I am no longer afraid
Of this poem
From which
I will never return
–Philomene Long

By Jim Smith

Philomene Long died later in the day. We had talked on the phone that fateful Tuesday and I had told her that I wouldn’t be able to meet her for coffee or a drink. Her cough – which she said was bronchitis – sounded better than it had even the day before. I commended her on getting better but urged her not to overdo it, just yet. 

She was in a typical good mood. After lamenting the wearing away of the poetry walls at Windward, we laughed about how the Egyptians and Babylonians could make stone tablets that lasted thousands of years, while ours were barely visible after a mere 10 years. I’ve never known anyone to laugh as much as Philomene. While I’m no expert, she seemed like a Zen Master to me. Being in her radiant presence made it inconceivable to think that death was lurking nearby. As San Francisco poet Jack Foley said, “You want me to describe Philomene? How does one describe the sun?”

I had known of Philomene for many years, and had occasional superficial interaction with her. But on June 24, at the dedication of the Venice sign on Windward, we spent several hours together at Danny’s Deli, laughing and enjoying each other’s company. From then, until the end, we talked, emailed and/or visited each other nearly every day. At first, I had trepidation that I could maintain a conversation with such an advanced being. She soon put me at ease. “I am the most humble person in Venice,” she said impossibly. 

She also let me know in passing that she had read much of what I had written in the Beachhead over the years. “You know, you should write another article about how to survive in Venice if you’re poor,” she advised. But that was two years ago, I thought to myself. How does she remember this stuff? Well, how can I refuse? See “Surviving” on page three.

Each conversation with Philomene was like a roller coaster ride, with every twist and turn becoming an invitation for a squeal of delight from her. The few half-way intelligent things I managed to say were immediately scribbled on the pad of paper she always carried. I doubted that such furious writing could be read even by its author, until the following day when she would repeat nearly verbatim the substance of those wandering and joyful conversations.

Philomene never complained about anything, not even the constant coughing she endured in her last week. Every inconvenience was merely another opportunity for laughter or a poem. Incredible, I thought, if only the whole world felt and reacted this way! While she didn’t complain, she couldn’t hide the hole in her heart from the loss of John Thomas, her husband and other self. That day at Danny’s Deli, amid the laughter, she told me how sad she was that John was painted on the restaurant wall, but she wasn’t with him. She didn’t care about being on the wall, she just w
nted to be with John, even in a painting. Her poem, America, reprinted on page nine is about what’s happening in this country today, but it is also about John who died in jail because the guards would not get him medical attention for his heart condition.

It says, 

You are dying 
Lying on a floor in a jail cell 
Gasping for air
Calling out for yourself

Often when John would pop into her consciousness, she would look far away, as if seeing him down the ocean front, or around the block. She never said she saw him, but once she did have a vision, she told me, of the Muse, the Lady, that many Venice poets write about. She told me that she was on the beach one day when she looked out at the water, and saw our Lady of Poetry, gliding across it. The vision was powerful and effective. As a result, with the guidance of the Muse, she quickly wrote the poem that appears on page nine. In retrospect, I think it could express her feeling about death – and life.

It begins:

It is not the end but the becoming
It is not the beginning but the becoming
It is the becoming the becoming the becoming

Philomene was distressed at the changes she saw in Venice. She felt that the Venice of poets and artists was being displaced by the Venice of developers and high rollers. We talked about the turmoil in Venice in the 1960s, when some poets including John Haag and Rick Davidson had taken a path toward becoming more overtly political, while others including Philomene had not. I suggested to her that it was, at last, time to heal that rift. She responded with a smile, “Yes, but you and I are the only ones left.” She knew it wasn’t quite true, and over the next few days became excited about enlisting poetry to fight to save our little city, which she compared to those of the classical Greeks. She talked about the ancient Irish poets who would take the field between two armies, before a battle could begin, and would hurl invective, spells and curses – really just poems – at the other side. The old poets must have had an impact since the custom continued among the Kelts for centuries.

She wrote to me on August 13: “To let you know (in between coughs) it is my intention to submit for next issue not a suggestion or a question, but a declaration. As Poet Laureate of Venice, California and on behalf of the Muse – I am declaring war — Her poems poised to storm from the beachhead for the soul of Venice (in my mind, America’s last bastion for its freedoms).”

Out of this was to be born a new poetry. Verses with the power of a sword, or a bomb. This was Philomene’s project during her last few days on Earth.

I wrote back to her: “Dear Philomene, you got me thinking of poems as pistols…. Here is the Manifesto of Al-Cadence.” (reprinted on page 9)

While my poem-making powers were puny compared to hers, she was always generous, and replied: “And you were ready. You aimed. And FIRED!!!!!!!!!! A most beatitudenous fire!”

The Beatitudes and beatitude were concepts of the highest regard to Philomene. They permeated her sense of being and her world view. The Beatitudes are part of Jesus Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, and are Christian prescriptions for leading a good life, although they are differently interpreted by everyone from the Pope to Philomene. They begin, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Beatitude (without the s) undoubtedly stems from the Beatitudes but this concept, popularized by Jack Kerouac, is not overtly religious. Kerouac explained it thusly, “Beat doesn’t mean tired, or bushed, so much as it means beato, the Italian for beatific: to be in a state of beatitude, like Saint Francis, trying to love all life, trying to be utterly sincere with everyone, practicing endurance, kindness, cultivating joy of heart…”

Philomene was the personification of beatitude. In last month’s Beachhead, Philomene presented a beatitude contest that, by posing questions and mental exercises, attempted to introduce readers to the concept that is so fundamental to Venice’s Beat Generation. (see some of the contest responses elsewhere in this issue).

I called Philomene the following day, Wednesday. Neither she, nor her answering machine, picked up. Same story on Thursday. When Fred Dewey, of Beyond Baroque, called to say he had bad news, I knew what it was before he told me. It was impossible, but it was true. Philomene, our great poet and inspiration, was gone.

What happened to Philomene? Aside from a nasty cough, which she seemed to be getting over, she appeared to be the picture of health. She looked 10 or 20 years younger than she was. Later, people mentioned her high blood pressure as a possible cause. Well, maybe. I feel robbed of a close friend whose great mind and personality I had only begun to know. And, without Philomene, Venice is the one with a hole in its heart.

Posted: Sat – September 1, 2007
Reposted Nov. 10, 2022

The Solid Gold Subway


By Jim Smith

The most expensive subway money can buy will one day run down Wilshire Blvd. all the way to the sea, or at least Westwood, if the Metropolitan Transit Authority, the rich guys in the construction business and their pet politicians have their way. But it might be cheaper to send a Limo for anyone who wants a ride down Wilshire Blvd. during the next 20 years or so.

On the other hand, many transit activists and ordinary citizens began having second thoughts after reading the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) which was released on Sept. 3. In it, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) admitted that the subway would reduce auto traffic congestion by only 1 percent. The current price tag for a subway only as far as Westwood was revealed to be $9 billion. Nine billion dollars for 1 percent traffic reduction? That’s right. That’s what the characters who thought up this massive transit project are now telling us. The truth is, the project will probably cost twice that amount by the time it’s finished. Cost overruns are how Dick Cheney and lot’s of other multi-millionaires and billionaires have made their money.

If you blinked, you missed the hearings on the EIR. The last one was on Sept. 29 in Santa Monica. There is no place in Venice to view this document which describes a transit project costing a minimum of $9 billion. You’ll have to go to read it at the Santa Monica Public Library, if you don’t have internet access. If you do, then google “subway eir.”

Bill Rosendahl has sent a somewhat belated email dated Sept. 22 urging constituents to comment on the subway project by Oct. 18. The MTA will vote on the project on Oct. 28.

It’s not just the money. The subway project would suck the air out of lots of other more modest transit projects in our area for years to come.

The construction of a subway through the Miracle Mile area was outright banned by federal legislation for 21 years, beginning in 1985. In that year a methane explosion blew up a Ross Dress for Less store clothing store north of Wilshire at the intersection of Third Street and Fairfax Avenue, injuring 24. The Los Angeles City Council designated a 400-block area of Wilshire between La Brea and Western avenues as a “gas risk zone.” It was considered unsafe to tunnel in this volatile area or operate a subway. Efforts to get the subway back on track continued in spite of the explosion threat. In 1994, it was estimated that the subway would cost $4 billion to build. But a subway would revitalize the stagnant business climate on Wilshire and possibly bring in hundreds of billions in new high rise construction along the miles-long corridor. After intense pressure, Rep. Henry Waxman agreed with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to have an “impartial” panel rule in 2006 that it was safe, after all.

