Of Teamsters and Turtles, Plumbers and Progressives

filipino_guy_w_two_violins_and_a_snger1011.jpgCultures meet over real work at Heart of the City Farmers’ Market

Ever since the much-promoted alliance between “teamsters and
turtles” at the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999, there’s been a renewed
hope that the decades-long opposition between organized labor and
environmentalists might be resolvable. The original Teamsters and
turtles weren’t really in much of an alliance in 1999, what with
AFL-CIO leaders trying their best to keep the labor march away from
occupied downtown Seattle on November 30, 1999. But we don’t have to
rehash that old story because we have a new, local angle on this here
in 2009 San Francisco.

Steve Jones wrote about a split between “progressives and labor” in the SF Bay Guardian recently. It is an interesting framing of the current possibilities
for social liberation, improvement, or—gasp—even revolution. While
thoughtful and well-researched, Jones fails to escape a recurrent set
of assumptions that continue to confuse the possibilities of a more
thorough-going reshaping of oppositional politics in this era. The most
delusional assumption is that “pwogwessives” of a green hue should find
a common platform with old-style unionists, most likely over the empty
demand for “green jobs.” Before laying out why ‘jobs’ don’t work, let’s
recap the recent tempest in a teapot:

The basic story is that Larry Mazzola, Jr., the son of Mazzola Sr.
(together they run the nepotistic Plumbers Union), was denied a seat on
the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District Board of
Directors that has traditionally gone to a Labor representative.
Mazzola Jr. was fully backed in his attempt to get the appointment to
the seat by the San Francisco Labor Council and other local Labor
leaders, but was thwarted by a 6-5 majority at the San Francisco Board
of Supervisors. The Board’s Rules Committee, chaired by lefty Chris
Daly, rejected Mazzola and quietly asked local labor leaders to advance
an alternate candidate at least vaguely qualified to address
transportation issues, but the Labor Council and Building and
Construction Trades Council and other labor luminaries refused,
insisting that Mazzola get the nod. The impasse was resolved by the
full Board vote which appointed Dave Snyder to the seat instead of
Mazzola or any other labor choice. Snyder (a personal friend of mine)
is widely credited with resuscitating the SF Bike Coalition in the mid-1990s, and later helped launch Livable City and most recently has been the transportation policy analyst for SPUR.
(He took this appointment as his chance to resign from SPUR, which he
generally found too conservative, especially when it comes to class
issues and development.)

Dave Snyder represents a new cognitariat-rooted kind of politics
(for a recent, provocative essay/speech from the theoretical wing of
this kind of thinking, find Bifo’s latest here),
one that has been framed most often as “environmentalist” but is
actually a lot more than that. It is an emergent political tendency
that looks at urban design, transportation, food, housing, and every
part of daily life as inextricably linked. While Snyder is no flaming
radical, he at least understands that the 21st century and its
unfolding crises require new approaches and fresh, wholistic thinking.
He wasn’t happy to have been chosen by the Supervisors, feeling he got
caught in the middle of a political spat between the progressive
majority on the Board and vocal elements of organized labor.

His discomfort, like that of Steve Jones
writing in the Guardian, represents a hangover that is long overdue to
go away. It’s one of those Emperor-has-no-clothes situations: the
unions in San Francisco, and trade unions more generally, are not
bastions of progressivism or forward thinking! As Jones notes
throughout his article, the local unions are at each other’s throats in
jurisdictional squabbles, with Andy Stern’s SEIU jettisoning local
union democracy and expelling Sal Rosselli, long-time stalwart of the
United Healthcare Workers, while raiding the UNITE HERE amalgamation of
hotel, restaurant, and textile workers (whose head, Mike Casey, leads
the SF Labor Council)… It’s all very Byzantine, and if you’re in the
(backwards-heading) “movement” it becomes a matter of great urgency
which faction’s flag you fly, or which leader claims your loyalty.

ggbridge_and_crissy_field_marshes1472.jpgRestored Crissy Field wetlands foregrounding the Golden Gate.

