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Long-time Activist by Anonymous

10 Nov

I was born and grew up in Los Angeles, more precisely, in the South Bay, a post-WWII suburb of mainly aerospace workers—the “white collar” of the “blue collar” workers who strongly identified with the patriotically conservative, non-political, hysterically anti-communist 1950’s “Leave It to Beaver” image of a white picket fence, two-car garage America.  My parents were the absolute antithesis: children of Communists who grew up in the depression and the radical ‘30s.  Although my schools were racially mixed, my little neighborhood was Caucasian, except for the family of a Mexican-American doctor who, at any rate, lived in the adjacent area of the cheaper, “flat-roof” slab houses.

Because my parents were very involved in the anti-war and civil rights movements, I had a number of African-American (at that time, the politically-correct terminology was “Negro”) friends.  I had to walk over to their neighborhood to play with them—they did not feel comfortable coming to my house as it meant being stared at as they walked through the streets of my White neighborhood.

I felt more at ease with my non-Caucasian friends because I felt I could be more myself with them – I didn’t have to hide my parent’s political views like I had to with my (White) neighbors who lived closer to me – although I still didn’t feel that I could acknowledge my parents Marxist beliefs with my non-Caucasian friends—that I had to hold in check until the weekends, when we either went to visit my relatives (and their friends) in the bohemian (and by my era, hippie) neighborhood of Venice, or to visit the children of friends of my parents who lived in the city of Los Angeles and who were also “fellow travelers”.

The racial disparity became even more apparent starting in middle school—what was then termed Junior High School.  The classes were divided according to IQ test, and in my grade, there was only one Black/African-American in the “smart” class. Due to this, and  because her mother, who ran the local Head Start program. was an acquaintance of my mother’s, she became one of my closest friends.

In June 1967, there was a large protest in Century City against the war in Vietnam.  My mother, who was involved in Women Strike for Peace, took me and my siblings.  At some point, the police started to break up the demonstration.  They yelled through megaphones to disperse—but nobody could understand what they were saying because the sound was so distorted.  They had their billy clubs out and were indiscriminately swinging them at anyone in their path.  They almost hit my gentle, diminutive, grey-haired mother, and they did get one of my brothers, although he wasn’t seriously hurt.  I was so incensed by this—even more so than not allowing a legitimate, legal demonstration to take place—because the police were so stupid that they were shouting dispersal instructions which no one could understand through these ridiculous bullhorns.

By the time I got to high school, I was totally alienated from all but one or two of my neighbors and longed to go to an LAUSD high school where there were identifiable groups of student anti-Vietnam war activists.  So I got out of there as soon as I could, skipping my last year of high school and going to Cuba on the Venceremos Brigade in the fall of 1970.  We traveled in a cross-county bus, headed to Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada, where we would sail to Cuba. This was at the time that Angela Davis had gone underground, when she was on the FBI’s most-wanted list.  Angela’s sister Fania was with us, which gave the police an excuse to continually harass us and stop the bus to haul her out—each time insisting that she was actually Angela in disguise.  The FBI disseminated all sorts of rumors and negative publicity to the local population in the towns we went/traveled through, stoking McCarthy-like panic.  By the time we got to Bangor, Maine, the hysteria was so frenzied that our bus was attacked—shades of Peekskill!

We boarded an old Cuban cargo ship that had been specially retro-fitted for us by slinging hammocks down in the bottom deck for us to sleep—separated into women’s and men’s sections.  It was hurricane season and we sailed through some rough seas—everyone, i.e., the Brigadistas (not the Cuban  sailors), got seasick and for a few days, the only food we could hold down was a few bites of hardtack.  The only relief was from a Brigidista, a gay guy from New York, who led us in mindful meditation.  Lying stretched out on the battered deck, his hypnotic voice led us–or at least me–into a euphoric state in which I actually felt that I was floating above it all.  It was such a soothing feeling which I continue to replay in my mind even now.

We were supposed to help in the Cuban campaign for the “Zafra de Los Diez Milliones”, but by the time we arrived, sugar cane season was over, so we were sent to the Isla de Juventud to pick citrus.  When we were done, Fidel Castro came to personally shake each of our hands in thanks for our solidarity against the blockade. In addition, we were toured all over the country, and as it was also the anniversary of “El Camino del Che”, we hiked through the mountains in the footsteps of that long march.

On the cross-country bus trip back from Canada, I decided to not return to Southern California, so had the bus drop me off in San Francisco.  I had the address of an acquaintance of my parents, a nurse who had gone to Spain to drive an ambulance in the fight in their civil war against fascism.  She lived at the very top of Portreo Hill.  I didn’t have any money so I trudged all the way up those steep streets, dragging my heavy duffle bag, only to find out when I finally got up there that she wasn’t home, but out on Alcatraz, as a nurse volunteer in the Native American occupation of the Island.  I hitchhiked back over the Bay Bridge and found a place to stay in a communal-living house on Channing Avenue in Berkeley, a few blocks from the water.  It was not a particularly safe neighborhood in general for a naïve teenage girl, but I quickly found out that I didn’t have to worry because it was around the corner from the West Berkeley Black Panther headquarters, which had the neighborhood kids marching around military-style, patrolling the streets.  I liked to watch them, dressed in army fatigues with their red-capped berets covering their Afro-styled hair, shouting out their revolutionary slogans as they paraded by in formation.

