The 1970 Los Angeles-Cleveland Teamster Wildcat Strike

Dan LaBotz’ nice obituary for Steve Kindred here talked about Steve’s days in Los Angeles organizing strike support in 1970 and beyond. As a participant in those days and those organizations and struggles, I want to add a little to Dan’s recounting.

Kent_State_massacre

The key precipitating event in my part of this story was the killings of 4 students at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, on May 4, 1970, by National Guardsmen. Probably everyone knows something about this, but just as probably many don’t know that these killings caused a wholesale shut-down of American universities in the wake of spontaneous battles between students and cops all over the country in a completely unplanned and therefore even scarier insurrectionary impulse from America’s youth. And I do mean battles. My good friends Eric Flint and Richard Roach and hundreds if not thousands of others fought a running battle with LA and UC cops that ranged all over the campus and lasted for hours. They  were graduate students hanging out on campus and thus well placed to join the fight. This was exactly the kind of confrontational shit we had dreamed about and hoped for as the Vietnam War ground on but I had rejected graduate school when I came to understand the kind of writing English professors had to crank out (a decision that 11 months administering life insurance policies at Occidental Life had caused me to regret) so I languished at my insurance company desk waiting for 5 o’clock and then had to endure multiple recountings of the day’s adventures when we got together that night, as we did most nights. I finally understood Othello.

In California Ronald Reagan announced the closure of all the University of California campuses. But way back in the day of Mario Savio activists, students, teachers, community people and lots of others had established that the University of California belonged to the people and was an open public space. So while Reagan could administratively close down the campuses they remained open spaces available for whatever an energized youth might decide.

I hightailed it over to UCLA the following day looking for trouble. The meant skipping work, where I was already on thin ice for various attendance-related issues. There I found something even better than fighting cops, if that is possible.

The campus was astounding. The Student Union Building had been ransacked by enraged kids and the gigantic central dining room transformed, overnight, into an organizing center. By that I mean an entire floor of a very large building was ringed around its perimeter with tables staffed by people advocating and organizing a dizzying multitude of things. There were tables that did nothing but organize the feeding of people at other tables. There were myriads of just plain folks, many of them with no campus credentials or experience, there to address issues they found pressing. Housing. Racism. Sexism. The War. There were radical nuns. No sororities or fraternities. Whatever. These people had just sensed that things were seriously opened up and so they congregated and talked and organized.

I was hanging around one of these tables when a pudgy guy walked up. His name was Steve, and he was a clerk at a trucking firm and hence a member of Teamsters Local 208. He explained to us that his union had gone on strike, but because it was a wildcat strike, the companies had succeeded in getting an injunction against Local 208 members walking a picket line in front of the gates at the various truck barns. He wondered if we would be able to help them by walking the picket lines in their place.

A little back story here. In 1970 the IBT was about to achieve a long-standing goal, viz., a national contract that would expire everywhere at the same time. This would immesurably enhance their bargaining power because it would put the spectre of a national truck strike on the table. Clearly, a plus. On the other side, certain locals that had already gotten super-good contracts for their members in the past were asked to accept a less-than-stellar (from their point of view) contract and take the hit for the team. Local 208 in Los Angeles, which organized local delivery and pickup of common freight and had thousands of members, demurred, and was on the verge (some say had already crossed the verge and had voted) of voting down the contract offer but were gaveled out of order by the meeting’s chair. So the vote to strike was either taken and passed, or not taken and not passed and you could find people on both sides of this question. The “No” voters called a wildcat strike which was remarkably effective. Essentially the same thing, the details of which I do not know, happened in Cleveland in Local 408 (Wow! What synapse fired to make me remember the number of that local! Hope it’s right!).

But the companies went to the judge and got an injunction. So Steve the pudgy Teamster came, on his own, and made his pitch to us around the table at the supremely graffiti-defaced Student Union Dining Room. I am embarrassed that I cannot remember the last name of this guy, who was a genuine working class hero who just had a flat-out good idea and carried though with it.

We were electrified. We said, yeah, hell yeah, we can get some kids to come down and picket for you. Where do you want us and when? So a few of us started making phone calls. I roped in my friends immediately, and so did a lot of other people. In this free-for-all atmosphere it was pretty much duck soup to get a couple of hundred kids from UCLA to caravan down the the City of Industry each morning and go wherever the Teamsters sent us. A couple of days in, when it was clear we weren’t going to get tired of this, the cops started showing up with gigantic buses to arrest and haul us away but part of the fun was that there was actually a very large number of individual firms engaged in this business so the Teamsters could direct us to a different place to avoid the police at least for a little while. Or, as it happened, they might have us go picket in one locale while they went to another locale to commit some act  of minor terrorism like burning trucks, setting fire to the barns, or whatnot. So it was a real-world fight, a genuine class battle with real stakes and we were the spearpoint of the student-worker alliance while it lasted. I would go home after a day of whatever at UCLA (I had gotten fired from the insurance company job I but at this time barely noticed that) and make my twenty or so phone calls to mobilize the kids for tomorrow’s action. This was by far the most fun I had ever had in my life and the jolt kept me going for a couple of decades of progressively less fun activities.