As if explosive gas was not enough to contend with, the proposed subway route cuts through earthquake country. The 1994 Northridge quake cut a swath through the LaBrea/Fairfax area, dropping a freeway overpass at La Cienega and Venice Blvd. Proponents of the subway claim the system weathered that quake well, and was up and running within 24 hours. However, there were no subway lines where the quake was most severe. Would they have been unaffected, or would people have been buried alive?

The only thing certain in building mass transit seems to be cost overruns. The Expo Metro line has ballooned from $640 million to $862 million for the 8.6 mile route from downtown L.A. to Culver City. An extension to 4th and Colorado in Santa Monica will cost more. Even so it is about one-tenth the cost of the subway, which will also go from downtown L.A. to Santa Monica.

Another option is a monorail, which can be built for one-tenth the cost of a subway. (see www.monorails.org). Or to put it another way, 100 miles of mass transit via monorail can be built for the cost of 10 miles of subway. The subway will cost a minimum of $9 billion (and probably much more) after everyone gets their hands in the till.

Even without a monorail, costs could be reduced substantially by having the subway emerge from its hole near Western Avenue and run at above ground level, that is, “elevated.” Even that would be lots cheaper than underground.

The bottom line is that we need mass transit throughout Southern California and if we squander all our transit funds on one subway, it’s going to set back the cause for years.

A Venice member of Bill Rosendahl’s District 11 Transportation Committee, David Ewing, said: CD 11 took position that we wanted Alternative 5 (in the EIR) which includes a West Hollywood loop and that the subway should come all the way to Santa Monica. We did not consider cost. We also want a line through mountains to the Valley, although that’s not currently a consideration. Personally, I have questions about the duplication of function between the subway and the Expo Line. We missed a chance for a better transit system in the 1970s when Calvin Hamilton, the head of the Planning Department promoted a proposal for “centers” of greater density around the area. They would have been linked by transit corridors. If we could have any system we wanted it would be a tight subway grid in the downtown area. Unfortunately, when you add in a subway to the sea, it creates sprawl.

Another Venice member of the District 11 committee, Steve Freedman, added: “It (the subway) is an extremely expensive approach to mass transit. I question that. The subway seems to be moving forward. Our existing transit system is a hodge-podge of different technologies. They’ve operated in isolation to each other. There are a lot of east-west transportation lines in this city. What’s lacking is north-south lines. I would like to see a major initiative for north-south lines, with a subway going over the hill (or under the hill) to the Valley and all the way to Long Beach.”

Bill Rosendahl’s planning deputy Paul Backstrom told the Beachhead that the Councilmember is “reviewing the alignment and is eager to hear public input.”

Backstrom can be reached at 213-473-7011 or paul.backstrom@lacity.org.

Did anyone ask why light rail is good enough for Black people in South Central and Latinos on the East side, but white folks have to have a ten-times more expensive subway? If there is another eruption of social unrest in Los Angeles (the last one was in 1992), it may not be due to the westside subway, but that is sure to be part of the postmortem.

The Western Avenue to the sea (or close to it) subway extension would cut through the richest and whitest part of Los Angeles, Beverly Hills and Century City. This is an object lesson on who is important and who is not important in the city of Los Angeles.

Also left out of the discussion by MTA in its desire to steamroll the subway is the Bus Riders Union, which is probably the most effective transit advocacy group in history, and the first one to be led primarily by people of color. As it promotes a subway, the MTA is busy cutting bus lines which are utilized by more people than light rail, commuter trains and subways combined.

Nothing is going to get people out of their cars and onto any kind of mass transit except economics. When gasoline rises to $5 a gallon, lots more commuters will take the bus, train or what have you. When it hits $10 a gallon, which will likely be sooner, not later, everyone will be demanding mass transit on their nearby busy street. If MTA and the Mayor respond, “Sorry our transportation funds are tied up in this subway for the next 10 years or more,” there will be hell to pay.

If some form of mass transit is going to travel the Wilshire Blvd. corridor, a reasonable and cheaper, alternative to a subway could be an “elevated,” rolling a few feet above the ground and down the center of the street, which would involve no change of train right into downtown L.A. Don’t confuse a quiet and colorful elevated with the ancient ones still rattling above the streets of Chicago. Or, it could be an even cheaper Monorail that could curve south at Western Avenue to pick up workers bound for Beverly Hills, Westwood and Brentwood.

Why do all the trains begin and end in downtown L.A.? It is only a small fraction of the megalopolis’ population and area. But it is where corporate wealth and power in concentration, along with L.A.’s city hall. Another example of who’s in charge.

An “Elevated” could actually improve that ugly, car-chocked artery. Let’s close Wilshire to auto traffic and make it a 10-mile-long pedestrian mall full of cafes, green grass, kids playgrounds, bike trails, etc. Cars could drive west-bound on 6th, and east-bound on 7th/8th streets. With a little traffic engineering, driving would be less clogged than it is now, on Wilshire.

The result could be a much cheaper train, a boost for moribund businesses along Wilshire, a mall that would attract both residents and tourists from around the world, and an economic engine that would last long after construction was finished.

Come on, let’s try to envision more than a hole in the ground.

October 1, 2010

The Diary of Dang Thuy Tram: Last Night I Dreamed of Peace

Book Reviewed by Jim Smith

The definitive book about the Viet Nam war has been written by a twenty-something Vietnamese woman. This may be hard to believe for those raised on a diet of male-oriented sagas of hard fighting, hard loving and hard living American soldiers that dominate the U.S. book market and big screens. Even veterans of Viet Nam don’t know the full story of the war until they read, Last Night I Dreamed of Peace, the best-selling (in Viet Nam) diary of Dang Thuy Tram.

What was the Viet Nam War really like? It was not just the experience of bomber pilots carrying out their missions miles above their intended victims. And certainly it was not the experience of policy makers 10,000 miles away in Washington. Perhaps the best book on the combat experience by an American solider is Ron Kovic’s Born on the Forth of JulyA Rumor of War by Philip Caputo also has its fans. Histories of the conflict also abound, as do fantasy films like Apocalypse Now.

What all of these books have in common is that they tell the story from the invader’s point of view. In a relatively poor country like Viet Nam, there are few writers and few publishing houses. This is why Tram’s diaries written from 1968-70, “under the gun,” in Quảng Ngãi province are so illuminating.

Quảng Ngãi province, which lies about half-way from Hanoi and Saigon, was a hotbed of support for the National Liberation Front, called the Viet Cong. It was the sight of numerous bombings and sprayings of Agent Orange, as well as sorties by U.S. infantry, Marines and helicopter gunships. Dr. Tran’s field hospital hid under the forest canopy while enemy soldiers on patrol came within a few feet of it. Quảng Ngãi province was also the sight of the My Lai massacre where soldiers of the Americal Division under Lt. William Calley murdered between 350 and 500 mainly women, children and old men.

The diary became public only in 2005. Within 18 months, it had sold nearly half a million copies in Viet Nam. Most books there have press runs of 5,000 copies. The Diaries have caught the imagination of a generation that never knew the war. Two-thirds of Viet Nam’s 90 million people were born after 1975, when South Viet Nam was finally liberated.

After Dr. Tran’s death at the hands of an American soldier in 1970, the Diaries had come into the possession of an intelligence officer, Fred Whitehurst who took them back to the U.S. Whitehurst later joined the FBI and became a well-known whistle-blower over the FBI’s investigation of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. In 2005, he gave the Diaries to another veteran who was traveling to Hanoi. The Tran family was tracked down and the book was quickly published. The young doctor is now a national hero.

The Diaries reveal the innermost thoughts of a young woman’s insecurities, loves and crushes, and her desire to serve her people. Dr. Tran – known as Thuy (pronounced Twe) – often talks to herself and criticizes her failings and weaknesses: “Oh, Thuy! Are you pessimistic? Look around you, there are so many comrades, so many young men, who have sacrificed their youth for the revolution. They have fallen without ever finding happiness. Why do you think only of yourself?” (Dec. 21, 1968).

It struck me when I was reading the diary of this heroic young woman that she and I were nearly the same age. Born a world apart, our lives were so different, yet so similar in many ways. I, too, was in the army when her diary begins. Yet I was not there by choice, having been drafted in 1966. Thuy, on the other hand, had turned down a safe assignment in a Hanoi hospital when she graduated from physician training. She wanted to go when she would be most needed, in the war zone, where men and women her own age were suffering bullet wounds and dying. It was up to this young doctor to save them.

