LEADERSHIP TRAINING CHALLENGES YOUNG IBEW MEMBERS TO THINK ABOUT HOW TO CARRY THE LABOR MOVEMENT FORWARD
Local 1245 stepped up its program of leadership training this spring with activist sessions in Reno, Fresno and Stanford.
The need for young leadership is clear: our union faces growing challenges even as many of our most stalwart activists approach retirement age. A new generation must pick up the torch.
But where are they carrying it? How are they supposed to respond to a deeply troubled economy, the increasingly ferocious attacks on public employees, the disappearance of unions from the vast majority of American workplaces?
Fortunately, working people have a long, rich tradition of banding together for greater strength, and guest speakers at all three training sessions offered inspiring accounts of ordinary people stepping forward to win extraordinary change.
In Fresno, Gilbert Padilla, a co-founder of the United Farm Workers Union with Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, told how young people flocked to southern California in the late 1960s and 1970s to help
farmworkers battle for union recognition—including a very young Tom Dalzell, who is now Local 1245 Business Manager, and Fred Ross, Jr., now a Local 1245 organizer.
Though not as well known as Chavez, Padilla played a key role in the rise of the farm workers historic movement in the 1960s. According to Ross, Padilla was an organizer, negotiator, picket captain.
“He did it all,” said Ross.
Padilla said workers can accomplish much once they lose their fear. Farmworker activists, he said, weren’t afraid to be arrested when authorities made it difficult for them to picket.
“The strike in 1973, we had 1800 people arrested, sometimes three or four times a day,” he said, exaggerating only slightly. “Well, two times a day. They got arrested in the morning and arrested in the afternoon.”
He said an employer should be viewed as just another human being, not someone to fear but someone who is “taking advantage of you.”
Business Rep. Bob Dean, speaking about the history of IBEW, agreed that “fear is a huge enemy” because it gets in the way of people’s willingness to stand up for themselves and “fight and get what is yours and what is right.”
“But me personally, I believe our biggest enemy today is not fear. It’s complacency,” he said. “People think, ‘I make a pretty good living, I’ve got a pretty good retirement, I’ve got pretty good medical, I’m just going to sit in this chair.’”
The danger, he said, is that “We sit by and watch as our rights, what so many people fought so long to get, get slowly eroded.”
Dean cautioned about the danger of letting social issues divide us, as they have so often in the past.
“At the end of the day, we’re for social justice and labor: working conditions, fair wages, the right to retire,” he said.
Dean said his grandfathers came out of the labor camps in Depression-era California and learned how to draw a line in the sand.
“They said, ‘Every day when I go to work I know that if there’s any way (the boss) can figure out a way to pay me less, he will. He doesn’t care about my family, he doesn’t care about my medical care… All he cares about is how much less can he pay me.’”
There was plenty of interaction at the training session. Meeting in small groups, the members identified 52 people from across the Bakersfield/Fresno area who would be recruited to join the union’s Solidarity Action Network.
In Reno, former Nevada State Archivist and long-time labor activist Guy Roche told IBEW members about times when working people in Nevada rose up to be a major political force.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, no candidate for political office could afford to ignore the Comstock miners’ unions, Roche said. In fact, union members went a step further and ran their own successful campaigns for county and district judge, district attorney, state legislator—even attorney general and member of Congress.
Although unions suffered through periods of decline, especially with the passage of Nevada’s right-to-work (for less) legislation in 1952, unions are baring their teeth again in the state. Roche noted the major gains made by the Culinary Workers union in Las Vegas, and also gave a nod to Local 1245 members and retirees for their on-going campaign to resist NV Energy’s attack on benefits.
Members heard about the latest developments in that campaign, including the dramatic moment when IBEW Lineman Sampson Wilson confronted NV Energy Board Chairman Philip Satre at the annual shareholders meeting in May and asked if the Board had investigated NV Energy CEO Michael Yackira’s role in the Ensign scandal.
As in Fresno, members broke into small groups and identified members from their work areas to be recruited to join the union’s Solidarity Action Network.
At Stanford, 26 members participated in a session on the legacy of the Civil Rights movement and its significance for labor activists today.
Clay Carson, a Stanford history professor and Director of the Martin Luther King Institute for Research and Education, spoke about the 1963 March on Washington, where King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream Speech.”
Only 19 at the time, Carson joked he was more interested in the young women he met than the speeches he was hearing that day. But in fact he was keenly interested in listening to a charismatic young activist named John Lewis who shared that historic stage with King.
“He gave this wonderful speech about the great revolution that was occurring, in the street—a grassroots revolution that was taking place in the south.”
For Lewis, Carson said, “the march was an expression of this enthusiasm that was spreading across the south, and it was spearheaded by young people. Young people who were not afraid to stand up to southern sheriffs and who were going into the most dangerous areas of the south to organize.”
Also addressing the Stanford session was Tho Do, International Vice President of UNITE-HERE, who gave an insider’s account of the campaign to organize hotel workers.
At day’s end, Local 1245 Organizer Eileen Purcell said the IBEW members visited the Martin Luther King Institute and received a copy of the newly-published book “All Labor Has Dignity,” a compilation of King’s speeches to labor unions, or a copy of “The Autobiography of Martin Luther King.”
Although King is generally recognized for his leadership on civil rights, he was also a passionate supporter of labor rights, and in fact was in Memphis assisting a sanitation workers’ strike when he was assassinated in 1968.