Wednesday Dec 01

Online Only Features

An interesting reflective piece by Peter Rachleff, Professor of History at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.  Peter is writing an assessment of the impact of the battles of Wisconsin on the elections of 2012 for our fall issue.

Learning From David Montgomery: Worker, Historian, Activist

By Peter Rachleff

On December 4, 2011, the labor movement, the left, the academy, and the historical profession lost a leader and friend.  Eighty-four years young, David Montgomery had remained active and vital until his passing, giving an address at a labor history conference at the University of Iowa in July and speaking at a fall AFL-CIO workshop (with his son, labor economist Ed Montgomery) in Washington, D.C.; he continued to research transnational labor activism, and that research has inspired a panel at the November 2012 American Studies Association conference in Puerto Rico.  David’s death occasioned many reflections among colleagues, his former students and fellow workers as far back as his pre-academic organizing days.  Numerous eloquent obituaries have detailed David’s accomplishments and testified to his impact.1

David had particular connections to Minnesota’s labor movement and labor history, the place I have called home for the past thirty years.  After graduating from college and serving in the military in the 1940s, he and his partner Martel (better known as “Marty”) moved to Saint Paul in the 1950s, and he went to work as a machinist at Honeywell, where the United Electrical Workers was still the union.  David was a shop steward, and his reputation as a militant organizer of his fellow workers soon spread throughout the sprawling plant.  He lost his job when Honeywell closed his entire department, and the UE soon lost its foothold there in a raid by the Teamsters.  He soon found machinist work on the Saint Paul side of the Mississippi River, where he became known and respected within IAM 459.  David’s activism also extended to electoral politics – he worked in Joe Karth’s remarkable 1958 congressional campaign (as president of an OCAW local, Karth ran on an anti-nuclear platform) – and to local labor history, where he assisted Meridel LeSueur and a cohort of former Farmer-Laborites and Communists in the production of the booklet, THE PEOPLE TOGETHER.  This remarkable publication at once commemorates Minnesota’s centennial and protests against the Minnesota Historical Society’s disregard for the roles played by working people in the state’s first one hundred years.

Given the worsening Cold War political climate, it became more and more difficult for David to continue playing a visible role in the labor movement.  He later explained to an interviewer:  “I was driven out of the factory; I was blacklisted.  Becoming a historian was not my first choice.  I had to do something, so I took the second best choice that was around then.”   As a graduate student in History, David brought important lessons from his shopfloor and political experience into the University of Minnesota’s department, where he found an eager mentor in David Noble.  In reflecting on his grad school days, David declared:  “Being in factories…involved in struggles along with other workers there persuaded me that most of what was written in academic literature about the inherent passivity or conservatism of American workers in fighting to change anything was simply untrue.”2 The Cold War’s impact on the labor movement might have prevented him from developing further as a factory organizer, but it was driving him to transform the field of labor history.

By the mid-1960s, the energies of the civil rights, women’s, and peace movements were turning the study of American history upside down.  New historians – many of them participants in 1960s movements – unearthed the roles of artisans and sailors in the American Revolution, the slaves’ resistance to the “peculiar institution,” and the struggles of women for the right to vote.  The new labor historians, led by David Montgomery, Herbert Gutman, and David Brody, developed new ways of constructing the history of working women and men that questioned the more institutional analysis that had been dominant in the field since the rise of the “Wisconsin School” of John R. Commons and Selig Perlman in the 1910s and 1920s.  The new labor historians insisted that the workplace was a site of struggle, that workers acted in collective fashions whether they belonged to unions or not, and that communities and local politics bore the mark of the struggles of working people for a better life.3

I’d like to use the space allotted me here to highlight what I think are some of his most valuable themes for those still seeking to work within the labor movement today.  Some of you may disagree with my selection of key ideas, or my presentation of those ideas, and I invite you to weigh in with your own perspectives.  Nothing would have pleased David more, and nothing is more useful for the ongoing vitality of our field and our movement.

Theme #1: Marxism Provides Key Insights for Labor History

David’s engagement with Marxism informed his scholarly work.  Without didactically insisting on the value of a Marxist critique of capitalism, his books and articles analyzed labor history within a complex, well-constructed framework which incorporated key Marxist insights.  David understood capitalism as an historical product and an unstable system, and he realized it posed collaboration versus competition as key issues for workers and employers alike.  Not only did capitalism set a defining context for workers’ lives and struggles, but their struggles forced changes in the institutions, politics, and culture of capitalism, in the United States and throughout the world.