Well, wildcat strikes are generally short-lived and so it was with this one. But the little group that had come together to organize these early morning ventures into the heart of the LA working class didn’t want to give it up. By this time we were organized as the Student-Workers Action Committee and had decided that in the wake of the Teamster strike we would just go out and find more strikes to support. Somewhere along about this time Steve Kindred showed up. As Dan LaBotz wrote, the IS had determined to make its way into industrial jobs and our little grouping was prime for plucking, since we were, after all, the kids doing the student-worker thing in LA just by reason of history, good luck and chutzpah.

There were after-effects of the wildcat. While it was happening, a couple of guys got arrested for going up into the San Bernardino mountains and taking potshots at what they considered scab trucks. Nobody was hurt but when firearms get involved suddenly you have a different level of seriousness attached to the proceedings.

At this point the Student-Worker Action Committee’s monthly paper, The Picket Line (the paper Dan LaBotz mentions in his Kindred obit) decided to follow the case of the union brothers accused of shooting up the scab trucks. This was probably under Kindred’s leadership but I honestly don’t remember. I do know that he was the editor of the paper and loved it beyond all loving. So we attended the trial and wrote it up for The Picket Line from the point of view of the wildcatters and our efforts were wildly appreciated by the militant rank and file of Local 208 who had, in all honestly, never seen anything like us before. We became “their” kids and they took a decidedly avuncular approach to us, which was not at all inappropriate, considering. The guys on trial were convicted and had to serve some minor sentences, months not years, and were rewarded with a gigantic party when they got out, to which we were invited as honored amanuenses.

SWAC moved on to support other strikes. There a lot going on in labor that year, a big-three auto contract, some fights in garment, and other stuff. We got used to getting up at 4 in the morning and driving out to Pico Rivera Ford plant or the Bethlehem Steel Foundry in the City of Industry to distribute our little paper to workers driving into the parking lots. It cost a dime.

SWAC was a genuine community organization with lots of different types of folks in it who liked the idea of helping strikers. We had Catholics, formers nuns, all manner of working class do-gooders, would-be radicals like me and my friends, Robert Brenner, and of course pretty quick we had every radical tendency in the book knocking at the door. We had a visitation from a supremely bug-eyed guy named Jeff from the Spartacist League and Les Evenchick from the Workers League selling the Bulletin every week to us, but we also had Kindred from the IS, who just jumped in, started doing the work, and was a continuously positive force who genuinely participated to the point that his membership in the IS was not the point of why he was there, but just something about him that became more and more intriguing as time went on.

As it turned out, the IS was the tendency that did the best in this little strike support group. It recruited a number of people, approaching ten, who went on to have long revolutionary careers.

This is the back story to what LaBotz recounts about Steve’s early Teamster days. Because of the help we had given the Teamsters in the Wildcat they let us in on things, and one day someone suggested we might want to check on a group called 500 at 50.

So we did. 500 at 50 encapsulated the idea that Teamsters deserved to have a pension of $500 at age 50 and proposed this as a demand to the international union. Someone told us about an organizing meeting they were having so Kindred and I went. Turns out it was in the garage of a guy named Ron in a far south-eat suburb of LA. Now, this is a meeting of people concerned about pensions, so you might wonder what they thought a couple of kids obviously in their mid-twenties, who had clearly never driven trucks, were doing there. But when we explained out strike-support credentials they welcomes us and thus we met
Grover E. “Curly” Best and got involved in national Teamster politics.

Whatever happened in Cleveland happened and resulted in a call for a national meeting of dissident Teamsters in Toledo, Ohio. We decided to intervene, so Steve and I occupied his ex-girlfriend’s pretty fast car and drove non-stop to Toledo with a hot Gestetner mimeo machine in the back seat, in case there were opportunities for mass agitation. The Toledo meeting founded Teamster United Rand and File. At this point I think Dan’s obit carries the story forward so I will will let it rest with a big wink to Steve, now hopefully at peace.

