NATIVE RIGHTS SAMPLING (continued)

THE GREAT ALGONQUIN FREEDOM CAMPAIGN

1977-1978

 

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The above is the first and most essential half of a much longer article by Tom Harris of The Rochester Patriot  (an excellent alternative newspaper, then based at Rochester, N.Y., now gone.)  His piece appeared in mid-January, 1978.  There are a very few extremely minor printing typos and the page, over many years and many moves, became a bit battered. The Patriot was a strong supporter of the social justice crusades conducted by our Office of Human Development (of which I was the perennially embattled Director) -- the  social justice arm of the twelve county Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester.  We accomplished a great deal during my turbulent tenure.   When I was axed by Church reactionaries after I had been there for about two years, there was a massive protest on my behalf:  most of my staff, the 89 labor unions making up the Central Labor Council, the  Teamsters Union, Native American groups, many priests, nuns, and other clergypersons, the Rochester Catholic Worker movement, and much much more.  I was never reinstated.  Major and sympathetic features on all of this were carried by such papers as THE NATIONAL CATHOLIC REPORTER.  We left Rochester for the Navajo Nation at the end of the summer of '78.

One of our major and highly successful  accomplishments was "The Great Algonquin Freedom Campaign" which we organized and carried out in 1977 into 1978.  It focused on the massive Lester Bennett Mink Ranch, in rural Ontario County -- at that time one of the three largest such operations in the United States.

Lester Bennett was running a closed, Northern plantation system which crudely and pervasively exploited Canadian Algonquin migrant workers as well as a small number of Puerto Ricans.  His mink ranch was fenced and heavily guarded by armed men and dogs.  In the several decades of his operation, no one had been able to make any social justice inroads. 

But we -- and the Algonquins -- damn sure did.

I began planning the Bennett campaign in the Spring of '77. Among other things, I scouted his  basic layout from some ridges and then studied the physical arrangement of his operation from as close a vantage point as I could get.

  A key staffer, Tim McGowan, worked closely with me.  In mid-Summer, an old Winnebago friend from Iowa, Elliott Ricehill and his wife, Muriel, a Sisseton Sioux, came to Rochester.  I was able to place the very capable Elliott in a very friendly, cooperative migrant program and, according to our plan, the migrant program then persuaded Bennett to accept Elliott as a counselor to the Algonquins (at no cost to Bennett, of course, who was sold this on the presumption it would mean increased productively and profits for him.)  We now had our "man on the inside." 

In early Fall, when the Algonquins came down for the Fur Season, Elliott began to delineate the leaders of the band, sounding them out on their willingness to work with us.  They were game.  According to our plan, the Algonquin leaders now feigned minor illnesses and it was up to Elliott to take  them off-ranch to the migrant clinic.  Instead, of course, he took them directly to me and Tim -- who were waiting a couple of miles away.  Later, we met them at my home at Rochester and then, as we grew closer to action, we met in a motel near Bennett's place.   On some occasions, Tim and I snuck at night onto Bennett's ranch -- evading armed guards and dogs -- and met with Algonquins in their shack-like accomodations.

The Algonquin leaders agreed with our assessment that strike action carefully timed for the most delicate part of the Season (killing and skinning), and subsequent litigation in court, would be the best approach. It was necessary, however, to thoroughly discuss all of this with the entire group of Algonquins and that kind of mass meeting could never be held at Bennett's.  It was at this point that I came up with one of the  most creative tactical inspirations of my entire life.

If we couldn't meet with the Algonquins on the ranch, then we had to take them all to a point where we could meet.  And I pointed to the then on-going Iroquois Museum Exhibit at Rochester -- with the ultimate goal of the day being a mass meeting, with a good meal, at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church.  Elliott sold Bennett et al. on the idea that the Iroquois exhibits would be a good recreational break for the Algonquins that would pay off in increased productivity/profits.  I put up the funds for two large busses whose drivers, of course, were under specific instructions from me as to where to go and when. 

All went very well indeed.  The Algonquins went to the Iroquois exhibits and then, to the somewhat surprise of all save their leaders, to St. Francis Xavier.  There the entire group met me and Tim.  A staunch supporter of all of our social justice efforts -- and of me personally -- was there:  Monsignor George Cocuzzi.  We all spoke, Monsignor Cocuzzi translating for us into fluent French  (which all Algonquins knew) -- and in addition giving his own fine talk.   The food provided by Eldri and Theresa McGowan and others was great.  There was a thorough discussion of the whole situation and then, one and all, the Algonquins voted to strike. 

The most delicate period in the mink fur harvest in Up-State New York, when the pelts have hit their prime, and the time for killing and skinning has   arrived, is the general mid-December time frame.  We set our Strike Date at December 12, '77 -- deliberately picking for special luck the anniversary of our first downtown picket in Jackson, Mississippi and the launching of the historic Jackson Boycott, on December 12, 1962.

Very early in the morning of December 12, '77, our Algonquin strike began.  It was 100%  effective and things could not have gone better!

Exciting events followed very soon!

The rest is, in its own way, very good  history indeed!   Things fell into place very, very nicely.

The Algonquins won heavily: both specific gains and much self-confidence.

Following our short strike,  we then  brought Marcia Boyd, a legal services attorney, into the situation.

 

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This is the retainer request that I wrote out and that the key
Algonquin leaders signed.  Marcia Boyd then formally entered the situation.   Later in the Winter, the Algonquins returned as usual to Canada to await the next Season at Bennett's -- and we worked steadily on.  In April, 1978, the New York State Industrial Commission found Bennett guilty of a number of violations:  Failure to pay wages weekly; deductions with neither permission from the worker nor itemization or any explanation  by Bennett; operating a company store without a permit; failure to provide workers with any wage statements.  Bennett was ordered to correct all of these and he did.  The New York State Health Department issued a myriad of orders forcing Bennett to make major, sweeping  changes in housing and utility arrangements -- with a heavy emphasis on safety.  He complied.

Bennett's resistance was completely broken.  And just as soon as the Bennett strike was settled, I personally met with every one of the  much smaller mink ranchers in the area -- all of whom used some Algonquin migrants.  They immediately accepted and implemented  the package we had negotiated with Bennett.

I left Rochester at the end of the Summer of 1978 for the Navajo world. Very capable Algonquin leadership carried on quite  effectively,   Season after Season, assisted by Tim McGowan.  Elliott and Muriel made a number of trips to Canadian Algonquin reserves, playing very helpful roles there.

This saga, discussed briefly in the epilogue of my book, Jackson, Mississippi :  An American Chronicle of Struggle and Schism ,   (1979 and 1987), warrants and will certainly get a chapter of its own in my next book.

 

And for more on some aspects of this great Algonquin saga, see my section, ORGANIZER 2,  and this very relevant component: 

"Quantitative -- And Other Measures -- In Gauging Organizing Success    [The Algonquins at Bennett's Camp]" HG 10/14/01   

http://www.hunterbear.org/organizer2.htm

 

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