Oct 28, 2016
Almost 10 years ago I was touring a shirt factory in Hanoi with my colleague Kent Wong from the UCLA Labor Center. We were in Vietnam for an exchange he’d arranged between California and Vietnamese labor leaders.
Our tight schedule included a visit with the garment workers union at one of their worksites. During a back and forth after the tour I related that I’d recently worked on a campaign with the American anti-war activist Tom Hayden to pass an anti-sweatshop law in San Francisco that forbade the City and County from purchasing any goods or services that were produced under inhumane or slave-like conditions. Hayden had come up from Los Angeles and recruited me to help teach a graduate level class in legislative process that ultimately resulted in an historic piece of legislation.
The union representative’s eyes immediately lit up and she informed us that Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda had visited this very factory during their visit to Hanoi during the height, as she called it, of the “American” war. Our visit to Vietnam was coinciding, ironically, with the height of the American invasion of Iraq. I replied that if San Francisco’s government couldn’t find enough American shirts that this union factory in Hanoi could definitely be on our good list.
Weeks later, back in Northern California, I was leaving a union meeting in Berkeley and noticed that across the hall a very crowded and animated class or workshop was happening. Out of curiosity I slipped inside the room and realized it was a book reading featuring Tom Hayden. Hayden was reciting a narrative outlining the complexities and relationships of the religious and ethnic factions in Iraq that American foreign policy had essentially ignored during the invasion. He didn’t need to overstate to the mostly gray haired crowd that this was not unlike our entry into Vietnam 50 years earlier.
His new book, “Ending the War in Iraq”, delved into the ancient history of the Sunni, Shia, Kurd, and other groupings in a way that illustrated how our invasion – and now occupation – the seemingly easy overthrow of Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party government (Mission Accomplished!) – had sucked us into the powerful historical undercurrents of religious war and Islamic politics that have persisted for centuries. (I write this in October 2016 while we still have troops in the chaos of Iraq and Afghanistan and other places in the region.)
After the book reading I introduced myself to Hayden and told him my Hanoi factory story. His eyes lit up and he handed the books he was signing to his assistant and took me aside to find his bag. “Tim, I just came back from Vietnam! My first time since the war.” He pulled a magazine from the bag. “Here is the my copy of the article I wrote in The Nation. Hot off the press. You can have it.”
We shared of few observations of the Union and Communist party officials we visited, noting their edged but conciliatory words as a combination of passion for their young, robust, capital-fueled, neo-liberal economy as well as the pride, sadness and complicated emotions at digesting the historic military and socialist political victory that had come with great sacrifice and suffering. Hayden’s article in The Nation, “The Old Revolutionaries of Vietnam,” is a great contemporary snapshot of this time in Vietnam – North and South.)
Before we could get deeper into conversation, Hayden”s assistant interrupted and dragged him back to the bookselling and autographing. “Let’s have dinner later,” he insisted, but I had another meeting that night.
A couple weeks later, Lisa Hoyos, AFL-CIO representative and former Hayden staffer during his legislative career in Sacramento, emailed and asked if I could drive Tom to a peace rally in San Mateo County. “He’d love to visit after the event and suggests dinner.”
The gathering – also at a union hall – was not unlike the Berkeley event. Hayden again gave a contemporary analysis of the sectors and players on the ground in Iraq and then fielded dozens of milquetoast questions. “Don’t you think that Rumsfeld and Cheney had an agenda that ignored the long term consequences of our actions?”
I’d made a reservation at Zuni restaurant in San Francisco and secured a table where we could relax and talk. Lisa warned me that Tom doesn’t drink and asked that I not order any alcohol. Fuck that! When I ordered a single glass of wine Hayden said “fuck that” and ordered a bottle.
That night was the only time I ever had a lengthy discussion with him. I’d ordered Zuni’s famous wood fired chicken – with bread, current, pine nut, balsamic vinegar and mustard leaf stuffing, and which takes at least an hour to cook. We were well into conversation and our second bottle of cabernet when it finally arrived.
Without getting into the weeds of our exchange I want to note that early in the conversation he talked about the evolution of labor leaders and their unions from the 60’s and 70’s moving from bread and butter institutions (grievances, collective bargaining, getting out the vote) to, in some cases, progressive activist organizations that ramped up even more union benefits for their members by fighting for immigrant and civil rights, opposing military expansion, promoting affordable housing, building community coalitions, and taking on the predatory healthcare industry, etc.
One question he asked me, “Lisa told me that you are a Progressive and helped, among other things, lead the AFL-CIO to the historic position of demanding the military withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan. What has taken the labor movement so long to start leading this kind of stuff?”
One reason is that it has taken a long time for some of us to sufficiently organize to get these positions – to actually get elected as the principal officer of a major union or Labor Council.
