Time for Another Great March?

20 10 2011

The Occupy Wall Street movement spreading across the country reminds us of other movements when ordinary people—like the “diverse bunch” who organized to create a non-violent focus for positive change—embarked on the Great Peace March for Global Nuclear Disarmament from California to Washington, DC. In 1986, the Peace Development Fund supported the marchers who, despite loose organization and trying circumstances, stood up to say “enough” to war and make their voices heard. The Great Peace March nearly fell apart as it moved from the west coast eastward, and there are certainly a few lessons to learn from this by Occupy Wall Street. But like Occupy Wall Street, the Great Peace March gathered momentum. Now Occupy Wall Street is changing the terms of the public debate, from despair that the financial world is stacked against Main Street to active concern about local jobs, education and the environment. Just as the Great Peace March entered people’s collective consciousness as they marched forward, Occupy Wall Street has the potential to mobilize thousands demanding jobs for all and civil rights. Perhaps it’s time for another great march.

from Peace Developments, Fall 1986

“The Great Peace March”

“Sure, we’re a diverse bunch,” says Larry Heiss, camp doctor for the Great Peace March. “We’ve got kids and septuagenarians, professional people and counter-culture youth, straight and gay, the angry and the serene, the ministers and agnostics, politically left and politically right, people form 50 states and eleven countries. But we’ve got one important thing in common: we are all committed to global nuclear disarmament.

As one of the core group that has been on the 3,200-mile peace walk across the U.S.A. since its start, Larry has seen the whole panorama: from the shaky send-off in Los Angeles on the first of March, through the breakdown of the original ProPeace organization two weeks later, leaving 1,200 walkers stranded on the edge of the Mojave Desert; through a determined but wrenching struggled to reorganized, raise money, and keep going; across deserts and mountains and plains to Omaha at an incredible 20 to 25 miles a day in order to catch up to the original schedule.

Together they’ve walked, despite blisters and sunburn, through desert sizzle and mountain frost, through hail and thunderstorms, through the fallout area downwind of the Nevada Nuclear test Site at the time of the Mighty Oaks test, past some of the nuclear facilities and military installations that bristle across our West. There was a high moment of celebration as they crossed the Continental Divide, with jokes that from now on it would “all be downhill.”

The marchers had faced staggering problems in their forming their new organization. All their equipment, including support vehicles, had been repossessed. They wouldn’t be allowed to march without at least portable toilets (which the Peace Development Fund was instrumental in getting for them). Everything has to be started again from scratch, and by a group with no experience.

But there were people like a man and his daughter from Sydney, Australia, who had raised money in their community in order to get to Los Angeles and join the march. As Phyllis Rodin, another marcher, said, “no way could we tell people like that ‘It’s folded. It’s over. Go home.’”

“We were halted in our tracks for three weeks in Barstow, California,” related Phyllis. “But it was an important three weeks. We moved from a green, helpless group of strangers, into a cohesive, fired-up determined community.”

In order to get the march back on the road, the marchers began to scavenge and resuscitate ancient junkyard trucks. Soldiers (in civilian clothes) from nearby military bases turned up to help with that thankless job. In gratitude for the outpouring of help from Barstow, the marchers painted the town’s church inferiors.

A newly-formed advance team had to start contacting peace groups and town officials in the areas ahead, to arrange for camp sites, permits, water, waste disposal, peace rallies, and speaking engagements. It helped when town officials learned that the marchers were cleaning up the roadsides as they walked.

Omaha seemed like a turning point. There, they were back on schedule and could slow their pace to a mere 15 miles a day. There they were halfway to their final goal, Washington, DC.

“We don’t feel we’ll be stranded again,” Larry says with confidence in spite or reporting that their income at present is less than their outgo.” We know now that nothing can stop us from getting to Washington. We know the support is out there, and we’re confident the money will come in when people realize we need it.”

Expenses are $7 a day per marcher – $4,000 a day total – for food, insurance, payments on the support vehicles, campsite permits, publicity, gas. The high cost of marching has sometimes meant turning down people who would like to join in. In spite of that, the number had grown from 500 to 650 by Omaha, with hopes that as the new fundraising canvas bring in additional support, the group can also expand. By the time the group gets to New York City, in mid-October, the march almost certainly will be considerably larger. And optimism runs high when they talk about arriving in Washington, DC for a mid-November final rally.

Within the march there are, of course, differences of opinion. “Peace begins with ourselves,” as Larry Heiss says, “and it’s not always an easy lesson.”

