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Olympia carpenters at the New School for Union Organizers: Getting another set of tools

[Note: The first installment of this series appeared in the November Works in Progress.]

At the end of the summer in 1988, I enrolled along with a carpenter named Gary, in the New School for Union Organizers, a program of the Labor Center at The Evergreen State College. I had been working for Jones & Roberts on a new middle school in Elma and Gary was the local’s Business Agent. There were about 20 of us set for 9 months of evening classes—members of unions, community organizations, and a few Evergreen students. All of us needed to confront new challenges to our community and our unions.

The Labor Center utilized a popular education model, where participants took a direct role and responsibility in their education. This was not education as “banking.” That model took the teacher’s lessons as information to be deposited in the student’s head like coins into a piggy bank. In that model, there is no thinking required. Just memorize, digest and regurgitate to demonstrate understanding.

In the New School, we were asked to think critically about what our instructors presented and from each other as a learning community. Our classes offered information; demanded discussion and analysis; practice and evaluation.

It was a framework Gary and I took to right away because it reflected how we worked as carpenters.

1) absorbing information: tool knowledge and translating blueprints into three-dimensional objects;

2) thinking strategically and critically: organizing a timeline, make the steps which lead to the completion of the structure; and

3)  employing group participation, analysis and evaluation: a building does not build itself, it takes teamwork: a community of carpenters, not just one individual.

Together we delved into labor history; political economy; past and present models of successful organizing. We began to develop strategic thinking; honed our research skills; experienced the potentials of diversity and group process. To paraphrase noted organizer Fred Ross, Sr.: We learned that we educate people in order to organize them. Our teachers were leaders only in the sense that they led by getting behind us and pushing. We also realized that if we did all the work for people, it meant that we’d stopped understanding what it meant to be an organizer.

Our nights were filled with talks from workers, other faculty, experienced organizers—each other. We viewed videos and other presentations on economics, politics and local and national labor history. Working in groups or cohorts we practiced engaging in productive, democratic discussion and analysis of the material that grew more compelling as the school progressed. We were given a chance right away to speak – in a “Talkin’ Union” workshop. We discovered the importance for workers to find their “voice,” to see others acting and speaking. It was good fun too—even though I froze, my first time on the soapbox.

We discovered that our local represented only 20% of the working carpenters in our area. This came as a shock!

We also did plenty of reading. Most helpful for me were: Sun Tzu’s The Art of War (strategy and tactics), History of the Labor Movement in the United States, Vols 1&2 by Philip Foner, Labor and Monopoly Capital by Harry Braverman (analysis), Labor in America, A History by Melvyn Dubofsky, Empire in Wood by Robert Christie (history of the Carpenters Union), Eric Mann’s Taking on General Motors (community strategy), Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paolo Friere (critical pedagogy: using personal knowledge to examine the dominating power in one’s life), and Labor Notes’ A Troublemaker’s Handbook (a how-to manual for organizers).

We graduated in May 1989. Along with our new-found knowledge we came away with a New School jacket to wear with pride. We took as our final assignment the slogan on the back: “educate, agitate, organize” rotating inside a gear circle with a lightning bolt in the center.

Gary and I had already begun applying our New School education to organize our local union. We found willing members to work in groups to learn, analyze and discuss why our position in our area construction economy had dwindled. Here was a subject on which we all had an opinion from personal experience, and carpenters to act on it.

We discovered that our local represented only 20% of the working carpenters in our area. This came as a shock! A few decades earlier, 70% of the working carpenters in the area were union members.

We recognized that we needed to regain this level of strength if we were going to be able to raise the standards under which we lived and worked—and not just in an economic sense.

We saw that to improve our position required organizing as many of the other 80% of competent carpenters as possible, no matter what their stripe. We also began to rekindle lost union and community connections for the strength and resources a community could bring to a fight for justice.

From our self-critique, we realized that we had seen the enemy, and it was primarily us. Our union had coasted for many years on its past success. Our union had turned away many competent hands because of race, gender and a mistaken notion of our exclusivity and privilege. Our union had turned its attention inwards.

The carpenter workforce at large had also changed in its makeup and needs, of which we knew little nor had any relationship. We realized we first had to find and listen to carpenters to understand them and their position. How were we to do that? The old-timers had a solution: go talk with carpenters on their job sites.

In 1990 the winning bid for a new state Natural Resources Building on the East Capitol Campus was awarded to a Colorado building firm—Hensel Phelps Construction. This was a first for us—to have a state building in our town built by an outfit which was not signatory to our bargaining agreement.

The truth of our position could not have been made any clearer to us at the Olympia Building Trades meeting with Hensel Phelps management the summer of 1990. We were told that “we won’t be needing your services for this project.” Oly Building Trades representatives were dumbfounded. They did not know what to do. But after the meeting, carpenter representatives declared that they were going to do something about it, and anyone else was welcome to join us. And we had the tools to make good on that promise.

Next month: A new way of thinking and acting to organize successfully: Carpenter to Carpenter; and making trouble for Hensel Phelps.

Mark Bean was born and raised in Olympia and has written the “Months of Labor” column for Works in Progress.

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