But at the end of the day (no, wait, it’s right at the beginning of
the day!) the unions are peddling a lost cause, whose purpose even in
the best of times was primarily to broker the price of labor power to
capitalist employers. Over the past few decades they’ve become more
transparently “service-providing businesses,” hawking credit cards to
their members along with insurance deals and various other deals.
Leftists and progressives of various stripes find it very difficult to
come to grips with just how reactionary unions often are. The problem
is that we’ve long lost a critical ability to distinguish between
unions (business and legal entities hemmed in by extremely restrictive
labor laws, in addition to the union management being primarily
self-interested in their own survival as highly paid salaried
professionals) and workers. All of us concerned with a better world
know in our hearts that workers organizing themselves are a
crucial part of a broad strategy for social liberation. The problem is
that the unions as we know them are almost always at odds with worker
self-organization. (Even in the glorified 1934 Big Strike
in SF, union leaders played a conservative role, doing their best to
undercut the strike when it became general, and urging their members
back to work on capitalist terms.)

One of the most compelling examples in San Francisco’s past that
demonstrates how self-interested unions oppose the city’s best interest
is back in the fateful fight over the freeways
in San Francisco (had they been built, some of our favorite
neighborhoods like the Valencia corridor, the Haight-Ashbury, the Inner
Sunset, and more would have been destroyed by elevated cement
freeways). In the crucial vote in 1964, the Board of Supervisors was
split 5-5 between the labor-leaning progressive faction (pro-freeway)
and the more neighborhood-oriented and small business-leaning faction
(anti-freeway), while the mayor at the time was Jack Shelley, a former
head of the SF Labor Council (he was of course pro-freeways). Organized
labor strongly backed the freeway-building plans. The deciding ballot
was cast by the first-ever black Supervisor, Terry Francois, who
surprised everyone with an hours-long speech before casting his ‘no’
vote on the Panhandle-Golden Gate Park Freeway.

The past decades are littered with back-biting, betrayals, and
narrow self-interested behavior by most U.S. unions (e.g. back in
1980-81 OPEIU #29 settled a strike with Blue Cross in Oakland while
their sister local #3 in San Francisco was still on strike against Blue Shield,
leading to their defeat; in the mid-1980s meatpackers were de-unionized
across the Midwest with the active complicity of UFCW—See Barbara
Kopple’s remarkable documentary “American Dream”;
local union offices in the Bay Area have often mistreated their own
unionized workers; the more you look the more you find.). But even if
you put all that daily corruption and unethical behavior aside, the
basic issue that organized workers ought to be centrally concerned
with—what work is done, why and how—has been left off the agenda for
over a century. New progressive forces, whether environmentalist,
housing- or transit- or food-oriented, DO start—haltingly—to address
fundamental technological and economic issues. What work is done, how
and why do we do it, and what are the ecological and social
consequences of various choices? These are issues that trade unions
might begin to address to save their skins in this era of radical
change, but up to the present, they are mired in an obsolete pro-growth
agenda that sees jobs and income as the only goals, rather than a
broader view of a good life for everyone on the planet, including the
planet itself!

The radical restructuring of capitalism since the early 1970s has
destroyed most of the politically once-powerful working class. In our
daily lives we are all workers who think of ourselves as “middle
class,” whether we’re making $18,000/year or $88,000 a year (or more!).
Instead of seeing ourselves as part of a broad social class that
reproduces daily life with our shared labor, we tend to see ourselves
as individuals on career paths, negotiating individually our upward (or
downward) mobility through complicated networks of short-term
contracts, precarious jobs subject to sudden elimination, temporary
holding patterns while we wait to find work doing what we “really do,”
etc. Our political agency, the place where we feel we can be effective
and take action, is hardly ever the workplace any more. Nowadays, it’s
all about buying the right products, disposing of our garbage
correctly, shopping “responsibly,” and supporting groups that are
helping oppressed groups in other places.

