Former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich doesn’t mince words.
He lambasted President Obama’s recent public appearance at a Bay Area Walmart, calling whoever made the decision a “numbskull.” And at a leadership seminar this week with 56 IBEW 1245 activists and LA Labor leader Maria Elena Durazo, Reich declared that the US economy is “rigged” in favor of the rich.
Durazo hails “pioneers”
Durazo, head of the LA County Federation of Labor and a champion for low-wage and immigrant workers’ rights, opened up the seminar by calling the Organizing Stewards “pioneers” and commending them for their hard work.
As an organizing powerhouse in the labor movement, “the name of IBEW Local 1245 is really getting out there,” Durazo said.
She underscored the fact that an organizer’s most powerful tool is his or her personal story, and 1245 Organizing Stewards are using their experiences to connect and motivate others. “What you’re doing is spreading, and that’s what you want,” Durazo said. “You want it to spread so that other people like yourselves can join.”
Durazo then shared her own personal story. Her parents came to California from Mexico as migrant farm workers, hoping to make a better life for their family.
“Most of the time, we didn’t make enough to keep a roof over our head. We would stay in the labor camps, or the farmer’s barn, or on the flatbed truck, or we would squat in a tent by a river on someone else’s property and stay there as long as we could until we were ran out,” Durazo recalled.
Growing up in poverty shaped Durazo’s life, with two seminal events that she feels moved her to fight for justice: the death of her infant brother due to lack of adequate healthcare; and her father’s apology for being unable to provide more for her on the day she left for college, when she became the first in her family to do so.
“How could a man who worked so hard, sun up to sun down, 6-7 days a week, and refused to take any public assistance, how could a man like that have to apologize?” Durazo said.
Her experiences motivated her to begin organizing garment workers and hotel workers in Los Angeles, and she quickly rose to become the leader of her local, UNITE HERE 11. In 2006, after the premature death of her late husband and labor leader, Miguel Contreras, Durazo was elected the Secretary Treasurer of the LA County Federation of Labor, and she has successfully turned LA into the largest labor town in the United States today.
Retiree Rita Weisshaar was struck by Durazo’s conviction that history depends on “common people doing uncommon things.”
“Some people think they don’t have the knowledge or courage to reach out to others and spread the word so to speak. I used to be one of them. [Durazo] encouraged us to find universal values that we all care about and connect with other working people,” Weisshaar said.
Reich: “There is no substitute for organizing”
“There are not very many voices out there for us, for working people, for the middle class, and I believe that the single strongest, most articulate, most well-respected voice [on our side of the issue] is Professor Reich,” said IBEW 1245 Business Manager Tom Dalzell, who introduced Reich at the union’s May 14 leadership seminar in Berkeley. “He’s my hero.”
True to form, Reich launched the discussion with a rapid-fire course in economics, history and politics. “This economy is rigged in favor of the people who have a lot of money and the big corporations. Ninety-five percent of all of the economic gains since the so-called ‘recovery’ began have gone to the top 1%.”
Reich went on to demonstrate the gross disparity in our economic system with some simple examples.
“If you want to declare bankruptcy because of student debt, you can’t do it. But if you are Donald Trump and you’ve got 300 different properties and you want to declare bankruptcy on one of them, sure, you can do it tomorrow,” Reich said.
“If you’re on Wall Street, you can get bailed out and come out even better than you were before, but if you’re a homeowner who’s underwater, you’re not going to get any bailout at all. And if you’re a poor person in this country, your food stamps are being cut, but if you’re Big Agribusiness affected by the same bill, you’re doing better than ever.
“The reason why everything is being rigged for the rich and powerful is that the people who are not rich and not powerful don’t have enough of a voice, and are not sufficiently organized,” Reich said, noting that three times over the last 120 years, Americans have faced similar crises of economic inequality, and fought back successfully with organized labor at the center.
Reich ticked off a string of policy proposals that he believes could correct the course we are on. But the bottom line was all about working people standing together and fighting for their rights.
“Organized labor is more important now than ever. You create the voice, the negotiating power, wages, political power … There is no substitute for organizing,” he said.
“I think the most memorable moment I will take away from this, is knowing that all is possible. Organizing is possible. And it starts with us,” said Organizing Steward Nilda Garcia.
Tree Trimmer Justin Casey left the training motivated to go out and organize more workers, “not only to build membership, but to rebuild the whole economy as we know it.”
“Big money has a strong hold on what goes on, but collectively we can make a change,” Casey said. “Like we all know, it will not happen overnight. It’s going to take a lot of hard work and commitment, but if it was that easy to make change, it would have already happened!”
The seminar was the twelfth IBEW 1245 leadership training since the Leadership Development and Organizing Program was launched by Business Manager Tom Dalzell in 2010. The intergenerational, hands-on program provides a powerful mix of youth and experience, trainings and learning-by-doing in live campaigns to prepare the next generation of labor leaders.
“Dispatching members to work on campaigns within our local or in solidarity with other locals reaps dividends,” said Dalzell. “They make an important contribution and grow and come back transformed.”
The leadership program was featured in a recent video produced by the international office of the IBEW.
The Organizing Stewards are wasting no time putting their leadership skills into action. Nearly a dozen Organizing Stewards will be joining political campaigns supporting pro-labor initiatives and candidates later this month. IBEW 1245 Organizing Committees and Organizing Stewards will also be hosting screenings of the Robert Reich documentary, Inequality for All, at Unit Meetings, House Meetings, BBQs or other events.
For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Success breeding success
Successful campaigns build enthusiasm, and enthusiasm creates successful campaigns. At the leadership training on May 14, members had a chance to talk about the campaigns they’ve helped to win.
Organizing Steward, Rey Mendoza, a Senior Service Rep at PG&E in Fresno, said that “No on Measure G” was his most memorable campaign. “We helped save 100 union jobs.”
Nilda Garcia, an Organizing Steward and Service Rep at PG&E’s Sacramento Call Center, recalled the SunOptics organizing drive last winter, which succeeded despite stiff resistance from the employer.
Organizing Stewards Donchele Soper, a Senior Service Rep at PG&E in Sacramento, and Kevin Krummes, a PG&E Operating Clerk, mentioned the campaign in River Falls and Milwaukee, Wisconsin in the face of Gov. Scott Walkers’ attacks on collective bargaining rights. “It changed my life,” Soper said.
Retiree Rita Weisshaar, a key organizer of the Shame on NV Energy Campaign that fought to preserve retiree healthcare benefits, described the campaign as “life changing.”
“Fred Ross told me to get on the back of a truck and speak to 200 members in Las Vegas” about the retirees’ cause, said the normally soft-spoken Weisshaar. Those who were there remember that she grabbed the bullhorn and took command of the rally.
“One of the most important days was the day I got the call that NV Energy had agreed to settle with us,” said Weisshaar.