For more than half a century, Juan González has been eyewitness to countless major battles led by working people in the Americas. As a radical activist in the 1960s and 1970s with groups like the Young Lords, the Puerto Rican Revolutionary Workers Organization and the African Liberation Support Committee, he urged working-class unity in the fight against racial oppression and colonialism. As a journalist, he covered major strikes in the U.S. and Latin America — the 1981 PATCO strike, general strikes in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico in the 1990s, the 2005 New York City transit strike, the resurrection of May Day by immigrant workers in 2016 — while also exposing the plight of maquila workers in Mexico and Central America, of U.S. workers thrown out of work by factory flight or sickened on the job by toxic chemicals. Juan recently talked about his decades defending and chronicling workers in a speech at CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Good afternoon, everyone. My deepest thanks to the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Affairs, and to its dean, Greg Mantsios, and to Paula Finn, who came down with the flu, and so she couldn’t be here, the editor of New Labor Forum — which, by the way, is a wonderful publication, that, as Greg mentioned, I’ve been affiliated with since its inception — for organizing this event. Thanks, as well, to the Newmark School of Journalism and the Sidney Hillman Foundation for agreeing to co-sponsor; to Henry Garrido for that terrific introduction and who I’ve known, obviously, for many years; and to Alexandra Lescaze of the Hillman Foundation for agreeing to moderate the discussion that follows.
As many of you have heard, I’ll be leaving the New York area in just a few days, on Tuesday, abandoning the city I have called home for most of my life, where I grew up, the place where I was shaped professionally and politically, and will instead be relocating to Chicago, the hometown of my wife, who’s taken the new job as a professor of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
At my age — and I just turned 75 a few weeks ago — that’s called a major change. It’s also the age when some of us start to try and make sense of things, to ascertain in the few years left to us whether we’ve managed to achieve some greater purpose and meaning to our lives beyond just progress for ourselves and our loved ones, or whether we’ve drifted aimlessly in whatever direction the wind was blowing.
Last summer, it occurred to me that the best way to figure out, while also saying goodbye to the city where I’ve had so many terrific memories, so many friends and colleagues, was with some farewell talks that would try to sum up some of the key lessons I’ve gleaned through countless battles, through chronicling the experiences and struggles of so many people I’ve encountered and interviewed, while writing, I guess, about more than 4,000 articles and hosting close to 3,000 radio and TV shows, maybe to reveal in the process some incidents from the past that I’ve never had the opportunity to disclose, but which could provide insights to a younger generation who are still determined to practice good journalism and still devoted to making a better world possible.
As I mentioned in my first — the first of my talks, at Columbia Journalism School a few weeks ago, mine has not been your typical journalism career. I’ve been grappling for more than 50 years, initially as an activist, then for decades as a journalist and a student of history, with the burning issue of how oppressed and marginalized people can best create and disseminate a narrative that truly reflects their lives, not just accepting the simple-minded, stereotypical and often denigrating narratives of them fashioned by those with greater power and wealth, but instead offering a fuller and more accurate picture of who they are, of their passion and their pain, their achievements and failures, their hopes and their dreams.
Given that the overwhelming majority of the people on this planet work for a living every day, and that their labor produces the bounty all of us enjoy, I’ve been perpetually drawn to the struggles and concerns of working people. My insistence on this approach was not always welcomed by many of my colleagues in the commercial media, who took to labeling me an advocacy journalist decades ago, as if that was somehow a distinct and less developed form of, quote, “real” journalism, some outlier.
A significant portion of my news coverage, though certainly not the majority, centered on working people in the labor movements, both in the United States and in Latin America. My ability to produce those stories successfully was directly tied to my own activism, to the networks of people that I came to know — many of whom are in this room — people who in turn provided me sources of information and unique perspectives about the inner workings of the labor movement.
The simple fact is, labor and working people are still central to modern society. The production, transportation and distribution of goods and services remains the basis of all civilization. And no matter what nonsense you may hear from time to time about living in a postindustrial society, there are more industrial workers on our planet today than at any time in human history. It’s just that the system of global imperialism has shifted the bulk of their production to Asia, Africa and Latin America, and thus hides the bulk of them from the spotlight of the media system and the consciousness of those of us who live here in Western nations that voraciously consume their products.
Some of my earliest memories of my father, who dropped out of school in the third grade to cut sugar cane in his native Puerto Rico and joined the U.S. Army to fight in World War II, then migrated here to New York after the war, was how he would get up at 4 a.m. every morning in the 1950s to take a long subway ride on the A train, from Euclid Avenue and our apartment in the Cypress Hills projects of East New York all the way to Fordham Hill in the Bronx, then clock in to his job by 6 a.m. as a kitchen worker at the Fordham-Brighton cafeteria. My father also never missed a membership meeting of his union, Local 144. And he was appreciative throughout his life of the benefits union membership brought him.
I figured to share some highlights of what I’ve learned after — afterward through a series of photos and snapshots of some of my journalism, which I’ll accompany with some narrative. Once I got to college — and you could move the slide, the first slide — I was thrust into the Columbia student strike of 1968. There’s a picture. I became — quickly became friends with leftist students like Mark Rudd, Dave Gilbert and Lewis Cole of the Students for a Democratic Society. And that’s a picture of a young me with Mark Rudd at some rally at Columbia during the strike.
It was my time in SDS that introduced me to Marx and Engels, Lenin and Gramsci, Rosa Luxemburg, Frantz Fanon, Kwame Nkrumah and other socialists and radicals, and I began to better understand how the more powerful within our society always seek to ostracize and dismiss the views of those they see as a threat, and that as a result, each of us must find our own way to knowledge.