I’m sorry to say, but we’ll never shop our way to a free society. Of
course “better is better than worse,” so go ahead and make your best
decisions as shoppers and consumers. But until we begin to redesign
work at its most radical root, and stop making such a mess with the
work our culture does all day long, we’ll never make meaningful changes
to the dynamics that are destroying us. Individual trade union locals
might join this broader push, but so far it’s unheard of. Most unions
are top-down entities that at best pay lip service to union democracy
(even the much-vaunted union democracy of the ILWU is a pale shadow of
what it once was).

Most unions think “jobs” are something to demand! I say, “Start
Talks Now on Work Reduction!” We are working too long, too hard, at
activities that are a complete waste of time if they’re not actually
destroying us and the planet (why not eliminate banking, real estate,
advertising, military production, shoddy commodity production, bad
medicine, etc.?). We have to stop! We should be organizing ourselves in
a political fight for a world where we work a lot less, everyone has
everything they need (scarcity is largely a product of markets and
money), and life is much more enjoyable than this sped-up, frantic,
fear-mongering, and increasingly barbaric world. Expecting unions to
support an urban agenda that actually changes how we live is to ignore
that they are firmly committed to an obsolete and retrogressive agenda
of capitalist growth with “jobs” controlled by bottom lines and
corporate managers. We can invite them to join our more thoughtful and
far-reaching agenda, or we can ignore them. But we cannot let them
continue to retard the urgent tasks of social transformation that are
before us. It’s time for the unions to join us or get out of the way!

  • n

    You could create a society that works less AND be sustainable… the cost is that the masses would have to be happy living simpler lives and consuming less (not a bad thing either). To create this labor shelter, we’d have to protect ourselves from trading relationships with Vietnam, China, and India, where people are happily working more for less than what we make. That would drive up the costs of things like laundry baskets and shoes (need to consume less to make ends meet).

    You could tax the rich and invest in social programs or income for the poor. But that will only get you so far. Some of us actually LIKE what we do and are happy to put our creative energy in our work and are working hard for a reward. I’m not rich yet, but if I work my butt off for no real reward, I don’t know where that will get me.. I’ll either want to leave the country or push a broom for 35 hours a week. A mind is a horrible thing to waste.

  • Barry Levin

    What about the Bayview-HP 3rd street project? Tesco’s Fresh & Easy market, which is non-union, is going in as the anchor to the condo project. Heard the project is near done. Wonder why no union protests over the non-union supermarket since all of the majors in the City are union stores. Tesco is 3rd biggest retailer in the world?

  • Due to relentless corporate onslaught since the 1970s and their own inability to contest that terrain, organized labor has dwindled significantly. Half of labor is in the public sector, which bolsters the notion that organized labor is not about working people checking capitalists but about negotiating the terms of work. SEIU has been there over and again with resources for progressive candidates here in SF, and that has helped achieve some of our shared agenda, but evaluated against their other problems, I’m not sure that it is a net win, although it sure is appreciated.

    In a world where everyone is blind, the one eyed person is liege. And since most working people are not organized, politicians take the convenient shortcut of dealing with organized labor as the Designated Stakeholder On Behalf Of Working People. The same thing happens with nonprofits, and together, the two structures, one as a facilitator of corporate stability and the other as replicator of corporate authoritarianism, form a sealed barrier between public participation and where the decisions are made.

    The US has been made to be the labor camp of capitalism, with most of us working harder and longer for less to provide stability to the US empire’s military and economic apparatus. The lack of wage growth and the elimination of anti-usury laws since the 1970s have seen lagging incomes supplanted by easy credit which guarantees more interest streams flowing Wall Street’s way. Unions have been irrelevant in halting this development.

    Even when workers get ahead, like in the software industry, government finds a way to make special exceptions to visa rules to allow lower wage workers to drive down domestic wages of that which has not yet been outsourced. Again, organized labor has been AWOL for working Americans on the H1-B matter.

    Fortunately, the regime of Bush II came our way, and in eight short years, Dubya accomplished that which the most radical anarchists, leftists and liberals could not–they kneecapped the American empire economically, militarily and politically!

