I have been teaching college classes at the San Francisco Art Institute since 2011, and just cast my vote to join SEIU 1021 in a current union election campaign to organize all of us “temporary” teachers (i.e. visiting faculty, adjunct professors, etc.). Adjuncts at Mills College over in Oakland just voted 68-19 to join the same local, and soon our colleagues at the California College of the Arts will be voting too. There’s a huge nationwide push on among adjuncts to unionize and I’ve been getting steady news about it all thanks to Joe Berry’s excellent email newsletter for COCAL (the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor).
There’s no small irony for me in this moment and this vote. I trace my own involvement with organized labor back to the mid-1970s when I volunteered to work on the UFW lettuce boycott in 1974 in Oakland, and was actually fired from Books Inc. in Santa Rosa at the end of 1977 for supposedly trying to start a union there. (Actually I had knocked on the doors of the Retail Clerks Union one floor above our bookstore in Coddingtown Mall, but they had never been there and had not responded to my phone message. Writing a letter to the chain owner asking for a 15% store-wide raise–after a 41% increase in December sales from 1976 to 1977–led to my firing by the store manager before my letter was ever delivered. I contacted the National Labor Relations Board and they got me a two-week back pay settlement some months later, and Books Inc. posted signs in all their 27 stores promising not to interfere with “protected concerted activities” which my meager effort was). Later I volunteered on the JP Stevens boycott, and did minor support work on the UMW Coal strike in 1978 and the OCAW refinery strike in 1979. This was the same period in which I read Marx, and met up with the Union of Concerned Commies.
By fall 1980 we were working on the first issue of Processed World. We wanted it to be a place for “dissident office workers” to write, to joke, to share ideas, and create bridges among workers and workplaces across various geographic, class, racial, and ideological boundaries. The Old and New Left were still very much part of the scene in 1980, and we were convinced that Jimmy Carter was as far right as the U.S. could possibly go, so we were not very worried about Reagan having any chance of winning the election that fall. (A great history of the period 1968-84 is in Jefferson Cowie’s “Stayin’ Alive: The Last Days of the American Working Class“–in it he convincingly shows how Nixon was the last New Deal president, and Carter was the first neoliberal president, meaning it was Carter who put in motion the shattering of the old labor movement, the deregulation and privatization agenda that we saw Reagan/Thatcher radically deepen and accelerate, etc.). In the first issue of Processed World we got to cover the largest ever private sector white collar strike in San Francisco at the Blue Shield health insurance offices around the city. Office and Professional Workers (OPEIU) Local 3 was the union, about 1100 workers were on strike, mostly women of color (we learned much more about the strategic leverage they had–and didn’t use–several years later when a new Processed World contributor told the story he saw as a consultant to the white male managers who were utterly clueless about how the work was conducted by their female workforce).
The Blue Shield strike was at that big turning point just before Reagan fired all the air traffic controllers. But it was a harbinger of what was taking shape. OPEIU Local 29 over in Oakland was on strike at the same time, against Blue Cross, and facing much the same set of demands and possibilities as their colleagues in San Francisco facing Blue Shield. Rather than maintaining a united front, Local 29 settled for a very weak agreement in the middle of the strike, completely undercutting the bargaining position of Local 3. Simultaneously Local 29’s own members were on strike against the East Bay AFL-CIO Council of Building Trades Unions who were denying them cost of living wage increases! Building Trades Union bureaucrats blithely crossed the picket lines daily of their striking secretaries and other office support staff. This everyday business unionism was so taken for granted that none of these raised much of a ruckus at the time. By the time OPEIU Local 3 settled the Blue Shield strike in 1981, only 150 workers returned to work, and the terms of the deal were more or less what had been offered at the outset of the strike. It was a devastating defeat, but by April 1981 there was Local 3 representatives on stage in Justin Herman Plaza on National Secretaries Day crowing about the great “union victory” their miserable strike had produced!
We covered many strikes and other labor issues over the years in Processed World and it was remarkable how consistently the unions would aggressively impose bad contracts on their members during this period of capitalist restructuring. Could they have bucked the trends at the time? As willing participants in the capitalist economy, with personal stakes in the maintenance of their own privileged income and access to universities, country clubs, etc., probably not. But by staying fully within the logic of a narrow business unionism, seeking only the best deal for the existing members, class-wide solidarity (never very strong in the U.S. anyway) was routinely repudiated as a strategy. The legally allowed tactics for the shrinking number of organized workers to defend themselves made sure they would keep shrinking, and watching their standard of living deteriorate, or at best stagnate, while the owning class took more and more (all this is well documented by now in the burgeoning research bolstering the 1% vs. 99% occupy meme).
We even discovered an interesting alternative history of a different kind of union that appeared among social workers in the period 1966-75, that had to break away from the existing union (then Building Services Employees International Union Local 400). Of course the social climate was quite different in that era than in the 1980s, but it was fascinating to find a working example of a horizontalist, transparent, democratic union that refused to sign contracts, that understood its strength as based on the daily exertion of power by its members at the workplace. More »