If you could move it to the next slide? A year later, I helped found the Young Lords Organization in East Harlem, where I had originally grown up. The Lords were a loud, brash, rebellious and talented group who sought to defend the Puerto Rican migrant community from systemic discrimination and to end our homeland’s colonial status. For a few brief years, we became a thorn in the side of the establishment and the police in this town and in cities throughout the East Coast with our many occupations of institutions and militant actions against police abuse. And in the process, we inspired a generation of young Latinos to demand more equitable treatment.
We focused not only on concrete bread-and-butter issues of more traditional community organizers — better schools, better healthcare, better city services — but we were also openly socialist and militant internationalists, refusing to fight in the Vietnam War, inspired by the Cuban Revolution, seeking solidarity with the liberation wars against Western imperialism in Africa and Latin America.
We not only created our own newspaper — if you can forward it? — Palante — there’s an article I wrote in Palante back, I guess, in 1970 — we also had our own weekly radio show on community radio station WBAI.
But even though we defended Latinos and people of color, we always stood for class solidarity. If you could advance it to the next one? That’s, of course, Dolores Huerta, the great leader of the United Farm Workers. Around 1970, Dolores came to New York City trying to spread the the grape boycott of the California farmworkers. And I — some of us in the Lords, we assigned some people to go help her out in one of the picket lines that she was running in some supermarket. Years later, maybe 20 years later, I happened to be at a conference with Dolores. And she said, “Oh, Juan, you and the Young Lords, you were so terrific. When we came to New York, you were one of the first groups that joined with us in our boycott. And I’ll never forget what some of your members did.” And I said, “Well, tell me, Dolores, because I never heard about it.” And she says that there was a group picketing outside one of the supermarkets, some supporters of the farmworkers, and some Young Lords, you know, came and got a quick read of what was happening. And they went in to the manager of the supermarket and said, “You need to remove your grapes from this store.” And when the supermarket manager told them to get out of his store, they proceeded to grab all of the grapes in the store and throw them out on the street. Right? And so, the picket line ended quickly, since the work was already done. And Dolores said, “I’ll never forget that, that the Lords thought of doing that. We never imagined we could just throw the grapes out on the street.” And so, that was some of the activism that the Lords were famous for.
Of course, one of our most iconic battles was the battle for Lincoln Hospital, for better health services. And it already showed the dramatic sense that we had of the importance of labor. I don’t know if it’s — you’re able to read our demands. This is the placard that Richie Pérez was holding up outside of Lincoln Hospital. “No cutbacks in jobs or services in the emergency room or Section K, number one. Number two, immediate funds to complete the building of and fully staffing the new Lincoln Hospital,” which we wanted a new Lincoln Hospital. “Number three, door-to-door preventative programs emphasizing nutrition, drug addiction, child and senior citizen care. Number four, we want a permanent 24-hour complaint table at every hospital. Number five, we want $140-a-week minimum wage for all workers. Number six, we want a daycare center for the children of patients and workers and visitors at Lincoln Hospital. And, number seven, we want total self-determination of all health services through community-worker boards.” Those were our demands in 1970. And so you can see that we — from the very beginning, we understood the necessity to unite the fight of oppressed communities with the labor struggle.
We then got very heavily involved in helping to assist worker organizing, with a group called the Health Revolutionary Unity Movement, or HRUM, very similar to the DRUM movements that developed in the auto plants in the Midwest — DRUM, Dodge Revolutionary Unity Movement, ELRUM. And we began to assist Black and Latino hospital workers to organize in various places.
Now, at that time, there was already organization in the hospitals, and there was a pretty famous union involved there called 1199. But, unfortunately, some of the leaders of 1199, like Doris Turner, were not exactly really responsive to their membership. So we began building rank-and-file groups against the union leadership. We were called into a meeting by Leon Davis, the founder of 1199, and Moe Foner. And they called myself and Felipe and Pablo Guzmán into a meeting. And Leon Davis says to us, “You’re good kids. But you’re dual unionists. You’re creating problems in our union. You’ve got to stop this stuff.” And we said, “Well, your union is not being responsive to all of its members.” And Davis even offered us funds for our breakfast program and for our free clothing program, if we would desist from creating internal divisions within the union. Of course, we didn’t. We didn’t accede. We continued to organize, and we eventually built something called the Workers Federation in the Lords. As more and more of our members began working in different factories, we began to organize, in essence, rank-and-file groups.
Of course, by the mid-’70s, we, the Lords, like many radical organizations, went into ultra-left periods. Some of it was the result of COINTELPRO. Others of it was a result of our own immaturity. And so we increasingly became doctrinaire. And this is an example. The Young Lords became something called the Puerto Rican Revolutionary Workers Organization. This is an example of one of their flyers, one of the flyers of the group at the time.
And we sent all of our members to work in factories throughout the East Coast and into — in the Midwest. I ended up working at the L.W. Foster factory in Philadelphia, in North Philadelphia. L.W. Foster — that’s one of the labels from one of the bomber jackets they used to produce. They also produce men’s clothing. And so, it was about 500 workers in the factory. About 400 of them were Latino, mostly Puerto Rican and Central American. And there were some African Americans. And, of course, all the cutters downstairs on the first floor were Jewish and Italian. And that was sort of the makeup of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers at the time. This was 1973.