    Now that the financial system which we toiled in the work camp to keep righted has annihilated the global economy, ruined many people’s good thing. In the aftermath of this, as Obama realizes that he cannot reinflate the system, Europe, Russia and China have no incentive to relegitimate that model. So in order for the US to be a meaningful participant in the global economy, it is going to have to reconfigure its economic priorities so that others are reasonably well insulated from the chance of future contaimination.

    Odds are, that with Wall Street foundering, once their bluff is called in their current spasm of economic terrorism, we will see the US move towards a more European social democratic model. But no matter what, the US will not have access to cheap raw materials at hand like it did when it finally recovered after WWII. As the dollar loses appeal as a reserve currency, we will have to pay full freight for our consumption, and since the US is not really producing much the rest of the world wants to the extent that most of us are participating in that production, we can count on our hand being forced towards a much lighter footprint.

    My read is that we are seeing the second shoe to drop at the end of the Cold War, and that we are equivalently between the time the Berlin Wall fell and the final demise of the Soviet Union.

    This is a good thing.


  • I agree completely: work reduction is the biggest environmental issue that no one is talking about. Reducing work hours is the only way to slow down economic growth without increasing unemployment.

    Do people know that the Netherlands and Germany allow workers to choose part-time work? Dutch workers produce and earn about as much per hour as American workers, but because of this law, the average Dutch worker works only 75% as many hours per year and earns/spends only 75% as much per year as the average American worker – dramatically reducing their environmental impact. Of course, they can afford to work less in part because they live in rowhouses rather than suburbia and bicycle rather than driving.

    I am hoping to stir up some political activity in Berkeley around this issue after the economy recovers. Anyone who is interested, please contact me at siegel@preservenet.com

    I think Dutch-style choice of work hours is politically possible, despite its radical implications, because 1)it does not increase businesses overall labor costs and make them less competitive interntionally, 2) it is a matter of choice and does not force shorter hours on anyone. Once we frame it as a matter of choice, it is hard for me to imagine that anyone will say: no, I think people should be forced to work more, consume more, and pollute more even if they don’t want to.

    For more info, see my 4-page white paper “Work Time and Global Warming” at http://www.preservenet.com/studies/WorkTimeGlobalWarming.html.

  • patrick

    I agree with most of the beginning of the post, but near the end it’s starts drifting around and going into some strange utopian ideas…

    “(why not eliminate banking, real estate, advertising, military production, shoddy commodity production, bad medicine, etc.?)”

    while I agree that bad medicine should be done away with, I’m not clear on how that relates to unions… and as far as banking, real estate, advertising go I’m not even sure what you mean by eliminating them. How are you going to eliminate real estate? I can see changing our banking system, but getting rid of it? Banking serves a very real need in human society. I can see changing some of the rules of banking, but if you want to eliminate it you need to explain why, and what will replace it. Advertising will not go away as long as people buy and sell anything. Shoddy commidity production and military production are completely different than the other subjects, and also need much more explanation as well.

  • Jon

    I only had time to give this a quick read, but what I got from it was a garbled mix of anti-union prejudice, half digested anarchism and a few useful ideas that you probably don’t understand. I’m sorry you find coalition politics difficult.

  • ozcar

    This is a classic SF naval gazing, arrogant econarcism article. The Teamsters may have rhymed better with turtles but it was the steelworkers that were the only union really driving a progressive campaign-focused green-blue alliance at the time.

    Good thing the rest of the bay area left is never at each others’ throats so casting stones at labor is pretty easy… er right.

  • This is the kind of corruption you get when those with a particular financial interest in a government decision are allowed to influence decisionmakers to throw opportunity their way.

    The City already restricts the free speech of those doing business with the City, in that those with contracts cannot contribute the campaigns of a decision maker. We need to extend that definition of “doing business” to broadly encompass those “receiving an entitlement” or being paid to realize that entitlement.

    When labor carries political water for corporations and would go against the express will of San Francisco voters on matters like historical preservation or transportation, then solidarity is a myth, the only coalitions involved here are those opposed to San Francisco voters, and those segments of labor needs to be called for their reactionary politics.


