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‘We Took Care of Each Other’: A Maritime Union’s Hidden History of Gay-Straight and Interracial Solidarity

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Jonathan Kissam – LAWCHA

Decades before the modern LGBTQ+ movement, a small but militant union of maritime workers on the West Coast with openly gay members and leaders coined a slogan linking discrimination against gay men, racial discrimination, and red-baiting. For the better part of two decades, the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union fought discrimination on the ships where its members worked and in society, until it was crushed by the same corporate and government forces that tried to destroy the United Electrical Workers (UE) during the Cold War.

The Marine Cooks and Stewards Union (MCS) was formed in 1901 by the workers who waited on passengers, carried bags, cleaned rooms, cooked meals, and served drinks on the passenger and cruise ships that provided both travel and leisure for the middle and upper classes. They fed crews and washed the dishes and pots and pans on ships of all types. They faced grueling conditions, often being forced to work 16 hours a day, seven days a week, with no overtime pay, and sleeping in substandard quarters they called “floating tenements.”

Many of the cooks and stewards were Black and Asian, but MCS, like too many unions at the time, restricted membership to white workers. And although a high percentage of the cooks and stewards were “queens,” as gay men preferred to call themselves at the time, the union rarely if ever stood up for them when they were taunted—or “queen-baited”—by straight workers.

This all changed during the great waterfront strikes of the 1930s, when both MCS and the longshore union, prodded by rank-and-file activists, realized the need to unite all workers in order to win against the powerful ship owners. Black and Asian workers joined the unions and the strikes, which were ultimately successful in establishing coast-wide contracts for MCS and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union—both of which joined the newly-formed Congress of Industrial Organizations.

Victory did not come without a cost. On July 5, 1934, known as “Bloody Thursday,” police killed two workers—a longshoreman and a cook—as the ship owners tried to reopen the port of San Francisco by force. The flowers at their graves were tended by an MCS member known as the “Honolulu Queen.”

‘IT’S ANTI-UNION TO RED-BAIT, RACE-BAIT, OR QUEEN-BAIT’

As MCS established its presence on the ships—and used its hiring hall to integrate formerly all-white crews—its members continued to face taunts and harassment for their sexual orientation, their race, and their politics from bosses, passengers, and members of the conservative Sailors Union of the Pacific.

Revels Cayton, a Black, straight steward who became an MCS official, told historian Allan Bérubé how the union worked to address this situation. “In 1936 we developed this slogan: It’s anti-union to red-bait, race-bait, or queen-bait. We also put it another way: If you let them red-bait, they’ll race-bait, and if you let them race-bait, they’ll queen-bait. That’s why we all have to stick together.”

Sticking together worked. Bérubé relates, “The insults keep coming, but the gay stewards are getting bolder because they know their union is watching their backs.” Stephen “Mickey” Blair, a white, gay MCS member told Bérubé, “Marine Cooks and Stewards took the dignity that was in each of us and built it up, so you could get up in the morning and say to yourself ‘I can make it through this day.’ Equality was in the air we breathed.”

A WALKOUT TO HIRE LUELLA LAWHORN

During World War II, the ships that MCS members worked on were converted to serve the war effort, carrying troops and munitions. MCS membership tripled. Many of the new members were gay men who want to serve their country in the fight against fascism but had been kicked out of the military for their sexual orientation. Bérubé writes, “Merchant seaman pay a high price during the war… Although they are civilians, they are killed at a higher rate than are servicemen in any branch of the armed services other than the Marine Corps.”

After the war, MCS continued its traditions of aggressive struggle and uniting all workers. Messmen’s wages tripled between 1945 and 1949. When MCS dispatched a Black woman, Luella Lawhorn, to work on the fancy passenger liner Lurline and the company refused to accept her, the entire stewards department walked off the ship. The company backed down, and Lawhorn became the first Black stewardess on a U.S. passenger ship in the Pacific. In 1949, recognizing that its white leadership didn’t reflect its multiracial membership (by 1949 more than half of the members were Black, and a significant number Asian), the union diversified its leadership within a year.

However, MCS soon fell prey to the same wave of Cold War repression that attempted to destroy UE, the ILWU, and other “Them and Us” unions. Along with UE, ILWU, and eight other unions, MCS was brought up on charges of “communist domination” and expelled from the CIO. The Coast Guard declared MCS activists as “security risks” and prevented them from taking jobs on ships. Other unions used homophobia and racism, as well as red-baiting, to try to destroy the MCS. Ultimately the union was absorbed into the conservative Seafarers International Union.