Class conflict lay at the heart of capitalism, and it manifested itself in workplaces, in politics, in race and gender relations, and in the formation of ideologies and cultures.  His first book, BEYOND EQUALITY: LABOR AND THE RADICAL REPUBLICANS, 1862-1872, suggested that we could not understand the failure of Reconstruction without examining the changing nature of class conflict in the industrial and industrializing North.  The more that capitalist manufacturers in the North were challenged by the organizations and demands of their workers, the less willing they were to promote an agenda of social transformation in the South.  Similarly, in CITIZEN WORKER: THE EXPERIENCE OF WORKERS IN THE UNITED STATES WITH DEMOCRACY AND THE FREE MARKET DURING THE NINETEENTH CENTURY, David demonstrated fundamental contradictions between political democracy and market-driven economics, contradictions which fueled restrictions on grassroots expressions of political discontent, from northern workers seeking the eight hour day and Midwestern farmers challenging banks and railroads to southern African Americans confronting Jim Crow.  Capitalism, David argued, ineluctably bound economics and politics, the workplace and the ballot box, corporate institutions and the state.4

But these bound forces did not prevent workers from organizing and struggling, and their struggles often changed the course of American history.  In WORKERS’ CONTROL IN AMERICA and THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF LABOR: THE WORKPLACE, THE STATE, AND AMERICAN LABOR ACTIVISM, 1865-1925, David traced workers’ struggles for a shorter working day, for an end to exploitative payment practices, against unsafe working conditions, for more control over the pace and nature of the work process, for the democratization of communities (such as mining camps and Minnesota Iron Range “locations”), against racism and nativism, and for peace in international relations.  In a remarkable public address on “Labor and Antiwar Activism in Minnesota,” delivered in March 2002 to a labor conference in Saint Paul, David discussed workers’ struggles to prevent World War I, their support for mobilization against fascism in World War II, and their opposition to nuclear proliferation in the late 1950s.  “In all three instances,” he argued, “[workers] had a tangible influence on the course of national politics, though in none of them did they succeed in reshaping the world the way they hoped and intended.”  Although workers and their organizations often did not win (indeed, they rarely won) such battles, there were consequent adjustments and shifts in economic, social, and political institutions and policies.  And later struggles tended to build on the achievements of the earlier ones, even the defeats.5

Theme #2: Montgomery’s “Syndicalism”: The Struggle in the Workplace

For David, the workplace itself was the primary site of class struggle.  In the workplace, workers and employers (or their representatives) fought over how work was organized, how it would get done, and how much would get done.  He frequently referenced Carter Goodrich’s notion of the “frontier of control,” that “invisible dividing line” where management’s authority ceased and the scope for workers’ decision-making began.  David understood technology as a tool in management’s campaigns to expand its decision-making power, and he also saw unions as tools in workers’ campaigns to expand their power and authority.  This theme came up again and again in his lectures and seminars, whether he was discussing slaves’ use of songs to set a humane pace in the cotton fields, Welsh and Irish miners’ efforts to teach eastern European immigrants to refuse to work when foremen came around, or machinists’ strategies to use piece rates to control their pace of work.  While some labor historians paid particular attention to artisans’ use of traditions and skills to resist the capitalist reorganization of work, the re-division of labor, and the introduction of time discipline, David was more interested in the new strategies, tactics, and solidarities employed by new generations of factory workers, who were being reorganized by their employers not only to produce but also to join together to resist production.  Here, David’s engagement with Marxism and his experiences on the shopfloor combined to enable him to see how capitalism, in its own development, generated working class resistance.6

In a dialectical fashion, unions grew out of the shopfloor struggles, while they also served the needs of these struggles.  Workers organized themselves into unions in order to codify their work practices and rules, to institutionalize the solidarity necessary to enforce them, and to provide the means to socialize new workers into them.  Unions linked workplaces in local markets, regions, nations, and even transnationally, and they enabled workers to disrupt employers’ efforts to interject competition across workplaces, competition which Jeremy Brecher has so aptly labeled a “race to the bottom.”7

For David, then, workers’ power in the workplace was indissolubly linked to workers’ power at the bargaining table.  They fed each other.  And the logic of capitalism suggested that this dialectic would continue to unfold.

Theme #3: What Is The Labor Movement?

The struggle over the “frontier of control,” the struggle to embody positions of strength in contracts, job descriptions, work rules, and recognized past practices is only part of the story, part of the labor movement whose past, present, and future occupied David Montgomery’s heart and imagination.  My appreciation for such issues began in the fall of 1974, my first semester in graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh.  One afternoon, in his crowded labor history lecture course, David Montgomery dropped a bomb.  “Do you realize,” he asked his students, “that if you said ‘labor movement’ in late nineteenth century America, you would have been talking about five different kinds of organizations?”  As our pens stood erect over our notebook pages, he proceeded to name them: trade unions (of course); fraternal and benefit societies (the embodiment of what he called “working class mutuality”); co-operatives (both producer and consumer); reform associations (like Eight Hour leagues); and political parties (mostly at the local or, occasionally, the state levels).  If you were studying the 1880s and wanted to be precise, he hastily added, you might want to add a sixth organizational form, the mixed local assemblies of the Knights of Labor.  Within them, workers from various occupations and industries came together to support strikes, boycott nefarious bosses, and promote local political issues, from restrictions on convict labor to the construction of public buildings with union labor.  We furiously took notes, then caught our breath.  Then, he dropped another bomb: “If you were to say ‘labor movement’ today [1974], you’d be talking about only one kind of organization, the trade union.”8

There we were, “we” being, particularly, the labor history graduate students who wanted not only to write about labor history but also, from within the labor movement, to help make labor history, and our mentor, was serving notice – more than a decade before scholars and activists would begin to decry the “decline” of the labor movement – that the “labor movement” of our era, the last quarter of the 20th century, was a profoundly narrowed, diminished, and restricted shadow of its historical self.  We might not have understood all the implications of such an historical assessment at that moment, but it has certainly haunted my awareness as I have witnessed plant closings, the contracting out of jobs, defeats of strikes, collapse of union organizing campaigns, the firing of union activists, and the passage of anti-union legislation.9