One of my first experiences as I was trying to organize, I would go to the union meetings in downtown Philadelphia. And at the time, the Farah strike had occurred in the Southwest, and the entire amalgamated was launching a corporate campaign to boycott Farah pants. So I went down to the union hall, and one of the union leaders gives us all a bunch of buttons, “Boycott Farah pants,” and asks us to sell the buttons to build consciousness about the importance of this strike happening in Texas and in the Southwest.
So I go back to the factory, I start selling my buttons to my fellow co-workers. And pretty soon the business agent of the amalgamated comes by, a guy by the name of Eddie Davis — don’t forget his name, Eddie Davis, nice suit. And he came by, and he said, “What are you doing selling those buttons in the factory?” I said, “What do you mean? I got them from union headquarters. They asked me. They asked all of us to sell the buttons.” He says, “You can’t be doing that without checking with me.”
And next thing I know, I get called down to the office by the manager of the factory. “I’m hearing — I’m getting complaints that you’re doing unauthorized activity and conducting unauthorized sales in the factory.” I said, “Unauthorized sales? People are selling raffle tickets and numbers, and all kinds of stuff is being sold in this factory on a daily basis. What do you mean I’m doing unauthorized activity?” And so, she said, “No, well, I heard it from the union guy himself. And, you know, you got to stop that.” So I then had to challenge Eddie Davis about how I was paying union dues to be reported to the management for something that the union leadership had asked me to do. And so, Eddie Davis says to me, “Oh, I see I’m going to have trouble with you.”
The next year, however, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers went on their first national strike in 50 years. Right? And across the nation, all the garment factories went out on strike. They hadn’t had a national strike since 1922. And Eddie Davis comes to me again, because there were 400 Latinos in the plant, and most of them didn’t speak English, so he needed me to help translate and be a strike captain to get the Latino workers out. So, I agreed to do it, and there started getting involved a little bit more in the union.
And I eventually left there, and I left under circumstances of having a confrontation with a Nazi. OK, one of the foremen at the L.W. Foster Sportswear was a guy named Serge, who was Ukrainian, a war criminal. He was actually under indictment at the time. The Ukrainian government was trying to extradite him from Philadelphia to go back to stand trial for the atrocities he had committed as a Nazi during World War II. He was my boss, my direct boss. And because I was in the press room — we were the pressers and pressed all the suits after the women sewed them, and the men would then press them on the machines. And he was a nasty, nasty guy, constantly berating people, threatening to beat them up, and so on and so forth. And, of course, I wouldn’t, like, take a lot of his stuff. And so, one day he started berating me again, and I turned to him. I said, “Look, Serge” — because he had been — he was a public figure. There were articles in the Inquirer all the time about the battle to extradite him. So everybody knew he was a Nazi. And so, I turned him on, and I told him, “Look, Serge, you’re not in Nazi Germany anymore, OK? This is America. You can’t talk to me this way.” So, he said, “That’s it. You’re fired.” And so I’m called down to the office by the plant manager again, Rose, very nice lady, a Jewish lady. And Rose says to me, “Juan, you’re a nice kid. I like you. But Serge says if you stay, he’s leaving. And he’s too important to me, so you’re going to have to go.” So I lost my job. It was an important experience.
I moved on to a printing plant in Wayne, Pennsylvania, the Suburban and Wayne advertisers, where I started learning the pressman’s trade. It was a small plant, run by two ultra-right-wing publishers. These guys were so right-wing that when Ronald Reagan ran for president — they were Republicans — they didn’t back Reagan because he was too liberal. They backed Alexander Haig, who was also running in the primary that year for the Republican presidential nomination. That’s how far to the right they were. And I was the first Latino they had ever hired at that place. The week before, the first African American they had ever hired had been hired. We were both in the press room together. And there was no union, obviously. It was a small plant, about 10 people in the press room. And sooner or later, we started having troubles with the foreman, who was another nasty — I don’t know, foreman, I guess, are hired because they’re nasty. But so, another nasty guy who was constantly berating the workers and for more, more production and threatening to kick their asses.
And so, one day, he really got especially nasty. I had been out a — I had been absent that day, and I was told about how he had acted and how he had threatened that he was going to physically assault people if they didn’t produce better. So I said, “OK, that’s it. We’re all going up to talk to the owner.” So I got all the people in the press room together, and we went upstairs to the owne’rs office. This, the brothers, they’re the two right-wing supporters of Alexander Haig. And I said, “Sir, I wasn’t here yesterday, but I understand that Frank, the supervisor, was threatening to kick all of our asses. I have one question for you: Do I have to bring a knife or a gun to work to protect myself? So, let me know. I’ll do that. But if not, you got to do something about Frank.” Now, they knew that I was from North Philadelphia, and they sort of suspected I might be crazy. So, the owner immediately said, “No, no, no. Calm down, Juan. Calm down. We can handle this situation.” And they there called in the foreman, they read him the Riot Act, and he was calm ever after.
The lesson I learned from that is, you don’t really need a union. You don’t need the organizational structure of a union. You need a group of people who can stick together and stand together, and you can accomplish stuff.