Thuy had to operate on wounded soldiers in nearly unimaginably primitive conditions. She often was without drugs that could save her patient’s life. Anesthetics were sometimes missing in critical operations. Through it all, Thuy seems to suffer as much as her patients.

In 1968, I was able to leave the Army when my term of servitude ended. But for Thuy, it was a life and death struggle with the invaders. Defeat meant death. Victory was the only road to a normal life. As Thuy prophetically said in 1968: “So many people have volunteered to sacrifice their whole lives for two words: Independence and Liberty. I, too, have sacrificed my life for that grandiose fulfillment.”

The Vietnamese people did reach “the promised land,” as Martin Luther King called it shortly before his death. But Thuy did not get there with them.

When I visited Viet Nam last December, I saw an independent country at peace. Everyone seemed healthy, well fed and well dressed. Women seem assertive and active in economic and social affairs. I’m not an expert on Viet Nam, but I think Thuy would be pleased with the progress made in spite of war, defoliation and lack of support from the outside world. The U.S. never made reparations for ravishing the country.

If Thuy had lived and could visit Venice today, I wonder what she would think. I’m sure she would disapprove of the selfishness of many young people who think only of themselves and their possessions.

What would she say to those of us who are trying to fend off the rich and powerful while helping the poor and homeless? What would she say to the many women around the world who are protesting against dictators and injustice? Perhaps she would say to us what she wrote to herself 43 years ago: “To live is to face the storms and not to cower before them. Stand up, then, oh, Thuy! Even when the rain and gale are rising, even when tears have flowed in torrents, keep your spirit high.”

Printed and ebook versions of Last Night I Dreamed of Peace: The Diary of Dang Thuy Tramare available from Powells Books<www.powells.com>. An audio book is available from www.audible.com.

A Vietnamese feature film, entitled Don’t Burn, based on the diaries has been released. A clip can be seen on YouTube at http://bit.ly/ihN49U.

March 1, 2011

How Peter Douglas Saved Venice and the California Coast

By Jim Smith

Peter Douglas, who was the chief guardian of the California coast for the past 40 years, died April 1. It would have been much better for Venice if this were a sick April Fools joke, but it isn’t.

Douglas began his advocacy for the coast as an aide to Assembly member Alan Sieroty (who represented Venice) when he wrote a coastal protection bill in 1971 that Sieroty introduced. The bill failed due to opposition from developers. In 1972, Proposition 20, written by Douglas, won in a landslide with more than four million votes. The California Coastal Act of 1976, which Douglas co-authored, further extended beach protections.

Douglas went to work for the Coastal Commission as a Deputy Director, and in 1985 was appointed Executive Director. He was the driving force of the Commission, often pushing reluctant Republican and Democratic appointees to oppose unneeded developments.

At the same time, Venice activists turned increasingly to the Commission for support after hitting a brick wall with Los Angeles. Beachhead writers Moe Stavnezer, Arnold Springer, Rex Frankel and John Davis led caravans of Venetians to take up appeals of city-endorsed developments that were not in character with our community.

Douglas won many victories – small and large – for protecting the coast. He led the fight on the Commission, in 1998, to deny the Hearst Corporation’s application to build a 650-room hotel and golf course on the San Simeon coast. He also forced media mogul David Geffen, in 2007, to open his beachfront compound in Malibu to public access.

While it was not exactly part of his job description, Douglas was known for driving the coast and pulling over to check permits on any construction projects he encountered.

Peter Douglas was born in difficult circumstances, as a Jew in 1942 Berlin. How he and his family survived the next three years is unclear, but they emigrated to the U.S. after the war.

In a farewell speech to the Commission last August, Douglas noted that the World Bank had called California’s Coastal Protection, “the strongest in the world.” He attributed this to the independent nature of the Commission. In writing the proposition, Douglas had wisely broken up appointment power between the Governor and the two houses of the Legislature, ensuring that no one person or group would be able to control the commission. “We haven’t been captured by those we regulate,” said Douglas.

I first met Peter Douglas in 1997 when I went with my daughter to a Coastal Commission meeting to oppose a permit parking plan for our neighborhood, Central Venice. It would have allowed four-hour parking during the day for non-permit holding vehicles. This would have meant that beach goers would have to return to their cars in mid-day to find another parking place. Instead of visitors roaming the streets once a day in search of a parking place, they would have to do it twice.

Both of us spoke against the plan, which had passed the City Council and would have been implemented unless the Commission blocked it. We argued that the plan would reduce access by placing an extra burden on those who only wanted to enjoy the beach. During a break, Douglas approached us and thanked us for speaking in favor of beach access. He told us that many people who live near the beach don’t appreciate that it is a natural resource for all Californians.

I asked Douglas how the LAPD could get away with imposing an after midnight curfew on the beach, since that prevented access. He said he was unaware of the curfew and suggested that I get a ticket for breaking the curfew and bring it to him. He said not to worry since it was obviously illegal. I still regret that I didn’t follow his advice and get a ticket.

In June 2010, John Davis brought the matter of the curfew up while he was addressing the Commission. The members expressed shock that such a thing existed and asked the staff to look into it.

There followed a series of letters from the Commission to city officials informing them that the curfew was illegal. The City Attorney, Carmen “Nuch” Trutanich, responded that the Commission was harassing the city. This resulted in Douglas, who was already ill with cancer, sending a four-page response in which he stated that the curfew restricted beach access and that the Commission was empowered to issue a cease and desist order. That order never came, probably due to Douglas’ infirmities. Meanwhile, the LAPD is still selectively enforcing the curfew and has broadened it to include Ocean Front Walk. So far, no one in Venice has appealed this illegal action to the Coastal Commission.

At that same June 2010 meeting, the final showdown on Overnight Parking Permit Districts (OPDs) took place. The city’s plan to charge all of Venice for the privilege to park in front of their homes was on the fast track. Standing in its way were the Coastal Commission and we 38 Venetians who had appealed the permit plan. The Commission staff had recommended approval of the OPDs. Douglas must have been out of the loop by then. He took the unlikely, but admirable, position of filing an appeal of his own against the OPDs. Suddenly, he became our star appellant. While the eloquence of scores of Venetians who took the microphone to oppose OPDs had a big impact on the Commissioners, we cannot discount the impact of having the highly respected Executive Director make common cause with our motley crew.

Douglas says in his autobiography on the Coastal Commission’s website “that the way to live one’s life is to follow your bliss.” He goes on to say that he found his bliss in environmental stewardship. The right man in the right place at the right time.

What does the future hold for Venice, and the entire California coast without Douglas? Steve Blank, a Commission member and friend of Douglas told the New York Times, “Once he’s gone, this commission will implode in the blink of an eye,” Blank said, “and all we’ll be talking about is the color of the concrete used to pave over what’s left of the coast.”

At the least, we in Venice will have to work harder and be more vigilant since we won’t have Peter Douglas on our side.

May 1, 2012

Ray Bradbury – Martian and Venetian: Gone with the Transit of Venus

On June 5, I was peering through Chuck Bloomquist’s telescope in his front yard as a tiny black dot – actually the size of the Earth – slowly made its way across the yellow-gold caldron we call the Sun.

At the same time, a few miles away, a 91-year-old man who had taken us to Venus, Mars and other worlds in his books was breathing his last. He had traveled across universes solely by the power of his mind. Now he was giving us one more amazing tale by hopping on Venus as it flew across the Sun. Only Ray Bradbury would think of such an appropriate way to make his exit.

Ray Bradbury was a novelist who wrote like a poet. His powers of description could transport the reader to Mars, Venus or to Venice, circa 1947.

He will long be known to the world as the author of The Martian Chronicles, Fahrenheit 451, The Illustrated Man, Dandelion Wine, and Something Wicked This Way Comes, among other books of Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Venetians will ever be grateful for his masterful description of a decrepit Venice of the late 1940s in the novel, Death Is A Lonely Business. This is a Venice that nobody comes to visit and where the fog rolls in every day and it rains a lot in the autumn that he describes.

It rained a lot on Venus, too, at least in a short story Bradbury wrote in Venice (probably while it was raining):

The rain continued. It was a hard rain, a perpetual rain, a sweating and steaming rain; it was a mizzle, a downpour, a fountain, a whipping at the eyes, an undertow at the ankles; it was a rain to drown all rains and the memory of rains. It came by the pound and the ton, it hacked at the jungle and cut the trees like scissors and shaved the grass and tunneled the soil and molted the bushes. It shrank men’s hands into the hands of wrinkled apes; it rained a solid glassy rain, and it never stopped.  –The Long Rain, 1950

That is how Ray Bradbury wrote. His powers of description were unmatched through 500 published works. He wrote every day, and still had time to carefully study the world around him. “If there were three of me, I could keep us all busy,” he once said.