David’s work and that of many of his graduate students explored the complex organizational infrastructure of the labor movement from the last quarter of the 19th century through the passage of the Wagner Act (1935) and the Taft-Hartley Act (1947), and the construction of the modern American system of collective bargaining.   In books like THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF LABOR: THE WORKPLACE, THE STATE, AND AMERICAN LABOR ACTIVISM, 1865-1925, and CITIZEN WORKER: THE EXPERIENCE OF WORKERS IN THE U.S. WITH DEMOCRACY AND THE FREE MARKET IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY, and many scholarly and popular articles, David researched, analyzed, and documented how working women and men organized themselves outside as well as inside workplaces, how these organizations were inter-connected through shared values, ideologies, and leaderships, and how they ebbed and flowed historically in strength and influence.

His students’ explorations have added many layers of richness and complexity to this scholarship, and their contributions – and their teaching of subsequent generations  – suggests that David’s legacy will continue to shape our understanding of capitalism, class relations, the workplace, working people, and the labor movement.  Consider this selection of examples, drawn from some of the dissertations David supervised which then became books: Bruce Laurie’s attention to volunteer fire companies and other neighborhood organizations in the struggles of Philadelphia artisans and first generation factory workers; Shel Stromquist’s research into community support for railroad workers’ struggles in the late 19th century; Jim Barrett’s examination of Chicago’s “back of the yards” communities’ support for immigrant packinghouse workers in the era of THE JUNGLE; Eric Arnesen’s exploration of both black and inter-racial organizing on the New Orleans docks and its waterfront neighborhoods; Peter Gottlieb’s and Kimberly Phillips’ reconstructions of the peregrinations of southern African Americans into and out of Pittsburgh and Cleveland steel mills and the relation of these migrations to black communities north and south; a range of investigations of working-class communities and independent labor politics, including Reeve Huston on small-town political activism against a regional landed gentry in antebellum upstate New York, Julie Greene on political activism by the supposedly “apolitical” American Federation of Labor, Grace Palladino on anthracite miners’ quest for government regulation of conditions in their workplaces in 19th century Pennsylvania, and Cecelia Bucki on the working-class base for socialist municipal politics in Bridgeport, Connecticut; and then there are the studies of race and gender as sources of bonding and organization as well as division and competition, including Iver Bernstein’s painful retelling of Irish immigrants’ involvement in the New York City “draft riots” in the midst of the Civil War, my own study of African American workers’ organization, on their own behalf and with white workers, in post-Civil War Richmond, Virginia, Tera Hunter’s appreciation of African American working women’s struggles to control laundry and domestic labor in the Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction urban South, Dan Letwin’s exploration of interracial organizing among Alabama coal miners in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Priscilla Murolo’s exploration of working girls’ clubs in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Gunther Peck’s excavation of class struggles within immigrant and ethnic communities in the early 20th century West, Ileen DeVault’s investigation of the roles played by gender in the construction of white collar work at the turn of the 20th century, Dana Frank’s documentation of working-class women’s use of consumer organizing to buttress the post-general strike (1919) labor movement in Seattle, Dorothy Fujita-Rony’s reconstruction of Seattle’s Filipino working class within a transpacific framework.  And I fear having given offense to those scholars I have left out.10

David Montgomery’s Living Legacy

Learning from the key themes which I have discussed – the value of Marxism in analyzing capitalism, the centrality of the workplace as a site of class struggle, and the variety of institutions which make up a labor movement – can serve us well today, not only as labor historians but also as labor activists.  The 2008 financial crisis and the ensuing “Great Recession” remind us that capitalism is an unstable system.  Struggles by nurses to control patient staffing ratios, by teachers to control class size and curriculum, and by manufacturing workers to challenge the logic of the products they make remind us that the workplace continues to be a site of class struggle.  In the “Madison Uprising” of 2011 (and the larger and ongoing Wisconsin struggle) workers, students, social justice activists, immigrants, welfare recipients, and even Democratic politicians created a veritable soviet in that capital city, inspired by struggles for democracy in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere, and inspiring broad-based struggles against the right-wing agenda in Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota, and more.  True, the much bemoaned current percentage of the workforce in unions (perhaps 10%) is well below that of 1974 (when the percentage was closer to 20%) or the great unionized decades of the 1940s-1960s, (when it was 30% or more), and such figures reflect a shift of the frontier of control in the workplace towards management and a consequent shift in bargaining table clout in the same direction.  But capitalism’s instability, on the one hand, and the 1%’s efforts to make the 99% bear its burden, on the other hand, has provoked working-class resistance of an order not seen in decades.

At the same time, working class organization has spread a thicker and thicker web.  Particularly due to the massive influx of immigrants since 1990, diverse forms of working class organization – fraternal and benefit societies, reform organizations (especially on behalf of immigrant rights),  and worker centers (which provide services, teach English, maintain hiring halls, and mobilize protests) – are emerging.  There has been a multiplicity of local political organizations (the Working Families Party in New York, Greens, Independents of various stripes), many of which include significant working class voices.  There are food co-operatives aplenty, plus community supported agriculture (CSA) networks, with working class participants, and growing interest in building the infrastructure of local food movements.  There are a range of local, national, and international media and communications, from “Labor Radio” to “Labour Start.”  And then there is the Occupy Movement, its presence, its impact on political discourse, and its widening web reaching into issues of foreclosures, healthcare, the environment, education costs and content, and more.