I needed to find work, but there was a recession on, so after days of systematically walking down the commercial streets, one after the other, knocking on the door of each and every establishment asking for a job, I finally managed to get hired at the MacDonald’s in East Oakland, on Hegenberger Road.  Also not a safe neighborhood, but I had become very friendly with a Venceremos Brigade member from New York, a Borrinqueno leader of the Young Lords—it turned out that his cousin, quite co-incidentally, was one of my customers, and as he was in the local gang, he looked out for my welfare.  The supervisor at McDonalds was intrigued because I had gone to Cuba illegally, and he tried to recruit me into training for their management program—go figure!  I barely made enough money to get by but the manager let me take home the food that was left over at closing.  As my roommates were vegetarians, we usually fed the hamburger meat to the dog.

One day, I was with a roommate at the Berkeley Co-Op (Consumers’ Cooperative of Berkeley) supermarket, and she took a piece of fruit while we were in the store and offered me a bite.  The store had two-way mirrors all around, up at the top of the walls, to catch shop-lifters.  They saw this happen, accused us of stealing, and called the police.  They let my friend go but because I was underage, they arrested me and I was sent to juvenile detention.  I was in jail two days. There were some pretty rough girls in there and at the beginning I had some trepidation. But after hearing how I had had the bad luck to be so stupidly arrested and was being shipped back to my parents against my wishes, they became sympathetic and friendly and we passed the time chatting. My parents had to pay the $10 it cost to fly me back–that was a day’s wage for me—but as a consequence of my sudden departure, all my things were left behind, including my most prized possession: a bust of Marx carved by a comrade from a bar of Ivory soap.

Now being back in L.A at my parent’s house, I was visited regularly by the FBI as a result of going on the Brigade.  My bedroom was adjacent to the front porch, so whenever there was an early Saturday morning knock—which was always when they came–I peered through the curtains of my window to see who it was before answering the door.  If I saw two young men dressed in suits, I knew it was agents and not Jehovah Witnesses –who always came with at least one woman–so I’d yell at them to go away.  For years after I moved out, they continued to hassle my parents about me, although more sporadically.

Although I consorted with various political groups, my favorite was the Young Workers Liberation League (YWLL, or “the League”).  I thought they had the best “revolutionary line” because not only were they affiliated with the CPUSA and therefore multi-national and determinedly anti-racist, but a number of the members were also in the Black Panthers, which gave them considerable cachet to my way of thinking.  Most importantly, besides the serious stuff like classes on Marxism, the League knew how to go out and have fun—plus, they held the best Soul Train-style dance parties!  I still remember how to do the Funky Chicken!!

The local YWLL organizer had a contact in a factory near my parent’s house that made “Hot Pants” for New York’s haute couture fashion industry.  Me and three other YWLLers got a job there.  Most of the workers were undocumented women from Thailand.  They didn’t speak much English, so I ended up learning some basic Thai.  They were very concerned that I wasn’t married, and were constantly trying to get me to come to their cultural events so that I could meet an “eligible” man. They even taught me some of the traditional arm and hand movements of traditional Thai dance.  Occasionally there wasn’t a lot of work coming in, so the company owner, wanting to save on labor costs, would announce that the INS was going to make a raid, which scared those workers who were undocumented, so they would not come in for a few days.  It would always be a lie!  The International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU or “the ILG”) was trying to organize the shop, so we were supposedly helping with that.  However, I didn’t like some of the ways the ILG was conducting its campaign.  The female workers had the lowest-paying, menial jobs, while the male workers had the higher-paying jobs as “pressers” and “cutters”.  The Union officials were all men and this disparity didn’t concern them.  It was what they were used to in the industry and they didn’t want to hear my complaints about it.  As the union struggle intensified, the four of us were eventually “outed” and subsequently fired.  I remained in touch with a few of the women for many years, so I was able to practice the Thai phrases that I had learned.

I worked in various other factory jobs after that–assembling disc brake pad kits (until the manger’s sexual harassment got too much to bear, so I quit), at the Papermate factory in Santa Monica doing quality control of Bic pens on the midnight shift, and then, finally, a better-paying union job as an International “O” Operator for Ma Bell (AT&T).  I worked a split shift, which I really liked because I could do political work in between.  But the union, the Communication Workers of America (CWA) was not a very progressive organization—at least not in Los Angeles at that time.  The supervisors were all men, and we had to raise our hands and wait to be acknowledged if we needed to take a bathroom break.  It was not the most exciting work, so I would take “Black Beauties” to help me focus.  I’d arrange my switchboard so that the telephone cords were all nicely positioned, precise and straight, which the supervisor would praise me for–clueless that it was only due to the effect of the speed pills!  I took pride in being able to get a call through in an emergency, such as a hurricane—even routing the calls through other countries if necessary.  Because I worked near the city of Gardena, at that time a predominantly Japanese community, I learned rudimentary Japanese in order to place my calls more effectively.  I remember one intriguing co-worker who lived in South Central but was originally from New Orleans.  She had a side business raising rabbits in her backyard, peddling the meat out of her house but would occasionally bring some to work to sell out of an ice chest.  She would cook the rabbit southern-style and share with me at lunch.