But despite the occasional friction, there’s a lot of camaraderie, creativity, energy, and humor. Musicians, comics, and clowns have teamed up within the marching community to keep spirits high.

There is also support, both moral and financial, from “outside.” The marchers are visited by national celebrities, such as Pete Seeger, Holly Near, Hill Street’s Betty Thomas, and Congresswoman Pat Schroeder of Colorado. There are rallies and house parties, and marchers-for-a-day who join them in every city.

It’s an adventure for everyone, perhaps especially for the 40 children on the march, some of whom have become experienced speakers already. From one-year-old Alexa to 8-year-old Franklin Folsom, everyone counts.

“Something is very different about this march,” to quote marcher Tom Atlee. “I don’t’ know why so many cars honk and give us a peace sign; why so many mothers cry as we pass; why fundamentalist veterans stop by the road to bless us; why old women with American flags hanging over their doors thank us for marching for them. Maybe it’s because 95 percent of Americans really want peace, and that desire is beginning to ache inside. If they had a way to be peaceful AND patriotic AND honestly hopeful, they’d grab it in an instant …

“Hope grows here like moss on a pine. I can’t shake the feeling that I’m witnessing a metaphorical dawn; that the darkness is giving way; that in the next year, perhaps in the next few months or days, I will see the edge of the sun and know that we, as a planet, have made it.”


Hotel Workers Still at Risk

6 06 2011

CREDIT: Associated Press, Yahoo News

The recent news about the former Director of the International Money Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and the alleged assault on a hotel worker in New York, raises issues about hotel workers and a safe workplace that the Peace Development Fund began addressing long ago. In this 1994 article, hotel workers were organizing for better working conditions, confronting the use of dangerous chemicals in the workplace, and detailing the vulnerability of immigrant workers. It is equally important today to address the safety and security of hotel workers, not only in regards to management practices, but regarding the very guests the hotel serves.

from Peace Developments, Fall 1994, No. 37

“A Closer Look: Victory Over Fear”

The Hotel Workers Organizing Committee, Portland, OR

“I have worked in this luxury hotel for many years. Of all the people in my department, only three are eligible for any health benefits. The rest of us just hope we don’t get sick.”

“Whenever I use the chemicals to clean the bathtub, my nose starts bleeding.”

“The hotel I work at out by the airport decided to stop all employee food privileges. This means no employee menu, no employee receiving any of the leftover banquet food. A lot of the workers depended upon eating at work; it really made a difference for so many workers who are very poor.”

“If you speak up you either get fired or have your hours cut. What are you supposed to do? I complained on May 5 and I’ve had no hours since, even though I’m on schedule.”

— Workers from non-union hotels testifying at a public hearing, as  quoted in the Northwest Labor Press, Vol. 94, No. 19 

At a public hearing in September, 1993 workers from some of Portland’s Class A downtown and airport hotels testified before a panel of government, religious, and community leaders, including the Labor Commissioner and the City Coordinator of Refugees. With some wearing masks out of fear of reprisal, they described long hours without break, poverty wages, dangerous workplace hazards, employee intimidation and discrimination. The hearing generated an exciting amount of community support and public awareness of hotel workers’ struggles. For many of those at the hearing, the testimony was news. Few were aware of the horrendous working and living conditions of this exploited sector of the economy.

The hearing was organized by the Hotel Workers Organizing Committee (HWOC). Initially a project of the Center for Third Organizing and the Hotel Employees International Union, HWOC began in 1991 with the recruitment and training of young activists of color who launched an organizing campaign to address hotel workers’ struggles for representation. The hearing was followed by a Founding Convention bringing over 140 workers, their families and supporters to elect a Board, to adopt a Hotel Workers Bill of Rights as the centerpiece for organizing, and to celebrate a victory over fear in the workplace.

“Since the Founding Convention,” says Kyle Kajihiro, a leading organizer of HWOC, “we have built our leadership, forming committees to do initial contacts, surveys and so forth. Our core group are mostly hotel workers and community allies and families of workers – the majority are people of color, most of them immigrants.”

Hotel workers are among the lowest paid urban workers in Portland, many of them holding two jobs to support their families, many forced to rely on public assistance to supplement their income. Thousands of them have no medical insurance coverage for themselves or their families. And many of these, especially “back of the house” workers who have no contact with guests, are often exposed to highly toxic cleaning chemicals, without information to redress damage done – a form of environmental injustice that has been virtually ignored. (Ironically, for seasonal workers who do agricultural work, some of the very same chemicals that have been banned in insecticides in the field may show up in disinfectants in the hotel.)