In all these ventures, even in their inchoate forms and despite the suppression from without, are all of David’s themes about capitalism, the workplace, and the labor movement.  I see in the determination and the ferocity of these developments, both in their local depth and in their international connections and inspirations, their creativity and militancy, the great fierce spirit of David Montgomery: restless, indefatigable, strategic, and propelled by the lived agonies and desires for freedom in those all around.

Peter Rachleff is a History Professor at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.   This piece appeared in New Politics in April, 2012 and is reprinted with the Permission of Peter and New Politics ( In the mid-1970s, Peter pursued a Ph.D. in labor history under David Montgomery’s supervision, which he completed in 1981.  He has continued to be David’s student ever since.



  1. Among the many obituaries, eulogies, and appreciations, I would call your attention to: Jon Wiener, “David Montgomery, 1927-2011,” THE NATION (; Eric Foner, “Obituary for David Montgomery,” THE GUARDIAN (; Dana Frank, “David Montgomery, Grand Master Workman,” THE NATION (; Bruce Weber, “David Montgomery, 84, Dies; Chronicled Lives of Workers,” NEW YORK TIMES, December 8, 2011; and Pohla Smith, “David Montgomery: Scholar Had Longtime Passion for Labor Activism,” PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE, December 5, 2011.
  2. “Once Upon a Shopfloor: An Interview with David Montgomery,” conducted by Paul Buhle and Mark Naison, RADICAL HISTORY REVIEW, 23 (Spring 1980.  He was a founding editor of INTERNATIONAL LABOR AND WORKING CLASS HISTORY, president of the Organization of American Historians, 1999-2000, and the recipient of the Distinguished Service to Labor and Working Class History Award of the Labor and Working Class History Association (2007) and the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Working Class Studies Association (2009).
  3. Shelton Stromquist, “Perspectives on the New Labor History: The Wisconsin School and Beyond,” INTERNATIONAL LABOR AND WORKING CLASS HISTORY, 39 (Spring 1991); Leon Fink, PROGRESSIVE INTELLECTUALS AND THE DILEMMAS OF DEMOCRATIC COMMITMENT (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999).  In addition to Montgomery’s work, which is discussed and cited below, also see Herbert Gutman, WORK, CULTURE, AND SOCIETY IN INDUSTRIALIZING AMERICA (NY: Vintage, 1977), and POWER AND CULTURE: ESSAYS ON THE AMERICAN WORKING CLASS (NY: The New Press, 1992); and David Brody, STEELWORKERS IN AMERICA: THE NON-UNION ERA (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998 [1960]), and WORKERS IN INDUSTRIAL AMERICA (NY: Oxford, 1993).
  4. BEYOND EQUALITY: LABOR AND THE RADICAL REPUBLICANS, 1862-1872 (NY: Knopf, 1967);    CITIZEN WORKER: THE EXPERIENCE OF WORKERS IN THE UNITED STATES WITH DEMOCRACY AND THE FREE MARKET DURING THE NINETEENTH CENTURY (NY Cambridge, 1993).  Also see “Radical Republicanism in Pennsylvania, 1866-1873,” THE PENNSYLVANIA MAGAZINE OF HISTORY AND BIOGRAPHY, 84:4 (October 1961); “The Shuttle and the Cross: Weavers and Artisans in the Ke3nsington Riots of 1844,” JOURNAL OF SOCIAL HISTORY, 5:4 (Summer 1972);  “Labor and the Republic in Industrial America, 1860-1920,” LE MOUVEMENT SOCIALE, no. 111 (April – June 1980); “Wage Labor, Bondage, and Citizenship in Nineteenth Century America,” INTERNATIONAL LABOR AND WORKING CLASS HISTORY, no 48 (fall 1995)
  5. WORKERS’ CONTROL IN AMERICA: STUDIES IN THE HISTORY OF WORK, TECHNOLOGY, AND LABOR STRUGGLES (NY: Cambridge, 1979);   THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF LABOR: THE WORKPLACE, THE STATE, AND AMERICAN LABOR ACTIVISM, 1865-1926 (NY: Cambridge, 1987).    Also see “Strikes in Nineteenth Century America,” SOCIAL SCIENCE HISTORY, 4:1 (Winter 1980); “Immigrants, Industrial Unions, and Social Reconstruction in the United States, 1916-1923,” LABOUR/LE TRAVAIL, volume 13 (Spring 1994); “Presidential Address: Racism, Immigrants, and Political Reform,” THE JOURNAL OF AMERICAN HISTORY, 87:4 (March 2001); “Labor and Antiwar Activism in Minnesota,” Saint Paul, 2002, posted on
  6. Carter Goodrich, THE FRONTIER OF CONTROL: A STUDY OF BRITISH WORKSHOP POLITICS (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009 [1920]); David Montgomery, WORKERS’ CONTROL IN AMERICA, ibid.
