Saturday, May 30, 2009

L.A. Story: Immigrant Workers and the Future of the U.S. Labor Movement

by Ruth Milkman (New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation, 2006. 244 pp.)

This book is co-reviewed with another US labour writer's book here (thanks to Ernesto Aguilar for posting the link on Facebook):

Here's a quote from the review (by Steve Early):

Now a professor of sociology at UCLA and director of its Institute of Industrial Relations, Milkman has watched how the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), United Brotherhood of Carpenters (UBC), and Hotel and Restaurant Employees (HERE) have revitalized themselves and/or the L.A. County Labor Federation. In her view, looking to union members to rebel against corrupt, ineffective, or undemocratic unions and refashion them into something better is an exercise in wishful thinking and existential frustration—”Waiting For Lefty” reborn as “Waiting For Godot.” According to Milkman, proponents of the rank and file approach long championed by Moody naively assume “that if only the legions of top union brass would step aside and allow the rank and file’s natural leaders to take command, labor would no longer be so impotent.” In reality, she writes, “this approach glosses over the complex and multi-layered character of union leadership and various political configurations that are possible across those layers."

Milkman believes “that, when International leadership is progressive, it can be a powerful force for promoting innovation at the local union level” and rooting out “business unionism.” “As is now well documented, many of the most successful initiatives of the SEIU [and other Change to Win affiliates] have actually been ‘top down’ efforts, engineered not by the rank and file but by paid staff in the upper reaches of the union bureaucracy…The recent ascension of leaders with both extensive formal education and activist experience in other movements to high-level positions in key unions has injected dynamism into the labor movement….The most vibrant and innovative unions are those that combine social movement-style mobilization, with carefully calibrated strategies that leverage the expertise of creative, professional leaders.”

I was especially interested in the serious discussion of the Janitors for Justice movement, which was seeded by organizers in the way Milkman describes. There's a Hollywood film I recently found at a VHS sale, about the Janitors for Justice strike. It stars Adrien Brody and Pilar Padilla, was directed by Ken Loach, and produced by Rebecca O'Brien. It's called Bread and Roses (2001). The film shows the victory of the strike, but not the later erosion of the victory, as described in this review:

Milkman regards SEIU’s Justice for Janitors (JfJ) campaigns to be an unqualified success and model for union-builders everywhere. “Justice For Janitors originated as part of a strategic union rebuilding effort,” she explains.” It was conceived by SEIU’s national leadership and relied heavily on research and other staff-intensive means of exerting pressure on employers.”

To their credit, JfJ organizers helped pioneer comprehensive, community-based campaigns that by-passed the NLRB to win union recognition via card check and neutrality—by targeting building owners who were the real power behind cleaning service contractors. SEIU employed direct action tactics, including civil disobedience, built strong ties with immigrant communities, and presented the workers’ cause in a way that elicited sympathy and support from that part of the broader public concerned about social justice and better treatment of oppressed minorities.

According to Milkman, in the original JfJ struggle in Los Angeles in 1988-90–plus subsequent efforts in many other cities–”rank-and-file mobilization played a critical role in its success.” Nevertheless, as Moody notes, this “mobilization” has rarely translated into a leading role for immigrant janitors in managing the affairs of their own SEIU locals. By the mid-1990s, JfJ activists in Los Angeles were complaining about Local 399’s out-of-touch leadership, its neglect of day-to-day workplace issues, and the lack of rank-and-file participation in union decision-making. Many supported a successful electoral insurgency, led by the “Multiracial Alliance Slate.” But, in 1995, the SEIU national leadership quickly nullified the Alliance’s election victory by throwing the local into trusteeship and later moving L.A. janitors into a much larger, regional building services local. In L.A. Story, Milkman barely acknowledges that there was “widespread criticism” of SEIU over this pivotal development. She dismisses “Multiracial Alliance” organizing activity as an unfortunate “outbreak of factionalism” that, only “on the surface, appeared to involve rank and file rebellion against the local SEIU officialdom.”

In both Canada and the US, depiction of labour is very scarce - in the news, in academia, and in the movies, so I was happy to get the link to this information.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Late Nights on Air

by Elizabeth Hay (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Ltd., 2007)

Elizabeth Hay is quite a well known Canadian writer, with previous novels that were finalists or winners for major national book awards. Especially pertinent to this book, she formerly worked for CBC Radio in Yellowknife (as well as Winnipeg and Toronto). Late Nights on Air is set in Yellowknife in the summer of 1975, and revolves around characters who work at the CBC radio station there. Especially prominent are two young women in their 20s - Dido, who starts out very confident, and Gwen, who starts out very timid. If one of these characters is based on Hay, herself, I'm betting it's the timid one. There's also an older man named Harry, who as the story begins is on his way down the career ladder, and an assortment of other characters who are important but in a sense not central.

As a radio person myself, I love the parts of the story that have to do with learning about radio - the mic technique, the creation of sound effects, recording in the field, and so forth. During the period of the story, CBC is re-focusing its efforts and television is on the verge of eclipsing radio - although, for me, radio is still more important than television even in the CBC of today, and still the best-produced element of the national network.

More deeply explored than the radio angle of this book is the North, and in the end I would say the North is truly the principal character. The Yellowknife of this period is lovingly detailed, but as the book expands, the story grows to encompass the extensive Federal inquiry on a 2,200-mile gas pipeline planned to run from Prudhoe Bay across the Yukon on to the south. Hay and Gwen were great admirers of Canadian Supreme Court Justice Thomas Berger, who traveled for three years around the Arctic listening to witnesses, with great respect for all. I have found some of the CBC's coverage of these hearings archived online and even more powerful, video clips as well as audio from the hearings here. The CBC website confirms Hay's impression, that Berger's "report shocked the government that appointed him, and was heralded by some as 'Canada's Native Charter of Rights.'"

A related aspect of Late Nights on Air revolves around the history of the doomed 1927 expedition led by explorer Jack Hornby to Canada's Northwest Territories. About the last third of the book is devoted to two men and two women from the radio station following in Hornby's footsteps, and becoming intimately acquainted with the spartan but various terrain of the Canadian Arctic. This section is beautifully written and creates strange and lovely pictures in the mind.

The way the book is built includes many surprising changes of the wind - both literally, and in terms of the direction of the story. Hay has a way of throwing out little warnings that something dire is going to happen in the future and leaving you waiting for it in a state of suspense, wondering if the part of the story she's telling now is going to reveal the disaster or not.

There's a lot of love and awe in this story. The human dynamics seem mostly realistic, and sometimes spark sharp memories for me. There is also the makings of an interesting reading list, if one wants to collect the wide variety of literary and historical references that appear throughout. I found the book informative and engaging and recommend it very much.

-- Frieda Werden