‘OUR HISTORY HAS BEEN ERASED’

Bérubé, who was working on a book about the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union at the time of his death in 2007, wrote that “Their history is unknown today because, through fear and intimidation, it was first rewritten as an un-American activity, then dismissed as an insignificant failure, and, finally, erased from our nation’s memory, as if what they had achieved had never even happened.”

“We were 50 years ahead of our time. We were so democratic this country couldn’t stand it,” Peter Brownlee, a white, straight MCS member told Bérubé. “The most important thing was not that we had gays. It was that an injury to one was an injury to all—and we practiced it. We took care of each other.”

Stephen Blair told Bérubé, “What many of you younger people are trying to do today as queers—what you call inclusion and diversity—we already did it 50 years ago in the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union. We did it in the labor movement as working-class queens with left-wing politics, and that’s why the government crushed us, and that’s why you don’t know anything about us today—our history has been totally erased.”

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on June 23, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jonathan Kissam is the communications director for the United Electrical Workers (UE).


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Service + Solidarity Spotlight: San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council Rallies for Union Organizer/Teacher

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Working people across the United States have stepped up to help out our friends, neighbors and communities during these trying times. In our regular Service + Solidarity Spotlight series, we’ll showcase one of these stories every day. Here’s today’s story.

The San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council recently organized a rally in support of Jared Hutchins (CTA), a teacher and union organizer who was fired by High Tech High.

In late April, some 400 educators at the High Tech High charter school network filed for union recognition with the California Public Employment Relations Board as High Tech Education Collective (HTEC), becoming the newest members of the California Teachers Association family.

With 16 schools on four campuses and more than 6,000 K–12 students, High Tech High is the largest operator of charter schools in San Diego County.

A virtual rally on Zoom garnered nearly 50 supporters for Jared Hutchins. Hutchins said, “I fought and was fighting for teachers to have an equal voice at the table. It was because I was unapologetic about my purpose of bringing anti-racist practices into our schools.”

The California Teachers Association filed an unfair labor practice charge against the High Tech High charter school network for firing Hutchins, who has been helping to organize a union throughout the network.

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on June 15, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnel is a senior writer at AFL-CIO.


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Service + Solidarity Spotlight: Labor Movement Fighting Anti-Asian Racism in All Forms

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Working people across the United States have stepped up to help out our friends, neighbors and communities during these trying times. In our regular Service + Solidarity Spotlight series, we’ll showcase one of these stories every day. Here’s today’s story.

Anti-Asian racism has skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Working people condemn this vile behavior as a stain on our nation. We will continue to fight these injustices.

Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance National President Monica Thammarath (NEA) stated, “It is not right that Asian Americans are afraid to be alone in public, especially our elders who live in poverty and depend on access to community services, and our young people who live in places where there are few community spaces to turn to. We grieve for the elders who have been assaulted in Chinatowns across the nation. We grieve for Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old Thai man who was attacked on one of his daily walks in San Francisco. We send our love to Noel Quintana, a 61-year-old Filipino American who was attacked on a Manhattan subway car, and to the 52-year-old Chinese American woman who was attacked outside of a Flushing bakery. We grieve for Christian Hall, a Chinese American teenager who was murdered by the Pennsylvania State Police. We grieve for Angelo Quinto, a 30-year-old Filipino American who was murdered by Antioch, California, police. Our communities are hurting, and we are more agitated than ever to create change.”

“The entire labor movement is appalled by the continued rise in anti-Asian racism across the country. Acts of physical violence, yelling of racial slurs and intimidation tactics used against our Asian American friends, family and communities must be called out and stopped,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka (UMWA). “Anti-Asian rhetoric is only hurting our nation more during this pandemic, and we all must stand up and condemn in the strongest terms possible that racism in any form is unacceptable.”

“Racism in any form is wrong. Plain and simple. I have been so incensed to see the attacks on our Asian brothers and sisters that I could just scream,” said Clayola Brown (Workers United), AFL-CIO civil rights director and A. Philip Randolph Institute president. “For those of us of color who have endured systemic racism for 400 years, it is scary to see this unrelenting targeting and denigration happening to another group. The kind of ugliness we’ve seen happening to members of the Asian community as they simply go to the store or gather in a park to visit is disgusting and must be stopped. To watch elderly people come under attack and no one come to their aid shows we still have so much more work to do. Humanity must prevail. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘The time is always right to do what is right.’ We must all take responsibility to make sure that no one is targeted, tormented or harassed because of their ethnicity. Until we learn that lesson, we all pay the price for racism.”