  7. Jeremy Brecher, GLOBAL VILLAGE OR GLOBAL PILLAGE (Boston: South End Press, 1999, second edition); David Montgomery, “Dignity and Democracy,” NEW LABOR FORUM, no. 5 (Fall-Winter 1999); Montgomery, “STATE OF THE UNION: A CENTURY OF AMERICAN LABOR by Nelson Lichtenstein,” review, INTERNATIONAL LABOR AND WORKING CLASS HISTORY, no. 63 (Spring 2003).
  8. David Montgomery, “Spontaneity and Organization: Some Comments,” in “Symposium on Jeremy Brecher’s STRIKE!”, RADICAL AMERICA, 7:6 (November-December 1973); David Montgomery, “Introduction,” to Montgomery and Horace Huntley, eds., BLACK WORKERS’ STRUGGLE FOR EQUALITY IN BIRMINGHAM (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004)
  9. See my “Rebellion to Tyrants, Democracy for Workers,” SOUTH ATLANTIC QUARTERLY, 111:1 (Winter 2012); “Organizing Wall-to-Wall: The Independent Union of All Workers, 1933-1937,” inm Staughton Lynd, ed., “WE ARE ALL LEADERS”: THE ALTERNATIVE UNIONISM OF THE EARLY 1930S (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996); HARD-PRESSED IN THE HEARTLAND: THE HORMEL STRIKE AND THE FUTURE OF THE LABOR MOVEMENT (Boston: South End Press, 1993);
  10. Bruce Laurie, THE WORKING PEOPLE OF PHILADELPHIA, 1800 – 1850 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1983); Shelton Stromquist, A GENERATION OF BOOMERS: THE PATTERN OF RAILROAD LABOR CONFLICT IN NINETEENTH CENTURY AMERICA (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993); James J. Barrett, WORK AND COMMUNITY IN THE JUNGLE: CHICAGO’S PACKINGHOUSE WORKERS, 1894-1922 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002); Eric Arnesen, WATERFRONT WORKERS OF NEW ORLEANS: RACE, CLASS, AND POLITICS, 1863-1923 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994); Peter Gottlieb, MAKING THEIR OWN WAY: SOUTHERN BLACKS’ MIGRATION TO PITTSBURGH, 1916-1930 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996); Kimberly Phillips, ALABAMANORTH: AFRICAN-AMERICAN MIGRANTS, COMMUNITY, AND WORKING-CLASS ACTIVISM IN CLEVELAND, 1915-1945 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999); Reeve Huston, LAND AND FREEDOM: RURAL SOCIETY, POPULAR PROTEST, AND PARTY POLITICS IN ANTEBELLUM NEW WORK (NY: Oxford University Press, 2002); Julie Greene, PURE AND SIMPLE POLITICS: THE AFL AND POLITICAL ACTIVISM, 1881-1917 (NY: Cambridge University Press, 2006); Grace Palladino, ANOTHER CIVIL WAR: LABOR, CAPITAL, AND THE STATE IN THE ANTHRACITE REGION OF PENNSYLVANIA, 1840-1868 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990); Cecelia Bucki, BRIDGEPORT’S SOCIALIST NEW DEAL, 1915-1936 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006); Iver Bernstein, THE NEW YORK CITY DRAFT RIOTS: THEIR SIGNIFICANCE FOR AMERICAN SOCIETY AND POLITICS IN THE AGE OF THE CIVIL WAR (NY: Oxford University Press, 1990); Peter Rachleff, BLACK LABOR IN RICHMOND, 1865-1890 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989 [1984]); Tera Hunter, TO ‘JOY MY FREEDOM: SOUTHERN BLACK WOMEN’S LIVES AND LABOR AFTER THE CIVIL WAR (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998); Dan Letwin, THE CHALLENGE OF INTERRACIAL UNIONISM: ALABAMA COAL MINERS, 1878-1921 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998); Priscilla Murolo, THE COMMON GROUND OF WOMANHOOD: CLASS, GENDER, AND WORKING GIRLS’ CLUBS, 1884-1928 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997); Gunther Peck, REINVENTING FREE LABOR: PADRONES AND IMMIGRANT WORKERS IN THE NORTH AMERICAN WEST, 1880-1930 (NY: Cambridge University Press, 2000); Ileen DeVault, SONS AND DAUGHTERS OF LABOR: CLASS AND CLERICAL WORK IN TURN-OF-THE-CENTURY PITTSBURGH (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995); Dana Frank, PURCHASING POWER: CONSUMER ORGANIZING, GENDER, AND THE SEATTLE LABOR MOVEMENT, 1919-1929 (NY: Cambridge University Press, 1994);  Dorothy Fujita-Rony, AMERICAN WORKERS, COLONIAL POWER: PHILIPPINE SEATTLE AND THE TRANSPACIFIC WEST, 1919-1941 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).

By Peter Olney

My son Nelson has been studying at the Univerisdad Complutense, the largest public university in Spain with 75,000 students. He has been in Madrid since October of 2011 enrolled in a University that was founded in the 13th Century. My wife and I decided to spend a month in Madrid visiting him and his girlfriend Sarah Ribbers. Life comes full circle when your children start to take care of you. Nelson has mastered Castellano and he knows Madrid inside out so he was our caretaker and guide to the sights and the Tapas bars!