And I went on from The Suburban and Wayne Times eventually to start working in journalism. And that’s when I started my career at the Philadelphia Daily News. One of the early articles I wrote was a series of articles about cancer in Philadelphia, about cancer hot spots that had developed in particular areas of the city, which I was able to ascertain from getting a database of cancer deaths by ZIP code and age and race, adjusting them and all that other stuff with some experts. And it turned out that the neighborhoods that had the highest cancer rate were those that had the highest concentration of industries — South Philadelphia, which at the time was the home to about two refineries within the city limits, an ARCO refinery and a BP refinery; and a neighborhood called Bridesburg in Northeast Philadelphia, which was the center of the chemical industry, that — major, major plants of Rohm and Haas and Allied Chemical. And there had been stories, previously, about dozens and dozens of people dying who had worked in a particular section of the plant, because of their exposure to the petrochemicals that the plant was producing.
And I eventually was able to get in contact with some of the workers who were sick. And I remember one time one of the workers told me — because I said to him, “Look, you know, the safety records of this plant are not that bad.” He says, “Well, the safety monitors only come during the day. Most of our toxic releases are at night.” He says, “I know, because I work the night shift. Right? And you wouldn’t believe the stuff that we release illegally at night.” So, I said — well, I gave him my phone number. I said, “Do me a favor. The next time there is an illegal release from the plant, will you call me, no matter what time it is?”
And so, sure enough, about two months later, 4:00 in the morning, the phone rings. I’m woken up in bed. And the guy who’s working that night says, “Juan, they just released a huge batch of phenol into the air, and the entire neighborhood is covered with this stuff — not just the plant, the entire neighborhood.” So I got into my car. I drove to Bridesburg, which was about 10 miles from my house. And as soon as I crossed I-95 — because Bridesburg is on the other side of I-95, the rest of Philadelphia is on this side. As soon as I got underneath I-95, my nostrils opened up from the power of the chemicals, and there was literally a cloud covering the entire neighborhood. Here were all these people sleeping, unaware that the plant had just illegally released a whole bunch of toxic chemicals. No wonder people in Bridesburg were dying of cancer at a much higher rate.
So I wrote those stories. Eventually, it created quite a stir. It caused, eventually, the state Legislature to create a cancer registry to be able to track abnormal clusters of cancers in different neighborhoods throughout the state. And I saw that it was possible to make changes.
Then came the PATCO strike. I had the opportunity to cover the PATCO strike. Those of you who are young really don’t understand the enormous importance that the PATCO strike had on the American labor movement. When Ronald Reagan ran for president in 1980, there were only two unions in America that backed him: the Teamsters and the Professional Air Traffic Controllers. The Teamsters backed him because they were still trying to get out of federal receivership, and they thought they had a better chance with Reagan, a Reagan administration. And PATCO, I’m not quite sure why they backed him. But he repaid them, when PATCO went out on strike, by firing 13,000 people. The entire workforce that went out on strike, Reagan fired overnight. Not only did he create enormous dislocation in our air traffic system, I wrote a series of articles about three plane crashes that occurred in the year after PATCO workers were fired, because of all the overworked or inexperienced traffic controllers that were in charge of our air system in the years after PATCO. So, there was the PATCO strike.
I covered the — this was one of my — maybe third or fourth front page at the Daily News, the blue-collar workers in the Philadelphia school systems going on strike for better wages. If you could move it on? This was an article I wrote about a runaway plant, Eaton, the Eaton plant. They were closing the plant in Philadelphia after, I don’t know, 50 years and shipping all the jobs to Mexico. It was a period where the maquila industry was growing in Mexico. This was an article I wrote about a particular factory where the workers were being so affected by the chemicals they were using that they were spitting up black soot. This was one of the few times I was ever sued by an owner. It didn’t go anywhere, the lawsuit. They sued me for defamation, but it didn’t go anywhere because I had tried to reach them, they never got back to me, and my paper supported me.
And then, at the same time that I was writing these articles, I was participating actively in seeking to change the industry. In 1980, we created at the Philadelphia Daily News a Third World Caucus of the employees, which was all the Black reporters and photographers and me, because I was the only Latino reporter in the entire city at the time. And we developed the Third World Caucus, demanding increases in minority hiring and also getting Blacks and Latinos into editor positions.
The — no, don’t start yet. Also, this was the time when racial discrimination lawsuits were beginning to spread across the industry. The Washington Post had had a lawsuit. The New York Times had had a lawsuit, Rosario v. The New York Times. So, our caucus invited Benilda Rosario, the lead plaintiff for The New York Times lawsuit, to come to Philadelphia to talk about their lawsuit. As a result, one of the Black Newspaper Guild editors, Helen Lowe, filed a racial discrimination suit herself. The company was dragging her through the courts, her and her husband through the courts. They were running out of money. And so, myself and a great, great journalist by the name of Chuck Stone, who I mentioned in my — Chuck Stone was one of the really great journalists in America. He was a Tuskegee Airman. He was a speechwriter for Adam Clayton Powell, when Adam Clayton Powell was in Congress. He was an editor of The Chicago Defender. He was the first — one of the founders and the first president of the National Association of Black Journalists. He was also a senior editor at the Daily News at the time and became my mentor. And so, between Chuck and I, we convinced the union, the Guild, to pick up the legal charges for the discrimination lawsuit that Helen Lowe had filed. And she eventually got a very, very good settlement.
And the other big thing that happened — by this time, I was actively involved in — still, in Latino community groups. And in 1981, I was elected president of the National Congress of Puerto Rican Rights. It was a volunteer organization. But my editor-in-chief hit the roof. He said, “I can’t have you, you know, working for me during the day and then participating in various social causes at night or on weekends.” And I said — “We can’t have that.” And I said, “Well, why not? You know, why not? I mean, we just had the pope visit Philadelphia. You assigned Tom Cooney, one of the best writers at the paper, to write all the major stories on the pope. Do you know that Tom Cooney is a member of the Holy Name Society of his church? He’s not only a member, he’s a leader of the Holy Name Society of his church. He is active in Catholic Church activities. You have no problem with him reporting on the pope, but you have problems with me getting elected to a position, and I don’t even cover the Latino community.” I was covering labor and environment at the time. So, he said, “Well, you either resign, or I’m going to have to let you go.”
