Which Side Are You On? 2009 APALA Convention
Just got back from a long weekend in Vegas, but I didn’t do any gambling, see any shows or go to the Liberace Museum (though I did eat at a couple buffets). Instead I spent most of my time consorting with a crowd of fired-up labor union activists at the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA) convention. Equal parts awards ceremony, strategy session, and revival meeting, the APALA convention rocked the old-school trade unionist rhetoric with more than 300 delegates from across the country. I got a crash course in union acronyms—represented at the convention were IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers), SEIU (Service Employees International Union), AFSCME (American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees), IFPTE (International Federation of Professional and Technical Employees), and CWU (Culinary Workers Union), to name just a few. I met homecare workers, teachers, electricians, lab techs, hotel and restaurant workers, longshoremen, nurses, ironworkers (not to be confused with steelworkers, who were also in the house), and straight-up union organizers, all of whom were dedicated to the cause of uplifting and honoring the worker and making sure we all get paid a living wage.
Some of the convention’s most interesting aspects were the various forms of creative expression, both subtle and overt, that repeatedly surfaced during the weekend. Songs and poetry by labor unionists go way back, and one of the convention’s speakers, Johanna Puno Hestor, referenced this long history by quoting from a poem by famed Pinoy farmworker and organizer Philip Vera Cruz. Chants and unions also go together hand in glove and one of my favorite moments was when John Delloro of the Dolores Huerta Labor Institute let rip with a full-throated rendition of the old picket-line chant, “We Are The Union,” getting the whole convention to swing it with him. Several other times during the proceedings a speaker would spontaneously bust out with a rousing chant in various languages including Spanish, Tagalog, and Mandarin as well as English.
The connections between art and activism were further explicated throughout the convention. Rapper Kiwi, formerly of Native Guns, and Geo Quibuyen, aka Geologic, aka Prometheus Brown, blogger and a member of Seattle’s isangmahal arts kollective and one-half of the rap duo Blues Scholars, led a standing-room-only workshop entitled “Cultural Activism and The Fight For Workers’ Rights,” which looked at the work of sansei singer/songwriter Chris Iijima, Pilipino filmmaker Lino Brocka, Tupac Shakur, and writer Carlos Bulosan, linking their creative work to issues of human rights and social justice. Rick Rocamora gave a slide show of his luminous and evocative black-and-white photographs from “Filipino World War II Soldiers: America’s Second-Class Veterans,” his book about the Pinoy soldiers’ struggle to receive benefits from the U.S. government. On the filmmaking tip, Tam Tran screened “Lost And Found,” her poignant short documentary (see below) about Stephanie Solis, a UCLA undergraduate and undocumented immigrant who entered the U.S. as a child. Both Tran and Solis spoke in support of the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act, which would facilitate legal status for many young people who are, due to the peculiarities of U.S. immigration law, in permanent non-citizen limbo.
All in all the convention was pretty informative and enlightening, with much more lively speeches than the dry-as-dust presentations I’m used hearing at, say, your standard academic conference. I enjoyed the convocation being referred to as “sisters and brothers” and it was fun to hear the boos and gasps of shock when particularly nefarious employers were called on the carpet for their various transgressions (ten-hour work day! no lunch break! no overtime!). The topics discussed were particularly relevant to me since my own union, the California Faculty Association, just voted on whether or not to accept work furloughs equaling a 10% pay cut. Trade unions may seem outdated and retro but with the Republican policies of the last presidential administration resulting in the current economic meltdown, maybe there’s something to be said for fairer labor practices and a return to honoring workers instead of exploiting them. In the end, it’s all about doing right by as many people as possible instead of only looking out for yourself, which really isn’t a bad thing at all.
A few fun facts:
Only 12% of U.S. workers are union members, with only 9% of the private sector unionized.
All of the hotels on the Vegas strip save one (The Venetian, boooo!) are union shops.
It took more than six years to unionize the MGM Grand Hotel.
Here’s Tam Tran’s short about Stephanie Solis and the DREAM Act.
UPDATE: May 16, 2010: Terrible news–Tam Tran was just killed in a car accident in Maine today when a pickup truck crossed the meridian and crashed head on into a car she was riding in. I’d only met Tam once, after she showed the above video, and she was a promising young filmmaker and activist. All thoughts to her family and friends.
UPDATE 2: June 6, 2010. More incredibly bad news–just found out today that John Delloro died of a heart attack yesterday. This is quite shocking to me since John was an incredibly vibrant person who was literally bursting with life. I’d only met him once, at the APALA convention last year, but I was more than impressed with his incredible energy, dedication, and optimism. The Asian American community has lost a a potentially great leader who has passed long before his time. We can only hope that in his memory we will all continue his work toward peace, justice, and the betterment of the world for all.
And for good measure, the lyrics to Which Side Are You On?, written by Florence Reece in 1931 during a strike by the United Mine Workers of America in which her husband, Sam Reece, was an organizer.
Which Side Are You On?
Come all you good workers,
Good news to you I’ll tell
Of how the good old union
Has come in here to dwell.
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
My daddy was a miner,
And I’m a miner’s son,
And I’ll stick with the union
‘Til every battle’s won.
They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there.
You’ll either be a union man
Or a thug for J. H. Blair.
Oh workers can you stand it?
Oh tell me how you can?
Will you be a lousy scab
Or will you be a man?
Don’t scab for the bosses,
Don’t listen to their lies.
Us poor folks haven’t got a chance
Unless we organize.
Entry filed under: activism, Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, civil rights, DREAM act, photography, Uncategorized, visual art. Tags: 2009 apala convention, activism, blues scholars, carlos bulosan, chris iijima, DREAM act, filmmaking, florence reece, isangmahal arts kollective, john delloro, kiwi, labor unions, las vegas, lina brocka, native guns, philip vera cruz, photography, prometheus brown, tupac shakur, visual art.