It was a long overdue and much deserved holiday, but I could not resist taking part in a home defense in the working class neighborhood of Carbanchel. Early on a weekday morning the barrio committee of “los Indignados”, Spain’s version of Occupy that kicked off on May 15th of 2011, gathered a crowd to defend the home of Vicente a 73 year old man facing eviction at the hands of Citibank. Posters and signs covered the walls of his building, and Vicente’s grandson leaned out of the window of his condominium shouting support. The chants that pierced the cool morning air were familiar to anyone in the USA who has participated in foreclosure fighting. The action was successful and well covered in Spain’s major newspaper, El Pais. Vincent was able to keep possession of his home. These types of neighborhood actions are a daily occurrence throughout Spain. Usually they are successful although they have been met with violent police repression in some regions. The website is a great resource to track actions in Spain and the development of the movement to Stop Desahucios (Evictions).

This kind of adversarial action has been the story of my life in the trade union movement. I have dedicated 40 years of my life to organizing and strengthening trade unions in the United States as a means to improve the lives of workers in the context of building a broader revolutionary movement for radical social change. I have always maintained that workers need unions to battle the boss to improve their wages, hours and conditions.

Therefore I approached my visit to Mondragon, the largest worker owned worker run cooperative in the world with great interest and a good deal of skepticism. Mondragon is a small town of 20,000 nestled in the Basque region equidistant from the two port cities of San Sebastian and Bilbao. Since the 1940’s Mondragon has been the home base for an experiment in worker management. This is not a neighborhood food cooperative or a boutique bakery, but rather a multifaceted enterprise employing 93,000 people. Mondragon is the umbrella for the largest company in the Basque region and the 7th largest company in all of Spain. Mondragon operates a large retail supermarket chain Eroski, a social service provider Lagun Aro, heavy industrial manufacturing and a savings bank, the Caja Laboral. The Universidad de Mondragon graduates scientists and engineers and managers many of whom become part of the cooperative.

Mikel Lezamiz, Mondragon’s director of Co-operative Dissemination and my guide explained that the Cooperative had capped the manager to worker pay ratio at 9 to 1! The CEO of the Savings bank, Caja Laboral only earns 7 times the salary of the cleaning lady. He then took me to a factory that manufactures washing machines under the brand name, Fagor. I watched giant metal stamping presses shaping the tubs for the washers. I realized that I was in the midst of something very significant on a scale that I could not have imagined existed in a capitalist world, owned and managed by the workers .

Spain is experiencing a huge housing construction bust after an intensive speculative boom. Obviously the demand for washing machines has dipped drastically. The workforce voted in general assembly to do job sharing to avoid layoffs and the worker assembly voted to take a 7% pay cut up and down the employment ladder to preserve the vitality of the enterprise.  What then is the role for unions, if any, if the workers make decisions about their work lives and elect their managers? Mikel explained that while workers are welcome to join any of Spain’s many trade union federations, very few Mondragon workers do.

I left Mondragon intrigued and interested in this mode of industrial organization and control that was an affront to many of my guiding paradigms. I had viewed cooperatives as small scale boutiques that could never reach the scale necessary to transform the lives of workers and whole communities. Often in the USA worker ownership is associated with lemon socialism, workers giving up their life savings to rescue an unfeasible manufacturing concern in the rust belt. Now I was confronted with a living breathing example of a different model.  I need to reflect, read and learn more about Mondragon and its applicability to our reality.

Well, that was how I spent my vacation on a Spanish holiday!

Author's note: Peter Olney is the organizing director for the International Longshore Workers' Union (ILWU) based in San Francisco. He has a piece coming in the fall issue, Volume 42 #3.

The Weston/Mount Dennis area in Toronto was visibly rundown in August 2004 when ACORN Canada launched its inaugural drive. Weston/Mount Dennis is dominated by a large number of high rise buildings that are a mix of social housing and private rentals. Many of the buildings were in derelict condition, with obvious pest problems, including cockroaches, and bedbugs, large, unfixed holes in both common areas and occupied units, mold spreading through ceilings and walls, and elevators in high rises completely non-functional. Nothing was being done about these problems. Residents found themselves unable to get the attention of their landlords.

ACORN Canada adopted a door-knocking methodology that was largely the same as the highly successful model used by ACORN offices across the United States. Organizers have fifteen to twenty-five minute conversations with residents, talking about local issues and the power of collective action. After each conversation, an organizer methodically asks people to join the local organization as a full member. Membership requires a bank draft of $10 per month. Individuals who decline full membership are asked to join as associate or provisional members, which requires them to pay a small one-time sum or nothing at all, respectively. Associate and provisional members are invited to join in the developing campaign, but do not receive the same voting rights as full members. Experience has shown ACORN that the people who join as full members are by far the most engaged in the organization and hugely value their ownership stake and voice in the organization.

The pay for membership model is sometimes criticized as marginalizing or exploiting low income people, who are “too poor” to have to pay dues. However, ACORN encourages provisional membership for people who wish to be involved but are concerned about paying the monthly membership dues. Importantly, this approach avoids the condescending position that low income people are not able to make decisions about their own personal spending patterns. Further, like the concept of unionism, an independent funding source from the membership base is the key to maintaining control on the campaign and objectives of the organization by its board, which is comprised of members of ACORN.

