘unions’

What Is Meant by ‘Don’t Mourn, Organize’

September 22, 2011

Huge crowds gathered to send off the body of the man who gave voice to their struggles, the young immigrant Joe Hill.

At vigils and rallies to save the life of Troy Davis, participants marched with images of the innocent man covering their own faces. When asked to identify themselves, they would state "I am Troy Davis." (photo credit: Isaac Silver)

Just before the falsely convicted labor troubadour Joe Hill was shot by a firing squad in Utah in 1915, he wrote to a friend that people should not mourn his death, but instead organize. The slogan “Don’t Mourn, Organize!” has been a labor rallying cry for almost a century now. Tonight is the first time I’ve understood that when Joe Hill wrote those lines, they meant something much deeper than a rallying cry.

Asking his friends and family not to waste one moment for their private griefs, asking them to instead pour all their energy into the struggle for justice, this was not a small request. It was a very big thing to ask of the tens of thousands who came to meet his body when it was brought to Chicago and the millions who had fought for his release from every corner of the globe. Working people lost someone they held dear, and they lost faith in a system they held dear. Surely, they deserved to mourn for these losses. Surely, it was too much to ask them not to mourn.

Troy Davis has just been executed by the state of Georgia. There was no physical evidence in the trial, he was convicted solely on the testimony of eye witnesses. Seven out of the nine witnesses have since recanted their testimony. One of the remaining witnesses later told friends that he was the actual killer, and new witnesses have come forward to verify that claim. A number of the jurors have testified that they would not have convicted him if they knew then what they know now. Even the former warden who oversaw previous executions pleaded for a stay of execution.

This case has earned the sympathy and outrage of millions across the globe. Last night there were vigils all over the country and all over the world to support Troy Davis. Hundreds of thousands of us have signed petitions, made calls, urged others to speak out. We have written letters and sent faxes. We have joined organizations and donated our money to try to save this man. And still Troy Davis is lying dead right now.

Like Joe Hill, Troy Davis has urged us to stay focused on the struggle, and on the fact that we are all Troy Davis. This fight to save one life is actually a fight for all of our lives. Until we end the death penalty, we are letting down each and every Troy Davis. We are letting down each other. And if we start to mourn, how will we ever stop? It feels crass to suggest that we immediately seize on the momentum we have built in our efforts to prevent this death. It feels too hard to say we shouldn’t take time to heal ourselves before gearing up to prevent the next death.

But “I am Troy Davis” is not just a rallying cry. “Don’t mourn, organize!” is not just a rallying cry. They give us difficult tasks, and rewarding ones. They are to be lived out in what we decide to do from this very moment forward.


Anti-Government Activist Targets Labor Studies

April 28, 2011

The same guy who pawned a deceptively edited video of Shirley Sherrod off as news has now made a new video of deceptively edited talks by educators at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Andrew Breitbart combed through 30 hours of video tape to find roughly seven minutes of what he claims is advocacy of industrial sabotage. Frankly, the video is so jumbled up and poorly edited, that it’s actually rather boring. But given that these sorts of shenanigans have had bizarrely serious consequences in the past, I want to help spread the real story behind this tactic. Below is a statement by one of the professors, Judy Ancel, regarding this attack. At the end I leave a comment challenge: leave a comment with something you heard someone else say today–but edit selectively (keep it rated PG, though).

Andrew Breitbart’s Affront to Democracy and Attack on Students’ Right to an Education

Statement by Judy Ancel

I am Judy Ancel, director of the Institute for Labor Studies at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. While my university prepares its response, I feel compelled to answer the attacks by Andrew Breitbart on my character. I am speaking as an individual and certainly not for UMKC. I am speaking out of my strong lifelong commitment to educating working people to better understand the world they live in. Labor education is a vital part of anyone’s education. All Americans, especially our youth, need to understand the contributions working people have made and make in building our communities and nation. Labor education gives them the skills and vision to make a better world.

My students and I are outraged at Mr. Breitbart’s invasion of our classroom and his attempts to intimidate us and my colleagues at the university. Mr. Breitbart’s chop shop manufactured videos from 30 hours of classroom recordings that were posted for the course, “Labor, Politics, and Society,” on the university’s Blackboard system. Presumably these were delivered to him by a student, in possible violation of the University Standards of Conduct and the Federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. These videos were recorded for the use of students enrolled in this course, and for them only. Breitbart disassembled the material, and reassembled it; arranging them to give the appearance that instructors of the class advocate violence. This is in fact the opposite of the position both instructors took in class. Any examination of labor’s past would be incomplete without discussion of violence, (which for the most part was directed at workers) and analysis of its roots. At no time did my co-instructor, Don Giljum, nor I advocate violence.