So, Chuck Stone, luckily, advised me. He said, “Check the union contract.” So I did. And the Newspaper Guild had a provision in its contract that said that if a member of the Guild had been elected to a public office or an office of public responsibility, they could seek a leave of absence to come back and reclaim their job afterwards for up to four years. So, they weren’t thinking, like — you know, they were thinking of, like, Congress or the presidency or mayor when they wrote that provision. So this had already been fought over many years before I became a reporter, and a solution had been found. So I went in to my editor, and I said, “OK, I’m requesting, under this provision of the Guild contract, a leave of absence for a year to serve out my term, and I expect to get my job back when I come back.” And so I was able to do that and continue my work without being fired that time.
1985, we have a strike at the Philadelphia Daily News and Inquirer, both newspapers, about 4,000 people, everyone, the reporters, the pressmen, the drivers, the mailers, the electricians, everyone. It was, you know, craft unions. Craft unions are nightmares. You know, the craft union system is a nightmare. But everybody went out on strike. And this guy, Bill Barry, the guy on the left, who was the head of the Guild at the time, asked me to be the co-chair of the strike committee. I had no idea what to do as co-chair of the strike committee, but I had had experience with the Lords, so we organized a great strike. We put out our own strike newspaper. We won that strike. It was five weeks that we were out.
This is an article in The New York Times when the strike was settled. We won 6% pay raise every year of the contract for three years — six, six and six. That’s not bad. All right? Six, six and six. We won a reduction of the pension, qualifying for the pension, from 65 to 62. OK? Now, I told you, I’m 75. For the last 13 years, I’ve been receiving a monthly pension, a small one but a monthly pension, from a place that I worked for 30 years ago. Right? That is the power of unions when they’re able to win concrete benefits for their members. And now, admittedly, the pension is troubled, like all these pensions are troubled. They keep warning that they’re going to reduce the benefits. But they still haven’t done it. So, who knows how long it’ll last, that I’ll still get it?
But, anyway, so, shortly after that, I came back to New York, just around the time of the Great Crash of 1987, or a couple of months afterwards. And I started writing as a staff columnist at the New York Daily News. And if you can go on? Among the many, many articles that I wrote were this one about the tugboat workers’ strike in New York in 1988, where the tugboat workers were out for 97 days, at least when I wrote it — I think they stayed out longer, but they eventually won their strike. The first inklings of the Teamsters for a Democratic Union and the efforts of the Teamsters to democratize their own union. Keep going. And I forget what this one was about, but keep going. Oh, this one was Positive Workforce, the Black and Latino workers who were demanding the building trades open up, open up construction jobs to Black and Latino workers. And keep going.
Oh, this is a — this was a great one. This was an article I wrote about the Korean Daily News, a newspaper in New York. At the time, there were three Korean-language dailies in New York City, of which this was the biggest, 10,000 circulation a day. They had quite a significant labor force. And they had gone out on strike, and the management had fired them all. And I knew at the time that the Daily News, the Tribune Company was threatening to do the same thing. So I really wanted to get the article in as a way to raise the issue of replacement workers that were — that could possibly affect us. And sure, of course, within a week or two of that article coming out, the New York Daily News strike of 1990, ’91 erupts, a strike that lasted for five months, the longest newspaper strike in the history of New York City. And there are a couple of the strikers I see at least — I see Bill, I see Tom — that are here. Any others? Oh, Maria. Maria is there, too. OK, we got at least three of the strikers that are here today.
And the Daily News strike was really a watershed moment for the labor movement. If you could go on to the next one? It was a watershed movement in — not only between management and labor and the city in general, but in terms of some of the creative tactics that we, the strikers, were able to put together to win the fight. A good friend of mine at the time was Dennis Rivera, who had just defeated Doris Turner as the new president of 1199. He was still relatively young, but really was visionary and charismatic. And so, the day after the strike erupted, we were all lost, because Tribune was vowing that it would either break the unions or close the paper. Those were the only two choices. And so, I went to talk to Dennis. I said, “Dennis, you know, I’ve got to come up with a plan, because we’re having a big union meeting, and we need to have some kind of direction.” And so, Dennis helped me work out some ideas, and then I came up with some of my own. And as a result of my having some kind of cogent perspective on what we might need to do, the president of the Guild asked me to chair the strike committee, because he had already heard that I did a good job in the Philadelphia strike.
So, we had to come up with some creative solutions. One of the first things I did, as soon as the president asked me to chair the strike committee, is I said, “I’ll do it, but we need more money,” because at the time the union was offering $150 of strike pay if you picketed for four hours, right? That’s the money that they had from the international union. The international union would offer $150 pay if you picketed for four hours. And I told him, “Barry, we’re not going to beat Tribune Company in a part-time struggle. We need a full-time struggle. How much money does the local have?” And it turned out the local had a lot of money. The local had like $3 million, $4 million. So I said, “Well, I want you to commit to double the strike pay, from $150 to $300, if people are willing to work full-time on the strike. Then we’ll have more troops to organize and work.” So, he agreed. And so we were able to go from part-time strikers to full-time strikers. And so, that was a key part of the strike.