During two months of working in the neighborhood, we talked to over 800 people in their homes about their community and about the larger issues that they identified and were concerned about. We also undertook hundreds of hours of house visits to interested people and worked the phone bank with nightly phone calls. At the end of two months of door-to-door organizing, we finally felt we had big enough lists of engaged community members to do a community organizing drive.

The organizing drive started with a series of three meetings, one each week, with the new members. In this way, the new group sprung to life. The group overwhelmingly voted to focus its first campaign on improving apartment building conditions. The other two priorities that were identified for future action were police profiling and the need for more youth-based community programs.

The group quickly identified that the Toronto Municipal Code established apartment building standards. For example, the Municipal Code has an explicit standard related to pest control:

629-9. Pest control. All properties shall at all times be kept free of rodents, vermin, insects and other pests and from conditions which may encourage infestations by pests.

However, the reality for ACORN members, is that this standard is not met in either private and publicly owned buildings. The Municipal Licensing and Standards office with the City of Toronto has no effective way of enforcing the Municipal Code. The process of issuing work orders and the penalties related to them do not create a penalty costly enough to give landlords an incentive to maintain their buildings.

The three introductory meetings were followed by a fourth and final planning meeting at which members created an action plan. The members decided to do a Cockroach Derby press event, to take place outside one of the worst buildings in the neighborhood, 1775 & 1765 Weston Road. The members and newly emerging leaders invited all media outlets, Municipal Licensing and Standards, the absentee landlord, and all levels of politicians. Staff and members started working on turnout while members collected cockroaches.

In late October 2004, ACORN Canada held its first event. About thirty members some with cockroaches showed up at 1775 and 1765 Weston Road for the Cockroach Derby. The media, Municipal Licensing and Standard, and some local politicians attended, and the event was a success. The media picked up the event.

The City of Toronto even agreed to move all of its rent-geared-to-income tenants out of the building. The consensus was clear: the politicians, Municipal Licensing and Standards, the media, and our members all agreed that the buildings were far below the standards outlined in the municipal code. The landlord did not attend. For a short time after the event, the landlord, Vincenzo Barrasso, responded to the negative press accounts and boosted maintenance in mostly superficial ways, such as painting and fixing broken locks on the front door, but these efforts were not sustained.

ACORN Canada continued its work. Municipal Licensing and Standards, working with ACORN staff and leaders, agreed to bring their special investigations audit team into the building and, unit by unit, tried to force the landlord to do the repairs. Part way through the process, Municipal Licensing and Standards had issued work orders in about 490 units. While the landlord took responsibility for some of the repairs, some things were never fixed.

ACORN staff and newly emerging leaders continued organizing and doing press events. Actions included “The Prison of 1202,” which focused on ACORN member Sharol Jason, who is in a wheel chair, and how she was trapped in her apartment for six weeks due to an inoperative elevator. Living on the twelfth floor, she had no way of getting up and down in her building while the elevator awaited repairs. The press tracked the story and was at the building about once a week for three months. Headlines, which included “Tenants Lived in Hell,” “Highrise Hostage,” “Home Not so Sweet,” and “Building Tension,” tell the stories of the many members who lived in the two buildings. Although ACORN Canada and the members had initial success with its actions, it had a more difficult time maintaining pressure on the landlord to continue to respond to work orders and tenant issues after the City left the building and after ACORN was no longer organizing a press event at the building every two weeks. The landlord stopped investing any money in bringing the building up to standard. Over time, the building started to slip back to its original state.

ACORN leaders then decided to use other tactics to raise the standards in the building. ACORN leaders decided to try to use the Ontario Rental Housing Tribunal, as it was then called, as a tool to force the landlord to bring the building up to the standards outlined in the Municipal Code. However, due to the pro-landlord legislation and the procedural requirements of the Board, this approach turned out to be no small feat, and the activities that the ACORN members needed to undertake against their delinquent landlord proved extremely cumbersome.

One might think that designation of disrepair and a full scale audit by Municipal Licensing and Standards, as well as the City’s decision to move all of its rent-gearedto- income tenants out of the buildings at issue would support a prima facie case against the landlord and assist the tenants in this action. Moreover, one might think that there would be support for tenants who are trying to raise issues like these before the Landlord and Tenant Board. To expect low-income tenants to have the capacity to put together a case against a landlord is a human rights issue.1

ACORN staff and leaders helped all interested tenants in the building to fill out the complaint form required by the Tribunal. This activity alone took hundreds of hours from ACORN staff, leaders, and members in the building. Nevertheless, ACORN leaders felt that it was important to act against their landlord and even took time off work to help other tenants complete these forms. ACORN paid the filing fee required by the Tribunal for the forms from the 105 people who chose to file collectively. The filing fee alone was $45 per building, plus $5 per additional tenant.

The case went before an adjudicator. However, at this first hearing, we quickly realized we needed a legal aid lawyer to help manage the issues involved with 105 complaints. York Community Services Legal Clinic picked up the case. One of the lead filing tenants was on Ontario Disability, which enabled him to qualify for legal aid. Hundreds of hours were spent by YCL, ACORN staff, and ACORN leaders to put together this case and then in the hearing before the Tribunal.

