Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Pete Meyers: Vision, Path, Action!

Over a year ago now I sat with Pete Meyers just outside the Tompkins County Worker's Center upstairs in the Autumn Leaves bookstore. Pete is one of the founders of the Center. This post includes Part One of our conversation that covered a range of topics from his background to racism to his philosophy of activism. First, here's Pete describing the T.C. Worker's Center:

Sitting in the room with Pete is like sitting at the center of a hurricane. He had a calm demeanor and at the same time was swirling with ideas and could hardly finish one thought before launching into the next! It was a fun, inspiring conversation!

LJ - What influenced you - what experiences, people, places led you to the path you are on now?

PM - Well, the family that I was raised in, for one. I grew up in South Bend, Indiana. My parents were actively involved in trying to stop the Vietnam War. They were also involved in anti-racism work. They were housing testers. When there was a suspicion that a Black family was being discriminated against in housing a white family would be sent in to see if they could get the housing.

I grew up in the late 60s when riots were happening. South Bend was a city of 100,000 so riots were happening there as well.

I remember an incident from 5th grade with a Black girl named Tammy. She was writing "Pete and Andrea" on the board and I was writing "Tammy and Donald." Then we started slapping each other a bit - she was bigger than I was. The white male teacher came in and she got in trouble and I didn't. At that point, though I was happy that I wasn't getting in trouble, I also knew that there was something wrong about that. In terms of my own consciousness that stands out. I didn't know about the work that my parents were doing until much later.

LJ - They didn't talk with you about their activism?

Not then. They did in later years. There was a real contradiction - though my family was really engaged with activism, there was some emotional dysfunction.

I got a Masters degree in psychology and then I moved to Brooklyn and worked as a drug counselor in a HS for four years. That was when I started getting the big picture. It was a vocational school that was 95% Black and Latino students. I was really seeing discrimination there on a class basis and a race basis.

I also went to Nicaragua in the middle of the revolution and started to make the connection between racism and classism in this country and how it played out in U.S. foreign policy over hundreds of years. I went to Haiti twice in the mid 90s right after the U.S. invaded Haiti.

I was trying to figure out what to do for a long time and it really wasn't until I moved to Ithaca in 2000 that I started to put it all together. I saw that most people don't really care what's going on elsewhere. They only can be conscious of what's going on in their own lives - they have so much pain and suffering in their own lives that that's all they can pay attention to.

I started to work for Catholic Charities in a welfare-to-work program as a mentor visiting people in their homes. They were being forced to take minimum wage jobs.. I was also working with an activist group called the Ithaca Sharks - the Coalition For Global Justice - and it began to seem important to not just be protesting the IMF and the World Bank because most people don't care about that. It became important for me to bring it home and focus on the living wage.

LJ - You've done a lot on the living wage issue...

Right. So we became a formal organization in 2003 and not long after that started Workers Rights Hotline. Even though a lot of poor, working class people agree with the idea of a living wage, it seems like a pipe dream to them that that's going to change - even though we had some early success with it. Workers Rights Hotline was a way to get people most directly affected in the door. The rest is very dynamic and still going on now.

LJ - Did your organization work with AFCU on the living wage study that identifies the local living wage?

PM - No, they started that in 1993 and The Living Wage Coalition started, Carl would say, in 1997 (before I moved here) when they lobbied the County Legislature to make sure that all Human Service Agencies that they funded paid a living wage. You would have been part of that.

LJ - Yes, I remember. The County did approve funding to bring people up to the living wage, but not to maintain the salary structures so it was hard to implement for some of us - but so important.

LJ - You've been sidling up on my next question about your current primary focus and why you chose it. I hear you saying that the rights of workers here where you live is connected to all the activities you were involved in before. Your main area of focus now is workers rights, correct?

