By Bill Shields
The Western Region UALE meeting on September 14th and 15th in San Francisco brought together labor educators from colleges, unions and workers' centers for two days of networking and presentations. The program was hosted by Verlene Jones, Western Region Representative, and City College of San Francisco's Labor and Community Studies Department (LBCS).
Some forty participants from the Bay Area, Seattle, Portland and Eugene met over the weekend, starting with dinner at Sinbad's Restaurant on the waterfront on Friday night.
This gave people a chance to renew old ties and make new ones in a relaxed setting. The next day, panel presentations and discussions took place in the City College culinary program dining room. LBCS students helped host and also participated in the meeting.
The Saturday morning panel included presentations from four groups. First was Charlotte Chang from the Labor Occupational Health Project at U.C. Berkeley and Wen Lan Rong of the Chinese Progressive Association, San Francisco's oldest workers' center. They discussed a recent worker-led research project on conditions in Chinatown restaurants. At the start of this project, currently employed restaurant workers would only agree to be interviewed in secret. The multi-agency and worker research team eventually produced a study, Check, Please!, in English, Chinese and Spanish. The study helped CPA and advocates throughout the city win stronger protections against wage theft and unsafe working conditions. Wen Lan reported that workers after the study are more confident and are publicly pursuing back pay claims in ways that hadn't felt possible before.
Also on the morning panel was Arcadia Maximo, Coordinator of San
Francisco’s CityBuild Program. CityBuild brings the Trades, led by the Laborers, union contractors, community organizations and the Mayor’s office together with the college to prepare young people for entry into union construction careers. The program graduates about eighty students a year, almost all of them African-American, Latino and recent Asian immigrants. Many of the students are ex-offenders. According to Arcadia, support from all sectors and a highly integrated curriculum translate into a ninety percent plus retention rate and an excellent apprenticeship placement record. Arcadia cited the importance of the program’s employment rights class, taught by Pam Tau Lee of LBCS.
The third presentation on the morning panel was by Mark Westerberg and Powell DeGange of UNITE HERE Local 2. Along with U.C. Berkeley student Clare Sharelle, they talked about their internship program, in which students earn school credit while working on the local’s boycotts. The union has had as many as twelve boycotts going at the same time, driven by the research and outreach efforts of up to ten interns. The interns put in ten hours a week for three months in the Local 2 office, which serves as a UNITE HERE boycott support hub for the entire region. In addition to their boycott work, the staff takes interns into the hotels and on house visits during organizing drives. Students report positive experiences working in this program.
The final morning presenter was Tiffany Crain Altamirano of Young Workers United. She discussed the advocacy group’s member education program, OSHA certified trainings, outreach to several thousand students a year in area schools and key role in forming the city’s Progressive Workers Alliance. Young Workers helps win back pay claims for area restaurant and retail workers and was a key player in winning passage of San Francisco’s Wage Theft Prevention Ordinance.
After a delicious lunch generously paid for by national UALE, the afternoon session included another panel and then open discussion among participants about their various workers’ education programs.
The panel included Joe Berry and Helena Worthen talking about the Trinational contingent faculty conference recently held in Mexico, where participants grappled with the fact that seventy percent of college faculty in North America are now contingent. They also talked about the Labor Day weekend People’s Convention of the Vermont Workers Center, whose approach to organizing and education raised provocative questions for labor educators. These included how to organize among Vermont’s large number of informal economy workers and why convention teaching sessions that were entirely scripted worked so well, in contradiction to popular education’s emphasis on participant derived learning.
Also on the panel, Gordon Mar and James Tracy of San Francisco Jobs with Justice discussed the group’s recent monthly class series, developed with LBCS for workers center members and Occupy activists. They described developing a pedagogy of the poor, as per the book of the same name by Baptist and Rehmann, one that would build on the lessons of the beautiful yet transitory spectacle that was Occupy. They asked, “How do we identify and help educate emergent leaders to help them stay engaged in social justice work for the long haul?”
Alisa Messer, president of AFT 2121 at City College, concluded the panel by laying out the severe budget crisis that has been forced on public education in California and outlined the staff-student joint organizing the local is leading for progressive revenue measure Proposition 30 and against anti-union Proposition 32 statewide, and for the college’s own Measure A in the city.
The conference wrapped up with an open discussion of participants work, including:
*Steven Pitts, his monthly Black Worker Report and the
C.L Dellums African American Union Leadership School he leads at U.C. Berkeley’s Labor Center
*Andrea Pelous of Theatrical Wardrobe Local 784 (IATSE) on their building of an Education Fund and encouragement of members to enroll in the National Labor College
*Barbara Byrd and Lynn Feekin reporting on current developments at Oregon LERC, including their weekend workshops offered on a rotating basis for unions around the state
*Verlene Jones of Seattle APRI and UALE (taking time out from hosting the meeting) and her work against employer bullying
*Sarah Laslett of Washington LERC on the difficult transition from Evergreen College to South Seattle Community College and their current program. Post-meeting, Sarah reports discussion of possible collaborations between the Oregon and Washington LERCs.
*Marty Bennett on North Bay Living Wage and PLA economic development work
*Labor journalist Steve Early and ILWU oral historian Harvey Schwartz, on hand to discuss and distribute their work.
*The wonderful labor history exhibits provided by Catherine Powell of the Labor Archives at San Francisco State, on the building of the Golden Gate Bridge, and Robin Walker, ILWU Librarian/Archivist, on the 1948 Longshore Strike.
In conclusion, despite competition from a busy October GOTV weekend, the meeting was collegial and productive. The sense of the group is that we will continue to have an annual Bay Area meeting, as regional labor educator density supports and calls for regular conferring. As for the broader Western Region, participants feel that further discussion is needed about possible future meetings, what they would look like and how they would be carried out. Verlene will try to set up time for this discussion in Toronto.