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on March 8, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell  is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist whose writings have appeared on AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.


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The thing about systemic racism is it’s systemic: This week in the war on workers

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According to government statistics, the wage gap between white men and Black men has shrunk dramatically since the 1950s. But that’s only true, The New York Times’ David Leonhardt points out, if you compare workers—and the problem is, a lot of Black men have been pushed out of the workforce, in significant part by mass incarceration. When comparing Black men and white men, regardless of if they work, the wage gap is about the same as it was in 1950. “An end to mass incarceration would help,” Leonhardt writes. “So would policies that attempt to reverse decades of government-encouraged racism—especially in housing. But it’s possible that nothing would have a bigger impact than policies that lifted the pay of all working-class families, across races.” 

It’s the combination of racism and inequality we can see in this pattern that set the stage for the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus on Black people. Black people have been more likely to lose their jobs during the pandemic than white people, but they also disproportionately work at essential jobs that require them to expose themselves to possible infection. They’re less likely to have paid sick leave, the ability to work from home, and health insurance. Racism and inequality produce chronic health problems that make Black people more vulnerable to COVID-19. The list goes on and on and on.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on June 27, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.


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Airport Starbucks workers face big racial pay disparity, this week in the war on workers

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Starbucks bills itself as a good employer—and sometimes it lives up to that. But not all Starbucks locations are operated by Starbucks, and UNITE HERE has released a damning report on pervasive discrimination and harassment at 142 Starbucks locations operated by HMSHost in 27 airports. Median pay for black baristas is $1.85 less than for white baristas at these locations, and claims that it’s about tenure on the job don’t hold up. In Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport, for instance, “There were three Black baristas with more seniority than one of the white baristas who made $2.50 an hour less than that white barista. Another white barista who had only 4 months more seniority than one of the Black baristas made $3.17 an hour more.”

In contrast to Starbucks’ image as an LGBTQ-friendly company, workers at the HMSHost Starbucks report widespread harassment, misgendering, and transphobia. LGBTQ workers aren’t the only ones facing harassment: “More than 1 in 4 immigrant workers surveyed at HMSHost Starbucks have been told to stop speaking their preferred language by managers at work.” Starbucks is failing these workers.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on February 29, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor at Daily Kos editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.


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Elizabeth Warren heads to Essence Festival with plan to ‘value the work of Black women’

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“The numbers tell the story,” Warren writes in Essence. “Black women are more likely to be breadwinners for their families and work more than almost any other set of women workers in America, including white women. Yet, Black women are paid less and they are less likely to be able to afford basic human rights like healthcare, childcare and housing.”

Because “This is no accident,” it will take intention and hard work to reverse. Warren’s plans for universal childcare, housing, and canceling student debt will help black and brown women, but she’s not stopping there. Warren pledges a series of executive actions to “boost wages for women of color and open up new pathways to the leadership positions they deserve.” That starts with a ban on new federal contracts for “Companies with a bad track record on equal pay and diversity in management.” Federal contractors will also be banned from “forcing employees to sign away their rights with forced arbitration clauses and non-compete agreements—restrictions that are particularly hurtful to women of color.”

Warren also pledges to “take executive action to make the senior ranks of the federal government look like America and strengthen enforcement against systemic discrimination.”

This is intersectional policy: Warren is clear about how her policies that aren’t tailored to black women will still help black women, but she’s also clear that systemic discrimination requires more. One-size-fits-all policy solutions won’t fix a system that’s been designed not just to elevate the wealthy but to crush some groups more than others.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on July 5, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.

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Dockworkers Show Us How Unions Can Be a Powerful Force Against Racism

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This article is adapted from Dockworker Power: Race and Activism in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area. Used with the permission of the University of Illinois Press. Copyright © 2018 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. It has been modified for this article, with the introductions and conclusions reworked.
From its inception in the 1930s, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), and particularly its San Francisco Bay Area chapter, Local 10, have preached and practiced racial equality. First, the union committed itself to equality by desegregating work gangs and openings its ranks to African Americans, whose numbers drastically increased during the World War II-induced Great Migration. In addition to working towards racial equality inside the ILWU, longshoremen and their leaders, in Local 10 and at the international level, participated in myriad intersectional social movements from the 1940s to the present. Thanks to this organizing, longshore workers and their union greatly contributed to the growth and success of social movements in a pivotal time in Bay Area, U.S. and world history.