In Venice, the young Bradbury was a self-described maniac, a true Venetian possessed by an enthusiasm for life.

“Venice is full of old people,” says Bradbury’s unnamed protagonist in Death Is A Lonely Business. They were old enough to have enjoyed the halcyon days earlier in the century when Venice was perhaps the most exciting place on the west coast. It is as if they had partied on the Titanic, but by the time Bradbury arrived they were clinging to rafts for dear life.

It is this atmosphere that is the foundation of Bradbury’s murder mystery where lonely people are put out of their misery by an unknown murderer. While this murderer was running rampant in Venice and in Bunker Hill, another community soon to be “renewed,” old Venice was experiencing its own death as Abbot Kinney’s Windward Pier and Amusement Park fell before an L.A. wrecking crew.

The Pier had been a center of Venice since its founding in 1905. Its rides, midway, movie theater and performance areas had set Venice apart from staid old Los Angeles.

The L.A. city fathers hated the libertine atmosphere of Venice and its Pier. When the Kinney Company filed routine paperwork after World War II for the renewal of its lease of the Pier (which Abbot Kinney had built), it was denied. The Kinney heirs had no clout downtown and could not save this part of Abbot Kinney’s dream. The destruction is portrayed in gruesome detail by Bradbury. Venice sank further into the fog.

This is the gloomy atmosphere that Orson Wells portrayed a couple of years later when he decided that Venice would make the perfect stand-in for Tijuana in the film, Touch of Evil.

It was also the perfect cover for the Beats, who were hiding out from 1950s mainstream America. It led Lawrence Lipton to call Venice, the “slum by the sea.” By the late ‘50s Venice had sunk even lower as more than half the great old buildings on Ocean Front Walk and Windward Avenue, including the imposing St. Mark’s Hotel, at Windward and Ocean Front Walk, were toppled by order of L.A. Code Enforcers.

I encountered what was left of this Venice when I arrived in 1968. An empty Boardwalk, cheap rooms, a pervading sense of poverty and decay. I loved it.

Bradbury had arrived in Venice with his family in 1942. They had taken up residence at 662 Venice Blvd. It was at this location that he began work on The Martian Chronicles, which is really a series of vignettes stuck together as a novel. Until recently, the family home had survived, and even sported a plaque announcing its literary greatness. In 2008, the historic home was bulldozed in a barbaric display of callousness to make room for an upscale art gallery.

Delores Hanney of the Venice Historical Society, who interviewed Bradbury, believes that at some point he moved into an apartment closer to the beach. In the novel – which is accurate in all other descriptions about Venice – the protagonist lived in a $30 a month room, across the street from a gas station and between the beach and the canals (A free Beachhead will be awarded the first person to identify this location.).

What else did Bradbury write while he lived in Venice? Probably a lot of short stories, like The Long Rain, which he attempted to sell to magazines. Some of them may have found their way into The Illustrated Man and other books. He was probably already thinking about Fahrenheit 451, which was published in 1953.

Bradbury left Venice in 1950 or ‘51. Venice of his day could accommodate a struggling writer, but having an author who was becoming a household name might have caused the stampede to the beach to start years earlier than it did.

Bradbury did not forget Venice. He returned frequently to bike or walk around his old home town. In later years, he spoke at the Abbot Kinney Venice Library under the auspices of the Venice Historical Society.

He wrote Death Is A Lonely Business in 1985. By then the circus wagons had been pulled out of the canals, the oil wells had given way to high-priced condos in the Peninsula, the Red Cars had stopped running, and those wonderful fogs had become infrequent.

Bradbury loved the Red Cars, and trains in general. He often took trains instead of flying. The man who traveled to other worlds in his imagination never learned how to drive a car. In low-income Venice of the 1940s, when he was growing up, it was a luxury most people could not afford. Besides, there was the wonderful Red Car system that would take you anywhere under the mountains. In Venice, then as now, one could quickly walk or bike anywhere.

In Death Is A Lonely Business, Bradbury’s alter ego says he wants to live forever. Ninety-one years is not forever, but it’s more than most people get. Even so, Ray Bradbury does have a shot at immortality through his books, which are as fresh and exciting as the day they were written.

For more about Ray Bradbury, see a 1963 film biography of Ray Bradbury, including shots of Venice: http://bit.ly/NJwFTq

A new short film based on Bradbury’s Kaleidoscope is currently making the rounds of theaters and film festivals. It was the Grand Prize Winner in the 2012 New Media Film Festival.   

July 1, 2012

Lane Kirkland – The Last Cold Warrior

This article was written in 1995 before the AFL-CIO

president’s fall from power. However, it includes relevant

information on the history of that organization and its involvement

with right wing organizations and the government’s foreign policy

objectives. The title should not be taken literally. There are still

many important “cold warriors” in the AFL-CIO establishment waiting

for the day to return to power.

By Jim Smith

They won’t be toppling larger-than-life statues of Lane Kirkland, but

in many other respects the AFL-CIO chief’s slow-motion fall from

power parallels the demise of his hated enemies in the former Soviet

Bloc. Land Kirkland, Cold Warrior par excellence and scholarly leader

of 13.3 million workers, apparently has been outmaneuvered by his old

allies, the presidents of unions who hold a majority of the votes at

the AFL-CIO convention this October. 

The palace revolution against the 73-year-old Kirkland seems to have

the support of the great majority of labor union activists. When the

magazine Labor Notes asked its readers to vote for their choice for

AFL-CIO president, nearly 800 responded. Only five voted to retain

Kirkland. When hundreds of local and national union leaders turned

out to hear Kirkland at an AFL-CIO forum, April 21 in Los Angeles,

not one speaker took advantage of an open mike to urge Kirkland to

continue his tenure. 

The opposition to Kirkland surfaced earlier this year, but his

troubles have their roots in foreign and domestic events that began

during the Reagan years. While Ronald Reagan, to Kirkland’s delight,

was overheating the Soviet economy by forcing it to try to keep up

with a greatly expanded arms race, he was also giving the green light

to corporations to declare war on their unions. 

The Social Compact

%%An informal social compact between corporations and unions dating

back to mid-century had brought relative labor peace and prosperity

to the two sides. Corporations agreed to wage and benefit increases

in ritualized contract negotiations every three years. Labor

institutionalized its struggle by taking it off the shop floor and

into arbitration hearings. Collective bargaining arbitration and

labor board proceedings were handled by labor relations

“professionals.” The role left to rank-and-file members was to pay

their dues and gratefully accept annual wage increases. 

In order to hold up its end of the social compact, “responsible”

union leaders had to clean house. Communists, Socialists and even

apolitical militants were all tarred with the red-baiting brush. With

the help of anti-Communists industry councils and Congressional

committees, those wanting to continue the day-to-day struggles

against management either were driven out of their jobs or learned to

shut up. Unions came to resemble insurance companies to whom members

would turn on rare occasions when they had a problem on the job. 

By the 1970s, foreign competition was forcing U.S. manufacturers to

restructure in order to maintain high levels of profit. Auto, Steel,

Rubber, Electrical and other industries began closing plants and

making massive layoffs. Some local unions tried to form coalitions

against plant closings. The results, in most cases, were pathetic.

Community organizations that hadn’t heard from a union in 30 years

were asked to help save the jobs of some of the highest paid workers

in town. In the end, the plants closed and the unions were shown to

be powerless. Corporate observers got a first-hand look at how weak

labor had become. 

In retrospect, the wave of plant closings was only the opening sally

before the all-out assault. The declaration of war was made by Ronald

Reagan, in 1981, when he fired striking air traffic controllers who

worked for the federal government. When PATCO struck, Reagan

responded by permanently replacing 12,000 highly-skilled workers. It

was the labor relations equivalent of tactical nuclear weapons. 

During the previous years of the social compact, strikes were usually

a set piece. The union walked out and the company obligingly closed

its plant (often using up excess inventory). In many cases, health

benefit payments continued to be made by the employer and company

credit unions made loans to needy strikers. 