In Portland, hotel workers are women and men of Vietnamese, Filipina, Latina, African American, Ethiopian, Brazilian and Eastern European descent. The majority are recent immigrants, many of whom don’t speak English, don’t know their rights, and don’t have the means to advocate for themselves. Lacking structures to bring them together in their communities, they are largely divided and isolated from each other.

The place of the immigrant worker in the context of our shifting economy is highlighted by the growing atmosphere of racism and scapegoating against poor people in general. In the Northwest, with the massive downsizing of the timber industry, immigrants bear the brunt of the rage of white male workers who have lost their jobs in record numbers. In a twist of illogic, as cities and towns turn to the hotel/tourist industry for survival, the immigrant working at the lowest of wages without security is seen as responsible for the plight of the unemployed.

“You see this sort of attitude in the workplace as well,” says Kajihiro, “in the comments supervisors make – ‘you should be thankful you’ve got a job’ – that kind of thing. People are divided along ethnic lines – it’s an intentional segregation. Front-of-the-house workers who meet with the guests, tend to be younger, Anglo, a more privileged group – their concerns are handled by management before those of the janitors, room cleaners, dishwashers or laundry workers. Back of the house, the policy is to keep people apart, even working on different floors. A supervisor may promote Filipinas while putting down Mexicanas. They tell the Chinese, ‘Don’t trust the Filipinos,’ and the Vietnamese, ‘Don’t trust the Chinese,’ and so forth. It goes on and on.”

Assaulted by racism, isolated in their neighborhoods, intimidated at their workplace, and threatened by unsafe working conditions, until now hotel workers have had no organization to bring them together or to help them address their grievances or alleviate their underlying fear.

“Fear among workers is so high it is really inhumane,” says Kajihiro. “To give an example: at the Red Lion Coliseum a room cleaner, Mexican and pregnant at the time, began to feel acute pains while at work. When she asked her supervisor for permission to leave, he told her to finish her work or lose her job. By four in the afternoon, the pain was unbearable. Her friends rushed her to the hospital where she had a miscarriage. The doctor told her it was a case of employer neglect and that she could sue. But like many immigrant workers, she was afraid and went silent about it. We find this is very common: there are many miscarriages, and we are looking into it.”

Visibility also means helping to allay workers’ fears of organizing. Their fear is well grounded, says Kajihiro, but is also the major obstacle to making change. Addressing this problem, HWOC organizes in the communities, going to where the workers live, meeting them through their social institutions: clubs, associations, churches. “Our endorsement by community groups is key; it has helped establish credibility with the workers, making the links with our issues. We hold meetings in the most appropriate ways. We suggest that people bring friends and co-workers to their houses, discuss the problems in their own language.  If this is too threatening, because it’s dangerous to be seen having meetings, then we suggest a neutral place – a church, a refugee center.”

“Our work does not grow by leaps and bounds; it’s very methodical. The real victories, the significant milestones, are to have workers’ fears transformed into hope. When I can meet individually with workers, have them share their stories with me, help them to get in touch with their sense of self respect and turn their fear to hope, this is everything. When you can do that with someone, that person becomes a leader. They may be reminded of the past, but they’re never going to go back. They become the leaders of their co-workers; it is they who insure the success of the organizing. We can actually change this situation if we stick together. This is social change, the kernel of it.”

As PDF connects with groups like HWOC, we find ourselves in a new framework, addressing a configuration of issues that results from the larger picture: the flight of capital at the expense of the worker; the creation and influx of new immigrants in a changing world structure. If, in the Northwest and elsewhere, the “green movement” had brought the fate of our natural resources and wilderness to the social consciousness at large, the realities of environmental injustice – racism, workplace contamination and economic victimization – have not yet entered the public and political debate. Organizations like HWOC are effective on two fronts: by organizing hotel workers to address unfair, dangerous and demoralizing working conditions, they are helping to strengthen Oregon’s labor movement in general; and by bringing to light the realities of hotel workers and other service sector laborers, they are helping redefine the agenda of the progressive community.