An early, poignant example of the union’s commitment to ethnic and racial equality came in its principled yet highly controversial opposition to the persecution of Japanese Americans during World War II. In 1942 the ILWU condemned the interment of 125,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans, ordered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt shortly after the surprise Japanese attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawai’i. Hostility towards Japanese immigrants (by law, never allowed to become U.S. citizens) and Japanese Americans quickly reached fever pitch, and almost no Americans came to their defense though, more recently, most acknowledge the trampling of their Constitutional rights. Yet in sworn testimony before Congress in February 1942, only three months after Pearl Harbor, ILWU leader Lou Goldblatt sagely predicted, “this entire episode of hysteria and mob chant against the native-born Japanese will form a dark page of American history. It may well appear as one of the victories one by the Axis powers.” Similarly, in May 1945, the month Germany surrendered and three months before Japan did, ILWU International President Harry Bridges pushed to have a few Japanese Americans, interned for most of the war, admitted to the Stockton division of Local 6 (Bay Area warehouse) in conjunction with the government’s War Relocation Authority. When the white majority division refused to allow them into the union, Bridges and Goldblatt pulled the charter until the 700 members accepted this Japanese American into the local. The union’s commitment to equality for Japanese Americans was rare, to say the least, and remains largely unknown.

The ILWU has also been committed to and fought for racial equality since its birth in the 1930s. This sort of activism, still all-too-rare, is called civil rights unionism or social movement unionism. Examples of how the ILWU worked in solidarity with the largely Southern-based black freedom struggle are too numerous to recount, but the union’s commitment was real and long-standing. Bridges regularly wrote in favor of racial equality in his column “On the Beam” that appeared in the union’s newspaper, Dispatcher. In 1954 after the U.S. Supreme Court issued its historic ruling against Jim Crow segregation in Brown v. Board of Education, Bridges lauded it as “a victory for all decent and progressive Americans—whether Negro, white or any other color,” because the Jim Crow “system has been a cancer on America.”

In 1963, the ILWU began selling units in the housing cooperative that its progressive leaders conceived of and financed as a response to “urban redevelopment” and a lack of affordable housing. Though not the first of its kind (several clothing worker unions in New York City constructed thousands of such units), the St. Francis Square Housing Cooperative was the Bay Area’s first. Beginning in 1960, the ILWU invested some of its pension funds into property that had been part of a 45-block area cleared, notoriously, by city and federal housing agencies in a move criticized by the legendary African American writer and activist, James Baldwin: “urban renewal which means moving Negroes out; it means Negro removal.” The “redevelopment” of the Fillmore (also called the Western Addition) and the city’s largest black neighborhood, began in the 1950s and continued into the early 1970s, razed about 2,500 Victorian structures and displaced more than 10,000 people—overwhelmingly African Americans including hundreds of ILWU Local 6 and 10 members. ILWU Secretary-Treasurer Lou Goldblatt explained why he developed this project in 1979: “what they were not doing was replacing the slums with anything that any of the people who had lived there could have any chance under the sun of coming back to.” St. Francis’ 300-units were open to every ethnicity and race, the first integrated housing development in SF, and its first manager was Revels Cayton, a black left-wing activist and ILWU member. ILWU members who lived in the Fillmore continued resisting further clearings, albeit with limited success. Ultimately, the character of the Fillmore changed forever with far fewer blacks. The co-op, though, recently celebrated its 50th anniversary.

Also in 1963, the ILWU and Local 10 helped organize a huge civil rights demonstration in San Francisco and supported another, the legendary March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Early that year, the nation’s eyes focused upon Birmingham, Alabama, nicknamed “America’s Johannesburg” for being the most segregated big city in the South. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, headed by Martin Luther King, Jr., collaborated with local activists for several months of nonviolent civil disobedience to highlight the persistence of racial segregation, nearly ten years after Brown v. Board. Chester, utilizing his many contacts helped create the Church-Labor Conference that, on May 26th, brought together 20,000 people to march with a giant banner reading “We March in Unity for Freedom in Birmingham and Equality in San Francisco.” An additional 10,000 joined at the march’s end to rally, and was the largest civil rights demonstration in the region’s history. Three months later, the ILWU donated money and sent a delegation to the nation’s capital for what proved to be the largest political gathering in U.S. History, up to that time. One quarter of a million Americans, mostly black but with many whites, participated in the March on Washington to pressure the Congress and President to pass a comprehensive civil rights bill outlawing racial discrimination, once and for all. Tragically, the response of some unreconstructed segregationists was the blowing up of a black church, in Birmingham, closely associated with the movement that killed four black girls. When word reached San Francisco, Local 10 members quickly shut down the port for a “stop work meeting” in front of the U.S. Federal Building to protest this terrorist attack.