In March of 2005, Elizabeth Beckett, a member of the Tribunal, issued an interim order ruling in favor of the 105 tenants. Subsequently, in her final order, Beckett separated the rent abatements into two time periods based on the evidence of disrepair that she heard. Tenants received a twenty percent refund on rent paid from March 1, 2004, to Feb. 28, 2005, and a ten percent rebate from March 1, 2005, to Dec. 31, 2005. As monthly rent costs about $900, the average tenant would receive a total of $3,060 in return. Some tenants were compensated an additional $100 to $600 for the inconvenience caused by damages in the common areas such as the elevators. Victory! This equaled over $321,300 dollars in savings to tenants. However, the lengthy process and ongoing frustration with the landlord and the state of their homes had taken its toll on tenants. By the time the tenants were able to claim the rent abatements, about thirty percent of the tenants who participated in the action had moved out. Rent abatement was of no benefit to them at that point, and the landlord in effect received a windfall.

To this day, the buildings are still in massive disrepair, and most of the people who had the means to move out did so long ago. Approximately ninety-five percent of the 105 tenants who brought the action against the landlord before the Tribunal have now moved out.

Following the Rental Housing Board proceedings, again, as soon as the City, ACORN, or the press stopped investing energy into enforcement of basic building standards, the landlord stopped doing any repairs. The complaint-based system provides no long term incentives to maintain standards and is completely ineffective with a landlord like Vincenzo Barrasso, who has resisted compliance with work orders and standards at every turn. In short, it is cheaper for the landlord to ignore the Municipal Code as a standard operating practice and deal with the consequences repeatedly, than it is for the landlord to maintain a building in a state of good repair. Tenants be damned.

However, ACORN established itself as a leading voice for tenant rights, and members were well engaged in tenant issues, which affected them directly. By 2006, ACORN staff had done two other organizing drives in other communities in Toronto, Scarborough Centre and Chalk Farm at Jane and Wilson, both of which resulted in ACORN members deciding to tackle massive disrepair in apartment buildings. In short, these decaying high rises with absentee slumlords were numerous across the city of Toronto in the lower income neighborhoods.

The ACORN leaders across these communities decided it made no sense to try to fix the buildings one at a time. They started researching potential legislative fixes to this enforcement catastrophe on a broader scale. As a result, Toronto ACORN leadership decided to put together a Landlord Licensing and Rent Escrow Campaign.

Landlord licensing programs exist in other cities like Los Angeles. These programs require landlords to maintain a license for their buildings. Where building conditions fall below basic requirements, it triggers tenant use of a rent escrow account. Rent escrow programs allow tenants to pay their rent into a rent escrow account, typically held by a city, when a unit is in disrepair for a given period of time. The city can then draw on that money to fix outstanding work orders, and the tenant is protected from eviction due to non-payment of rent. Landlords are pressured by the loss of rental income to address the outstanding complaints. We were also fighting for a communication component, which allows the city to post signs in the lobby if an apartment building is below code, so that tenants become more aware of their rights and the vehicles that they have available to assert those rights.

ACORN lobbying was successful in winning the support of City Councilor Anthony Perruza of Ward 8, who introduced a motion at City Council directing staff to research and implement a landlord-licensing system. The City staff report returned with the recommendation from Municipal Licensing and Standard to boost the already existing audit program with a target of four buildings in each ward across Toronto. The recommendation, adopted by Toronto Council, was a huge organizational victory but a very small step forward. The audit program focuses on common areas and represents minimal progress for the actual units and the tenants in them. The audit program has limited impact on landlords’ behavior.

It is worth noting that Municipal Licensing and Standards in January 2010 stated that roughly 100 million dollars in repairs have been done in slum buildings across Toronto as a result of the program. However, the details behind this number have been difficult get from the city, leaving the leadership feeling skeptical about the claim.

There is much speculation as to why the city did not come out with a full landlord-licensing program. Some have suggested that the landlord lobby was too strong. Others have suggested that this program would have put the city in a conflict, because the largest landlord in the city, also very below code, is Toronto Community Housing TCH, which is a crown corporation that houses thousands of low-income tenants across the city. ACORN’s Toronto office continues to work on these issues. The scope of this problem in Toronto is tremendous, and the city of Toronto has little help from the province. The campaign continues.

Judy Duncan has been the Head Organizer for ACORN Canada since 2004. She started the ACORN Canada field program after working with Washington ACORN in the United States for over a year. Judy has her Masters Degree from UBC in Community and Regional Planning

OAKLAND, CA  (12/5/11) -- When Occupy Seattle called its tent camp “Planton Seattle,” camp organizers were laying a local claim to a set of tactics used for decades by social movements in Mexico, Central America and the Philippines.  And when immigrant janitors marched down to the detention center in San Diego and called their effort Occupy ICE (the initials of the Immigration and Custom Enforcement agency responsible for mass deportations), people from countries with that planton tradition were connecting it to the Occupy movement here.

This shared culture and history offer new possibilities to the Occupy movement for survival and growth at a time when the Federal law enforcement establishment, in cooperation with local police departments and municipal governments, has uprooted many tent encampments.  Different Occupy groups from Wall Street to San Francisco have begun to explore their relationship with immigrant social movements in the U.S., and to look more closely at the actions of the 1% beyond our borders that produces much of the pressure for migration.

Read more: From Planton to Occupy

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