CREDIT: Associated Press, Yahoo News

Memo to Governor Scott Walker: Bargain for Peace

28 02 2011

When the Peace Development Fund gave its Grassroots Peace Award to the Jobs with Peace Campaign in 1989, it anticipated the showdown between the unions and the Wisconsin governor as a false issue. “We are always blaming the victim,” Ann Wilson said in Milwaukee then, and this time the victim is government workers. But it is not pensions that have bankrupted state, local and the federal governments; it is the ongoing costs of war.

PDF grantee, National Priorities Project (costofwar.com), estimates that the savings to taxpayers in Wisconsin for the proposed total spending for FY2011 for Iraq and Afghanistan would be $2.7 billion—quite a dent in the state’s $3.6 billion shortfall. How could the state benefit from that kind of savings? Here are just a few choices Governor Walker could make: salaries of 43,957 elementary school teachers for one year; salaries of 60,578 firefighters for one year; 394,158 Head Start slots for children for one year; 377,736 military veterans receiving VA medical care for one year; or salaries of 42,578 police or sheriff’s patrol officers for one year.

If Governor Walker would focus on ending war, instead of collective bargaining, he could save the citizens of Wisconsin a boatload of money, and heartbreak.

from Peace Developments, Winter 1988

A Closer Look: Jobs with Peace – A Multiracial, Multilevel Campaign

“In this country, we are always blaming the victim,” says Ann Wilson of Milwaukee’s Jobs with Peace (JwP) campaign, “but when you convince people that they can do something, that they are somebody, they will go out and change things themselves, provided there’s organization. That’s what Jobs with Peace is all about.”

Ann Wilson knows. “I got interested in politics when I lost my job; then I began to see the connections.” After the factory she worked in closed shop and moved abroad – like so many others in Milwaukee – she volunteered at the local Jobs with Peace office. “I did some reading and began to see that the closing was a foreign policy decision. A company can’t take off to Puerto Rico or Korea unless the government permits it.” Soon she was working 30-40 hours a week with JwP on voter registration and housing issues. When the city threatened to cut the manager/tenant liaison program in public housing, she brought together tenants like herself to gather signatures to petition the city government.

“Our petition was successful,” she says, “and in the process, people began to tie into the bigger picture. They saw that cuts at the federal level mean cuts at the state and city levels.” The housing projects had always been isolated from each other, but now people saw advantage in working together. They set up a tenants’s council, which meets regularly at the JwP office and, with help from JwP, they are putting out their own newspaper, The Independent.

With the election of a new mayor after twenty-eight years, thanks in part to public forums staged by Jobs with Peace, Ann Wilson was appointed to the City Housing Authority, of which she is now President. Her work there coincides well with her position as senior organizer for Milwaukee JwP and co-chair of the National Board.

Getting people involved is the first priority of the Jobs with Peace campaign, a national organization with eleven chapters and many affiliates, from San Francisco to Baltimore. With a history of remarkable achievements in cities across the country, they have recruited, organized and sustained the work of those people most affected by the rapid escalation of the military budget and most underrepresented politically. As Jill Nelson, Director of JwP’s national office in Boston, explains, “We work community by community to provide an agenda that really addresses people’s needs. We offer a mechanism for people to get involved and to get their neighbors involved.”

When Jobs with Peace first began, early in the eighties, it focused its efforts on putting referenda on city ballots nationwide calling on Congress to transfer military funds to domestic programs. In late 1986, however, JwP decided to make the message less abstract – as Ann Wilson says, “You can’t talk to people about billions when they’re only making $400 a month!” People care, and will get out to do something about it, when the problem is brought home to them around an immediate, concrete issue.

An important reason why people stay involved to Milwaukee’s Roger Quindel, is organization and training. Jobs with Peace works hard at helping people make specific commitments that they can accomplish, however small. “When they achieve what they’ve set out to do, you’ve strengthened the human being,” says Quindel. “All our work is aimed at involving new people, then helping them to feel successful, to develop their skills, to feel part of the work of change.”

How does all this link up to peace? Jobs with Peace is helping to build what Jill Nelson calls a “triangle coalition” of labor, civil rights, and peace groups around an agenda that speaks to all their needs. In real terms, this coalition building brings heartening and measurable successes. The Minnesota Alliance of Progressive Action (MAPA) is an example: over the past several years, JwP’s work on economic conversion laid the groundwork for an alliance of twenty organizations which this fall registered over 10,000 new voters.

The challenge is great, but the vision is clear: “The majority of the people do not support the policies of our government,” says Anthony Thigpenn of the Los Angeles Jobs with Peace campaign. “We are building a multiracial, multilevel power base, reaching out to the millions and millions”.