Due to the union’s many efforts to fight racism, in 1967 Martin Luther King, Jr. visited Local 10 where he became an honorary member, like Paul Robeson before him. King, best known for his “I Have A Dream” speech, long had been interested in and supportive of unions but proved increasingly so in his final years. He repeatedly encouraged black workers to join and form unions, famously calling them “the first anti-poverty program.” King regularly supported and spoke to racially inclusive unions, so it not surprising that he visited Local 10’s hiring hall. Addressing a large gathering of dockworkers, King declared, “I don’t feel like a stranger here in the midst of the ILWU. We have been strengthened and energized by the support you have given to our struggles…We’ve learned from labor the meaning of power.” More than forty years later, Local 10 member Cleophas Williams remember the speech: “He talked about the economics of discrimination” insightfully pointing out, “What he said, is what Bridges had been saying all along” about all workers benefiting by attacking racism and forming interracial unions…The day after his stunning murder, April 9, 1968, the Bay Area was quiet when more than 150 cities and towns erupted into flames. Longshoremen shut down the ports of San Francisco and Oakland for their newest (honorary) member, as they always do when one of their own dies on the job. Nine ILWU members attended King’s funeral, in Atlanta, including Bridges, Chester, and Williams, elected the local’s first black president the year prior.

Similarly, it is neither incidental nor coincidental that ILWU members in the Bay Area gave timely and significant support to Californians seeking to form the United Farm Workers (UFW). It is widely known that migratory farm workers were heavily non-white (particularly Mexican and Filipino Americans) and immigrant (Mexican but also smatterings of other peoples including Arabs). When Filipino American farm workers struck large table and wine grape growers in and around Delano, California in 1965, they quickly joined forces with Cesar Chavez’s fledgling union, mostly Mexican Americans. Thus began a five-year saga that—like the predominantly African American sanitation workers with their “I Am A Man” campaign—combined elements of labor and civil rights activism. On November 17, 1965 a few of these strikers stood at the foot of SF Pier 50, hoping to convince longshoremen not to load Delano grapes aboard the President Wilson, headed for Asia. One key activist, Gilbert Padilla, described what happened next:

We went there as the grapes were being loaded onto ships to Japan…and I’m standing out there with a little cardboard, with a picket [sign], ‘Don’t eat grapes.’ then some of the longshoremen asked, ‘Is this a labor dispute?’ And I [was nervous and didn’t know whether we were legally allowed to use the term, so I] said, ‘No, no, no labor dispute.’ So they would walk in. Jimmy Herman came over and asked me, ‘What the hell you doing?’ And I told him we were striking. He knew about the strike but wanted to know, ‘what are you asking for?’ And I was telling him, and then he says, ‘Come with me.’ He took me to his office; he was president of the clerks (a Longshoremen’s Union local). He took me to his office and he got on his hands and knees, Jimmy Herman, and he made picket signs. And he told me, ‘You go back there and don’t tell nobody about who gave you this. But you just stand there. [You] don’t [have to] say a goddamned thing.’ The sign said, ‘Farm Workers on Strike.’ And everybody walked out of that fucking place, man! That’s the first time I felt like I was 10 feet tall, man! Everybody walked out. So then they asked what’s happening and we were telling them, and Jesus Christ, man, I never seen anything like it. There were trucks all the way up to the bridge, man!

That Bay Area longshoremen and clerks actively supported this movement comes as little surprise, especially as the ILWU organized farm workers, overwhelmingly Asian Americans, in Hawai’i in the 1950s.