There’s no doubt that Breitbart’s attacks are politically motivated, part of a broad agenda to weaken unions and the public sector as well as public education. His fabrications have been exposed numerous times in the mainstream media. Yet he and his echo chamber at Fox News continue to cause great harm to educators and other public servants.

On April 18th Breitbart announced his intentions on Fox News Sean Hannity show: “We’re going to take on education next, go after the teachers and the union organizers.” It is possible that his attack on the University of Missouri and labor education is his first assault.

Breitbart is a master of taking quotes out of context, deletion of what doesn’t serve his purpose, and remixing to achieve totally different meaning. For example he has me saying:

o Breitbart’s version: “Violence is a tactic and it’s to be used when it’s the appropriate tactic.”
o The real version: After students had watched a film on the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike and the assassination of Martin Luther King, they were discussing nonviolence. I said, “One guy in the film. . . said ‘violence is a tactic, and it’s to be used when it’s the appropriate tactic.’ . . . “ The class proceeded to discuss and debate this.

Thus Mr. Breitbart’s editing has literally put words in my mouth that were not mine, and they never were mine.

Breitbart leaves out a crucial statement by Don Giljum in order to make it appear that he advocates violence. Giljum said, “I’m not sure as a tactic today the type of violence or reaction to the violence we had back then would be called for here, and I think it would do more harm than good.” A student then says “and it just legitimizes their dirty tricks.” Giljum agreed with him.

There are a number of other instances of very creative editing including:

o A change of clothes by Don Giljum from one sentence to another (more…)

Worksite Massacre

April 27, 2011

4,340. That’s how many lives were ended by workplace injuries in this country in 2009 (the most recent year for which we have statistics). That’s probably more people than went to your high school. It’s many times the number of people in my town. It’s much larger than the largest family reunion you’ve ever been to. It’s an almost unimaginable scale of death.

50,000. That’s how many died from occupational-related illnesses such as black lung. Somehow, it’s so difficult to imagine the death of 50,000 people that it’s almost an easier number to read than 4,340. Yet if you consider that’s 136 human lives ended every day, you can start to wrap your arms around the idea. That’s my entire high school graduating class. It’s the size of a small church community. It’s the number of people who show up for a controversial issue at the town council. And it’s every day.

4,000,000-12,000,000. That’s the number of non-fatal workplace injuries, such as paralysis, brain trauma, and amputation. It also includes smaller but life-altering injuries such as torn rotator cuffs, 3rd-degree burns, and crushed hands.

A new report from the AFL-CIO Department of Safety and Health outlines these statistics and breaks the information down by state, industry, and sector. Page 85 of the report shows how long it would take for OSHA to actually inspect all the work sites in a given state with current level of staffing. If you are lucky, you live in the best case state of Oregon, where you could expect an inspection sometime in the next 23 years. But if you live in Florida, well maybe some of your great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren will get to work in a place that’s had an inspection, because it will take OSHA about 240 years to get around to it.

Has anyone else noticed that workers are starting to stand up and say “Enough!” The unions fought hard for OSHA, and now we all need to fight to make it an agency with more teeth. Nothing would be a more fitting tribute to the men, women, and children who are dying on the job every day.

Gov. Walker’s Neighbor Speaks Out

February 14, 2011

The following is an open letter from my good friend and brilliant geographer Sigrid Peterson. Wisconsin needs to retain and encourage genius like hers, because there are plenty of employers in others states who want her. For those who haven’t heard, this is in reference to our governor’s recent announcement that he will call out the national guard if he needs extra enforcement of his plan to bust public sector unions.

Who are you gonna trust, Scott Walker (as shown smarmily above) or...

Dear Neighbor:  On the Multiplier Effects of a Public Sector Job

Dear Governor Walker,

I doubt you remember me. In fact, we’ve never formally met, but you and I grew up not half a block away from each other in the small town of Delavan, Wisconsin.  You were in my sister Katie’s high school class, though perhaps you didn’t know her then (indeed, she was a brainy punk rocker, while you were a mullet-haired jock).  Six years your junior, I have only fuzzy memories of you—of riding my bike around the corner, seeing one of the “older boys” in the neighborhood walk out of his house on West Wisconsin Street, and hearing my sister say, “Hey, there’s Scott Walker.”

...this hardworking woman (Sigrid) helping me pull weeds on a hot summer's day?

Our limited acquaintance notwithstanding, within the past four days I fear I’ve gotten to know you fairly well, or well enough.  So perhaps it’s time I introduce myself.  My name is Sigrid Peterson.  I’m your former neighbor from Delavan, and I’m a public sector worker in Wisconsin.

