Irwin Lum: My Life from Chinatown Street Kid to SF Labor Leader
An interview by Pam Tau Lee. Posted July 6, 2022.
Introduction: The impetus for writing this article came when I noticed articles pointing to the despair over the current state of the “Left” in our country. While this article does not take a position, it reflects my perspective on what I believe are key components for a strong and impactful “Left.” For me, the leadership of the working class in growing and building the greater “we” is critical as is organizing and building organizations. To do this I want to put a face to this issue and share the story of one of my working-class heroes, Irwin Lum.
I also feel that the struggle for liberation can be mobilized and organized from wherever one’s feet land. I Several years ago I was washing dishes with a young person who recently graduated from college. She was trying to figure out what community based non-profit area of work she should work in. We chatted on this for a while, and then I offered another way of approaching this issue. “Let me ask you, what do you think about a bus person in a restaurant who is organizing their co-workers to stand up and take action when there is injustice at work?” Under racial capitalism, organizing for liberation is everywhere. I want to thank Irwin for allowing me to spend several hours in conversation with him and to share his story here. – Pam Tau Lee
“Hey, I didn’t intend to drop out of middle school. Sure, I was a street kid, so is that a reason to stereotype kids like us? I didn’t drop out, man, I was pushed out. By 14, I was already in what people call the “school to prison” pipeline.” – Irwin Lum
Pam: Did you intend to become a leader and eventually end up being elected to one of the largest and diverse union in San Francisco?
Irwin: Hell no.
Pam: So how did that journey start?
Irwin: Well, I was in my late teens when I hooked up with Sadie and her baby girl and young daughter. She was working full time for the “organization” ( I Wor Kuen ) and was out of town a lot. I needed to find a job where I could support the four of us.
At the time, Cecil Williams had hired Sadie to help him type an autobiography he was writing. He helped get me a dishwashing job at the Hilton Hotel. Later I got jobs at the post office and the telephone company, where I was hired as a telephone operator. It was traditionally a woman’s job. I was the only guy working the board. Because I had a police record, I had to settle for whatever job I could find. I was considered a convicted felon. I had bought a car that was stolen, but I didn’t know it was stolen and I got charged with stealing it. You know how that goes…. No one was going to believe me.
Getting hired as a bus driver at MUNI (SF’s bus and railway system) gave me a second chance and provided us with a stable source of income and benefits for a family. At MUNI, if you’re not a rapist or murderer, you could get hired, you know what I mean? I might still be bouncing around from one low wage job to another all my life.
Pam: So, you got a second chance?
Irwin: Yes, everyone deserves that.
Pam:Are there other moments where you experienced “second” chances?
Irwin: When I was on the streets, there were not many places where we could go, so we hung out at the pool halls and the kung fu studios. There was police harassment. We were sick of that stuff and sick of tourists coming into Chinatown, calling us Chinamen and stuff. So we kicked ass in the street.
That’s the thing about criminal justice reform. Without a second chance, you go back to crime. It’s a vicious cycle. You’re going to need tools to retrain and re-qualify people and bring them back. Kids like me and Warren got training. I learned how to do auto body work and Warren learned home renovation. Stuff like that doesn’t exist today.
Going back to the pool halls. These became targets for police raids. This was a time of police repression all over the city in basically all our communities of color. Imagine, a dozen cops, each with two guns and carrying a Billy club coming in two or three times a day. They interrogated us, took information from our driver’s license, our height and weight, wrote down what we were wearing, etc. They kept track of us to the point you don’t want to go to go there anymore. So then, there was nowhere for the youth other than back to the streets cuz they killed the pool halls like North Beach Mike’s and LeWays.
Fortunately for me, the Black Panthers came to Chinatown and did education at the pool hall. This was my second second chance. We got educated about self-pride, self-defense, China and Chairman Mao. We were into all that, especially the self-pride and to be able to unite with black revolutionaries. This was a big thing because the fear of blacks was a big deal; so there’s that stereotype shit going on.