Local 10 also played an integral, if hidden, role in the historic Pan-Indian occupation of Alcatraz, one of the most incredible chapters in Bay Area social movement history. Beginning in 1969, American Indians, including many students at San Francisco State, planned and occupied the legendary Alcatraz Island, a former federal penitentiary. They did so to raise awareness of the desperate plight of American Indians and promote cultural and political changes among both Indians and the nation at large. Long forgotten or never known is that a Local 10 longshoreman, “Indian Joe” Morris, born and raised on the Blackfoot reservation in Montana, helped make the eighteen-month occupation possible. The twelve-acre “Rock” was lifeless so literally everything needed to sustain the occupiers’ lives, including water, had to come from the mainland (a main reason the federal government stopped using it as a prison). Morris secured the unused SF Pier 40 from which the transfer of all people and supplies occurred between the island and city. In his unpublished memoir, he writes, “When the Indians occupied Alcatraz Island I was the Alcatraz troubleshooter and mainland coordinator.” Morris also raised thousands of dollars from the ILWU and other unions in support and even took collections at the Ferry Building (now named after Harry Bridges). Without Morris’ unsung action, the occupation—simply put—could not have continued very long. Morris might have been the only American Indian in Local 10, but there was tremendous sympathy among others for the occupation; for example, the ILWU Executive Board praised the Indians occupying Alcatraz “as a haven and a symbol of the genocide they have suffered.” Morris helped arrange for a delegation of Local 10 and other ILWU members to visit Alcatraz, where Lou Goldblatt proclaimed, “You folks are just like a labor union on strike. You have to last one day longer than the other guy.” Winding down in 1971, the Dispatcher featured a photograph of Morris holding a painting—his first ever—commemorating the occupation though few know this intersectional history.

In 1969, the legendary African American activist Bayard Rustin wrote, “the Negro can never be socially and politically free until he is economically secure.” Rustin could have been describing the civil rights unionism of ILWU Local 10. Or, as William “Bill” Chester, an African American and long-time civil rights activist in the ILWU, recalled, “We found that, in a sense, the union is the community.” Bay Area longshore workers did not stop with racial equality, though. They also provided mighty assistance to many other social movements across the Bay Area, nation and world.

This article appeared at In These Times on May 23, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Peter Cole is a Professor of History at Western Illinois University. He is the author of Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive Era Philadelphia and is currently at work on a book entitled Dockworker Power: Race and Activism in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area. He is a Research Associate in the Society, Work and Development Program (SWOP) at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, and has published extensively on labor history and politics. He tweets from @ProfPeterCole.


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Racial Inequality Is Hollowing Out America’s Middle Class

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America’s middle class is under assault. And as our country becomes more diverse, our racial wealth gap means it’s also becoming poorer.

Since 1983, national median wealth has declined by 20 percent, falling from $73,000 to $64,000 in 2013. And U.S. homeownership has been in a steady decline since 2005.

While we often hear about the struggles of the white working class, a driving force behind this trend is an accelerating decline in black and Latino household wealth.

Over those three decades, the wealth of median black and Latino households decreased by 75 percent and 50 percent, respectively, while median white household wealth actually rose a little. As of 2013, median whites had $116,800 in wealth — compared to just $2,000 for Latinos and $1,700 for blacks.

This wealth decline is a threat to the viability of the American middle class and the nation’s overall economic health. Families with more wealth can cover emergencies without going into debt and take advantage of economic opportunity, such as buying a home, saving for college, or starting a business.

A Growing Gap

We looked at the growing racial wealth gap in a new report for the Institute for Policy Studies and Prosperity Now.

We found that if these appalling trends continue, median black household wealth will hit zeroby 2053, even while median white wealth continues to climb. Latino net worth will hit zero two decades later, according to our projections.

It’s in everyone’s interest to reverse these trends. Growing racial wealth inequality is bringing down median American middle class wealth, and with it shrinking the middle class — especially as Americans of color make up an increasing share of the U.S. population.

The causes of this racial wealth divide have little to do with individual behavior. Instead, they’re the result of a range of systemic factors and policies.

These include past discriminatory housing policies that continue to fuel an enormous racial divide in homeownership rates, as well as an “upside down” tax system that helps the wealthiest households get wealthier while providing the lowest income families with almost nothing.

The American middle class was created by government policy, investment, and the hard work of its citizenry. Today Americans are working as hard as ever, but government policy is failing to invest in a sustainable and growing middle class.

To Do Better, Together

To do better, Congress must redirect subsidies to the already wealthy and invest in opportunities for poorer families to save and build wealth.

For example, people can currently write off part of their mortgage interest payments on their taxes. But this only benefits you if you already own a home — an opportunity long denied to millions of black and Latino families — and benefits you even more if you own an expensive home. It helps the already rich, at the expense of the poor.

Congress should reform that deduction and other tax expenditures to focus on those excluded from opportunity, not the already have-a-lots.

