Those who have walked them know that picket lines can be places of enormous inspiration as well as wrenching despair, of solidarity yet also isolation, of immense courage, but sometimes debilitating fear. It is why, after having once been on strike, there are no casual strolls out the shop door for a second tour of picket duty.
Yet last week, those on New York’s most enduring and difficult picket line—Domino Sugar workers in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, who have experienced all of the above in their almost 18-month-old strike—voted for the second time in five weeks to keep walking.
On Sunday, November 19, they gathered again at Our Lady of Mount Carmel church on North 8th Street, where they had met in mid October to debate the pros and cons of a prior proposal. At that earlier gathering, a narrow majority—54 to 46—of the 100 remaining strikers voted to reject a company offer that differed only slightly from the original proposal that had sent them angrily into the street in June 1999. Those who voted to accept did so more as an admission of defeat than as an endorsement of the offer. “We’ve got to get on with our lives,” they said then.
In its new proposal, Domino offered to assure seniority rights to 12 mechanics; the rest of the workforce would remain “at-will” employees, subject to termination or redeployment at a moment’s notice.
“The company tried to pull a fast one,” said Joe Crimi, business agent for Local 1814 of the International Longshoreman’s Association (ILA). “They were only looking to get that eight-vote change. The members were insulted.”
This time the vote was unanimous to continue the strike. But as soon as the workers had dispatched that issue, they turned to the matter of the failure of their international union and AFL-CIO president John Sweeney to assist them. For reasons that remain unclear, the Domino strike has been largely orphaned by labor’s powers-that-be. A request by the local that Domino sugar get official AFL-CIO boycott status has not been acted upon, nor has one to create a national fund to aid the strikers, whose funds are exhausted. Press inquiries to Sweeney’s office and the ILA have gone unanswered. In Sweeney’s case, the default is doubly strange. It appears to violate his avowed goal of revitalizing union organizing and ignores an employer that is already well known as a labor foe: Domino’s parent is the British firm Tate and Lyle, which launched a bitter, protracted war against workers in its Staley division in Decatur, Illinois, in 1993.
Also missing in combat has been John Bowers, president of the longshoremen’s union. Bowers, who inherited his position from his father and uncle, who ran the corrupt and much feared “Pistol local” on Manhattan’s West Side, has never visited the picket line or attended strike meetings. Last April, he approved a single appropriation of $50,000 in aid and then vanished from the field.
Meanwhile, others have stepped to the fore to raise funds, including the Direct Action Network, the antiglobalization group. The strikers are promoting a boycott of Domino during the holiday season. Shoppers should look for the (union-made) Jack Frost or Holly label, say the intrepid picketers.
Elsewhere, Small Victories
For many unionists, the single, defining reason for voting for Al Gore for president, rather than Ralph Nader, was the belief that a Bush administration could be expected to quick-freeze the nation’s labor regulations back to the Reagan ice age, when few complaints were acted upon. It took several Clinton years for the National Labor Relations Board to thaw out, but labor leaders report that it is once again serving its designated function by upholding the laws.
Locally, that change has helped spawn two victories. Barely a mile from the Domino picket line, a handful of strikers, who had grimly trudged on for a year outside a small Brooklyn lumberyard, this month signed a contract, thanks in part to NLRB action. The board had found unfair labor practices by the employer, Rode & Horn, and was preparing to take the matter to trial when the employers suddenly reversed course and began to bargain again. “We just didn’t let go,” said Timothy Lynch, head of Teamsters Local 1205, which represents the workers.
Board action has also finally cleared the way for the Apollo Theater’s longtime music quartet, Ray Chew and Crew, to be represented by the American Federation of Musicians, Local 802. Chew and Crew played without benefits or wage increases for eight years at the Apollo, where managers insisted they were independent contractors, not employees. The board decided otherwise. Local 802 president William Moriarty expects to negotiate a contract for the musicians soon.
A Political Party Makes Its Mark
For years, the suspicion has lingered that the Liberal Party and its venerable leader, Ray Harding, maintained their power through political patronage, and their prominence by a complex system of blue smoke and distorting mirrors that, if revealed, would make Oz’s wizard envious.
The smoke has now begun to clear.
Unofficial tallies of the November 7 election show that Senator-elect Hillary Clinton won nearly twice as many votes in New York City on the ballot line of the upstart Working Families Party as on the Liberal line. Here, Clinton scored 51,000 votes with Working Families; just 28,000 with the Liberals. Even more astonishing, preliminary tallies show WF outpolled the Liberals statewide as well. Hillary got about 105,000 votes on the Working Families line; 75,000 on the Liberal line.
In business for less than three years, the Working Families Party, an effort launched by community organizers and progressive labor unions, has now leapfrogged over the Liberal, Right to Life, and Independent/Reform parties in numbers of votes. Yet, other than in City Limits Weekly, the party’s achievement remains unheralded by the press. Instead, the media remains enthralled by Liberal boss Harding as he blows smoke and tilts his mirrors.
Ralph Fasanella: Painter and Picketer
The late union organizer and painter Ralph Fasanella was built like a fireplug and talked like an unreformed member of the Bowery Boys. The son of an ice vendor and a sweatshop seamstress, Fasanella grew up on Sullivan Street in Little Italy. His enlistment in the cause of labor took him to the Spanish Civil War and then to the McCarthy-era blacklist, while his midlife discovery of painting made his restless fingers sketch and paint everything from strikes to Coney Island.
Now, health workers union Local 1199, guided by its esteemed cultural director, Moe Foner, has honored Fasanella, who died in 1997 at age 83, by filling its ground-floor gallery with 16 of his paintings. Among them are murals depicting the Watergate years, the 1912 Lawrence, Massachusetts, strike, and his brothers’ Bronx service station, where Fasanella was pumping gas in 1972, when New York magazine called him the “best primitive painter since Grandma Moses.”
The exhibit is open through December at the Bread and Roses/1199 Gallery, 310 West 43rd Street, weekdays, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Fasanella, who insisted that his art was “not for some rich guy’s living room,” would be pleased.