Sunday, November 24, 2013

In this hour of union militancy in the retail industry, I am reminded of a Jesuit named Comey and the institute that bore his name

SEIU Janitors Protest Firing by JPMorgan Chase

The Passionate State of Mind: Comey Institute Awakens Organized Labor to 21st Century Conflict Resolution

TITLE:The Passionate State of Mind: Comey Institute Awakens Organized Labor to 21st Century Conflict Resolution
SOURCE:Labor Law Journal 53 no2 98-104 Summ 2002
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    To understand John Lavin it helps to know this story. When he was a 19-year-old, 118-pound wrestler at Bucknell University back in the seventies, he fell in love with his Spanish teacher. One Friday night found him in a van, heading home to campus from a meet at which "I'd been absolutely crushed. My face was all puffy from being ground into the mat. I even had a black eye," he recalled. Despite the face lift, Lavin was diligently finishing up a paper on South American poets that had been due that day in a class he had been unable to attend because of the wrestling meet. This was long before laptops and he didn't have his portable typewriter. Instead, he was meticulously printing the annotated bibliography at the end of the tome when a teammate playfully tossed some Gatorade onto the papers in John's lap.
    "I lost it," he recalls with a look midway between embarrassment and remembered anger. "I went after him. The coach had to stop the van and come back and break it up." Back on campus, John laid out his sodden pages in the men's room of his dorm and guarded them until they dried. He then clipped them together and walked to the Spanish professor's home. Tapping on the back door, he was greeted by the 27-year-old assistant professor. astonished, she invited him into the kitchen and gave him a glass of milk. While she read the tardy tome, he sipped the milk. Finally, she looked up into his face. "That's wonderful," she pronounced.
    "I burst into tears," he confesses. In a Hollywood moment, the professor now takes the student's head and presses it against her bosom. Then, as my dad used to tell me, when Humphrey and Ingrid embraced and the scene shifted, "time passed, son."
    "That never happened," John insists. "The closest I ever came was an invitation to a party at her house sometime later. I felt way out of my depth and spent a lot of time hiding out in the bathroom."
    So here's a guy who starved himself to get down to 118 pounds and still performed credibly on the mats as one of Bucknell's elite grapplers, who tried to tear the heart out of a teammate with the temerity to toss Gatorade on a term paper intended for his beloved Spanish teacher but who sobbed when she told him his work was wonderful and was too shy to capitalize on his new-found status as the teacher's pet. Years later, on the staff of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 1776 in Southeastern Pennsylvania, John was jailed for contempt of court when, during a hearing in which a Montgomery County judge threatened his membership with $500-a-day fines for ignoring a labor injunction, he called the judge a mother_______ on the record in open court.
    "I was a little crazy back then," he explains, stating the obvious. "When I got bailed out I went right from the jail to my office. Sometimes I wouldn't get home for weeks in those days."
    As time passed, John Lavin came to question both missing out on his three children's childhoods and the efficacy of labor-management head-banging. He started searching for a better way to improve the position of the working people to whom he was committed. He believes that he's found that better way as the Director of the Comey Institute for Industrial Relations at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia.
    John Lavin was like a shot of adrenalin straight into the heart of the Comey. If the Institute survives and prospers in the new century, Lavin's passion must be credited as the catalyst. In this, he is the spiritual son of Father Dennis J. Comey who founded the Institute in 1943.
    Comey called himself "the Waterfront Peacemaker," alluding to his work with labor and management on the Philadelphia docks. Some see him as the model for the celluloid priest who defended longshoreman in Elia Kazan's "On the Waterfront" (1954). At about the time he was serving as the chief arbitrator for the Longshoremen and the shippers along the Delaware River in South Philadelphia, Comey was approached by his Society of Jesus to set up a worker education program. A scholar of labor history and an experienced college administrator, the Jesuit mediator proposed a labor-management program "with an emphasis on the hyphen." One of 30 Jesuit colleges and universities scattered across the country, St. Joseph's University on City Avenue on the northwestern edge of Philadelphia County soon became the Comey's home.
    During the next three decades hundreds of union stewards, officers, and organizers, as well as many labor relations professionals from unionized manufacturing firms and other Philadelphia-area employers, passed through Father Comey's program. In 1963, George D. Johnson, Philadelphia Tribune labor columnist and a sometime-Comey student, wrote, "If there is any single yardstick existing by which to measure the depth of learning to be gained, then it would have to be Father Comey's class in ethics." Classes on labor law, grievance and arbitration handling, wage and hour laws were the 'meat and potatoes' curriculum of the Comey in its prime.