I got an awareness and understanding of why and how things were so “fucked up.” The Panthers had their 10 Point Political Program and some of us wanted to join the Panthers but they said, “You need to form your own group.” That’s when the Red Guard formed and developed. Sadie brought me in. Later some of the members in the Red Guard merged with I Wor Kuen which merged later with other groups to form the League of Revolutionary Struggle.
Pam: I understand that IWK adopted an 12 Point Political Program. The Panthers had 10, what were the additional points?
Irwin: Yeah, it was “#11. We want an end to the geographic boundaries of America, and #12 We want a Socialist Society.“ We identified as revolutionary socialists. To this day I am still a revolutionary socialist.
Pam: How did being a member of IWK or the LRS support your labor work?
Irwin: When I got my job at MUNI, I worked different hours of the day and night. So, when Sadie was out of town, people in the organization stepped up and we formed a childcare system. We had a place to drop off our kids so we could do our political work and for us who worked evenings, we had a safe place to drop off our kids with comrades I could trust. This gave me peace of mind, but not everyone felt the same way. For the kids, many formed lifetime friendships.
Pam:Was working at MUNI a part of your assigned political work?
Irwin: No, it was not, but since I was there and being a revolutionary and activist that I just couldn’t ignore the situation that was going on and be passive and not doing nothing. Hell, I was like working there 12 hours, sometimes 15 hours a day, you know what I mean?
Pam: What issues stood out for you at MUNI?
Irwin: Man, it was the unhealthy work conditions! Every part of the job was unhealthy and stressful. From how management treated us, to the unrealistic bus route schedules, the unergonomic conditions for the driver, to the stress from the public. We would get yelled at, hit, spit at and some of us even got beat up. Man, it was awful.
Dr. June Fisher from SF General Hospital worked with us to conduct a study and found that drivers had high rates of hypertension and blood pressure and our longevity after retirement was just a couple of years. You’re at the job 12 to 15 hours a day, so people don’t get time after work to exercise. And you eat your lunch at the end of the line as fast as you can because technically there is no meal break. Going to the restroom and getting up to stretch is squeezed into five minutes if you’re lucky. The study documented that when you retire, you can only expect to live a few years! Dang, that was a shocker.
This study helped the union get management and the City of SF to pay attention. We were able to have a voice when it came to drawing up bus routes. We worked on getting better seats and other ergonomic changes. We started trying to get the city to build specific driver restroom facilities. It took a lot of work, but we were able to get two built at $175,000 each. Being able to go to the bathroom may seem like a minor issue, but now male drivers didn’t have to carry around a pee jar and women don’t have to make unscheduled restroom stops at restaurants and convenience stores only to have passengers yell at you when you return to the bus. Think about it.
Pam: But this job was the lifeline for the family. Weren’t you afraid of getting fired? Why would you get fired?
Irwin: Of course, management can always look for reasons to harass, intimidate, and even fire people to keep people in their place. For me, I always try to be upfront and transparent and honest with people. I felt that when I conducted my work in this way, I got the respect of the workers and management both. For example, when drivers got written up and disciplined and they wanted union representation, I would go to bat for them. As a union representative, whether you are a union steward or elected union official, it is your responsibility to represent them. It is even spelled out in the National Labor Relations Act. There are times though, when the driver is in the wrong, so what do you do? You go to bat for them, and when the matter is settled, you have a serious conversation with some of them. For example, if a driver is habitually late, this impacts other drivers and passengers. The same when drivers are rude or pass up passengers at a stop. Dealing with the public is not easy. You don’t know what to expect, and that’s why it is so important for drivers to have a voice on the job and a union that will not only make that happen but will also be honest and function with integrity. In the end, I had the respect of the drivers and respect of management as well. Some trade unionists pride themselves on being “hated” by management. Maybe some “hated” me but more often than not, they trusted and respected me.
Pam: You have given us a startling picture of the external issues facing us. What were some of the issues in the union that needed to be addressed?