  • Call “segments” out on their reactionary politics? But you’ve already dismissed the entire labor movement. You speak with no knowledge of the decades of the reform currents in labor that did — and still do — the grueling, day-to-day work of confronting corrupt and bureaucratic business unionism, and with no interest to understand what animates major divides in the labor movement today, even as it’s happening under your nose in the Bay, as tens of thousands of healthcare workers are self-organizing into *gasp* a new union. I second Jon 6:56 — yours is a childish politics.

  • Organized labor, as a whole and as segments, in no condition right now to be lecturing anyone on much of anything.

    History makes for fun reading, but accomplishment, winning, achievement is what counts. Fighting the good fight and going down AND NOT LEARNING FROM IT does nobody any good.

    I cannot remember the last time that the Building and Construction Trade unions entered into coalition with, showed solidarity with anyone but wealthy developers and the City’s business elite.

    Luke 4:23: “Physician, heal thyself! Whatever we heard was done at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well.”


  • GRR

    This is a bold take, but i think the interpretations are a little too transparently reactive to what are clearly your experiences with a specific set of unions locally, rather than the movement as a whole. Specifically, you jump from one political fight with a local trade union to dismissal of the whole. As and early commenter notes the end of your piece makes you seem pretty unreasonable yourself.

    But you do make a core point that should be sung from the rooftops – to differentiate between Unions and workers themselves, to better highlight where the disconnect happens. What about the workers who don’t have a Union rep?

    In my own humble opinion, another key issue that doesn’t get enough airtime are the demographic tends of the unionized workforce. I think your piece implies but doesn’t directly touch upon the reality of age, race, country of origin, neighborhood preferences, etc. as they relate to Union adaptation to new progressive trends, or vice versa. Simply put, there is an age and demographic thing that helps to maintain the splits, where they occur. Lots of older union members and leaders just don’t culturally value the same things younger progressives do .

    For a slighly more academic take through the national lens, see Avent today: http://www.ryanavent.com/blog/?p=2003

  • lexidev

    The far left might not have a grand narrative or a nationally transformative political program, but it also doesn’t have the capacity for such a program yet either. Having a detailed program with no means of implementing it or building the coalition to implement it, is kinda putting the cart before the horse to me.

    What the far left has done is begin a dialogue on the vision for that program, and importantly if you ask me, no one organization or group of individuals have dominated that dialogue. That dialogue might take several decades, but as Noam Chomsky recently said in an interview, the solidarity movements have created a historically unique social movement, one advocating on behalf of other people, and opposing policies that materially benefit one’s own social position.

    These movements are in their infancy, and any lack of “victories” is mostly because these movements are not yet mature, their activists have not yet figured out how to most effectively use the leverage these movements have, and people are still becoming more used to organizing through the model of solidarity movements.

    It took organized labor over 140 years of struggle for a shorter workday before the 8-hour workday became federal law (From the strike of Philadelphia Carpenters for a 10-hour workday in 1791 to the passing of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938).

    Solidarity movements already have a number of “victories” under their belt, from their role in the anti-Apartheid movement, to the anti-WTO and globalization movements (there have been no successful WTO talks since Seattle ’99), to their expanding role in supporting environmental, immigrant and prisoner rights, and the anti-war movements just to name a few.

    What i am trying to get at is that though the far left may still be riding with training wheels, at least they are beginning to learn to ride. Organized labor on the other hand, has forgotten how to ride and has no interest re-learning. As much as it pains me to say this (I have been an organizer with a major labor union for several years and a supporter of labor throughout my life), organized labor has become just what the IWW said it would: the aristocracy of skilled and organized workers, devoted to maintaining the privileges of membership. Even the “progressive unions” like SEIU or UNITE HERE, are only interested in organizing in so far as organizing will make it easier to maintain their members’ standards, they are not agents of societal transformation or change.

    The American left needs more honest dialogue and more honest attempts to remake the world. Sadly the labor movement seems to no longer prioritize honest dialogue, nor does organized labor seek to change the world. It was the desire to change the world and the facilitation of dialogue among actors that changed the world during the industrial revolution. Organized labor would do well to remember their own roots.

