The Border is Thick

Before I post my next entry I just want to update anyone who might have wondered: the San Francisco Art Institute Visiting Faculty Association adjuncts (including yours truly) voted 124-35 to join SEIU Local 1021, joining adjuncts at Mills College in Oakland who also recently voted by a large majority to unionize. Now begins a process of negotiation and positioning to see if we can get real improvements in our remarkably precarious conditions. My own future well-being has become much more dependent on my role as co-director of Shaping San Francisco, so if you are inclined to support this important almost 20-year-old project, we’ve launched a big fundraising effort called the “3% Solution,” hoping to get 3% of our 35,000+ monthly web visitors to sustain us for the cost of a cupla-three fancy coffees ($10/mo.), a tax deductible donation.

Written in May 2012:

This is the desert... hundreds, maybe thousands, of people were walking through this landscape as I took this photo.

This is the desert… hundreds, maybe thousands, of people were walking through this landscape as I took this photo.

The border between the U.S. and Mexico in Nogales, Arizona (and Nogales, Sonora on the other side).

The border between the U.S. and Mexico in Nogales, Arizona (and Nogales, Sonora on the other side).

This blog post is actually two years old, from a trip to the Arizona/Sonora border in May 2012. We spent six days around the Arizona-Sonora, Mexico border last week. I was accompanying Adriana on her research trip down there, mostly as chauffeur, though I participated in some of her interviews with my own curiosity. (All the contacts were hers and the overall scope and purpose of the trip was set up by her as well. The interviews from which I learned what I write about below were in their vast majority hers as well. Her project is currently developing at www.unsettlers.org.)  Adriana’s cousin Carmen joined us too—she’s employed by an Argentine NGO committed to identifying human remains in various places and helping families learn about the fate of their loved ones. The organization started investigating the desaparecidos (disappeared) from Argentina’s Dirty War, and is now directing efforts towards the hundreds of people dying while crossing the U.S-Mexico border. She brought a specific body of knowledge and a very specific frame of reference to the various people and organizations we visited.

Together we went west and south, driving and walking through the deserts on both sides of the border, seeing first-hand the nightmare that confronts the steady stream of migrants trying to cross into the U.S.

Here we are with Sarah, a rancher on the border who is working on riparian restoration projects on her land.

Here we are with Sarah King, a rancher on the border who is working on riparian restoration projects on her land.

During the last two decades there has been a radical expansion of border enforcement in both space and intensity. The border has been largely militarized by the U.S., first in response to the North American Free Trade Agreement that took effect at the beginning of 1994, which was designed to open borders to goods and capital, but notably not human beings. After 9-11 the hysteria about terrorism has been used to build huge, ugly (and somewhat farcical) fences, triple border patrol agents, add various technologies of surveillance, and generally turn what was once a quiet and relatively friendly border into a grim echo of the Berlin Wall, South African apartheid, and Israel’s monstrous wall in Palestine. A zone of checkpoints and patrols extends at least 50 miles north from the actual boundary, making for a very thick border leaving no one untouched.

We drove west out of Tucson on our first day to Three Points, and then south to the King Anvil Ranch where we met Sarah King. She is part of a ranching family, and is involved with a local Conservation Alliance. We wanted to see some of the work she’s helped facilitate to create “induced meandering” of rains in areas of high erosion. The desert in the vicinity of the King Ranch is just gorgeous! It’s about 40 miles north of the international border in the Altar Valley east of the Baboquivari Peak Wilderness. On the other side of the iconic Bobaquivari Peak is the Tohono O’Odham Nation’s Reservation, a sprawling territory covering hundreds of square miles along the border. The U.S. border patrol is not welcome to patrol their land.

King Anvil ranch sign

King Anvil ranch sign

pink-blooming-cactus_7437 Continue reading The Border is Thick

Solidarity… Forever?

Had to put a nice photo first... this is on the Bay Trail north of Carquinez Strait looking east/southeast towards Mt. Diablo on May 4.

Had to put a nice photo first… this is on the Bay Trail north of Carquinez Strait looking east/southeast towards Mt. Diablo on May 4.

Art Hazelwood produced this poster to help promote unionization among the adjunct (visiting) faculty at the San Francisco Art Institute

Art Hazelwood produced this poster to help promote unionization among the adjunct (visiting) faculty at the San Francisco Art Institute

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. Continue reading Solidarity… Forever?

This is What Democracy Looks Like?!?

Heavy times these days. An innocent man, Alex Nieto, was murdered by the police on Bernal Heights on Friday March 21. This follows a litany of police corruption cases, regular incidents of police violence, and a growing climate of utter impunity under the old-boy police chief Greg Suhr.

At a wider scale, every day there is dire news about climate change, most recently the NASA-funded report that suggests we are on the brink of a collapse of industrial society (hardly a new idea, but interesting to have it widely disseminated by a scholarly study funded in part by NASA). Elizabeth Kolbert’s recent book The Sixth Extinction leaves little doubt that it is humans who are causing the wipe-out of thousands of species across the planet.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed its ongoing commitment to plutocracy by eliminating limits on individual donations to election campaigns. It’s not the Armageddon for democracy that a bunch of liberals are making it out to be–just more of the same relentless arrogance of the ruling class in the U.S., abandoning any pretense about legitimate democratic elections (the same Supreme Court a few months ago threw out most of the Voting Rights Act rules that assured the right to vote to poor and people of color in the most reactionary states in the Union). Much as I disrespect electoral democracy and think it is broken, the message from the Supreme Court is pretty clear: voting rights are for those with money, obviously!

Locally, the supposedly “progressive” Board of Supervisors (San Francisco’s city council) listened to a packed chamber for about 3 hours, nearly unanimous in their clamor for a proper environmental review of the absurd shuttle bus give-away to tech companies (wherein private luxury shuttle buses are allowed to use public bus stops for $1 each–after being free for the past several years–while private citizens who stop on a bus stop in their car are liable for a fine of $271 each!). Citizens documented the radical inflation of local housing markets around tech shuttle stops, decried the ethnic cleansing of the Mission and other parts of the City that are the result, and showed the heavy strain put on public buses and their riders by having the tech buses in their way, and so on. But as has been the case for a long time in this city, the public hearing was a charade, the decision having been made before anyone even spoke. The vote after this overwhelming insistence on an environmental review? 8-2 against, including some so-called progressive supervisors like Jane Kim and David Chiu. Kudos to Campos and Avalos for sticking with the people in spite of the greased wheels and done deal behind the scenes.

We live in a deeply corrupt society, from the local level to the national level. The 1% have decided, going back more than a decade, to grab whatever they can. It’s a society of brazen theft and bribery, where the politicians in Washington are mostly millionaires serving the interests of their class, and local politicians are so devoid of vision that they serve the interests of whatever ascendant pile of dough happens to come along.

Continue reading This is What Democracy Looks Like?!?