At this time I was living near Banning Park–in Wilmas13 territory, so the rent was lower than in other areas—but it was still 50% of my salary.  I would hear occasional gunshots, and to get home I’d have to walk by a bunch of young men hanging out along my back fence, but they pretty much left me alone.  I had an open dirt space in the backyard, where I tried to plant vegetables, although the only thing that grew was corn, but it was delicious and sweet–it could be eaten raw, right off the cob. It also attracted mice; I’d see them sticking their noses up out of the gas rings in my stove top.  The landlord just told me to buy traps, but I wouldn’t.

I was volunteering at what is now the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research but strongly disliked the way that the proprietor treated his spouse, so I decided I wanted a change. Having been awarded $100 because an elderly man rear-ended my car, it was enough to buy a ticket to fly overseas. I didn’t return to Los Angeles for some years.

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Organizing, by Patty Margaret

22 Feb

Patty is a retired nurse and mother of three grown children and three grandchildren. She grew up in San Diego, and lives in Pasadena. She likes to hike, bird-watch, travel and read. She is presently completing a healthy house project on her home to eliminate toxic chemicals and mold.

 

What particularly started my opposition to the status quo was my reaction to my father, who was a ferocious racist from Texas and had been in the navy all his life. When I was growing up, he abused my mom, my brother and me. I empathized with the victims of my dad’s wrath. I remember my dad going “Huh!” with disdain in his voice whenever a person of color was mentioned. My grandmother did the same thing. Phrases like “Those damn wetbacks!” were common around our house.

When I was in third grade, we sailed to Hawaii on my dad’s navy cargo ship. It took seven days to get there and seven to return. We stayed in Hawaii three months and went to school there. This was in the late ‘50s. It gave me the experience of being around Asians.

In junior high school my good friend had straight black hair and brown skin. When I brought her home one day, my dad asked, “Who’s that girl?” She was standing right there listening to this. “You can’t bring her into this house ever again,” he said. “She can stay now but that’s it.” Dumbfounded, I asked my mom why he didn’t like her. “Because she’s Mexican,” my mom explained. Eventually the girl moved away but years later while watching the San Francisco Mime Troup in Los Angeles, I met her again. She was working with the Troup and remembered me.

My high school was newly built to ensure that white kids didn’t have to go to a black school. One black kid lived on the “wrong” side of the line and ended up at my school but was told she would have to leave. We students gave her a lot of support, even electing her as student body president. As a result she didn’t get thrown out after all.

In 1965 I finished high school and started college at California Western University, a Methodist college at Point Loma near San Diego. (The college no longer exists.) The Methodist Church had a history of not allowing dancing. I joined a college church dance group. We were rebellious and wanted cultural change, in line with the rest of the movements of the ‘60s. We preformed modern interpretive dance to sacred music that included comments about the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, the United Farm Workers strikes, and the inhumanity of poverty. We toured the state and surprised the Methodists because we preformed right by the altar in the church.

Another influence was my mom, who was supportive of women’s equality. She was sympathetic to feminists (which enraged my dad). My mother had been accepted as a student at Berkeley, but because of the Depression hadn’t been able to attend. She praised my great aunt, who was a math professor there—highly unusual for a woman at the time.Vietnam.Napalm.KimPhuc

At college I became particularly aware of the contradictions in our society when I found myself staying up until 4 a.m. writing and mimeographing leaflets about the Napalm being used by the US Army to burn children in Vietnam. After gazing the night before at the well-known picture of the girl running away from the napalm, I would stagger into my 7 a.m. philosophy class the next morning, where the teacher would knock on the blackboard and ask “Is this real?”

Follow the Drinking GourdWith a group of Methodist students at college I continued my activism. Then I quit school and hung out with Methodist students at San Diego State College. We began working with Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Having come from a working class family, I was becoming aware of the power of the workers when they united and withheld their labor. I saw the influence workers could wield on government policies on war, poverty, and racism. I loved music and sang protest songs. I remember “Follow the Drinking Gourd” about the Underground Railroad.

Some of us SDS folks formed a nationwide sub-group called Workers for a Democratic Society. There had been some animosity between activist students and workers who didn’t understand that the war was not in their interest. Our outlook broadened from organizing just students to organizing the rest of the working class as well. I got a factory job at Ratner’s in San Diego making men’s suits. Our goal was to meet workers and talk to them about their issues and about the war.

garment workersMy job at Ratner’s was to match a bag of suits and a bag of sleeves so they could be sewn together. It was piece work. Each suit got a ticket which showed how many suits you’d sewn and assembled that day. If the number wasn’t high enough, you’d be reprimanded and made to take long breaks off the clock and then work overtime when supplies came in. For 35 hours they had to pay us minimum wage. There were fibers in the air. One woman got her finger caught in a sewing machine. Once someone opened one of the sewing machines and found a thumb inside.

There were three women in my work area. One spoke only Spanish and the other mainly French. We were all the same age. The Mexican woman lived in Tijuana. I was learning some Spanish from her. We had just turned 21 so we went out to bars, shared our lives, and talked about the war.UAW

When I came to Los Angeles to get more politically involved, my first job was at Harvey Aluminum. It was a large shop, organized by the UAW. They processed aluminum heads for bombs directed for deployment by the U.S. Army in Vietnam. I remember that once our multiracial group of women workers refused to process these war products. I was so impressed with them, it confirmed to me that workers felt as we did.