    With the decline of organized labor in the 1970s and into the eighties, however, the Comey too declined as enrollment fell and volunteer instructors drifted off to other commitments. Recalls Patrick Coughlin, president of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE) in Philadelphia and current board chair of the Comey, "A few years ago the Institute was dying. It was down to 15 students." St. Joe's president, Reverend Nicholas Rashford put it plainly to the city's labor establishment: "Either labor wanted it or the Institute will die," Coughlin recounted.
    Meanwhile, John Lavin, then the communications director for the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776 out of Norristown, had begun serving the Comey as a part-time volunteer director. Only one full-time member of the university's faculty, Rob Moore of the Sociology Department (where labor relations, such as it was at St. Joe's by the early 1990s, was nominally housed) continued to help staff the Institute. Labor leaders like Coughlin, a number of whom currently serve on the Comey board, bellied up to help resuscitate the panting program.
    Taking their collective clout to Harrisburg, they persuaded the Pennsylvania legislature to appropriate half a million dollars for academic years 1998-99 and 1999-2000 to fund the Comey. First and foremost, this transfusion of public cash facilitated bringing Lavin onboard full-time. It also allowed Lavin to look outside the traditional Comey curriculum and constituency for new opportunities and projects. His visionary eyes have set their sights on a variety of undertakings that represent radical departures not only from the Institute's traditional activities, but also from the typical orientation of organized labor in this era of wagon-circling at the AFL-CIO.
    Approach the little town of Kennett Square, some 25 miles southwest of Philadelphia, from the east and you might be in any one of a hundred similar East Coast communities characterized by hundred-year-old homes transformed into stylish restaurants and shops, calculated to catch the overflow of tourists from the Longwood Botanical Gardens just a couple of miles back up Route One. The community's web site announces, "Kennett Square exemplifies the best of small town America." One thing distinguishes Kennett Square from those hundred other towns. It is the self-proclaimed "Mushroom Capital of the World." The Internet advertisement for the annual Mushroom Festival (September 7th and 8th in 2002) proclaims, "Mushroom cultivation in the United States first began in Kennett Square (of course!) in 1896, when two local florists wanted to make more efficient use of their greenhouses by utilizing the area underneath the shelves used to grow ornamental plants."
    A casual walk down State Street provides a hint about who cultivates all those mushrooms. On one corner a law firm's shingle bears both English and Spanish script, assuring potential clients that the attorneys within are bilingual. A Mexican grocery store at the other end of the street is an even stronger clue. According to Lavin, Mexican migrants have become Mexican immigrants, as mushroom cultivation in Kennett Square has become a year-round enterprise.
    The industry's growth is reflected in the recent closing of the town's Mushroom Museum. At first glance, a closing might appear to be a sign of decline, but, no, the operator's web page assures us. "Things have changed since we first opened the museum/gift shop. It's hard to believe all the businesses that have appeared since 1972 between Kennett Square and Longwood Gardens.... Many varieties of mushrooms are now readily available in every supermarket.... We will be focusing all our efforts on wholesale and website retail aspects of Phillips Mushroom Farms.... The Farms has advanced far beyond our expectations. We've grown from a handful of employees to nearly 300. Phillips Mushroom Farms grows, packages and ships more than 30 million pounds of nine varieties of specialty mushrooms annually." No more time for museums. Sorry folks.
    Let's be clear what mushroom cultivation is and isn't. It isn't, Lavin explains, "agriculture" as that term is commonly understood. Mushrooms are not grown, tended and harvested in fields or orchards. They aren't even cultivated in greenhouses. The mushrooms sheds that dominate the landscape on the west side of Kennett Square are mostly concrete block structures with peaked roofs of metal or shingles. At one end is an air circulation system. Piles of the rich brown-black mulch in which the mushrooms thrive can frequently be seen in big heaps outside the rows of sheds. A mushroom cultivation facility puts the visitor in mind of a factory rather than a farm. And since mushrooms can be cultivated in these controlled conditions year-round, the Mexicans who dominate the workforce--and who might well be typical agricultural migrants anywhere else in America--have tended to put down their own roots in and around Kennett Square.
