Troublemakers on the West Coast, Too

Jim Miller and Kelly Mayhew were two of many speakers at the San Diego Troublemakers School. One theme was the need to support not just unionism in these difficult times, but a unionism that asks difficult questions.

Far from the snowy battles of Wisconsin and Ohio, organizers had hoped for 100 people to attend the Labor Notes Troublemakers School in San Diego.

But 284 packed the lecture halls and classrooms of San Diego City College Friday for the one-day event. The common theme was the need to support not just unionism in these difficult times, but a unionism that asks difficult questions.

Jim Miller, a San Diego community college professor and Teachers union (AFT) activist, got the crowd going, declaring the union movement needed to return to its roots, its social movement core.

Miller was part of the March for California’s Future last year, from Los Angeles to Sacramento, to show what caused the state budget crisis, draw attention to what severe budget cuts do to Californians, and move toward progressive tax policies to fund public education and public services. His local made news this year when it offered to host the Wisconsin 14 senators who have left the state to avoid a vote on union-busting.

Kelly Mayhew, vice president of the San Diego chapter of the AFT, led a panel on women in the labor movement that frankly discussed sexism and racism in unions, but also showed how women were widening the focus of unions to include what happens at home and in the community.

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It was the practical side of the conference that was most impressive—none more so than a panel of student activists. These were women and men, Latino and Anglo students, who spoke of a union movement that inspired them and transformed their lives.

Staffers from the Food and Commercial Workers presented the union’s campaign to bring accountability to Wal-Mart, after city councilors repealed a local ordinance designed to protect small and neighborhood businesses from new big-box developments. Other activists shared experiences of cross-border solidarity with maquila workers in Tijuana and the border area.

A rank-and-file speak-out at the close of the day saw activists from Service Employees Local 221, CWA Local 54, Pride at Work, and Teamsters for a Democratic Union stand up to share stories of aggressive representation, militancy, and member leadership in their unions.

Solidarity was the watchword at the Troublemakers School as Wisconsin was brought up again and again. There were two well-attended solidarity rallies in the week before the school and a student action against cuts two days before. For 40 years a class struggle has been fought in the U.S.—by bankers and billionaires, who sought to destroy labor and enrich themselves. But the young people, the labor movement veterans, and the thousands in the streets of Madison are rediscovering the strength of unity. Here in San Diego we’re coming back to the old lesson that an injury to one is an injury to all.

Troublemakers Schools are rolling across the country this year. Madison will host one April 1-2, and Chicago will follow on May 21. More schools are planned in the Bay Area in June, and in New York and Philadelphia.