In 1969 I joined the Progressive Labor Party (PLP), a group that had broken off from the Communist Party USA.

Progressive Labor PartyThe PLP read Chinese Communist as well as Soviet literature. It organized factory workers within SDS for Workers for a Democratic Society, and I became dedicated to that work. When I was laid off by Harvey Aluminum, I found a non-union job in electronics and learned to solder computer boards for airplane radios in South Los Angeles. I took some classes at the local high school in reading diodes, and I met a man there, whom I later married. Some of the other students moved on to a nursing attendant class, so I went too, again getting to know more working people. This is where I discovered that I loved working in the intensive care unit.

We tried to concentrate our organizing in an IBM electronics factory in El Segundo. My job was to wind and solder copper wires onto computer chips. We made friends, helped each other learn about racism, unions, and the anti-war movement. However, the rules made it difficult to do this because no talking was allowed, we worked long hours, and our breaks were strictly supervised. The three of us in the PLP weren’t careful enough and were fired before we finished our six months’ probation, at which time we would have been protected from frivolous discharges. All the charges were different: mine was for “talking too much.”

We were assigned by PLP to work in Long Beach, California. There we sold our newspaper Challenge to navy sailors.

PLP Challenge newspaper

We met and made friends with them, talking about the war, their draft experiences, racism on board the ships, and the need for a communist society. Recently I heard that our work was mentioned in a book by a sailor who wrote about his decision to become active against the war.

About that time my husband and I had a baby, and when she was three weeks old and I was out of town at my brother’s wedding, he unexpectedly packed up and left. He hadn’t agreed with some of my politics so maybe he was overwhelmed by my activities. Or perhaps I was too insistent on his helping with the housework. At any rate, he disappeared completely, and to this day I’ve heard no word from him.

I collected Aid to Families with Dependent Children (welfare) to support my child and me. Along with other mothers I organized sit-ins at the welfare office when recipients weren’t getting their checks on time or were denied welfare, food stamps or Medi-Cal. We were fighting for our checks and our rights as well as the needs of other welfare recipients. When one person didn’t get her check, then we’d have a sit-in at the welfare office with our babies and diapers until she got her check. We took women with us to demonstrations and meetings, we made friends, and we canvassed the poor housing complexes in order to grow the group. We discussed PLP’s place in the struggle, and communism as an answer to unemployment. We became well known, with many new faces later becoming active in welfare struggles, although they didn’t join the PLP.

A group of us fought to get admitted into the Work Incentive Program (WIN), which would pay for our education. Many of the women were on welfare. When I told them about WIN, they started to cry; they had never thought they would actually be able to go to school. During a day-long sit-in on the floor of the unemployment bureau with our babies, a man told us we had to do “whatever possible” to get enough money to support ourselves. When we asked him if he meant walking the streets, he said, Yes, if necessary. The problem was that only men were considered for education classes to support their families; women weren’t admitted. but we were a multi-racial group and succeeded through our militancy in getting into nursing school and other WIN programs.

I loved nursing and became an LVN. I remember one incident when I was assigned to the communicable disease admitting area. By 11 p.m. we usually closed up the place. A doctor from an upscale hospital was working at White Memorial Hospital to learn about communicable disease. About 3 p.m. a man in jeans and an English sports jacket came in. He’d been bitten by an animal and wanted to know if he had rabies. I was only an LVN so couldn’t give IVs. I asked him what bit him. I didn’t speak Spanish but it sounded like he said a possum. The doctor went to the library to find out if possums ate meat. She came back fuming—it wasn’t in the books. After talking to her, I found out that she was looking up “possum” instead of opossum. By now it was 6 p.m. They do eat meat but we didn’t know what had happened to the animal. The man’s brother had banged it against a tree and thrown it over a fence. His mother wouldn’t put in in the refrigerator.

possom

The doctor called the public health department. A man at a holiday dinner was beeped. He told us to call the pound. It was now 10 p.m. “Well, Ma’am, who is this?…No, our fridge is not for possums, just for cats and dogs.”

The doctor finally convinced him to take our possum. We asked if he could pick it up. NO, we needed to pick it up and bring it in. The doctor called another pound and got the same answer. By this time I was trying hard to suppress my laughter.

At L.A. County General Hospital I joined with other PLP workers. My special problem, though, was that I would try to read the PLP newspaper cover to cover and feel unable to finish articles or read other literature. I would quickly forget what I had read. It turned out that I was allergic to the chemicals in newsprint. The allergy caused a sort of amnesia in me. Because I couldn’t study a lot of the theory of the party, I couldn’t discuss deeper theoretical problems in order to develop party proposals. But I did have influence on issues like welfare, medicine’s role in a profit system, and workers’ problems. We sold the communist newspaper weekly on our outings, and I was often the top seller.

I married a leader of the group. We raised three beautiful children. I later became an RN and organized workers until retirement. I sometimes think back to a talk with my mom when I planned to distribute leaflets about voting in the African-American streets of San Diego; she was so worried. I reminded her that I would soon be 18, and that I would be doing this the rest of my life. I was right.

 

Another Bozo on the Bus, by R.F. Part 4 of 4

30 Jan

R.F. lives in L.A. with a deaf, but talkative, elderly female cat. He is retired, meditates daily, practices tai chi and yoga, and loves his friends (including Kitty Kroger).