The other part of the strike was the role that Dennis played with the rest of the labor movement. 1199 was at the time an independent union; it wasn’t part of the AFL-CIO. And it was thinking of merging with either SEIU or RWDSU or one of the other unions. And so, Dennis went into a meeting of the entire Central Labor Council, the entire executive committee of the Central Labor Council and the leaders of the Allied Printing Trades union. And he asked them — I forget who was the — Dennis Hughes, maybe, was the head at the time. But Dennis Hughes was there, and all of the big shots of the New York labor movement. And he said, “I read in The Wall Street Journal that the Tribune Company has already spent more than $40 million to defeat the workers at the Daily News. How much money do you all have to fight them?” And they all looked at each other. And they finally said, well, the Allied Trades had like a few hundred thousand dollars in the bank. And Dennis said, “Well, you may as well give up now. There’s no way you’re going to do this without money. And here’s my proposal. I propose that we ask — there are 2 million union members in New York City. I propose that we raise $1 per every union member as a financial treasure chest for the strike. And I’m ready right now. 1199 has 100,000 members. I’m ready to commit $100,000 of our union funds. What are the rest of you going to do?” And they all hemmed and hawed, and, “Oh man, money? We’ve got to give up money? We can’t just express solidarity?”
And so, now the problem is, Dennis made that commitment. He had never talked to his own union leadership about it. Right? So, then he had to go back to his own leadership. And I see Estela is he, so she probably knows about it. He had to go back to his own leadership. And they said to him, “Where are we going to get that $100,000?” So, he said, “Let’s set up huge buckets outside every hospital and begin a campaign of the workers themselves to chip in the money.” And, sure enough, they chipped in, and they chipped in, and they kept the campaign going. And because it had reached so much support, they got the money. And then, the other unions were forced, by embarrassment, to chip in. They never chipped in one for every member that they had, but they chipped in a considerable fund. And then the AFL-CIO came in with like $50,000. And so, eventually, we had a nice chunk of change to be able to prosecute the strike.
We also had to deal with a major issue, which was that the Tribune Company skillfully used the racial history of the Daily News to divide the workers and to divide the strikers from the community. Right? Because the pressmen’s union had 200 members. They were all white. Not only were they all white, they were all Irish. Right? They were all Irish. It was a club, and nobody could get in there. And the company knew that. So, the company began appealing to the leaders in the Black community, all the major ministers — Reverend Forbes at Riverside Church, Reverend Butts at Abyssinian Baptist — and they called meetings with the ministers and the political leadership to say, “These unions are racist. We guarantee you that if we break these unions, we’re going to be able to hire many more African Americans and Latinos. So, this strike — breaking these unions is in your interest.” That was a tough one.
You know, luckily, there had already been racial battles within the union. The Newspaper Guild — five members of the Newspaper Guild, led by a great leader, Dave Hardy, had sued the Daily News in federal court and won the only racial discrimination lawsuit in the history of American newspapers. They won $3.2 million a few years before the strike. And Hardy was a complete union Guild member and was there for the strike from beginning to end. The drivers had also had a racial discrimination lawsuit, and they had won their consent decree. So, there were Black and Latino leaders supporting the strike in both of the major unions. So, we were able to make the argument, “Yes, the pressmen are racist. There’s no doubt about it. That’s got to change. But we think they’ve learned their lesson as a result of this strike,” because we were all fired as soon as we went on strike. All 2,500 of us were immediately fired, and replacement workers brought in.
And then we were able to mobilize the rest of the public community. Reverend Jesse Jackson participated in several rallies. The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, many of the groups in the community rallied behind us, and we were able to defeat the company’s attempt to divide the workers based on race.
The other thing we did was that we started to pressure the advertisers to drop out. That was tough, but we managed a great — a great tactic, which we called the shop-in, where we would go to the major malls — and this was about a week or two before Thanksgiving — and all of the strikers would fill their carts up with merchandise and then go to the checkout counter and have everything checked out, and then say — before they’d pull out their credit card, they would say, “Are you still advertising in the Daily News? Oh, I don’t want that stuff.” And they’d walk out. And then the next person would ring it all up. And we created havoc in a few Macy’s and a few stores, that within a week of the first shop-in, and the week before Thanksgiving and Black Friday, a bunch of the advertisers all stopped advertising in the Daily News. And the Daily News eventually lost $400 million on this strike. And so, we had tactics like that.
We also held a strike conference of the strikers. We held a conference of the strikers to plan a strategy for how we were going to attack the company. And we also took the strike beyond New York, because the Tribune Company was a national company, and they had newspapers in Fort Lauderdale, the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, the Orlando Sun-Sentinel. And as you all know, there’s a lot of New York retirees in Florida, a lot of them. In fact, there is an Association of Retired New York Policemen. There’s an Association of Retired New York Teachers. There’s an Association of Retired New York City Workers. There’s a federation of all the associations of all the retired New York workers, right? So, we went to them, and we asked them all to cancel their subscriptions to the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel or the Orlando Sun-Sentinel in protest against the Tribune Company.
So, the combined pressure of all of these things — we even put out our own strike newspaper. And all of the main writers at the paper were on strike. Some of the biggest names you know today in the media were in the strike. Marcia Kramer was at the Daily News. She was a striker. Adam Nagourney, the political writer at The New York Times, he was at the Daily News. He was a striker. And Joel Siegel, who runs NY1, managing editor at NY1 for many years, he was a striker. Gail Collins, columnist at The New York Times, she was with us. She was a striker. Harvey Araton, the great sportswriter, he was with us. He was a striker, although he left to go to the Times.