Other actions include protecting families from the wealth stripping practices common in many low-income communities, like “contract for deed” scams that can leave renters homeless even after they’ve fronted money for expensive repairs to their homes. That means strengthening institutions like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

The nation has experienced 30 years of middle class decline. If we don’t want this to be a permanent trend, then government must respond with the boldness and ingenuity that expanded the middle class after World War Two — but this time with a racially inclusive frame to reflect our 21st century population.

Dedrick Asante-Muhammad directs the Racial Wealth Divide Project at Prosperity Now. Chuck Collins directs the Program on Inequality at the Institute for Policy Studies and co-edits Inequality.org. They’re co-authors of the new report, The Road to Zero Wealth.


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Black Livelihoods Matter: The Civil Justice System Needs Reform Too

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downloadThe Black Lives Matter movement has brought much-needed attention to the disparity in the way our criminal justice system treats African Americans.

But there’s another side of American justice that matters too: our civil courts.

In the United States today, the civil justice system is the last line of defense for workers who have faced discrimination on the job. And not just for individuals, either. Lawsuits and the threat of lawsuits have been the most effective way to force recalcitrant employers to take action against discrimination.

Still, our courthouses are not open to all. As a black lawyer who focuses on employment discrimination, I’ve seen first-hand how access to the courts, the racial makeup of law firms and the way cases are handled can throw up barriers to justice.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to how black workers’ cases get derailed.

Step 1: Black workers are more likely to represent themselves.

Few people can afford to pay an employment attorney up front. Instead, most lawyers in the field work on contingency—meaning they will only get paid if the worker receives a cash award. That makes these cases financially risky for lawyers, who might get nothing for hours of work if the case is dismissed. As a result, it can be hard for many workers to find an employment lawyer.

But for black workers, the problem is even worse. A study commissioned by the American Bar Association found that black plaintiffs are 2.5 times more likely than white plaintiffs to file employment discrimination claims pro se, or without a lawyer. Other racial minorities, including Hispanics and Asians, are 1.9 times more likely to file pro se than their white counterparts.

Winning an employment case is already difficult, even under the best circumstances. Pro se litigants, assuming that they can even get their cases inside a courtroom, are almost guaranteed to lose—no matter how strong the details of their case may be.

For example, litigants may be required to file their case with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission within a certain number of days, and that time limit varies by state. Workers representing themselves may miss that deadline, and lose their cases before they even start.

Step 2: Attorneys are less likely to take cases involving black workers.

Even when black workers have found an attorney who might be interested in their case, they are less likely to get help. The ABA study found that the way employment attorneys screen their cases can contribute to the racial disparity.

In some cases, employment attorneys charge expensive consultation fees before considering a potential client. Black workers who can’t afford those fees never get in the front door. In other cases, the ABA study found that attorneys favored clients based on criteria that weren’t related to the merits of their case, such as perceived demeanor, mannerisms or a personal referral.

The disparity in pay between black and white workers adds to the problem. Because lost wages are a major part of the case, workers who make less money will receive smaller payouts. For employment attorneys who have to work for free upfront, that means less money at the back end.

Step 3: Juries aren’t always sympathetic to black workers.

Even when employment cases make it to trial, the worker still has only a 15 percent chance of winning, compared to a 50 percent win rate for other types of plaintiffs.

That means employment cases are particularly sensitive to jurors’ beliefs and prejudices. If a jury does not find the plaintiff’s story credible, or doesn’t believe that discrimination occurred, or doubts whether discrimination is all that common anyway—the worker loses.

In addition, damages for emotional distress are allowed in many employment discrimination cases. But jurors may not be as willing to provide them to black workers even when they have found in favor of them overall due to prejudices about their mythical inner strength or whether discrimination is serious.

The end result is that the same discrimination that black workers face in the workplace can also negatively affect them in the eyes of a jury.

Step 4: Even if they win, they are often awarded less money.

Workers who win their cases can receive money for emotional distress, punitive damages intended to send a message to the employer and lost wages. Under federal law, those first two amounts are limited between $50,000 and $300,000, levels set in 1991 that have not been adjusted since. (If they had been pegged to the Consumer Price Index, the cap would be closer to $525,000.)

Generally, the largest award in employment cases is for lost wages. Employees who win their cases can only get the difference between what they made since being illegally fired and what they would have made had they not been fired.