Part 4 of 4

Back Home Briefly

A day or so after a beautifully sensuous reunion with my girlfriend, I got into my car and drove back to Fort Ord because I knew I still had to process out. When asked where I’d been I said, “At the beach I got so tired and disoriented, I just wandered off, and–I don’t know–pretty soon I wound up in the back of a pickup truck.” Then I embellished the story, “These guys found me there, took me to a house. A woman gave me some soup. They were so nice and friendly, I stayed there a couple of days. Eventually I told them where I was from. They said, ‘You really need to go back to Fort Ord because they can help you.’ So they brought me back here.” As it turned out the Army never found out that I went to L.A. or that I had my car parked on the base.

Smooth Moves, Not!

Sometime after I’d returned, we had another outing, this time to a bowling alley. We were eating burgers and fries. Across the table from me was a nurse from the psych ward whom I found attractive. (Had I forgotten about my girlfriend at home?) I thought I’d impress this woman by disclosing the truth about my phony CIA story. I was so naïve. She went right to the senior staff! In hindsight I realize that by that time I had grown weary of my charade and what I desperately wanted was to make a normal human connection. Risking all that I was attempting to accomplish, however, with a lame attempt to score some points with a female who had shown me nothing but indifference seems totally irresponsible and bit crazy to this day!

My Fate

I later found out that when my fate was being determined, the staff were of two minds. One faction wanted to throw me back into the court-martial process. The other apparently saw something in my personality that would legitimately make me eligible for a medical discharge. The latter faction won out and I was discharged.  It seems that I came within a gnat’s eyelash of landing in the brig and receiving an undesirable discharge which would have followed me throughout my life and wouldn’t have been convertible to the general discharge which I did receive.

Years later I found out that a general discharge could be converted to an honorable discharge by filing for the process. (Later still, I applied for and received my entire military file from the Army, through the Freedom of Information Act, though much of it had been redacted. I felt I needed to get that file in order to reclaim a bit of my life and see what, if anything, the government had on me). That I did end up getting an honorable discharge is ironic because what I went through is so contrary to what some Americans think “honorable” service people should do. Nevertheless, I’m grateful that I was able to take advantage of that form of amnesty. It probably made it easier to get some of the jobs I applied for, and, with my history of emotional instability, I needed every break I could get.

Finally Free!

Three of us who were to be released the same day were headed in the same general direction. A mumbling, apparently psychotic guy, whom a staff member told me heard voices, indicated that he wanted to return to the Santa Barbara area. The other needed to go south too, and since I had my car on base, I offered to take them with me. On the way back, I asked the guy with the voices, “Where do the voices come from?” In a monotone he said, “They come from an illusion-making machine in outer space.” We were on our way home–free from the Army–he didn’t have to make up a story for me. He really was psychotic. I don’t know where I let him off—at his sister’s or something–I was just focused on getting home. I dropped the other guy off near L.A.

Back in town, I ended up at my mom’s house again. Soon after, my long-term girlfriend and I moved in together. She had found a house in Woodland Hills where the owner was willing to sublet the two downstairs bedrooms and a bath. The woman needed help to pay her mortgage after a recent divorce. She (along with the occasional boyfriend) and her two young children slept in the upstairs bedrooms.

My girlfriend’s mother was livid because we were unmarried and living together. The woman was from the old country (Which one…? No, not that one), and she threatened  never to speak to her daughter again unless we got married. Within a couple of months we began to plan our wedding. After a mutual friend started to take over all of the planning without being asked to–even choosing what dress my bride-to-be would wear–we decided to elope to Monterey, CA, and be married by the Justice of the Peace. We agreed that a honeymoon in nearby Carmel would be divine. The wedding ring hadn’t been picked out yet, but we didn’t tell the staff that. We just had no ring. And the coat my bride was wearing (because she was cold) made her look about five months pregnant. (A shotgun wedding?) I  saw that those officiating noticed this too. It’s another irony (in a story rife with them) because she wasn’t pregnant. In fact, we never had children during our ten year marriage because she wanted to stay focused on her teaching job.

United Parcel Service and the Teamsters

Although I didn’t follow the path my father had prescribed for me I never did have to become “a soda jerk.” In 1967, the same friend who would later almost kill me with that Nembutal overdose, insisted that I do whatever I could to get a job where he worked: at United Parcel Service loading semi-trucks with packages. At that time it was a part-time student job, and since I was a student, I qualified. I managed to get hired as Christmas help and worked at the maximum of my physical ability so that they might ask me back. They did! Later I studied hard for and passed the sorter’s test. Sorters were paid more than loaders. I wound up working for UPS (they including my time with the Army in my total time with them) for over nine years. I was given a plaque for nine years of accident free service to the company when I left at the end of 1977.

This part-time job came with a full wage and benefits package, including a health plan and a retirement fund, under the Teamsters Union contract. I owe a great debt to the union movement which had been organized mostly by Jewish-Americans whose parents and grandparents had been decimated in the ghettos and shtetels of Eastern Europe by pogroms. These labor organizers were determined to create a new world here in the States where working people could make decent wages and provide themselves and their families with a better life. It worked. Their efforts helped to build the American middle class. In the 70s, my wife and I, both working part-time jobs, were able to facilitate a comfortable middle class life together, which included buying new cars and a home in La Crescenta. Nevertheless, I was still unhappy.