And one of the people who left was Mike McAlary, who was a friend of mine. Mac had questionable politics, but he had a good heart. He won a Pulitzer Prize for the Abner Louima stuff. And Mike couldn’t stand the idea of not being in the paper. So he jumped, in the middle of the strike, to go to work for the New York Post, had a huge contract, million dollars over three years, huge contract to go to — and so I met with him after he had made his decision. He felt guilty about it. And he says to me, “Juan, I’ve got to be in the paper.” He says, “I’m never going to cross a picket line. But I can’t stay here if I have an opportunity to go to the Post and write for the Post. And I’ll write all kinds of articles in favor of the strike.” I said, “Mike, that’s good, but that’s not good enough. OK, you got this big contract? We need money. I want a thousand dollars a week out of your paycheck as long as we are on strike. I want a thousand dollars a week.” And he gave it. And he said, “OK.” His guilt was so big. I said, “OK, we’re not going to attack you. We’re not going to publicly blast you. Just give us the money. Right? Give us the money so we can have more resources to fight the strike.”
So, we ended up, five long months later, winning the strike. The Tribune sold the paper to Robert Maxwell who negotiated a contract with us. And I want to, like, share with you the column that I wrote the day we came back — right? — which was one of the most satisfying columns of my life — right? — after being told that you’re permanently gone, to be able to walk back in and get your job back, and the person who fired you is gone. Right?
“For many of us, it was the longest winter of our lives. The country fought and won a war. But ours refused to end.” The Persian Gulf War started and ended before our strike — I mean, we started before the Persian Gulf War, and we ended after the Persian Gulf War. Right?
“The history books will call it New York’s longest newspaper strike. It will be written that the Daily News strikers emerged as reluctant heroes, who were drafted for a battle we did not seek, that eventually took the hill.
“Yesterday the fight ended as it began for the reporters, editors and ad takers and office workers of the Newspaper Guild, in an emotion-filled scene outside the News’ 42nd Street offices. During the five months of a strike which brought one of America’s biggest newspapers to the edge of extinction, the 2,300 men and women in nine striking unions found a treasure chest of character.
“In the process, New York City discovered new working-class heroes. After all, throughout the 1980s, the stars were the rich and famous. They had names like Milken, Trump, Cosby, Lorenzo, Iacocca. Television told this country’s workers that their lives were boring, their labor too costly, their unions the cause of economic decline. Too many began to believe those lies, as if New York’s magnificent skyscrapers had been built by developers and not daredevil hardhats, its fashion stitched by designers and not skilled seamstresses.
“Because of that, when we were provoked into a strike at the Daily News, few of us believed victory possible. The experts predicted the unions would be broken or that the Daily News would fold. They said the Chicago-based Tribune Company, owner of the News, was too rich and powerful.
“But then New York workers, the city’s best, the heart and soul, responded by the thousands. They poured out into the streets and out of the subways to support us. The hospital workers, transit workers, hotel and construction workers stopped reading our paper. They helped us pressure news dealers and advertisers to boycott the very product we were seeking to save.”
And so the column goes on. But it basically says, hey, all of your predictions and all of the expert stuff saying we couldn’t win turned out not to be true, that we could fashion — oh, I forgot to mention — could you go on to the next one? Yeah, the boldest action we took of all was on January 2nd, 2001. Ten of us occupied one of the Daily News offices. And because, you know, spirits were flagging after Christmas and the holidays with no check, and everyone was demoralized, so we needed something to galvanize people again. So we decided to take the Daily News offices, and 10 of us were arrested. They came to be known as the Tabloid Ten. And here’s a picture in the Times, of the article. And there’s Lizette Alvarez, who I think is still working for The New York Times as a reporter. There’s Lauren Draper, Gene Mustain, Samme Chittum, Maria — who’s here — Fugate, Tonice Sgrignoli, and Tom and Bill Farrell, who are both in the audience, were part of that Tabloid Ten group. It was — I don’t know if any of the others had been arrested before. I assured them it’s not a big deal. You get out. You get out quickly, usually. In this case, even the police supported us, so we didn’t even have to spend the time in jail. But it galvanized — it galvanized the strikers, and it made it clear to Tribune that we weren’t going away.
So, that — you can go on. And then, these are — that was a column I just read to you. And go on to the next one. Oh, so, shortly after that, we start a rank-and-file group, because our Newspaper Guild leadership was — left a lot to be desired, and at the national level and at the local level. So we started a group called the Concerned Guild Members, a rank-and-file group within the Newspaper Guild. At one point, we had up to 40% of the votes in union conventions.
Our platform was simple. One, the Guild had to merge with another union, because it was too small to survive. And we either pressed for it to merge with the CWA or with the ITU, but most people preferred the CWA. Two, we were insistent that the Canadian locals of the Guild have autonomy, because, you know, a lot of the international unions have Canadian locals that are like subservient second-class citizens to the American unions. So we demanded autonomy for the Canadian members of the Guild, and which gave us a big base of support among the Canadian chapters of the Guild. And also, we sought greater diversity in leadership for women and people of color. Those was the three planks of our Guild.
Interestingly, we won all the battles and lost the war. The Guild agreed to merge with the CWA. It’s now part, the News Guild of the CWA. They agreed to grant autonomy to the Canadian locals, who promptly decided to create their own union and left the Guild, and that took a lot of our rank-and-file support with it, because we had — and they eventually came up with a woman candidate for president, President Linda Foley, who we ended up supporting, and she won the presidency. So, we never were able to fully transform the Guild, but we definitely had a big impact on its policies and change. Sometimes you don’t win. But even when you don’t win, you learn things — right? — for the next time.