    One of the major players in Pennsylvania's mushroom industry is Kaolin Mushroom Farms, which operates from three facilities in the vicinity of Kennett Square and reportedly grosses $400 million per year. While Kaolin counts among its workers Cambodians and Vietnamese, the majority are Latino. Beginning in 1989 with the guidance of the Committee to Support Farm Workers (CATA is its Spanish acronym) out of agricultural South Jersey and the Friends of Farm Workers, a public-service law firm in South Philadelphia, the Union de Trabajadores de Kaolin (or Kaolin Workers' Union) began its push for recognition. The union's watershed year was 1993 when it launched a strike and won a representation election.
    Kaolin fired 33 of the union's firebrands and challenged the election results. The company lost on both fronts. In November 1997, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court affirmed the Labor Relations Board's certification of the union's election victory and its consequent right to represent Kaolin's workers in collective bargaining. In 1999, the courts reinstated 11 of the fired union organizers, including Luis Tlaseca, the union's first president.
    Despite the union's victories, the company took its time at the negotiating table, perhaps hoping that footdragging would achieve what termination and litigation could not. But the union's staying power was substantial. Tlaseca used the time while he was terminated from Kaolin productively by helping organize his brothers and sisters at Campbell's and Blue Mountain Mushrooms where elections recently have been won by two-thirds to three-quarters of the votes cast, margins that make mainline unions salivate.
    Meanwhile, back at the Kaolin negotiating table, Lavin, with attorney Art Reed of Friends of Farm Workers and Nelson Carrasquillo of CATA, provided the pro bono expertise and training the young, impoverished union needed to make slow but steady progress. Persistence paid off. By the end of 2001, a collective bargaining agreement was all but complete. And, as John Lavin knows too well, "Getting the first contract is the toughest test of all" for a young union. The union agreed to very modest improvements in wages and benefits ("I don't think the company thought they would accept the final offer," recounts Lavin.) in order to get that maiden labor contract.
    At last only one provision remained open. A collective agreement without a grievance and arbitration provision is toothless. The company was insisting that the union split the costs for any arbitrations. With no appreciable war chest, the union was in no position to assume that obligation, but that's where Lavin got creative. Professional Arbitrator and Comey board member Laury Coburn recounts how Lavin addressed a monthly dinner meeting of the Industrial Relations Research Association in October. The IRRA is heavy with arbitrators and mediators, and Lavin asked them to work for the new union for free. "He must have gotten through," recalls Coburn with a chuckle, "because 35 arbitrators contacted him after the meeting and a dozen attended the first organizing meeting at St. Joe's in November."
    Two such meetings later, a supplemental agreement was presented to the company and the union. Under its terms, the parties will pay only a token $50 each for the services of arbitrators who will serve on a rotating basis under the auspices of the Comey Institute. If the Kaolin Worker's Union survives and if the Eastern Pennsylvania mushroom business becomes a unionized industry, the Comey Institute will be entitled to a significant share of the credit.
    That the Comey has been able to interface so successfully with CATA and the Kaolin union is due in part to Lavin's Spanish literacy, a legacy of the years he lived with his father who managed a Bazooka bubble gum factory in Puerto Rico when Lavin was a lad. The other big factor is the philosophy shared by Comey and CATA. Both trace their roots to the Liberation Theology of writer/activists such as Paulo Freire.
    "Traditional American unions, like the United Food and Commercial Workers, are organized along the same patriarchal hierarchies and attitudes as the corporations they've organized," explains Lavin. In contrast, "Latino farm worker organizing is a family affair. Go to the union hall and you'll find families there. That's not to say there's no structure, but no one individual plays a role of absolute authority," he explained.
    Whether making internal union decisions or negotiating across the table from the company, the Latino way is to dialogue to a consensus. This approach is the heart and soul of the new Comey Institute under Lavin's directorship. Early in his tenure as full-time director, he latched onto an outfit called "Transformative Justice Australia." TJA's guru, David Moore, is a professor from down under whose messianic globetrotting has brought him to St. Joe's at least half a dozen times in the past two years.
    The TJA model of community conferencing claims success in arenas ranging from labor disputes to rape cases. A variation on mediation, community conferencing aims to get all interested parties together to express their positions, hear one another out, and reach a voluntary solution. Restitution, reconciliation, and healing are often a big part of the outcome of a successful community conference. Moore and Lavin have run training programs for Philadelphia police officers assigned to inner-city schools, officers and stewards of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees, AFSCME, and the United Auto Workers, as well as K-12 teachers and administrators. At the end of a typical two-day training session, Comey's classrooms are filled with satisfied customers. In the words of one union attendee, "I can see what Moore is teaching would have really helped" in an actual dispute she could recall. "This would have taken care of it more quickly and with a lot less stress." Adds Professor Moore, "It's funny how often the end agreement in these role plays is what happens in real life."