Sidney Lens described a steel strike during this period: “At one of

the Chicago mills, the United States Steel Company put up a desk,

inside its gates, for the picket captain. It ran a power line and

water to the union’s six trailers where strikers were resting. One

night it bought the boys some beer. At another mill, the corporation

provided movable, washrooms for the union men.”‘ Ironically, Lens

reminisced, if the strike had been in 1936 or 1896, “there would have

been strikebreakers, beatings, arrests, injunctions.” Lens, and too

many union leaders, believed that the old days would never


In one stroke, Reagan removed the strike as an option for the vast

majority of workers. Now, workers had to choose between going on

strike and keeping their jobs. In 1974, there had been 424 strikes

each involving at least 1,000 workers. By 1994, there were only 45

such strikes. 

Labor losing new class war

%%Since PATCO, the new class war has been a rout for labor. Real

weekly wages (in 1982 dollars) fell from $315 in 1972 to only $253 in

1995. For millions of workers, health care premiums. formerly fully

paid by the company were now at least partially coming out of

workers” reduced paychecks. Pay cuts, not raises, turned up in

thousands,of company collective bargaining proposals. In most

negotiations, unions fought a slow retreat on contract language

provisions that made life at work bearable. Many unions began

claiming victory if they didn’t have to accept everything the company

wanted to take away. 

In the 1980s, organizing the unorganized slowed to a crawl as

corporations hired professional union busters who promised to

maintain a “union-free environment.” In long, drawn-out election

campaigns, unions were hard-pressed to point to any good reasons why

workers should risk the wrath of their bosses and vote for the union.

Union-busters raised the specter of years of contract negotiations,

lower wages, lower benefits, exorbitant dues and strikes that

couldn’t be won. Many union administrators concluded that organizing

was not a good investment of resources and gave up. 

Union membership that had peaked at 35.5 percent of the workforce in

1945 did not drop below 30 percent until 1973. The slow decline

became a joy-ride downhill in the 1980s and 1990s and stands today at

15.5 percent. 

It may have been just bad luck for Lane Kirkland that he took

organized labor’s helm in 1979 just as the roof fell in. The election

of a Democratic president in 1992 actually made his plight worse.

Rising expectations throughout the labor movement after Clinton’s

election came more from blind faith than from pronouncements of the

new Democratic administration. Clinton’s labor secretary, Robert

Reich, was a Harvard professor, not a union person. Reich believed in

job retraining and labor-management cooperation to boost

productivity, but had little to say about unions. 

Anticipation grew into alarm as Clinton and the Democrats first

fumbled the jobs bill, then health care reform, and passed NAFTA

without promised labor protections. Last summer, Democrats failed to

shut off a mock-filibuster by Republicans against a bill that would

have outlawed the permanent replacement,of strikers. Some in labor,

including AFL-CIO ,Secretary-Treasurer Tom Donahue promised that a

forthcoming report by the Dunlop Commission would spark irresistible

pressure for labor law reform in favor of unions. Meanwhile,

anti-union Republicans won control of the House of Representatives,

in spite of Kirkland and Donahue’s best efforts on behalf of


Instead of leading the, way to labor law reform, the report of the

Dunlop Commission, released in January, proved to be the final nail

in Kirkland’s political coffin. ‘The report urged the creation of

labor management committees to boost productivity against foreign

competition. But even the Bush-appointed National Labor Relations

Board had concluded such committees were illegal if they talked about

wages, hours, and working conditions. The 1935 Wagner Act outlawing

company unions applied to any organizations dominated by management

that intruded into areas reserved for unions. 

Congressional Republicans, sensing a good thing, immediately

introduced the Team Act which would I amend the labor code to permit

wide-ranging employer-dominated committees in the workplace. 

The one-party state begins to crack

%%If the 13-million-member labor federation was a country, it would

be among the oldest one-party states in the world. From 1917 until

its demise, eight held supreme power in the Soviet Union. During the

same period, the American Federation of Labor, and later the AFL-CIO,

was led by four people-Samuel Gompers, William Green, George Meany,

and Lane Kirkland. 

Until January 28, understanding what went on at the top level of the

AFL-CIO was. an art akin to that of a Kremlinologist analyzing the

relative positions of Soviet leaders atop Lenin’s tomb during the

annual May Day parade. And even the Washington Post article that

first reported unhappiness with Kirkland failed to mention the name

of a single international union president. All were afraid to speak

on the record. 

Slowly they emerged from the woodwork. Gerald McEntee of the million

member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees

(AFSCME) became the spokesperson. John Sweeney of the Service

Employees and Richard Trumka,of the Mine Workers became rumored

candidates. With the exception of Ron Carey, President of the

Teamsters, and Trumka, none of the insurgents are particularly known

for their support of union democracy or rank-and-file militancy. Yet,

they know that the situation is desperate and something drastic must

be done. 

Perhaps fearful that the precedent of deposing a lack-luster

president might ‘spread, most of the dissident leaders had,hoped to

convince Kirkland to go peacefully. The group would then install Tom

Donahue as a one-term president while a new leader was groomed.

Donahue spoiled this neat scenario, May 8, when he suddenly announced

his retirement. The next day, Kirkland proclaimed he was running for

reelection, setting the stage for the first-ever contested election

for AFL-CIO leadership. 

Differences remain among the rebels as to how radical the AFL-CIO

reform must be. However, John Sweeney, a moderate, who leads one of

the most successful unions acknowledges that the labor movement is

“irrelevant to the vast majority of unorganized workers.” Sweeney

calls for building grass-roots political committees, committing third

of unions’ revenues to organizing and initiating multi-union,

industry-wide campaigns to regain labor’s strength and size. 


Lane Kirkland, the person who has presided over labor’s free-fall

during the past 15 years does not fit the stereotype of a union

leader. Born in 1922, in the small town of Camden, South Carolina,

Kirkland went to college instead of into a plant or mill. During

World War II, he graduated from an accelerated program at the U.S.

Merchant Marine Academy and went to sea for a few years, ultimately

rising to First Mate and earning his entree into the labor movement,

membership in the Masters, mates and Pilots union. 

After World War II, Kirkland’s career took a curious turn. He earned

a Bachelor’s degree from Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service in

1948. After graduation, some say he went to work for the State

Department, others allege that was just a cover for intelligence

work. Ultimately Kirkland turned up at AFL-CIO headquarters and

quickly became George Meany’s administrative assistant. In 1969, he

was elevated to the number two position, secretary-treasurer, and

nominated by Meany to succeed him as president in 1979. 

During the Cold War, unions were enlisted by the CIA and State

Department to join the fight against communism. Money and resources

were channeled to anti-Communist unions throughout the world, How

much came from members’ dues and how much was laundered from the CIA

won’t be known until the AFL-CIO archives are opened someday. 

A divorce of the AFL-CIO from the national’s foreign policy

establishment would be a historic day. What that scene might be like

was described in an AFSCME-sponsored union history, Power to the

Public Worker, by Richard Billings and John Greenya. The book

chronicles Jerry Wurf’s rise to power in 1964: “When Wurf first

arrived at AFSCME headquarters following the 1964 convention, he

noticed the presence of what he describes as ‘trench-coat’ types.

Wurf and others .had heard rumors of an AFSCME relationship with the

Central Intelligence Agency, even the possibility that CIA funds had

found their way into the effort to reelected Zander (Wurf’s


It was disclosed later that other unions, including the Newspaper

Guild, Communications Workers of America, Retail Clerks (now United

Food and Commercial Workers) and the Oil, Chemical and Atomic

Workers, had also taken CIA money. 

Kirkland and the Socal Democrats

Paralleling Kirkland’s rise from ship’s First Mate to Captain of

the labor movement has been the involvement of a shadowy organization

called the Social Democrats, USA which has its headquarters in the

AFL-CIO building. SDUSA is the most rightwing of three splinters of

the old Norman Thomas-led Socialist Party. Public members of the

publicity shy organization include the late Bayard: Rustin, longtime

head of the AFL-CIO’s A. Phillip Randolph Institute and Albert

Shanker, President of the American Federation of Teachers and a

staunch supporter of Kirkland. 

The major tenet of SDUSA and the

AFL-CIO’s International Affairs Department continues to be

anticommunism. This guiding philosophy led both organizations to

support the war in Vietnam and aid right-wing dictatorships around

the world. Under Kirkland, the AFL-CIO and various unions send money

and personnel to intervene around the world on behalf of the U. .

government. Sometimes, union aid is sent directly but mostly it is

funneled through Various labor foreign policy groups including the

American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD) for Latin

America, the African-American Labor Center, the Asian-American Free

Labor Institute and the Free Trade Union Institute, for Europe. 

