[Marxism] Quantitative -- And Other Measures -- In Gauging Organizing Success

Hunter Gray hunterbadbear at earthlink.net
Fri Feb 20 11:29:02 MST 2004


Quantitative -- And Other Measures -- In Gauging Organizing Success
[The Algonquins at Bennett's Camp]  [Hunter Gray/Hunter Bear]

This is a very substantially expanded version of something I posted awhile
back on a list where a dispute over success-measured-by-stats flared.
This can be a significant -- and volatile -- issue for organizers.
It's certainly worth some comment.

Every single "people's struggle" is significant, important -- to the "people
of the fewest alternatives" who are involved and affected and to the Great
Cause.  Numbers are very meaningful, certainly, but there are other
dimensions that transcend a purely quantitative measure   -- among them,
seeds sown and ripples of constructive influence that can travel far beyond
the momentary ken of the organizers and their constituency.  I've been
privileged by History to play a role in a good many grassroots organizing
campaigns.  One was the historic Jackson Movement  -- thousands and
thousands and thousands, massive, internationally known, cracked Jackson
wide-open and sent  deep cracks across the rest of Mississippi and into
other parts of the Deep South.

But another  was cracking the closed, heavily guarded and extremely
exploitative feudal  mink ranch of Lester Bennett in Ontario County, New
York.

During this period, I was director of the Office of Human Development -- the
social justice arm -- of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester, New York:
12 up-state  counties.  During my stormy -- embattled -- tenure as OHD
director, we accomplished many solid and genuinely activist community
organizing things.  Eventually, I was fired by the Bishop for
"insubordination" -- stemming from our vigorously pushing socialization of
the people-gouging Rochester Gas and Electric whose board chairman was the
largest single contributor to the Diocese.  Things relating to all of this
are on our large website.  http://www.hunterbear.org/rochester.htm

But back to Bennett and his feudal set-up which exploited a primarily Native
migrant work force from Canada [western Quebec and eastern Ontario -- from
such poverty-stricken reserves as Maniwaki and Grand Isle Victoria.] This
brutal arrangement had gone on for 35 years without protest from any
direction.  The almost completely non-English speaking Algonquins were
brought down each season and virtually held hostage in Bennett's camp.
Taken occasionally to a small town to buy groceries [at a store owned by
Bennett], they were always accompanied  by armed guards.  Their pay was low,
they were flagrantly cheated -- and health and safety conditions were
hideous.

Among other things, well before the fur season got underway and the bulk of
the migrant Indians arrived, I sketched Bennett's massive layout from a
wooded ridge far above his plantation -- and, with binoculars, studied all
of  its
basic details.  I handled it like a military reconnaissance operation.

I saw the several lines of extraordinarily flimsy cabin-shacks used by the
Indians. We knew there had been lethal fires at some -- and frequent
pneumonia stemming from the icy winds of the Lake Ontario winters.

We carefully developed The Plan.  The Trap.

So then, in due course, as the mink season of 1977 got underway, we pursued
some extremely creative techniques. One of these included,  using very early
on, a friendly cooperative migrant program [to which our OHD office
channeled money] to place a key operative of ours-- an old Winnebago friend
of mine fresh from Iowa -- into Bennett's set-up as an "alcohol counselor"
at no cost to Bennett. This was a first -- since no outsiders had ever been
permitted therein. But alcohol was making its way surreptitiously into the
massive compound -- probably via some of Bennett's regular employees -- and
the old man was worried about his mink skinners' "steady hands on Monday
morning."

Our inside man immediately feigned a love affair with Bennett's "control
person" -- an opportunistic [and totally Machiavellian] Algonquin woman, a
classic Apple, who was very well paid by Bennett to help manage the captive
work force.  She fell for my friend's charm and wiles -- and he
subsequently gathered invaluable information which we received each evening.
My Winnebago buddy [Elliott Ricehill] and his  wife, [Muriel] a
Sisseton Sioux, were staying at our home at Rochester during
their relocation period from Iowa -- so we met
literally at our dinner table.  Another key member of our team
was Tim McGowan, Irish American, and our OHD political action
director.

Now, with a growing list of potential Algonquin leaders and with maps to
their respective cabin/shacks, I crept onto the plantation  via thick woods
and  under heavily barbed wire at night, again and again --  successfully
avoiding  the armed guards and dogs.  They never even sensed me.  A young
Algonquin who knew English met me regularly and assisted me in translation.

Much happened.

In due course,  very ably assisted by Tim -- certainly one of our most
activist
young staffers -- and by Elliott  -- our  very cunning inside agent-- we
organized
the slightly more than 100 non-English speaking Algonquin Indian workers
plus their
families into a highly successful short strike. And, subsequently, we
initiated
substantial related actions involving formal health and labor complaints and
court action.  And those were also quite successful.

Bennett et al. were taken completely by surprise! The "control woman" was
crushed. And, in the middle of this, Bennett's daughter, Rowena, 65, who had
long wanted a red convertible car, absconded to Florida with some of his
considerable money.

The speed with which this long repressed work force of Canadian migrant
Native people developed extremely effective and courageous local
leadership -- much of this including their very strong wives --  speaks
volumes about the great capabilities of the human grassroots in every
setting and in every time.

This cracked and  completely opened Bennett's plantation system: one of the
three largest mink ranches in the U.S. [more than 60,000 mink.] We then
formally met with the other mink ranchers in the region -- who used migrants
of various ethnic backgrounds, including some Indians -- and who immediately
met our demands.

Back in Canada, following that unexpectedly turbulent season, a number of
the
Algonquins from the Bennett struggle became very effective labor and Native
rights activists in western Quebec and eastern Ontario. Many are still at it
today.

The courageous Algonquin struggle at Bennett's had a very significantly
inspiring impact on Native people throughout upstate New York.

[In an interesting postscript, I later gave a long social justice
presentation to a large class of incipient priests at St. Bernard's Seminary
at Rochester.  The class, social theology, was taught by my good friend,
Professor Joe Torma [now at Walsh University, Ohio.] The gathering was
fascinated by the Bennett account -- but some were disturbed at  our
deception vis-a-vis the Algonquin control woman.  At the end of my
presentation, Joe polled the class via secret ballot.  About two-thirds
 felt we were justified under the circumstances.]

For a discussion of the details of the Bennett  struggle saga, see our
website at
http://www.hunterbear.org/great_algonquin_freedom_campaign.htm

The famous  Mine-Mill "Salt of the Earth Strike" -- October, 1950 to
January, 1952, Hanover, New Mexico, Empire Zinc -- involved 128 workers
 and their families.

Its impact on New Mexico was tremendous and, through the extraordinarily
fine film, it affected people all over the world [and still has a
significant impact today.] BTW, if you haven't yet seen the excellent and
enduring "Salt of the Earth", do so!  It was officially blacklisted for
years but widely shown outside of movie houses. Now available on video
cassette and DVD, it was recently chosen by the Library of Congress as one
of the
100 most important films ever made in the United States.

Every social justice fight -- "big" or "small" -- is well worth it from many
rich and enduring perspectives.  Not the least of these is what the
organizers themselves learn for the battles ahead and beyond.

Fraternally and Sincerely -

HUNTER GRAY [HUNTER BEAR]
www.hunterbear.org

When you cut to the bone  and cut away the college degrees, academic and
other titles, published books and articles, ours is essentially a working
class and Indian family.  We consistently join unions  -- and we always
support them with the greatest vigor.

It's critical to always keep fighting -- and to always remember that, if one
lives
with grace, he/she should be prepared to die with grace.






More information about the Marxism mailing list