PM - Yeah, it is. We're in the middle of strategic planning right now. We have four core strategies, which I feel really good about. The first is Support and Recruitment. The idea is that we need to get people in the door with something that concerns them - maybe they feel like they've been screwed over at work - it could be a whole range of things. If we get one out of a hundred people to want to get more involved, we're doing well. We're such an individualistic society that to get people involved and see themselves as organizers is really tough.

The next core strategy is Advocacy, which means that we advocate for people in the workplace. This can be on an individual basis - if they don't feel safe doing it on their own. Or on a larger scale like with the Sodexo victory. I would consider that advocacy because, though there were a few workers involved, it was not worker-driven. Which is not our ideal. We would prefer that more workers be directly involved, but we are in a milieu where most workers are afraid of that.

LJ - The power dynamic is so skewed that most workers feel frightened for their lives, or at least their livelihoods.

PM - Right. It feels like their lives, even though it's not technically, but it feels like it.

Advocacy can also mean giving support with workplace bullying. The second-most reason that people come to the Workers Rights Hotline is because they feel bullied. Linda Holzbaur (Community Organizer at the Tompkins County Worker's Center) did a series of workshops on the topic and we are considering getting involved in state legislation.

LJ - Bullied by supervisors or by other workers?

By other workers. It's not against the law to bully coworkers unless it's on the basis of race or gender. Many people are bullied without that. So advocating for change in a larger, systemic way would be part of advocacy.

Then the next core strategy is Empowerment. That's building on the idea that we are attempting to empower workers to work together in the workplace to create change. When two or more people do that, that's actually protected by law, whether they want to form a union or not. It's called Concerted Action - acting in concert - and that's protected by the National Labor Relations Board. Workers would still feel a great risk of doing it even though it's protected because, so what? It's going to take a long time - but with the Workers Rights Center behind them that's where we see progress. And I think we've had some good successes with that.

Movement Building is the last core strategy so it all connects to the larger picture. This is the reason I got involved in this work in the first place. This is why I see the work we do as being connected to what's happening in developing countries.

It's so clear to me that we don't have a critical mass right now to really change the way power works in this world. What we have to do is really build it at the grassroots level.

LJ - Do you have hope for that?

PM - Yeah...I mean, I live in the hope, but it's not something that I'm going to see in my own lifetime. You have to see it as part of a larger...I think of Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech and the pure vision in that. It's like, how do you see yourself? It's a spiritual question, right? How do you see yourself in the cosmic scheme of things? 20 years ago I was intending to be Martin Luther King, I was intending to be Gandhi The male ego can be a powerful thing!

LJ - Oh I don't know...I was there too...

PM - If you have the right spiritual orientation, I think it can enable your work. I'm really kind of fascinated...not that I've fully figured it out...with what it means to have a vision that deeply informs ones life.

What I'm learning about strategic planning is that you have a vision and then you have to acknowledge what's happening right now in order to be able to get to that vision. I've been very informed by a book called The Path of Least Resistance which is about creating what you want to create in life. As a simple example, my vision is: I need more coffee in my cup. The current reality is: I don't have enough coffee in my cup. There's a structural tension that I need to make happen. It's easy with a cup of coffee. Now what do you do with our vision, which is a four paragraph statement including a living wage for all workers in Tompkins County, rights in the workplace, an end to racism and quality housing, healthcare, etc. On one level it could be seen as pie in the sky.

But I'm a real believer in creating dramatic actions. A great example is the campaign to change the name of State Street to Martin Luther King Street. That action caused so much controversy, it really involved lots of people in discussions of race and class. I think there were over 200 people at the initial meeting at the DSS building. Yet if we had instead had a workshop on race and class and sent out flyers maybe we would have gotten 10 or 15 people. It is very powerful to use an action - a real change - that will provoke a conversation that needs to happen.

Pete's emphasis on action is inspiring. Shortly after our conversation I saw Pete with a microphone at an Occupy Wall Street protest on the Commons at Bank Alley - 
from vision to action!

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