According to AFL-CIO documents, these four organizations have battled

the establishment of progressive governments and labor movements or

have promoted American interests in Jamaica, El Salvador, Nicaragua,

45 African countries, 30 Asian and Pacific countries, and in several

European countries. Kirkland chairs each of these four organizations

and chooses the executive directors. The specific activities of the

four organizations are buried within the files of the AFL-CIO’s

(International Affairs Department, headed by Kirkland crony, Charles


One of the public activities of the International Affairs Department

is the publication of a slick quarterly magazine, Forum. The latest

issue devotes all 44 pages to a diatribe against unions in eastern

Europe, years after the collapse of the Soviet Bloc. Not a word is

mentioned about cross-border solidarity with Mexican workers, NAFTA,

GATT, runaway shops, or other issues that directly affect American


One of the proud achievements of the Kirkland administration is the

co-creation of the National Endowment for Democracy, which was active

in opposing the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. The NED was co-sponsored,

by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, one of labor’s traditional enemies,

the Democratic Party, and the Republican Party. 

In its 1985 Executive Council Report, the AFL-CIO shows the

possibility of money laundering. It reports that the AIFLD received

$7.1 million the previous year for “34 special programs to promote

and strengthen democracy in Latin American and the Caribbean.” AIFLD

got the money from the Free Trade Union Institute, which on another

page is described as receiving much of its funding,from the National

Endowment for Democracy. Kirkland and the AFL-CIO were years ahead of

Oliver North. 

In 1993, after the fall of communism, the AFL-CIO was still spending

more of its own money, $2,466,000, on international affairs than it

spent on education, legislation, or organizing. 

Domestic AFL-CIO departments also seem to be focused on political

orthodoxy and control. Frontlash, a youth group run out of the

federation’s headquarters has been instrumental in recruiting

“right-thinking” college students and placing them in unions and in

state and county branches of the AFL-CIO. One AFL-CIO staff member,

who talked on condition that neither he nor his AFL-CIO branch be

identified, bragged that his region had never been infiltrated-.

“From time to time, they try to get someone in, but we usually spot

them before they come on staff. If not, we weed them out real


The intersection of anti-communism and conservatism has drawn strange

bedfellows to the top rungs of labor. Malcomb Forbes, Jr., not known

for his love of unions, has heaped effusive praise in the pages of

his magazine for Kirkland’s work on the board that oversees Radio

Free Europe. The right-wing magazine, The American Spectator,

eulogized Tom Kahn, AFL-CIO International Affairs Director when he

died in 1992 for being stronger in his support for Lech Walesa than

the Reagan administration. The magazine reminisced about his 1980

speech to an SDUSA gathering in which he predicted, “the destruction

of Communism was in reach if only the democratic world approached the

challenge with firmness.” 

The White Male Club

If some leaders of the top unions and the AFL-CIO are united by

ideology, nearly all are united by ,race, gender,. and age. While

many unions seek to develop African-American, Latino, and Asian

organizers, it’s a different story at the decision-making levels of

labor. When asked recently how affirmative action can be extended to

the top levels of labor, Kirkland responded that it’s up to the

affiliates (unions) to make the change. However, even unions that

represent large numbers of people of color, such as those in the

garment, hotel, and other low wage industries, are led by white


Affirmative action works well for white males, particularly those

with family connections. Arthur Coia, one of the insurgents against

Kirkland, and his father have both occupied the office of president

of the Laborers Union. Gerald McEntee, AFSCME President and

spokesperson for the anti-Kirkland committee is the son of William

McEntee who headed the powerful Philadelphia AFSCME Council. The

elder McEntee was an old-guard candidate against Jerry Wurf”s

insurgent team. Wurf, himself, slowly changed from a young rebel into

an old white male who died in office. After Wurf’s death, McEntee

beat out Secretary-Treasurer William Lucy, who would have been the

first African-American president of a major union. 

It’s hardly a secret in the Service Employees,union that John Sweeney

wants to replace Kirkland. Sweeney is seen by opponents in his union

as another over-paid, autocratic, white male president. Sweeney

supporters, however, point to renewed militancy and organizing

activity under his presidency. SEIU is one of the few unions to

commit substantial funds to organizing the unorganized (the Mine

Workers is another). The 30 percent of SEIU’s budget that is spent

for organizing has been winning results. For instance, the

industry-wide Justice for Janitors campaign has raised their

unionization rate in the Los Angeles area from 15 to 70 percent of

the workforce. 

Richard Trumka, another likely candidate for either Kirkland’s or

Donahue’s job, is a white male union president, but at 45 is

considerably younger that his colleagues. Under Trumka’s leadership,

the revived United Mine Workers have undertaken and won major

strikes. Trumka, a miner from a family of miners, went to law school

before defeating the corrupt Tony Boyle machine that controlled the

union. Boyle went to jail for the murder of union reformer Jock

Yablonsky. A favorite with the rank-and-file, Trumka easily won the

Labor Notes straw ballot for AFL-CIO president. 

The irrepressible miners union

Perhaps because of the dangerous nature of their work, the Mine

Workers have always displayed a militancy not found in many other

AFL-CIO unions. Miner’s have upset more than one carefully built

union, apple cart. 

There was one AFL president that no one talks about. John McBride, a

United Mine Workers president, unseated the AFL icon, Samuel Gompers

in Nov. 1893. The Pullman Railway strike, led by Eugene Debs, had

just been lost and many accused Gompers of sabotaging it. The

Socialist Party was growing rapidly and Gompers was anti-Socialist. A

Populist movement was sweeping the Midwest. Gompers was against it.

John McBride, like Richard Trumka, was president of the United Mine

Workers. Gompers made a comeback the following year and never again

was an incumbent AFL or AFL-CIO president in danger of winning


Yet another Mine Workers president, John L. Lewis, punched an

old-guard AFL leader J.C. Hutcheson of the Carpenters in the nose

during the 1935 AFL convention in Atlantic City. Lewis’s physical and

symbolic blow started a chain of events that resulted in the founding

of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The CIO, in turn,

organized the mass production industries and brought organized labor

to its pinnacle of power and prestige in the late 1930s and


The Mine Workers, under Trumka’s leadership, have pioneered a

rediscovered tactic for the labor movement-civil disobedience.

Members from a growing number of unions have begun sitting down in

busy intersections, hotel lobbies and government buildings to cause

mass arrests. “CD” is even on the new curriculum of the AFL-CIO’s

Organizing Institute. 

As labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan pointed out in his book, Which Side

Are You On: Trying To Be For Labor When It’s Flat On Its Back, almost

all of the tactics used by labor during the great upsurge of the

1930s, including sit-ins, mass picketing, secondary boycotts and

strikes over grievances, are now illegal. It’s also illegal to engage

in civil disobedience, such as blocking traffic, but the penalty, in

most cases, is a slap on the hand. CD can be viewed as an attempt to

find a tactic that won’t nail the union on serious legal charges or

big fines. It’s also a cry for media attention from a movement that

needs public support. 

Steve Lerner, the architect of SEIU’s Justice for Janitors campaign,

says labor must recognize that it’s now in “a life and death struggle

with the very corporations, politicians and government with whom

we’ve spent a lifetime building relationships and trying to get

along.” Civil disobedience and non-violent direct action are two

tactics labor must embrace, says Lerner. Militant actions, “show that

the labor movement is worth fighting for and it stands for values and

beliefs that are so important that they are worth going to jail for,”

continues Lerner. He calls for organizing 1 percent o labor’s members

into an army of activists ready to risk arrest. 

That the AFL-CIO should lead any struggle is contrary to the long

cherished beliefs of Lane Kirkland and his predecessor, George Meany.

The CIO grew rapidly in the 1930s and 1940s by coordinating

organizing drives for entire industries. When Walter Reuther,

president of the CIO, and George Meany, president of the AFL, brought

the two organizations together in 1955, the AFL won the battle of

style and substance. Meany scoffed at Reuther’s organizing

initiatives: “He was always urging a big organizing drive … there

was never much of a follow-through on it,” said the former plumber

who bragged he never walked a picket line. Kirkland, like his mentor,

would rather leave organizing and coordinated bargaining to the 83

national and international unions that belong to his federation. 