But it’s not just simply electoral. Our members, defined as workers, have to trust us if we are to keep these jobs for more than one term. That organizing is the most important. And part of that trust comes from that bread and butter work of trying to get raises, good contracts and organize jobs sights to pay those good wages. A constant turnover of officers is usually a good indictor of a struggling union where organizing doesn’t reach far enough in any of that necessary work.
“I guess that must be a part of it…..” I sensed impatience and disappointment with this answer.
And then for some reason I blurted out that “even when we push the benchmarks to a higher level we are still accused by the Left of being sellouts!” ….even though we aren’t screaming from the scaffolds in our hardhats and pissing on the longhaired hippies marching down Michigan Ave……
Later we started a silly game of trying to judge who the best labor leaders and politicians were – leaders who tried not to sell out or compromise, yet still managed to get things done. Or at least be defined as trying.
I started with the example of Hillary Clinton who was going to be the savior for Single Payer Healthcare when Bill first got elected. “Before the Beltway giggled and ate her lunch?” Tom winked.
Some other examples:
Jimmy Carter: “Campaigned that he wasn’t from Washington and demonstrating that promise for the next four years by getting booted out.”
Andy Stern: “Smart. Vanguard. Abandoned Democracy.”
Dennis Kucinich: “Couldn’t get elected outside of two neighborhoods in Cleveland.”
Tom Ammiano, San Francisco Supervisor: “Hmmm. Good one. No, wait. He sold us out on our Sweat Free ordinance when we asked for $100,000 for compliance.”
“EVERYBODY SELLS OUT! HA!”
We talked about the struggle to bring in the resources and talent to sustain progressive campaigns for the labor movement amidst the constant corporate attacks and the failed labor laws that keep us on the defensive.
I took my last sip of wine and noticed that only two tables still had customers. The servers, always attentive, were ready to call it a night.
As I paid the bill I asked what he was doing besides writing, accepting these gigs and lecturing. He told me with little enthusiasm that he was “on the short list to be hired as a full time professor” at a college in Southern Cal.
Why the tepid response? “I have been told there is no way that I can be hired despite being the most qualified.” Why? He looked me in the eye. Ah, yes…. Another blackballed lefty.
The California Democratic Party Convention opened in San Jose last summer with minor fanfare. Like our national labor movement, we wouldn’t be endorsing for President until after the primaries. Too many unions and major associations were still supporting either Hillary or Bernie. After the primaries were tallied we’d drag our belated unity into Philadelphia at the Democratic National Convention.
But delegates were jockeying in San Jose to run as Democratic National Committee members and Tom called and said he was running and asked for my support. I asked him why, he’d already run and served in major elected offices throughout his career. Convention delegate?
“I want to stir up some issues in Philly.”
I had many friends – incumbents and otherwise – on the DNC ballot, but I gave him my support. I even took personal privilege as Labor Chair of the Party and gave him the microphone at the jam-packed Labor Caucus meeting (the largest caucus of the California Democratic Party).
He surprised everyone by saying that he now supported Hillary.* When asked why he moved away from Progressive Bernie he answered that Hillary has the best chance of putting together a real post election coalition that includes African-Americans, Latinos and women.
This was quintessential Tom Hayden, the calculating of next steps that has defined Hayden’s career. Take to the streets and media to promote and define policy; wash up and march into the convention halls and legislative chambers to get it done.
The vote for DNC was an uphill climb – the campaign for any new DNC candidate meant that one had to challenge the insiders, the entrenched, the establishment, and piss folks off.
Tom fell just short on the ballot but he went to Philadelphia anyway.
If you followed the platform fights and newscasts from Philadelphia (that didn’t focus solely on the nomination of Hillary Clinton), Tom Hayden was all over the place and everywhere. When I talked to him on the phone at his home in Santa Monica a few weeks ago he said he “may have overdone it physically at the convention but that I shouldn’t worry, he was on a recovery regimen.”
Tom Hayden was always on a recovery regimen. Over 50 years of organizing, traveling, fighting, strategizing, counting votes, writing, recovering. From jail or as a Senator; over a typewriter or in the Ivory Tower.
Tom Hayden was one of the most unique and important shapers of public policy in contemporary American history. He left us too soon.
- Tim Paulson is the executive director of the San Francisco Labor Council, AFL-CIO, which represents over 150 union and 100,000 members. He is also the elected labor chair of the California Democratic Party.
- Part of Hayden’s trip to Vietnam was facilitated by the same Vietnamese leader that guided our labor visit, Chau Nhat Bihn, Kent Wong’s friend and colleague from the Vietnamese General Federation of Labour (VGFL), who had taken the Harvard Trade Union Leadership Program a few years prior and spent the war years in and out of the tunnels of the Ho Chi Mihn Trail.
- *”I Used to Support Bernie, but Then I Changed My Mind.” The Nation