We moved to Seattle, WA, in 1978, and I divorced her two years later. Once again I had concluded that she would be better off if we split up. This time I believed that I would be too.

Conclusion

Near the end of his life my father told me that I was “accomplished.” That may have meant something to him, but I think that the stuff I’ve been through, much of it described above, tells a different story. Now I look back on what I’ve done as something that amounts to, to borrow the title of a Joni Mitchell album, a chalk mark in a rainstorm–nothing more. As a dedicated Zen Buddhist meditator I have no thought that it should have been otherwise. I’m just grateful for being here.

Om tara tutare ture soha

End of Part 4 of 4

White Owl Cigars and Racial Tension: Hauler on a Tobacco Farm, by Marty Bernstein

2 Oct

Marty today
Marty Bernstein worked in the New York state court system as a civil servant. He was like a round peg in a square hole—a left-wing court officer and clerk. Two years after retiring in 2007, he worked part time at a non-profit for the developmentally disabled. In 2013 he completely retired and now spends vacations in a coope
rative community in upstate New York called Spring Glen Meadows, the home of burned-out sixties radicals. He has two adult children and has been married to the same woman for 38 wonderful years. Her name is Patricia Ruggiero Bernstein. He says it has been a great Jewish-Italian combination.

In the summer of 1965 when I was fourteen and in junior high school, my family moved to Springfield, MassacWhite Owl Cigars with Owlhusetts from Long Island, New York. In the summer I got a job on a tobacco farm in the Connecticut Valley. It was called a shade tobacco industry. They made tobacco for the outside of White Owl cigars. The farm was owned by the Hathaway-Stene Tobacco Company.

Young boys and girls woulMarty Circa 1965d be hired to work there every summer. There was a hierarchy by height that determined what work one would do. Shorter boys were pickers because it was a handicap to be tall when picking. (Harder to stoop.) The foreman was my gym teacher, Mr. Gallucci, whom I liked. He would take us on a school bus out to the field.tobacco shed.little girls

I wasn’t a picker but a hauler. I would pull a metal framed canvas bin, about the size of a drawer in a chest of drawers with a loop in one end, down the rows to pick up the leaves. I would take them to a large shed, where all the girls worked “sewing” the leaves and hanging them to dry and age.

I had come from a lily-white, middle-class suburb on Long Island. When I got to the fields, there were both black and white boys, many of them working class. I had never been around black kids before. There was a lot of hostility and racism towards them. Although I never heard the white boys use the n-word, they called the black kids “Cottonbolls.” One time it came to blows between the two groups, and I assisted in stopping the fight. I hung out more frequently with the black kids than with the white ones.

White Owl Cigars ad with father reading to 2 kids                                                  White Owl Cigars ad with father and kid in car

All the kids came from Springfield. They went to fairly segregated schools but ironically they all played ball together at the ball park, where they seemed to get along fine. At that time the schools were de facto segregated but not by law. The junior high schools were neighborhood schools. When I attended junior high school there were no Jews in the area. The principal told me that I wasn’t allowed to be in the academic program, although I loved school and had always gotten good grades. My dad thought that the principal was an anti-Semite.White Owl Cigars ad with Jesse Owens

The four senior high schools were not neighborhood schools. They were arranged by type and were segregated by placing kids in the school deemed appropriate. The top school that was overwhelmingly white was called Classical High School. Its focus was the liberal arts. Timothy Leary had graduated from there.

The next one was the Technical High School. It had a mixture of white and Black and Puerto Rican. The third was Commerce High School, which was mainly black and Puerto Rican. The Trade High School was overwhelmingly Black and Latino. The next year I went into the Classical High School, where all the classes were academic anyway. In high school I attended weekly silent vigils against the war in Vietnam. I believe it was organized by a church group like the Quakers or Unitariatobacco drying in shedns. Also the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

At the tobacco field we earned $1.10 per hour, less than minimum wage. I remember I made $44 a week. There were poor sanitary conditions in the fields. Wooden barrels on little trailers would come around bringing us drinking water. (Apparently the barrels had formerly held wine. We could smell the residue.) We had to relieve ourselves in the fieldfield workers in tobacco farms. There were two groups: day and migrant. The migrant workers—Puerto Ricans—were kept separate from us.

 

I was glad to have this job. First of all, it gave me some spending money. Also, it was my first significant experience with racism. And I got the chance to understand manual labor and appreciate the manual laborers.

Three Options, Only Two Viable, by Marshall Hyman

22 Jan

Marshall HymanMarshall Hyman is a retired teacher, living in Southern California, where he was born and raised 69 years ago. His family moved to Los Angeles in 1942 from Brooklyn, NY. He attended local public schools and graduated from U.C.L.A. He’s married and lives in South Pasadena.

In 1965 I was a recent college graduate. Everything I did at this time was influenced by the draft. I knew  wouldn’t go to Vietnam. I had three options, as I saw it. Only two were viable.

  • Get drafted.
  • Enter the Peace Corps.
  • Leave the country for Canada.

Although I wasn’t politically aware, I did know I opposed this war and that the war had nothing to do with my security or anyone else’s.