And so, now you can keep going. And then, from that point on, when I came back to the News, I had a lot more freedom, because, you know, even the bosses were afraid of me. So I was able to travel a lot. And I started working, going throughout Latin America, through Mexico, to the maquilas. If you can keep going to the others? This is an article I wrote in the Dominican Republic about a general strike in the Dominican Republic, which happened to be the 14th general strike in the Dominican Republic in the previous five years. Fourteen general strikes in one country in five years, think of that. Think what kind of a labor movement that is.
And here’s an article I did on the union of the maquila workers in San Pedro de Macoris, where there were about 98 factories employing 40,000 people, mostly young women. Their union was one man. I interviewed him, one man, an elderly man, in a union hall maybe this big, you know, but clearly it was a shanty house, who had no equipment. He had a telephone that he kept locked up in his desk, because he didn’t want all his union members to be calling the United States on his dime, and a fax machine, where he would send his protests to the Labor Ministry of the Dominican Republic about the abuses of the workers. He had nothing. And he was the leader of 40,000 workers, right? And yet — and they were able to organize themselves. And I always — when I think of all the union leaders who spend all this outrageous money on dinners and hotels and car services and all this stuff, and I think of people in these countries that have nothing to organize their union members and still manage to do it, it shows you the vast differences between the movements.
And you can keep going with some of the others. So, I did a lot of stuff on free trade when the free trade treaty was going on. Keep going. And there’s the rail workers when they were on strike.
Oh, this was a favorite of mine. This was more about personal perseverance. This was a story about an elevator operator named Julio Morales, who worked for 47 years operating the VIP elevator at the Waldorf Astoria. He was about to retire. Julio Morales had met every president since I think Dwight Eisenhower, had met all these world leaders, because he would bring them up and down in the VIP elevator at the Waldorf Astoria. He never missed a day of work in his 47 years. And so his workers honored him when he retired. He also happened to be the father of Iris Morales, who was a member and one the key leaders of the Young Lords. That’s how I learned about the story. I was talking to Iris one day. She says, “You know, my father’s about to retire.” And so, because of that, I ended up writing the story of this one man and this incredible record, and all the people that he had met and all the stories that he had about all these great world leaders in the elevator.
And this on workers’ comp, cuts to workers’ comp.
This is the first story ever written about the Taxi Workers Alliance and their first strike that they were organizing. Of course, the Taxi Workers Alliance has now become very famous.
And this was an interview I did with John Sweeney when he was president of the AFL-CIO.
And keep going. This was an article on the general strike in Puerto Rico opposing the privatization of the telephone company in Puerto Rico that occurred.
And this was the building trades, under Brian McLaughlin, having a protest of 30,000-40,000 people down in midtown Manhattan. Keep going.
This was when Andy Stern resigned and Anna Burger took over at SEIU. And keep going. This one, I don’t even remember what that is. Keep going.
Oh, this is about the Postal Service, the government’s attempt to — you know, to privatize the Postal Service and get rid of postal workers.
This is a lawsuit of workers at the Central Park — a Central Park restaurant claiming sexual harassment by the owners.
And this is immigrant workers trying to recoup their wages that they were stiffed on by their bosses.
And this is the Verizon strike, and from Democracy Now!, that we covered that. Keep going.
This is the Chicago Teachers Union strike, the famous strike during the Rahm Emanuel period.
And this is the first article written on the first strike for the Fight for 15 by fast-food workers.
So, these are some of the articles that I’ve managed to do over the years, but, largely, largely, dealt — looking for my end here. Oh, don’t have my end. So I’m going to have to call it up from here, because this is the lessons. What are the lessons learned from all this? Right? So, let me see if I can call it up quickly. Sorry about that. OK. Wrong one. Yeah, here it is. OK, hopefully it’s here.
OK, so, what are the main lessons from all of this, that I take away and that I hope some of you will chew on? When workers organize, they can improve their lives immeasurably. And while you don’t always win, you always gain greater consciousness of what it takes to win. To achieve great change, you must defend your principles but always be flexible and be willing to admit you are fallible. You must be willing at key moments to take extraordinary chances, sometimes to risk everything, whether that means being arrested, losing your job, being ostracized and attacked by friends and even family. But you can always come back.
To win a labor struggle against a powerful employer requires hard work. It requires daring tactics and deep systematic analysis of the weaknesses of your opponent. It requires that you shape your own narrative. And most importantly, it requires unity, not only among your fellow workers but with the broader public.
And finally, we must never forget that we live in an imperialist state, one whose prosperity has been built on the labor of tens of millions in what we used to call the Third World — Asia, Africa and Latin America — countries whose people labor in qualitatively worse conditions than we are in the West. In fact, a small but significant sector of our own working class benefit directly from the crumbs of imperialism — defense industry workers, for example, those who do the work of managing and tracking the revenues and profits of the empire. And this labor aristocracy is permanently lost and has historically become the basis for right-wing fascist movements.
Our success against those forces is possible only if we are aware of and support the marginalized sectors of our society and the people of Asia, Africa and Latin America, who are at the frontlines of the fight to make a better world possible.
So, those are the main lessons I’ve learned in the past 50 years. I hope you’ll consider them, and hope they can inform the work that you continue to do.