If it isn’t obvious, I’m writing to ask you, your administration, and your Republican friends in the legislature to put a swift stop to your proposed “Budget Repair” bill, along with its crude and unapologetic assault on fifty years of rights and benefits granted to Wisconsin’s public sector employees.  Your measure is nothing short of devastating—stripping most (in some cases, all) of our collective bargaining rights, incapacitating any future resources of our unions, and further straining the livability and reach of our compensation with steep increases in employee contributions to health care and pensions.

And you do this with nothing but unsubstantiated excuses that this is the “only alternative.” And you do this with no effort (none) to meet with workers since you took office.  Forgive me, but this makes you no more forthright or articulate than a tongue-tied and cowardly teenager breaking up with his girlfriend/boyfriend via text message.  Does this mean you’ll bring back your mullet, too?

If I’m irreverent, Governor Walker, I assure you it’s in service to things greater than concern over my job, alone.  I write this out of respect for my late father, too—your old neighbor, a lifelong Wisconsinite, and a public municipal employee.  I also write this out of pride in the progressive legacy of my home state, a legacy you and your colleagues delight in dismantling.

My dad, Lyle (raised in Richland Center, WI), was living proof that (more…)

The Railroad Rank and File Build a Base

January 23, 2011


A cartoon from the early part of the 20th century still expresses many workers' frustration when unions fail to cooperate.

Part Two of a Special Series on Railroad Workers

Throughout 2005 contract negotiations, union rail workers faced concerted attack by an industry that wanted to slash the workforce to dangerous levels, decimate health care, and weaken the method of compensation for on-the-job injury. While the industry was united in the National Carriers Conference Committee (NCCC), the thirteen different craft unions representing the workforce operated independently at best, and antagonistically at worst.  The United Transportation Union (UTU) and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), the largest of these unions, were also the ones that clashed most often—and with the worst outcomes for its members.

Even though the members of the BLET (which represents most engineers and some conductors) worked right alongside the members of the UTU (which represents most conductors, some engineers and members of some other crafts), the leadership of the two unions often sought to undermine each other. For example, the industry was able to implement remote control technology on very favorable terms that undercut working conditions. Many railroaders believe that if the unions had stood united, this technology could have been prevented or at least have mitigated the impact on worker safety and job security.

In the past, efforts had been made to stop the feuding and actually unite the two unions, most recently in 1998 and 2000. (more…)

Railroad Workers Today: The Industry Picks a Fight

December 30, 2010

Part One of a Special Series on Railroad Workers

Railroads conjure up nostalgia for some and offer a glimpse of a promising transportation future for others. Yet the railroad industry is as cutthroat as any in the country. With its unique regulatory framework, its exemption from many labor laws, and its central role to the economic life of our continent, railroads hold tremendous power. Now, a growing group of railroad engineers, conductors, yard workers, maintenance workers, signalers, mechanics, and others employed in the rail industry are uniting to hold railroads accountable for worker and public safety. Railroad Workers United is a network of railroaders from Florida to the Yukon, and they are raising the profile of the forgotten folks who actually make it possible for a train to get from Point A to Point B. This winter I will be writing a series of posts documenting the conditions for workers on the railroads and how they are organizing to protect working conditions and the safety of themselves and the public.

In late 2004, the rail industry group National Carriers Conference Committee initiated bargaining with their workers’ unions by proposing a decimation of workplace standards and pay. They attacked health care. They concocted a scheme to reduce liability in the case of workplace injury. And perhaps most disturbingly of all, they proposed that henceforth, trains and their often hazardous cargo would be sent hurtling through cities and towns and wilderness with only one employee on board. (more…)

The Funeral Train Grows Longer

September 11, 2010

The scene of the Indiana derailment where clean-up worker Michael Bowling died.

How was work today? If you went to work for the railroads, things might not have been too good. In the last few months, workers have been electrocuted (in New Jersey), drowned (in Nebraska), crushed by heavy equipment (in Indiana), struck by moving trains (Alabama, New Jersey, Minnesota), or otherwise killed in the line of duty. Members of Railroad Workers United have been keeping track of all the rail-related fatalities since Mother’s Day, 2009, when the death of Jared Boehlke left a young widow and child. They have recorded twenty-nine fatalities. Twenty–nine men and women killed in the course of helping trains get from point A to point B. (more…)

Worker Safety Railroaded

April 28, 2010

Today is Workers Memorial Day, a day of commemoration for the thousands of people who die from workplace injuries every year. Like the 29 miners recently killed in West Virginia, or the 11 killed in the oil rig explosion this week. And like the 5,214 people killed on the job in 2008. And the 50,000 who died from occupational illnesses. Sadly, we can add two more workers to the toll from railroad accidents in the last few days.

Melinda Carter, killed on the job, April 24, 2010.