My mom was a liberal and my dad was completely apolitical. My dad had trouble holding a job. Among other positions, he worked as a movie theater manager, on an assembly line making TVs, for a printing company, in department stores and liquor stores.  In 1956 in junior high school my social studies teacher gave us a poll. If we could vote, would we vote for Stevenson or Eisenhower?  The vote was 34 to 3 for Stevenson. Most of the kids were Jewish West L.A. kids. I was one of the three that voted for Eisenhower. I was just following what my dad did.

Although I was also Jewish, religion never took hold with me, but I attended a religious school because I was a  compliant kid—and besides, it was fun socially. I was pissed that I couldn’t play Little League Baseball, though, because I had to attend school on Saturdays.

My best high school teacher was an obvious leftie, and in college I admired the leftist professors. They are the teachers that most influenced me.

In college at UCLA I was aware of the Freedom Marches of 1964-’65.  One of my professors discussed them in class. I don’t think it ever occurred to me to go down South myself, but I did sympathize with the cause.

In the summer of 1965 I traveled in Europe. This was the start of the major escalation in Vietnam by President Johnson. my student deferment was about to end. While in Europe I read an article in the International Herald Tribune that the U.S. had ordered thousands of helmets from a helmet factory. By now we had over 500,000 men in Vietnam. The Westwood draft board couldn’t reach its quota—too many rich kids, and their lawyers working to keep them out of the army.

All my friends talked incessantly about the draft. My two closest friends were 4F. I was 1A. I applied to the Peace Corps and was accepted. I was issued a deferment (not an exemption). For three months I was given Spanish language training at the University of Arizona in Tucson.  I loved it. It was very intense. We had classes for four to six hours a day and I did well.

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Then I was sent to Venezuela. I spent two years there. I had assumed that I’d be assigned to some squalid jungle, but in Caracas I was near what I considered a “South Miami Beach.” I worked in a little park in a barrio surrounded by a rich neighborhood. The park offered recreation for the poor kids. (Most of the poor families lived in the hills, where poor people tended to live in South America.) I told the Peace Corps that I wasn’t really needed down in that rich neighborhood, so  I was transferred to a hillside barrio. There I worked with liberal theologians and priests, mostly Belgian and Dutch,  and got introduced to early liberation theologists who loved Elvis.  I was given the assignment of teaching P.E. and English. Next I was transferred to an urban area to work with an Internado—institution that housed orphans or wards of the state. Again, I was teaching P.E. and English. It was run by a Croatian priest—a disagreeable man whom we called “the beast.” I didn’t find out that he was a pedophile until later.

Venezuela requested from the State Department volunteers for agriculture, technology, and recreation. I ended up working at a YMCA.

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I received room and board with a family when I first got to Venezuela, then I got school food or ate at restaurants. For a while I had a room with no facilities. I quickly learned Spanish. There was a guerilla movement, mainly in Colombia, which is adjacent to Venezuela, so we had to be careful in certain areas. I only heard about it, never saw any danger.

In 1958 the dictatorship had been overthrown. People were proud of their free elections. They had their first president, a liberal democrat. However, oligarchs still ran the country even though it was a functioning democracy.

There was a major student strike in Caracas that brought the city to a standstill. The military shut down the campus during the strike. I believe they were protesting student repression. Also, the government did almost nothing for poor people; it  mostly built roads and fought rebels. Venezuela, like other poor countries, was a single commodity nation. However, in Venezuela, that commodity was oil—so Venezuela was probably the wealthiest country in South America. It had large middle and wealthy classes.

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When I returned home in July of 1968, Los Angeles had changed drastically. In Venezuela I’d been learning about the student movement, urban rebellion, and the counter-cultural scene from some of the new people coming and going from the Peace Corps. Now I felt connected to the counter-culture, and I became an urban hippy: sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.

I had to report to the induction center in downtown L.A.  But the week before my induction, I was offered a job with the Los Angeles United School District, which was looking for more Spanish-speaking teachers in response to the Blowouts in East Los Angeles schools. I was hired and awarded a life-time teaching certificate, even though I’d never taken a single education class. During the interview, I was asked, “What kind of certificate do you want? Secondary or elementary?“ I chose elementary and ended up teaching fourth grade. I was a beneficiary of a U.S. government policy called “channeling,” in which certain people were granted deferments due to the need for professionals in certain areas—not just in education but also in medicine, community development, and science.

In the spring of 1970 there was the big teachers’ strike to create a union. I knew nothing about teacher politics at the time. After the strike created the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), I became more politically engaged. By the mid-1970s I was chapter chair (shop steward) and on the House of Representatives of UTLA. I also started listening to KPFK (listener-sponsored radio) and going to anti-war rallies. In 1972 I registered for the Peace and Freedom Party and went to Venice [in Los Angeles] meetings. I lived in West Los Angeles at the time. But basically I remained a counter-cultural guy, anti-materialist. A hippy.

At work they were instituting the “open classroom” and other experiments. The first year they implemented the New Math and New Language, we used a textbook written by Noam Chomsky. It was all transitional grammar, intuitive—a completely different way to look at language. I loved it. I think it lasted a year or two before teacher and parent resistance got rid of it. Just like “new math,” it didn’t matter that the program was a more effective way of teaching, it was unable to overcome the “this is how I learned this” attitude of parents and the “this is how I’ve always taught it” attitude of teachers.