    TJA and Liberation Theology are two sticks in a bigger bundle. Lavin envisions the Comey as a center for community conferencing. This is really pushing the envelope. Yet, remarkably, mainstream organized labor seems to be going along for the ride. Writes Wendell Young III, president of UFCW Local 1776--one of Pennsylvania's biggest unions, representing grocery store and pharmacy clerks as well as state liquor store employees--"Transformative approaches to conflict provide much needed education to employees both young and old....The Transformative Justice program at Saint Joseph's University puts a new name on an old form of wisdom and truth." "The real benefit," he adds, "is that the courses and mediation services now available at the Comey Institute provide a basic method for resolving conflicts by bringing people together." That the Comey Advisory Board has begun to resemble a "Who's Who" of organized labor in Philadelphia suggests that Young is not alone in his enthusiasm for Comey's focus on dispute resolution training and services that transcend labor relations and reach out to the broader community.
    Concurrent with the Comey Institute's overtures to the broader community is a new willingness to take its courses to its customers. Explains Board Chair Pat Coughlin, "At first there was some resistance to going outside the university." But the success of courses taught at the Longshoremen's union hall on Delaware Avenue in South Philadelphia and the nearby headquarters of the Ironworkers led the board to become braver. Last year a bi-lingual program at St. Williams School in Northeast Philadelphia brought computer and job-search skills to the unemployed. A $320,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Workforce Development Council seems likely to extend this sort of programming to Pennsylvanians left unemployed as a direct or indirect result of the September 11th terrorist attacks.
    Borrowing a page from the good book, a liberation theologian might intone, "Where two or three are gathered together in my name...." This homily came to mind while attending a course in Bristol (Bucks County, northeast of Philadelphia along the New Jersey border), Pennsylvania. The location was the main dining room of a seniors center. The students were seven United Autoworkers employed at a nearby warehouse. The teacher was a professor from a university across the Delaware in Central Jersey. The topic was "Human Resource Management."
    Since the module--five two-hour class meetings spread across as many weeks--occurred within a month of the September 11 attacks, the instructor posited a role play: you seven are the human resources department of a corporation that was headquartered in the World Trade Center. You now are working out of temporary office facilities here in Bucks County. Top management has tasked you to identify the most significant human resource issues posed by the terrorist attacks, the resulting deaths of some of our employees, and the loss not only of our main office but the anticipated loss of business in this tragedy's wake.
    Choosing specific parts to play--payroll, benefits, recruiting, equal opportunity--for the next five weeks, the seven auto workers looked at personnel problems from management's perspective. Sometimes they surprised themselves, as when they concurred that a sales decline could require a lay-off, or when faced with propounding a benefits plan for the survivors of co-workers killed by the terrorist attack. When one member of the team proposed a generous benefits-continuation package, another piped up, "Hey, if sales are way down, we may not be able to afford to do all that. Look, I'm as sympathetic and patriotic as the next guy, but...."
    Getting union members to walk a mile in management's shoes may be a first step toward bringing management-side HR types into the Comey classrooms, elbow to elbow with union business agents, officers and stewards. At the March 2002 board meeting, members discussed reaching out to the Society for Human Resource Management, the leading national organization for HR professionals. In any event, concludes John Lavin, "I believe the future is in off sites. We meet our customers where they are. We need to continue to take the initiative."
    The Irish-American kid who once walked into hostile neighborhoods just to pick fights, the union organizer who once sat in the middle of the street to block Greyhound buses, has come a long way, all the way to Jesus and his Jesuits, as some might say. The Comey Institute for Industrial Relations, too, has come a considerable distance back from the brink of extinction to what promises to be a leadership role in the Greater Philadelphia region, not only in labor-management relations, but in facilitating dispute resolution across a broad spectrum of community organizations and interests.
    Lavin sees an even longer road ahead. "We are learning so very much from our students as they in turn learn formal techniques and other skills from us," he says.

Source: Labor Law Journal, Summer2002, Vol. 53 Issue 2, p98, 7p
Item: 502435937

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