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The $15 minimum wage campaign in Seattle

 

 

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Here’s an article Tom Barnard and I published in Counterpunch.org about the stagr of the minimum wage fight in Seattle:

http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/12/05/the-road-forward-for-a-15-hour-minimum-wage/

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Starting Over

I began this blog when John Olmsted and I traveled to Cairo two years ago to check out, photograph and video the Arab Spring. John did the organizing, contact work and paid the bills (thanks, Johnny!) and I was in charge of the visuals. I still have many photos from that trip that have never seen the light of anything but my computer monitor, but, meanwhile, I have decided to use wordpress to collect and present various writings, reminiscences and so forth on various topics of interest to me and hopefully at least one other person, from time to time. So here goes.

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John prepares to depart

Friends:

The events in Egypt and No. Africa have been so inspiring that they have lifted me a bit out of the cynicism I have been suffering these last few years.
Perhaps they have been having a similar effect on you.
One of the most inspiring scenes was that of a young Egyptian woman Asmaa Mafouz who posted a stirring call to the streets prior to Jan 25th.
Listening to her you heard the call to throw off much of the psychological baggage, the internalized fear and terror that had held the population powerless and immobile for 3 decades.    After the victory there was this statement on a leaflet handed out in Tahrir Square:
“Today this country is your country. Do not litter. Don’t drive through traffic lights. Don’t bribe. Don’t forge paperwork. Don’t drive the wrong way. Don’t drive quickly to be cool while putting lives at risk. Don’t enter through the exit door at the metro. Don’t harass women. Don’t say, ‘It’s not my problem.’ Consider God in your work. We have no excuse anymore.”
Flyer distributed in Tahrir square  2/12/11
So my interest in psychology and politics got more and more perked to the point where I just had to go. I called my old friend David McDonald in Seattle and talked him into coming along.  We want to talk to as many Egyptians as possible to track these changes in consciousness, to see where they have come from and where they might be going.  With luck we may bring back enough film for a documentary.  It may be titled “Looking for Asmaa”.
I leave tomorrow and David joins me next week.  A couple of friends of ours are in Cairo now.  We’ll be back on the 27th.
We will be blogging and posting photos here if you want to follow the trip:
Yes, we will take every precaution to stay safe,
John Olmsted
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How John characterizes our trip

Following is a little write-up from my friend John Olmsted about our project:

“Today this country is your country. Do not litter. Don’t drive through traffic lights. Don’t bribe. Don’t forge paperwork. Don’t drive the wrong way. Don’t drive quickly to be cool while putting lives at risk. Don’t enter through the exit door at the metro. Don’t harass women. Don’t say, ‘It’s not my problem.’ Consider God in your work. We have no excuse anymore.”
Flyer distributed in Tahrir square  2/12/11


Egypt: To capture a change in consciousness
Populations can seem to live in a sustained state of lethargy for long periods of time. Little seems to change from day to day, year to year.   With prolonged powerlessness and poverty people have been taught to expect nothing.   To be powerful agents on their own behalf appears far too dangerous and perhaps foolish.  Then suddenly it all changes dramatically (although in Egypt there was much organizing (less visible) going on for years, especially in the labor movement). People who last week would never imagine themselves being politically active agents in their lives are out in the streets marching, chanting, and winning a great victory.  They may find their previous powerlessness was an illusion of their own collective fear.

In the process of weeks of mobilization there are reports of significant changes in the consciousness of broad sections of the Egyptian population as a result of the uprising. These events raise important questions that we in the west can learn from:


What are the social/psychological/cultural changes for individual Egyptians?
What were the actions, examples, narratives that opened the gates to these changes?
Will these changes in consciousness hold over time and what do they say about the future of the society?
What can the Egyptian experience tell us about the dynamics of social, political and psychological change in general?
How are these experiences relevant for us in the U.S.?

I have been teaching and practicing in the field of psychology for the past 20 years.  From March 11-28, I and my friend David McDonald (professional photographer) will be in Cairo to try and capture these social/psychological and political changes.  We seek to produce a visual and spoken narrative of the widest cross section of the population engaged in the uprising.  It is our contention that we in the U.S. may have much to learn from their experience.
In advance of the trip we are soliciting input on how to best capture these changes in spirit while we are there.  We will be producing a film to share this experience in the west.

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Going to Cairo

I am headed to Cairo to make a movie with my friend John Olmsted (who will arrive a few days ahead of me) about changing consciousness in an unfolding revolutionary situation.

Of course neither of us knows what we will find, how hard it will be to record what we do find, how our technical inexpertise will impact our efforts, but here goes anyway.

Anyone who has contacts or advice to offer us is welcome to comment below.

David McDonald

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