As I look back on those years, I realize how formative they were.  Something was going to happen to me during those charged times and I feel fortunate in reflecting that most of what I experienced was positive.  As the founders of the Peace Corps understood, I was able to bring back to my own community many of the altruistic principles that I learned about and experienced during my training and overseas service.  It feels like the road I ended up on in my life began in 1966.  Almost 50 years later, though the world has changed greatly, most of what I believe and how I try to act remains the same.  Though the big societal changes I wanted to see happen didn’t occur, I feel I was able to help many individual students during my teaching career and one never knows when a seed is planted, just how it’s going to grow.   Keep hope alive.

“Las Vegas Will Never Go Dark,” by Betty Madden

27 Aug

Betty P Madden

For 35 years Betty Madden has worked as a costume designer in the Motion Picture Industry and has been a member of the Costume Designers Guild. She is now an organizer for the Guild and has lived in Pasadena since 1979. 

I grew up on a Wisconsin dairy farm near Chippewa Falls. My father had married my mother one month before he shipped out to fight in World War II; my mother was pregnant. She saw me as a burden because she had been left alone to raise me for two years. When my father returned 22 months later, I was there, an almost two-year-old, with no connection to him. We never did bond. He was a changed man; the war experience had devastated him. “Madness,” he called it.

My mother used to beat me with a stick until one day I took it away from her. She never touched me out of caring, never encouraged me. I thought of her as a sibling; I had to carry my own weight—and even be the caregiver for my siblings, whom I loved. My brother, on the other hand, was treated with respect and caring. He was never expected to do any household chores.

I was convinced that I was unlovable; if I kept trying, though, I might win their acceptance.

At eight, I negotiated my first contract—with my mom. I’d earn ½ cents each time I washed the dished. But after the first month, she paid me only ½ of what I had earned. She claimed that I hadn’t washed that many dishes. That was my first lesson in negotiations. From then on I marked on a paper each time I washed dishes and made her acknowledge the marks.

So when my brother was of age to be drafted, my father opposed it with every fiber of his being. He had already investigated Canada as an option for his son, but then he suffered a massive heart attack, which left my brother in charge of the family, which now included a four-year-old sister.

I was a throw-away kid, the oldest but a non-entity in my family. The day I graduated from high school, my mom told me, You think you’re going to college? How do you think we could ever pay for that? You’re going to work. It turns out she had already found me a job as a nurse’s aide in Rochester, Minnesota at Saint Mary’s Hospital, an affiliate of the Mayo Clinic.

I left home and started the new job. I got no support whatsoever: emotional, financial, material. I remember constant fear of homelessness. It was a full-time job to keep a roof over my head. There were no credit cards in the mid-60s.

It occurred to me that I had been replaced by  my sister, that I’d been sent away and that she was the “real daughter.” In spite of everything I would make visits home from time to time to see my relatives and friends and siblings. But there was a ten-year period where I didn’t visit because after each visit it would take me six months to get back to a sense of myself.

In 1967 I got pregnant. Birth control was only allowed for married women and abortions were illegal. A single woman with a child was considered “mentally ill” while the male was considered to have no responsibility. My friends drifted away; I was alone and isolated. The last six months of pregnancy, I felt completely abandoned.

I gave birth but knew I couldn’t be the mother I would want for my baby. There were well-educated couples out there so I gave him up. It almost killed me. That was the point at which I bottomed out. After signing the release papers, I told myself, You have to stop being a victim. You have to be who you want to be. From that moment on, I became an activist, attending anti-war protests on the state capitol steps in Madison.

I got a job in a restaurant as a waitress, quickly moving up to manager. My experience as a child had come in handy here. My father had owned a “country tavern” in the 40s, 50s, and 60s; in those days a country tavern served as a community center. Family events were held there. Produce and other food was sold. Because of my experience working there as a child, I’d learned to handle people early on, to read them and respond to them. This helped me later to have a good quality of life.

My activism always consisted of trying to shift people’s mindsets towards more inclusion. I’d have lots of conversations with my co-workers. I called myself a soap-box politician. When someone was negative about the “system,” I’d tell them, “You’re the system.”

In 1969 I moved to Las Vegas to take a job as a hostess at a gourmet restaurant complex at the International Hilton There the culinary contract was up. The hotels weren’t negotiating in good faith. A strike was threatened. Las Vegas will never go dark, said the hotel owners. But we held a strike action for 24 hours. The city did go dark! We ended up with a good contract. Never since has Las Vegas gone dark. After this experience I felt empowered, as an individual and even more as part of a larger organization. I saw the power of the people when they have a common purpose. As the saying goes, When you swim alone, it’s all upstream, but when you’re with a school of fish, you get somewhere.

Betty Madden.Hilton.LasVegas

I began doing private couture work with Las Vegas executives’ wives. It started when I designed some waitress uniforms. Someone probably saw my work and spread the word. As a little girl I had designed costumes for my dolls and me, and people from the community tell me that even when I was three, I was busy designing clothes, using resources such as ribbons, paper, scraps of other things from the family gatherings and parties at the tavern. I was raised by a loving community and was in the public eye at an early age. I’d also cut out dresses from catalogs and paste them on paper, then design around them. When I was eight, I began sewing.

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Upon leaving Las Vegas I became a costume designer in the motion picture industry and a member of the Costume Designer’s Guild. I’ve done that for 35 years now, currently working as a Guild organizer.