Black employees, on average, make less than white employees. As a result, black employees bringing discrimination cases are disproportionately affected by caps for damages for lost wages. This means that these employees have less leverage to negotiate an out-of-court settlement with employers prior to trial because of the low risk to the employer of having to pay a significant judgment—if the employee prevails at trial. As a result, employers may have less incentive to adequately address discrimination against black employees.

The deep-seated flaws in our civil justice system cannot be ignored. It’s a problem that needs to be addressed by employers, legal professionals, and lawmakers. There needs to be a serious examination as to why black employees who have often been unlawfully excluded from the workplace are then again denied recourse through the legal system.

This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post on October 10, 2016. Reprinted with permission. 

Phillis h. Rambsy is a partner with the Spiggle Law Firm, which has offices in Arlington, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Nashville, Tennessee. Her legal practice focuses on workplace law where she represents employees in matters of wrongful termination and employment discrimination including racial discrimination, pregnancy discrimination, and other family-care issues such as caring for a sick child or an elderly parent. To learn more, visit www.spigglelaw.com.


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Mexican Grocery Chain Workers Sue for Unpaid Wages in Silicon Valley

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R.M. ArrietaSAN FRANCISCO—More than 50 former workers at a now-defunct supermarket chain in Santa Clara County (aka Silicon Valley and San Jose) are suing their former employer for unpaid wages.

The two-store chain went bankrupt after being open less than three years and  receiving half a million dollars in assistance from the city’s economic development department. The announcement came from the Bay Area Justice for Mercado Workers Coalition and San Francisco-based Instituto Laboral de la Raza (ILR). (Mexican grocery stores are known as “mercados.”)

The workers are seeking more than $200,000 in unpaid wages and penalties. The former Su Vianda workers were fired last June. Marc L. TerBeek, general counsel for ILR, is representing the group.

TerBeek said in a prepared statement that they are suing the listed owner of the chain, Kimomex; the president, Al Lujan; the board of directors; the parent company, Pacific Community Ventures, along with its board of directors, because

…Kimomex’s efforts to evade responsibility for their claims by filing bankruptcy revealed that it was a shell organization that did not maintain any books or records, and which could not account for any revenues it had generated, including a $500,000 investment the City of San Jose made in 2008 with taxpayer funds.

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The Justice for Mercado Workers Campaign holds a press conference in San Jose, Calif., in December 2009. (Photo via People's World)

According to the complaint, Kimomex, doing business as Su Vianda, owned and operated a chain of ethnic-oriented supermarkets that catered to predominantly Latino customers.

The suit says the workers were denied rest periods, meal breaks and overtime pay, while Su Vianda/Kimomex deducted earnings for medical insurance that was never purchased and engaged in “the unlawful business practice of failing to pay final earned wages to employees it terminated.”

When the workers were fired in June 2010, Kimomex sought bankruptcy protection but then could not account for its liabilities or assets, nor were there corporate books or records.

The supermarket chain did not pay final earned wages to workers it terminated and deducted wages for medical insurance that was never obtained. The workers were told they were not entitled to rest period and meal breaks.

The workers are calling for a jury trial.

Calls to Kiromex’s San Jose headquarters were unanswered. TerBeek says the workes are owned at least $75,000 in unpaid wages and $150,000 in penalties for failure to pay them as promised.

The Coalition of Bay Area Mercado workers includes community, labor and faith-based groups who are looking at ethnic grocery stores, commonly called “mercados” to comply with state and federal laws for workers as well as to help them fight for their right to form a union.

Local 5 President Ron Lind remarked during a press conference in December,  “We have a broader mission in the labor movement and as a union. That is to advocate on behalf of all the workers in the industries we represent, including those in the mercados [Mexican markets]…”

About 30,000 Californians work in mercados throughout the state, many of them recent immigrants from Latin America and Asia.

The Justice for Mercado Workers Campaign, which consists of several community organizations and USCW Local 5, has developed a Code of Conduct to empower Latino and Asian mercado workers through labor organizing activities.

In the Bay Area, it is estimated there are some 12,000 mercados workers. Many are paid poverty wages, and their employers don’t observe labor law, which means they don’t get meals and rest breaks, and endure verbal, and sometimes physical, abuse.

This blog originally appeared on http://www.inthesetimes.com on March 3, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: R.M. Arrieta was born and raised in Los Angeles. She has worked at three daily newspapers and two television stations and is a former of the Bay Area’s independent community bilingual biweekly El Tecolote. She currently lives in San Francisco, where she is a freelance journalist writing for a variety of outlets. She can be reached at rmarrieta@inthesetimes.com.


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