Melinda Carter, a conductor for the CSX Railroad, was killed while switching cars in a rail yard in Chicago. Early reports indicate that she was operating the trains using remote control technology, as is increasingly required of workers. She had just bought a new home for her family, for whom she was a rock. A few days later, New York Transit worker James Knell was electrocuted by the third rail while conducting track repair in the pouring rain. He had been married for two years with his high school sweetheart, after being apart for two decades.

I’ve written before about some of the particular dangers that rail workers face, and how the nature of their work means that dangers to them also represent dangers to all of us. But today I would like to ask all of us to consider the safety conditions at our workplaces, and the safety conditions of the work others are doing for us. Take the extra step to insist your employer provide protective gear (this works better if you are in a union, but even nonunion employers are required to provide a safe workplace). If you hired some guy to trim your trees or work on your roof, insist they work safely too. Pay extra for it if you have to. And if you can make a donation to an occupational health association that fights for everyone’s rights, please do! That’s a fitting way to give  tribute to the thousands of people dying at work every year in this country.

She’s Been Working on the Railroad

January 25, 2010

First female machinist at  the Milwaukee Road Railroad.

Sue Doro on the job at the Milwaukee Road in 1976

Childhood: Milwaukee
Current Home: California
Birth Year: 1937

Many have recommended that I read Sue Doro’s gorgeous book Blue Collar Goodbyes about shop floor life on the Milwaukee Railroad in its final days. I never did until a friend suggested I interview Sue for my Leading Ladies blog series. Now I see what I was missing. She uses prose and poetry to paint a warm and honest portrait of her life as the company’s first and only female machinist. Her earlier book, Hearts, Home and Hard Hats, touches on her previous machinist gigs (including being the first female machinist in the repair department at Allis Chalmers tractor plant). Her latest book, Sugar String, is a gripping account of her childhood with a truly monstrous father who not only abused his daughter but refused to lift a finger or allow Sue to call an ambulance as her mother choked to death in the family home. Sue’s life has had more than its share of hardness, so I wondered if when I talked to her I would find her a hard woman with a hard voice. Nothing could have been farther from the truth. Though she was laid up with a post-operative foot when we spoke, she was lively and warm and as eager to ask me questions as I was to ask her. She now lives in California with her husband Larry. She publishes “Pride and Paycheck” for women in the blue collar trades and is a member of the National Writers Union and Railroad Workers United.

You had the sort of childhood that doesn’t exactly breed self-esteem. Why do you think you had the confidence to go into machining when no other women were doing that?
In the beginning it was for the kids. I had no college education—most girls where I grew up did not go. Raising five kids on a clerical or retail salary wasn’t going to cut it. I was a homemaker, and I did it all. I fixed the roof with my son. I fixed the bicycles, whatever. So it wasn’t such a big jump to go into machining. When I found out the requirements for the MTDA [Manpower Training Development Act] and found out machine shop was an option, I really didn’t hesitate. It wasn’t about self-esteem, just survival. And from there it was a matter of sticking up for myself.

As for my self-esteem, that came when I ran away from my father. It took me three tries, but (more…)

Remote Control Is for Toys, Not Real Locomotives

January 7, 2010

You’ve seen locomotives, right?  Those enormous hulks of steel that haul things like people, coal, corn, and poisonous gases such as ammonia?  It turns out that the geniuses that run the railroad companies have all sorts of schemes to have them go barreling through the country with only one or even no crew person inside!  In fact, in recent years they’ve already starting instituting remote control operations (RCO) in train yards.  But don’t worry folks, the technology makes things even safer than before.  Does anyone else feel like they’ve seen this movie before?  It doesn’t end well.

It certainly didn’t for Jared Boehlke, the young conductor killed on Mother’s Day in Selkirk, New Jersey, performing RCO duties. Nor for Jody Allen Herstine, another conductor run over while moving cars with RCO in 2003. Nor for another man—a switchman—run over in Utah in 2005 while another worker moved engines using RCO. And a few days ago, came news of another death.

“My heart goes out to the Lundy family, I know the pain that they are suffering. This is exactly what I have been dreading the thought of, for the last seven months. The thought of yet another family in pain, it makes me so sick.” said Heather Boehlke, widow of locomotive remote control operator Jared Boehlke, upon hearing the news of the death of Samuel W. Lundy, who was killed while performing locomotive remote control switching in Minneapolis on Tuesday, December 29.

Railroad workers and concerned humans across the country are writing to Congressman James Oberstar, the powerful chair of the House Transportation Committee, to urge that strict regulations be imposed on the railroads using RCO.  You can get a sample letter here.  I’m sealing the envelope tonight and sending the letter tomorrow, because poorly regulated remote control operations of locomotives is a really dumb idea, and it’s costing people their lives.  If the railroads keep expanding the operations, how long before an accident involving hazardous materials seriously impacts not just one family at a time, but hundreds?