Disaster upon disaster

Lane Kirkland was recommended to George Meany back in the 1950s,

says a Maritime union official, as someone who knew his way around

Congress. Instead of remaining his asset, Congress has now become an

albatross around Kirkland’s neck. Not only has he failed to win any

labor law reform during his 15-year tenure, but he almost gave the

store away in 1992. Union members learned through newspaper stories

on June 11 that Kirkland had offered to limit unions’ right to strike

in exchange for restricting the use of permanent replacements. Not

only was it the first time in history that labor had voluntarily

offered to limit the right to strike, but it came out of the blue and

was quickly rejected by Congressional Republicans. 

Kirkland’s forgive-and-forget attitude toward Democrats who voted for

NAFTA also angered union members who,’a short-time earlier, had been

told that thousands of jobs were at stake in the free-trade vote.

After being shown such generosity by Kirkland, pro-labor Democrats

voted in droves for GATT, in spite of the AFL-CIO’s opposition. 

The continual drubbing labor receives from Democrats has not moved

Kirkland to question the AFL-CIO’s link with them. Although several

international unions have officially embraced Labor Party Advocates,

which is campaigning for the creation of a working-class based

political party, Kirkland sees no need for creating a labor


“I can only tell you that we do have a Labor Party. It’s called COPE.

It’s the Committee on Political Education. It functions independently

of parties and is for all practical purposes a labor party,” Kirkland

told reporters last February. That COPE runs no, candidates of its

own and is repeatedly trapped into supporting moderate or

conservative Democrats as the lesser of two evils seems to be beside

the point. 

Labor’s political course will be hotly debated even if Kirkland is

driven from office in October. Of the insurgents-Trumka, Ron Carey of

the Teamsters, and Bob Wages of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic

Workers-support Labor Party Advocates, while McEntee, Sweeney, and

other international presidents remain firmly committed to the


Even if the most militant of Kirkland’s opponents take charge of the

AFL-CIO, they will still face a daunting task of giving unions and

workers some power in the global’ economy. The technological changes

that have been called the second industrial revolution are changing

the nature of work, dismantling factories and moving whole industries

around the world faster than unions can organize workers, even under

the best conditions. 

The rebel alliance

In labor’s upsurge in the 1930s, the CIO made a tactical alliance

with the Communists to fight this country’s capitalists. During the

social compact, Meany and Kirkland made a strategic alliance with

capitalists to fight communism, I at home and abroad. To win workers’

rights in the new global economy, the AFL-CIO will have to align with

workers, of all political hues, throughout the world to fight

capitalists, regardless of whether they are headquartered in Tokyo,

London, or New York. 

Some unions, like the Teamsters and United Electrical Workers, are

sending help and organizers to Mexico to defend their unions.

Cross-border organizing drives and coordinated bargaining led by a

revived AFL-CIO may be the only way to keep U.S. workers’ wages from

sinking to third world levels. 

In spite of Kirkland’s slow uptake, the Cold War is over. A

monolithic Soviet Bloc no longer blocks access to any markets.

Regional and national capital is free to roam the world in search of

the highest rate of profit. Only a ragtag band of labor unions,

divided by craft, industry, and country, stands in the way of

complete and total domination over the workplace by transnational


This article, without the subheads, appeared in Z Magazine,

July/August 1995 issue of Z Magazine. Republished by James R Smith on Nov. 10, 2022.

Time for a VenicEx from our Overlords

July 2016 – The Brits have voted, against the advice of every 1 percenter in the world, to make a “Brexit” (leave) from the European Union across the channel. Perhaps it’s time to think about how Venice can leave our overlords in L.A. City Hall and recapture our cityhood. Every revolution must have a good slogan. Could it be “VenicExit”? Or perhaps, just “Vexit.”

This month, Venice turns 111. In spite of her age, she’s looking hot. Yes, she has a case of melanoma, or is it just zits? In any case, those Big Box pimples can’t ruin her long-time charm and beauty.

Recently supporters of these BB monstrosities won the Little League Neighborhood Council majority and, with it, the right to “advise” their betters at City Hall. But with Venice, it ain’t over, until it’s over. It’s true an infusion of wealth has come to Venice, distorting the lay of the land. Oddly, all that money being raked in by soware companies residing in Venice hasn’t diminished the number of homeless people on our streets. Nor has it contributed to the beauty of Venice.

Some longtime supporters of cityhood lately have told me that they are now fearful of being overwhelmed by the swarm of people in Venice who, if not truly wealthy, are at least rich. Fear not, ye wretched of the earth. Don’t underestimate our situation. Wait until Venice works her wiles on unsuspecting newcomers. Soon, they will be defending the hallowed streets of Venice, and quoting Land Use provisions on setback and fence height. And even the most incorrigible and dogmatic developers and their kin may end up taking shelter under the big tent of cityhood.

The fight for cityhood in Venice has always been a multi-class affair. e desire for self-determination and democracy has never been an issue just for the downtrodden. In fact, the founders of this country, whose birthday we also celebrate in July, included wealthy slave owners, cultured Bostonian merchants and Philadelphia industrialists. In addition, yeoman farmers flocked to the cause and did the actual fighting. Women kept the home fires burning, while slaves and Native Americans probably would have been better off had the British won.

Although Venice is a city, not a country, the same conditions mostly apply. Foremost is the right of self-determination, which is acknowledged as an international legal principle.

Venetians have shown in poll after poll that if they were allowed self-determination, they would vote for a return of their cityhood which was taken from us in 1925 under fraudulent means by an expansionist Los Angeles.

The law was changed after Venice was absorbed, making it more difficult to exit than to enter. e most undemocratic provision was a new requirement that to leave, Venice would need an affirmative vote from the entire city of Los Angeles. Since Venice’s population is about 1 percent that of the megalopolis, this is nearly impossible to accomplish.

Venice simply doesn’t have the resources that the moguls of L.A. could muster to run an untruthful campaign designed to smash a yes vote in the rest of the city. Not even the San Fernando Valley had the resources to counter the constant tales of woe and disaster that would befall every family in Los Angeles if the Valley or Hollywood could make good their bid to escape. Still, voters living in the Valley did vote for cityhood.

A lot has changed since that attempted prison break in 2002. For one, working-class Brits, fed up with economic austerity and more and more wealth accruing to upper-class twits in London and Brussels, struck out into an unknown future. ey overcame a hostile campaign in which those for Brexit were called right-wingers, regardless of where they stood on the political spectrum. ey were called anti-immigrant even though the current government has shut its doors to thousands of refugees just across the channel in Calais, and they have even banned Afghan interpreters who worked for British troops from having safe haven in England.

The winds of self-determination are blowing around the world. Our own namesake, Venezia, recently voted in favor of leaving Italy and restoring the Republic of Venice more than 200 years aer their independence was taken from them by Napoleon.

Catalonia, including Barcelona, has a powerful movement to restore its country which is now part of Spain. Scotland is now demanding a referendum for independence from Britain, and there are calls for the reunification of Ireland.

Our little Venice is scarcely more than a mile square with about 40,000 people, yet is more populous than about 45 of the 88 cities in Los Angeles County. Because of soaring property values and many thousands of tourists, Venice is well equipped to maintain a city government designed by and run by its people, no matter how much they disagree with each other.

Our grievances against our L.A. rules are too many to enumerate in short article. Suffice it to say that City Hall has never cared for Venice. ey hate our independent ways, our love of art, and sand and sea. ey hate the beauty of our beloved city, and the best among them are ashamed of how they’ve treated her.

So how can win back our city while enjoying every minute of it?

1. Circulate a petition for cityhood. It doesn’t have to be official. Let’s judge the sentiments of our neighbors and find others who will help. A few years ago, Dr. John Michel, a kindly homeless man, went everywhere with a Venice cityhood petition. He collected thousands of signatures. Unfortunately, when he died in 2010 no one picked up his pencil and clipboard and carried on.

2. Let’s change the law. It should be our decision as Venetians whether we remain or exit. Let’s go to the legislature (where L.A. is not very popular) and change the law. Let’s explore the possibility of a lawsuit to remove the provision that all of L.A. must vote.

3. Let’s circulate an official petition for cityhood with as many Venetians as possible doing the circulating, and signing.

4. We’ll have to prove that we can afford to be a city. We’ll have to decide if we are going to contract for police and fire, and other services. We’ll have to cost out the alternatives. We will have to make decisions for ourselves!

5. Let’s win our election in a Venice Tsunami.

-Jim Smith

Portrait of an Organizer

Union organizer Yolanda Miranda gazes out of her Venice apartment at the crowd on the boardwalk. She’s finally kicking back – or so it seems, until she pronounces, “I would bet you anything, half those people hate their jobs and their bosses.”