Irwin: When I started at MUNI, the work force was predominantly Black and some White because the Blacks came probably in the early, late fifties. At the time, it was predominantly White and Irish that worked at Muni. Then the Blacks came and then when I started in 1978, there was some Asians, Chinese that came out of a community hiring process that recruited more Asians. These were about 20 old timers, you know what I mean? They hung out in Chinatown, they were part, some were part of family association.
Then the Latinos and Filipinos started being recruited then. So, the workforce started changing in terms of the diversity. I felt it was part of my natural thing to organize or be a part of the workforce and try to better the environment since I was working there.
I ran for like delegate to the international convention in 1985, seven years after I got there and won. So, I was one of the few elected rank-and-file representatives. Other people were mainly union officers. It was kind of different. They treated me different because these were old time Blacks that held those positions before.
Pam: You ran for delegate and other union positions, how is it that you won? And how was that received? Was there pushback?
Irwin: I worked out of the Kirkland Division facility down at Fisherman’s Wharf and before that at Dogpatch, which was the largest division with over 500 drivers. I organized with other drivers, not just Chinese. We worked on the issues we all cared about and we got results., I had a base which reflected the diverse workforce. By working together I won their support and when I decided to run for positions, got their vote.
Among many of the older, more established Black union leadership, I was not well received. In the beginning and often throughout my 35 years at MUNI, I was redbaited. Rumors spread that I was a communist not only by management but also opportunists inside the union. For me, it was a matter of “so what.” These attacks didn’t lessen support for me, in fact it made people more curious to know what I thought about stuff at work and my views on a variety of issues.
Thank goodness for the support from the drivers and from my LRS comrades and Sadie. It was hard.
I went against tradition again in 1984. Jesse Jackson ran for president, you know. Jesse’s message of hope, worker power and the Rainbow resonated. We formed a group called Muni Operators for Jesse Jackson. So, you know, we were the first union back in 1984 to endorse Jesse. You know what I mean? The SF Labor Council and our union office was in the same building as the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. Mattie Jackson was an older Black woman, president of the International Ladies Garment Workers and a leader in the local Democratic Party. She was not happy about our support for Jesse and threatened to kick us out of the building because we supported Jesse.
One day I opened the newspaper and read a quote in the SF Chronicle’s Matier & Ross political gossip column. It read, “Irwin Lum had a problem at Muni. He only represents the Chinese and Latinos and the Blacks are upset about that.” So ,I called Matier and said, “Where’d you get that from?” he said, “Oh, I heard from a source.” “Well after some well-chosen words that you can’t print here, I let Matier know where he and his “source” could shove it. Humph! Talking that racial stuff to try to divide. Within the union membership there was now more diversity and Asians were a rising power. The different nationalities were able to work together and get results that benefited everyone. For some, we posed a threat. So that was always something in the back going on about the thing of the racial thing.
As the demographics of the city changes, the workforce changes. Historically for Blacks and others, failure to pass the standardized job qualification tests, past police records, driving records or whatever, served as a way to disqualify or bypass certain sectors of the population so they don’t get hired. This is very important to recognize and address. There are mechanisms to try to fight that and to try to change that, but it is hard, it’s part of a racist system. To fight this, we can’t fall into the trap of pitting one life reality against the other. Unity has got to be our major weapon. False narratives are always something you have to understand. You got to always try to fight to address it, correct it and change it.
Pam: It seems that you engaged as a revolutionary socialist wherever your feet landed.
Irwin: Yeah, my daughter was going to Oakland High. She and other students opposed a year around school proposal. I discussed this issue with members of the LRS who also had kids at Oakland High. We discussed how we could support the students. I helped form a parents’ group, Parents and Community for Educational Rights, and it was successful in stopping the program. The parent group continued to contribute to making the school environment better.