  • Jon

    Lexidev, On further reading, I find it impossible to associate the views in this article with the far left, or any portion of the left. In my experience this whole political current might be called green Reaganism. The far right has so thoroughly dominated the political discussion that, with a little tweaking of the “moral values”, people who imagine themselves to be leftists are completely identified with traditional right wing positions and methods.

  • lexidev

    Jon, let me clarify what i meant by “far left,” i meant nothing more than all perspectives left of the left wing of the democratic party. I know there is nothing cohesive about that designation, whether in terms of ideology or organizational structure, or tactics. I know it is a broad designation, and that i did not clearly explain it, but it was just an online post, so written for brevity’s sake.

    On the topic of “green reaganism” as you put it, i couldn’t agree more. The “left” (however you determine who’s in it) has seemingly given up the prospect of radically changing society for the better. A fact that pains me everyday.

  • I’m happy that so many folks responded to this piece. I wasn’t sure if it would strike a chord with streetsblog readers and am glad it did, even if not always a very happy one! I am not going to go through all the things said, but did want to say to Jon that to call what I wrote “Green Reaganism” is just a.) bizarre, and b.) old-style Communist Party name-calling… The style of the Old Left for all these years has been to take critical commentary to its left and claim that since it’s not supporting “the people” or “the party” or “the unions” (which are conflated with the working class, or these days “working people”) it is by definition to the right of the spectrum. Give me a fuckin’ break! If you care to know what I think in more detail (and I grant you, this piece was a quick blurt, not a well-developed essay) I invite you to check out my book “Nowtopia” and my blog “The Nowtopian” where you will find that it’s true, I’m not of the Left. But not because I’m of the Right. The Left is just the left-wing of capital, and has no critique of wage-labor, the state, money or the Economy as we know it. To associate that with Reaganism is just weak name-calling… call me some names if you want, but make them at least vaguely coherent!

  • Jon

    Chris, what I meant by Reaganism is the idea that people are defined by their behavior in the marketplace. The left, historically, said that people were defined by their relationship to production. The term green Reaganism was not intended as slander, it’s my read on a lot of modern progressive political thought. If you find that hard to understand, you might want to take a look at the Peronista political spectrum in Argentina.

    I will read your blog and take some time to consider your ideas, but you know, the broadly socialist, or collectivist, or whatever you want to call it, left, has quite a history of taking on wage labor, the state and money.

    But finally, to get back to my original comment, I’m a trade unionist, a transit worker, a rank and filer, not a bureaucrat. It’s not so much that I am accepting or embracing our position as wage laborers as I’m acknowledging the fact that we are way, way deep into that position. I’ve been pitching Streetsblog to some of my union officers. You probably wouldn’t like them, but they know a lot about getting certain kinds of things done. What I keep telling them is, “Pay attention to these people. We might be able to put something together and help each other out.” You don’t seem to get coalition politics.

  • Hagee Plumbing

    Thanks for share about Seeking Plumbing Services in West Seattle WA. Your information is really informative for us……………

    Quality plumbing seattle


John Muir and Livable Cities

Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir in Yosemite. Over the holiday I read a new biography of John Muir, the iconic Victorian-era environmentalist and tireless advocate for wilderness conservation who helped establish the Sierra Club.  Written by environmental historian Donald Worster, the book narrates Muir’s well-known struggle and political machinations over the damming of Hetch Hetchy.  […]

Feds Put Off Issuing New Trucking Safety Rules

Federal safety officials missed their own deadline Friday for making new rules about dangerous trucks. October 28 was the original deadline by which the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration was supposed to announce new hours-of-service regulations for trucking, but in the end, they gave themselves another month to do it. The pending change is the result […]

Commentary: Proposition G and the Vision of the City

Editor’s note: Jason Henderson, a geography professor at San Francisco State University who writes about the politics of mobility, explains why he’s voting against Proposition G on November 2. We’ve invited the Yes on G side to write an op-ed and hope to publish it soon. A lot of well-meaning people are leaning towards voting […]