Organizing is not a job for 53-year-old Miranda. It’s a way of life. “I’ve been organizing since I was a kid, picking grapes with my family in the San Joaquin Valley,” says Miranda. “You’ve got to be born with a love of people and a hatred for injustice if you want to be a union organizer – and a lack of sense about when to keep your mouth shut,” she laughs.

The phone rings. It’s a hospital worker in Palm Springs complaining about discrimination against Filipino nurses. “Don’t worry. You’re not alone,” Miranda assures her. “We’re gonna keep at them until management learns it’s got to treat everyone with respect.”

Yolanda Miranda is a bad boss’ worst nightmare. She is what Pete Wilson or Ronald Reagan would describe as an outside agitator or rabble-rouser. Always behind the scenes, always pushing workers to stand up for their rights. “I’m a front-line organizer,” she says, “constantly out there with the workers. I’d go crazy sitting in an office being a union official.”

Miranda is not someone who can be easily run over – literally. Once, while leafleting in front of a garment shop in Arizona, she was intentionally struck by a supervisor driving a van. Miranda picked herself up and chased the van down the street to the cheers of the organizing committee.

Her four children received a liberal education by participating in rallies, marches, picketlines, strikes and boycotts with their mother. Two of them grew up to be boxers. One – Paul Banke – was world Super Bantamweight champion and local hero at the Inglewood Forum before being diagnosed with AIDS. Banke credits his mother with giving him the courage to become the first fighter to go public with his condition in order to build awareness of the AIDS epidemic.

Miranda bristles when I suggest she empowers people. “That’s a Yuppie word. No one can empower anyone else. All you can do is show people that they have the power within themselves to determine their future or change the way they’re treated at work.”

Fear is the great enemy that has to be defeated before people can be free, Miranda believes. “Cesar (Chavez) taught me the importance of having hopes and dreams. Without them, you can’t overcome your fears and stand up for your rights on the job.”

It was natural for Miranda, coming from a migrant farmworker family, to embrace the hopes and dreams of Chavez and the United Farm Workers union. She became a field organizer in Salinas, and loved it. “That was my first experience with seeing how people in an organizing campaign can grow right before your eyes. They stop being depressed. They stop fighting with each other. You can see the energy radiating right out of them.”

By now, Miranda, herself, seems to be glowing. “I admit it. Organizing is my passion. I get high being around people who are fighting injustice,” she cries.

Suddenly, her eyes flash with fire when I ask if unions are out of date. “That’s crazy. As long as there’s management, corporations, bad bosses, workers will need to organize.” It’s true, Miranda admits, unions have been losing ground lately. “That’s because people are scared silly of losing their jobs. It’s the fear factor at work. But it’s turning around. Just wait and see,” she predicts.

Miranda came to the urban labor battleground during the UFW grape boycott, and has since became a much sought-after organizer. In the last fifteen years, she’s organized garment workers, hospital workers, reporters, pressmen, office workers and registered nurses for a variety of unions.

All workers are pretty much the same, says Miranda, whether they think of themselves as professionals or whether they have dirt and grease under their finger nails after a day at work. “Everyone wants the same things, a little dignity and respect, the ability to make ends meet and to know they’ll have a job next week or next year. But, that’s becoming harder and harder to realize in this country. That’s why unions will make a strong comeback. People have not choice but to organize,” she confides.

In the past few months, Miranda has rebuilt a long-dormant organizing committee at a desert hospital. A two-year delay caused when the hospital went to court to try to block a union election victory made the job harder than usual.

Miranda outlines her basic approach to organizing. “The first step is getting workers talking to one another about their common problems. Any group of workers can do it, you don’t need an organizer to hold your hand. A union organizer’s role is to give workers the resources and technical assistance they need to win,” says Miranda. “Just don’t wait until massive layoffs are announced or the company is sold,” she cautions. “Then it may be too late.”

“Once people develop trust with their coworkers, they’re ready to take on the boss,” she declares. “It’s easier in a small workplace where everyone knows everyone else. If there are hundreds of workers, that’s where my computer and database come in. We make sure every department is represented by someone at regular meetings.”

In an organizing drive, most unions collect workers’ authorization signatures calling for an election for collective bargaining. If the union wins, its bargaining committee can negotiate a binding contract that gives workers some protections and guaranteed pay and benefit levels.

“We can also ask for direct recognition of our union by the boss. That’s faster, but hard to do if the boss was the problem in the first place,” says Miranda. “Another way is to strike for recognition, but this takes a higher level of commitment than most workers are willing to make in today’s political climate.”

Being a woman and a Latina (don’t call her a Hispanic – “that’s the government’s name for us,” growls Miranda) has both helped and hurt her work as an organizer. “People of color are often nearly invisible to management. I can go into a workplace and blend in without anyone getting wise.”

On the other hand, discrimination is a constant factor. “Racism is the best tool ever invented to divide workers. Sexism is very close behind. In organizing, we have to break down the barriers of workers congregating only with their own type. Unions are the most racially mixed organizations in America. Like everything else it’s a struggle. I have to constantly urge women and people of color into leadership roles in organizing campaigns.”

One of 14 children, Yolanda Miranda is as Californian as they come. Her family (which includes cousin Luis Valdez, playwright and founder of the Teatro Campesino) has toiled for generations in the fields, and like most farmworkers has reaped few benefits. She believes it is this heritage that motivates both her and Valdez to dedicate their lives to a fight for a better and happier society.

Fighting for a more just society has been an uphill struggle in recent years. “Our family has lived here in California for generations,” Miranda reflects. “We’ve welcomed immigrants coming over California’s eastern border, only to see many of them turn into racists and bigots with Proposition 187 and English-only campaigns.”

The struggle is an uphill one, acknowledges Miranda, observing that we live in two societies in this country. “Out on the street, it’s a democratic country. We have freedom of speech, we can talk and do as we feel. But once we go to work, it’s fascism. For the next eight hours, we have no rights. If we say the wrong thing or the boss just doesn’t like us, he can terminate us. Termination. Now there’s a scary word.”

For Miranda, then, the challenge is to break down the barriers between the political and economic spheres. “All we’re doing by organizing unions is bringing a little democracy into the workplace. It gives us the right to a voice on the job, the right to a vote on a contract, the right to have a job steward stand up for us just as a lawyer would on the outside. How could anyone with a heart by opposed to this?” asks Miranda.

Beyond Miranda’s apartment, the crowd on the boardwalk is thinning out. “They’ve had their whiff of democracy and freedom,” says the organizer. “Monday morning, it’s back to regimentation and fascism on their jobs.”

(A version of this article appeared in the Los Angeles View)

Welcome Back, May Day

The First of May

Welcome home
 May Day!

It’s so good to see you.

You’ve been gone a long, long time.

Marx knows, we tried to carry on

while you were away.

But it was always the same old people.

It became a reunion for tired old lefties.

We mourned you, May,

thought Joe McCarthy’s thugs

had run you off for good.

Now you’re back in all your power and glory.

A million people marched in L.A.

Hundreds of thousands gathering

at the most unlikely cities.

Even Chicago, where it all began.

I’d say you are definitely back.

And who is turning out on May 1st?

It’s workers, nearly every last one.

Just like in 1890 when we celebrated

the fight for the 8 hour work day

right here in the USA.

Back then, lots of us were immigrants

come to seek a better life,

but finding out we had to fight for it.

Some things never change.

¿Que No?

Not only that,

we’re still fighting for an 8 hour day!

-Jim Smith

In Honor of International Women’s Day, March 8

The Women of Venice

Venice is a feminine town.
Here, we take time to talk and walk
and admire the beauty that surrounds us.

Women of Venice paint the murals.
Women of Venice help the homeless.
Women of Venice stand up to free Venice.

Venice is a matriarchy.
It is The Lady, not The Man,
who inspires our poets.

Women of Venice sing our songs.
Women of Venice help women in need.
Women of Venice sustain the Beachhead.

And it is the women who hear
Mother Earth telling us
we must balance our city with nature.

Women of Venice run our stores.
Women of Venice run our homes.
Women of Venice watch over our canals.

We live by the womb of the world.
From the sea we love came all life,
and the feminine spirit of Venice.

But Los Angeles, built for the Queen of Angels,
was stolen by men whose greed
and craving for land knew no bounds.

Now, L.A. treats Venice
like the victim in a bad marriage
battered by developers and gentrifiers.

Someday, O someday,
Venice will be serene and at peace
when we men learn to act more like women.

Women of Venice - Mardi Gras -3-5-11