Remembering Sharon Cotrell

29 Aug

I first saw Sharon Cotrell in the late ‘60s at a meeting of the newly-formed Students for a Democratic Society in Long Beach, California. It was announced at the meeting she was going to be the secretary. That was the last time I saw her for several years.

Photo by Marlene Alvarado; Sharon Cotrell on Feb. 28, 2000, at an anti-Iraq war demonstration in downtown Los Angeles

The International Socialists had an industrialization policy, meaning it sent members, mostly ex-students from college campuses into industry.  One target was the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, where the IS members got jobs in trucking and warehousing. 

In trucking, rank-and-file organizing was happening nationally and in some locals in the IBT.  Nationally, a reform grouping called 500 at 50 was organizing. As the organization’s name suggested, it was demanding $500 per month at age 50 for retirees. 

In Los Angeles, IBT Local 208 wildcatted.  The local had a history of rank-and-file activism.  It was one local were members openly supported the farmworker organizing against the policy of the International.  At some time, the Communist Party had members in the local.

Meanwhile, while the IS couldn’t send hundreds of people into trucking, it sent a sufficient number to have a critical mass in several cities and one company, United Parcel Service, Inc.  The IS Teamsters started newspapers, whose audience were Teamster members, particularly, rank-and-file leaders. These newspapers gave voice to local dissidents and attracted them to the local newspaper. In a handful of cases, the IS was able to recruit some of the leaders.  In other cases, while unable to recruit the leaders, the IS developed long-term working relations with many of them.

After a national strike in which I can’t remember the year, the network of newspapers became what was known as Teamsters for a Decent Contract, which later became Teamsters for a Democratic Union.    

Sharon, the first woman to work in the warehouse at Sealand and a Shop Steward, was one of those handful of rank-and-file Teamster activists who were first recruited to the TDU and then socialism, meaning the IS.  Sharon and another member of Local 692, Bilal Chaka, which Sharon recruited to TDU, decided along with advisers from other locals, like Allen that they were going to initiate a campaign in the local to reform it..

Once the corrupt leaders heard of the campaign, Sharon’s life was threatened.  Sharon could not stay at her apartment.  During the campaign, Sharon lived with me.  So I got to know Sharaon and Bilal well.

Sharon not only risked her life but gave an enormous amount of money to support the TDU.  One time in her apartment, she opened up a desk drawer, in which were canceled checks she had given to the TDU.

 The TDUers along with another reform caucus took over the leadership of the local.  The thuggery was gone.

Because of a faction fight in the IS, it split.  One reason was the IS Teamster leaders tried to discipline an important worker leader Pete Camarata, in Detroit.  I left the IS and joined the faction Camarata was part of.  Sharon remained in the IS.  However, over time, she stopped being active in the IS.  Sharon and I remained friends, although we differed regarding the split.

While Sharon stopped being in a socialist group, she remained active in local politics in Long Beach, particularly the Democratic Party. In 1992, she was the campaign manager for Alan Lowenthal, who first ran for the Long Beach City and is now California’s 47th District Congressman.

Several years ago, Sharon was central to the formation of People for Palestinian-Israeli Justice, an organization in Long Beach and environs focusing on Palestinian Human Rights.

Some month back, Sharon called to inform me Bilal had died.  I let her talk and talk, which was unusual for me because I usually had little patience with her.  I can’t remember how many times I told Sharon, “Please, start with the most important stuff first.”  In any case, I let her talk, perhaps because I knew she would not be long for this world.

Sharon, I’ll miss you, like so many other people you’ve touched.  



2 Responses to “Remembering Sharon Cotrell”

  1. militaryfamiliesspeakout Saturday, August 29, 2020 at 8:24 pm #

    Great write up, Barry. Have you sent this to Dennis and Naida? I think her sister is wanting Sharon stories. paz

    Pat Alviso & Jeff Merrick

    Military Families Speak Out

    http://www.mfso.org

    562-833-8035

    Support Our Troops

    Bring Them Home Now!

    Take Care of Them After They Get Home

  2. Marsha Steinberg Sunday, August 30, 2020 at 5:42 am #

    Thanks for this, Barry. Sharon Cotrell Presente!

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