Reed Magazine August

Earn big money Promote social justice!

Nato Green majored in history. His thesis examined the role of racism in the nineteenth-century labor movement of his hometown, San Francisco. Under the auspices of the then-new Multicultural Resource Center (and in league with Franks and Peck), Green helped issue a 1996 manifesto that called for a college task force to develop proposals to encourage multiculturalism in various areas of campus life. Though the task force never materialized, Nato and company inspired Reed faculty to vote for a resolution supporting increased racial diversity at the college. Some of its goals in specific areas—admission and faculty hiring—were eventually implemented.

After Reed, Green set out to make labor history. At his first service job, Green tried his hand at labor organizing—and was so successful that he was fired. His family had some difficulty during his low-wage stints. “My grandmother had such a hard time understanding why I was a truck driver that she told her friends I was writing a book.” (He also worked in telemarketing, childcare, and construction, and in grocery and video stores.) But Green’s career was right on track—his next step was organizing San Francisco’s bike and car messengers into International Longshore and Warehouse Union, Local 6.

student activists

Messengers on two wheels who want to be represented by a union are required by federal labor law to include car and foot couriers in their organizing drives. Unionizing people from different work cultures, generations, and backgrounds gave new meaning to multiculturalism: “We united young, pierced, tatted-up bikers with older drivers whose numbers included ex-cons, laid-off Teamsters, and recent immigrants from Brazil, Vietnam, Mexico, and the Punjab.” The union won legal and transparent pay systems that netted workers substantial raises and the best benefits in the messenger industry.

Green favors electoral as well as oppositional political strategies. In November 2003, he helped pass the strongest minimum wage law in U.S. history. Proposition L. raised San Franciscans’ earnings from $6.75 to $8.50 an hour. Under the banner “San Francisco Needs a Raise,” low-income people went door to door in their communities touting a clear message for economic justice. Rather than target affluent voters, several low-wage workers’ organizations focused instead on increasing turnout among working-class youth, immigrants, and African-Americans, a move that helped pass the measure.

Green’s current goal is to organize young people who bag bagels, burgers, or groceries. To this end, he co-founded the San Francisco-based Young Workers United, one of approximately 250 workers centers in the U.S. The worker center movement, or community unionism, engages workers who have been ignored by conventional unions. For Green, “Worker centers are the conscience of the trade union movement.”


Probably the most important thing I did at Reed was to begin conscious and critical reflection on my own identity, and my place within larger social structures. That work happened outside the classroom, and was largely led by my own peers.

molly franks ’97


Their advice to students who seek social justice careers? Green’s main message is to get a job. Franks encourages people to pursue education beyond the choice of classes and majors: “Being engaged in your community gives you opportunities to study social issues firsthand and learn about yourself.” And Peck reminds students that winner-take-all argumentativeness doesn’t necessarily succeed in all settings: “The style of communication that is often rewarded in an academic setting can be disastrous for nurturing relationships and a democratic process.” Relationships in turn are the key to a good life, including those enduring Reed friendships, and the bedrock of political activism. End of Article

Jacqueline Dirks ’82 is the Cornelia Marvin Pierce Associate Professor of American History and Institutions. She received her Ph.D. from Yale and has taught at Reed since 1991. Her areas of academic interest include American social and cultural history and U.S. women’s history.

The authors may be reached via email at:

Reed Magazine August