Pam: By middle school, you knew the school system was not working for you and dropped out. But I remember back in the day when the organization would plan study sessions and you always came well prepared and could summarize readings no matter how complex and difficult. I recall seeing you during public comment at City Hall. You are always clear, focused and concise with recommendations on what the politicos need to do. Your writing style is so good, especially for the MUNI union newsletters. You provided drivers with a full account of what was happening, educated the membership and focused on bringing drivers together. How did you develop these skills?
Irwin: Working on the paper, Unity, and in the organization’s office, I learned a lot of skills. I was reading stuff that was relevant to what was going on. This taught me how to read and think critically. I also learned how to write, especially from Jean Yonemura-Wing. She went beyond her role as an editor who was a generous, all-around educator. Her style of editing taught us how to write good, accurate and compelling articles.
Pam: As a male you played a huge role in childrearing. Could you address the role of the organization in promoting the importance of respect in relationships, how it addressed issues of male chauvinism, and the role of organization in intervening in abusive relationships?
How did coming from the street and community impact your thinking and actions? Today there are many spaces where one can conduct their political work be it as a paid job in a non-profit or union or other vocation. Do you have thoughts on this?
Irwin: That’s the thing, young people, who now come in the movement or come into the community, have to think about what they’re trying to do. How are they striving to improve the community or society? How you’re going to do that? What’s your framework? I’m not a social worker. I’m there because I want to change the situation. I want to change how people are living and what kind of conditions they’re living with. You know, who’s controlling the community? I want to give power to those people, right? But I don’t want to do it like in an arrogant sense, like I’m doing it to train you. Know where you are coming from first. In reality, your commitment deepens the more you engage in practice and reflect on what you are doing and how you are doing it. Think about how are you growing and developing a greater awareness of the concrete conditions and work from that place.
Pam: Looking back over the span of your time at MUNI, it seems you took on a wide range of responsibilities.
Irwin: Yes, I was a MUNI driver for 18 years and the following 12 years, I was an elected TWU (Transport Workers Union) Local 250-A representative out of the Divisions (i.e., bus barns). I was also appointed to the International Executive Committee and later served as the elected president of the union for five years. After that I became the International Representative for the West Coast.
While it was hard to balance that with my other responsibilities as a partner, parent, member of the LRS, I feel I managed to navigate it all. Sometimes it was very challenging and stressful. Representing the interest of public sector workers and bus drivers, in particular, you have to be prepared to work in many arenas. You have to understand and work with drivers in order to deal with their problems and issues, you have to develop ways to maintain your focus and resist management’s bullshit, you have to handle union grievances in a sound and fair way, you deal with internal issues within the union, and you keep focused on the big picture. As public sector workers, keeping focused on the big picture is very important.
As public sector workers in the age of neoliberalism, we are constant targets especially when opportunists who want to get elected promise to “get rid of inefficient, poorly managed public service.” This often includes transit, schools, low wage public sector workers. For MUNI drivers, our wages were tied to SF City Charter, and that was later eliminated on a ballot measure put forth by right-wing politicians opposed to workers of color having good paying jobs and benefits and pitting voters against us in a downward economy. This means we need to have a strong presence at City Hall and be on top of what is going on among elected representatives, departments, and governing committees and get them to understand the issues from our point of view also. This is hard work, and it can keep you up at night. That’s why I needed to have a notebook next to my bed so I could write things down and go back to sleep.
Pam: At first, MUNI was your pathway for providing for your family. Then you took on responsibilities that I am understand were not only for yourself, but for others and the union. Do you have any regrets?
Irwin: No regrets, like I said, I’ve lived a good life and am proud of my time at MUNI.
Pam: Thank you Irwin. Your story helps so many who have been on the job for many years, and for those who are entering the “workforce.” It shows how organizing is wherever your feet land.
Interviewer’s Bio: Pam Tau Lee is a founding member of SF Chinese Progressive Association and the Asian Pacific Environmental Network. She was a member of HERE local 2, worked in the industry for 20 years, and served as staff director of hotels and facilitated discussions on immigration which led to immigrant worker freedom rides. Pam also cofounded the Just Transition alliance. She currently serves as chairperson of International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines.