Dealing with the Minneapolis Society for the Blind
Dealing with the Minneapolis Society for the Blind
By: Peggy Chong
Over the years, the NFB of Minnesota has had a variety of relationships with all the agencies for the blind in the state, as well as with organizations outside the state. Sometimes the relationship was one of cooperation, sometimes it was not.
In 1947, the Board of Directors sent representatives to Duluth on several occasions to help in the concerns with the Duluth Lighthouse for the Blind and the welfare system of St. Louis County. This assistance led to the formation of our Duluth chapter.
The American Association of Workers for the Blind met in Minneapolis during the summer of 1948. Many of our members attended the meetings. A report of the meeting appeared in theMinnesota Bulletin in September of 1948. But the most famous agency, certainly the most written about agency, in the history of the NFB of Minnesota is the relationship between us and the Minneapolis Society for the Blind.
At the very beginning of our history, our leaders met with the leaders of the Minneapolis Society for the Blind (MSB) to discuss the building of an industrial center and later a home for the blind (see "The Home and Center for the Blind"). MSB and the other agencies for the blind said it was a great idea that met a need. However, they provided no financial support or assistance of any kind. Blind people believed that the agencies thought the project would never get off the ground.
But the Home and Center did succeed and time passed. In the 1930's, there are many references to MSB that show that communication continued on legislative issues. . In the 1940-41 legislative session MSB worked with our organization in total cooperation to pass an appropriation for the state agency for the blind. This appropriation included money specifically designated for rehabilitation and the vending-stand program. Provisions for appeals in the Aid for the Blind Law were also passed. The legislative committee felt that MSB's cooperation was a historic event that they hoped could happen again. Unfortunately that was not to be the case. By the 1940's the tone was changing. A report to the special convention called on February 12, 1942 announced that MSB had received its Sheltered Shop Certificate. Our organization went on record as opposing this sheltered-shop system. This stand followed several reports to the Board of Directors that wages of blind workers were being cut. In 1950 MSB opened its Adjustment and Training program. The May 1950 issue of the Minnesota Bulletin reported that the program already was off to a bad start. MSB had not hired any qualified blind instructors for the program. Nor did it inform its clients of the organizations of the blind that would be of great benefit to them. In the late 1950's, fewer and fewer blind salesmen were being hired by MSB or the St. Paul Society for the Blind to sell their products. Some blind salesmen had been let go and sighted persons took their place. This was addressed at our conventions and a committee was established to work only on this issue. The Twin Cities and surrounding suburbs were passing ordinances that would greatly restrict door-to-door sales. The committee wanted the two societies for the blind to address this issue as well, but they would not do so. Because of the city ordinances, soon there were no salesman jobs for the sighted either. Resolution 59-01 was passed that expressed concern with the city ordinances that would restrict door-to-door salesmen and telephone solicitation. But the issue that was to break down all working relationships was that of the sheltered workshop and the refusal of the agencies to pay the minimum wage. At the annual convention in 1969, that issue dominated the convention agenda. Resolution 69-08 called for the minimum wage to be paid to workers in sheltered shops and that the shops allow collective bargaining for the workers. Resolution 69-09 opposed the building of any more sheltered shops in Minnesota until all the shops paid the minimum wage. From then on the demands, charges, and countercharges went back and forth at a quickened pace. In 1970 we wanted three fully participating blind persons representing the blind organizations elected to the MSB board, and that these blind persons not have any ties to the sheltered shops. But the president of the MSB Board of Directors said that blind persons could not serve on the board as they could not "contribute." The organization had documented many problems with MSB. Representatives held many meetings with MSB and other blind groups to try to resolve these problems, but with no success. At the October 4, 1971, meeting of the grievance committee, the MSB representatives said that they did not believe the members of our organization represented the blind community and refused to meet any more.
Organizing the workshop workers into a union was attempted in 1970-71. Workers wanted to improve the deteriorating working conditions in the shop. Resolution 71-03 called for the establishment of a strike fund for the workshop workers if a strike were to occur and sought help from the labor unions for a strike.
In October of 1971 MSB appointed three blind persons to its Board of Directors. MSB thought this would pacify the blind community. But these people had not been elected by the blind, nor did they represent any of the blind groups.
At the January 1972 annual meeting of MSB a large group of blind persons attended the meeting and, in accordance with the MSB bylaws, tried to introduce a resolution specifying that 1/3 of the MSB board be representatives of the blind community. They also tried to nominate blind persons to the board. They were ruled out of order and the meeting was abruptly adjourned. The MSB Board of Directors then amended their bylaws and expelled over 2,000 members, including all blind persons. Thus MSB became a closed board leaving no opportunity for blind persons to work within its structure to improve conditions at MSB.
So the blind took their message to the public. Picketing of board members took place in the summer of 1972. Much press coverage of the conflict appeared for the next several years.
On September 22, 1972 a lawsuit was filed against MSB. The suit stated that MSB had violated its bylaws by throwing out its members, and sought elected representation on the MSB board. Plaintiffs were: James Brennan, Tom Scanlan, Mel Schrader, Maxine Schrader, Eric Smith, and Steve Jacobson.
Blind persons continued to be treated badly at MSB. In the spring of 1974, our home teacher worked with Larry Kettner to secure a job in Winsted. He came to the organization after going to MSB for help. They gave him a job in the workshop but first he had to sign a minimum wage waiver. It stated that he would work for $1.35 per hour. After working with Sharon Grostephans, our home teacher, he got a job starting at well over $2.00 per hour. Based on his proved ability to work at a higher-than-minimum level, Larry Kettner appealed the MSB waiver to the Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor. In the summer of 1975, the Department of Labor decided in favor of Larry and ordered MSB to pay back wages for the last week of his employment.
MSB's rehabilitation program to teach the skills of blindness was just as repressive. In 1975, another appeal was won by the organization for B. Hodgkiss to carry her cane inside the Minneapolis Society for the Blind while taking travel training there. She had been told by the MSB staff that, while she was inside the building, she was not allowed to use her long white cane. At the annual convention of 1974 these matters were reported to the membership. Resolution 74-01 called for MSB to stop its practice of using minimum wage waivers. A resolution was also passed that opposed state or federal financial aid to sheltered workshops that did not pay the minimum wage.
In March of 1976 our attorneys filed a Certificate of Readiness with the courts in the lawsuit against the Minneapolis Society for the Blind. After many delays by the Society, the trial was finally held January 31 through February 9, 1977. The decision came down in our favor on June 15, 1977.
A new election of the MSB board was ordered with the same rules that were in effect in the early 1970's. This allowed for proxy voting and an open membership. The role of the membership of the Minneapolis Society for the Blind was mainly a fundraising tool until this point. Immediately, MSB filed a request for clarification. Yet another delay by MSB.
They wanted to limit the membership to only Minnesota residents and no proxy voting. In September a settlement was offered by MSB, but was rejected by the NFB of Minnesota. Our lawyers called the settlement offer "absurd and a flight from reality."
MSB wanted delays in the decision since they felt that in a short time, the NFBM leadership would change and the lawsuit would be dropped by the members in the organization that they could control. They said that Joyce Scanlan and the board (including Tom Scanlan, Curtis Chong, and Steve Jacobson) were "short-term leaders."
MSB had worked hard to divide the blind community. In 1972 they got the United Blind (UB) to pull out of the lawsuit. Jessie Rosten, the executive director of MSB, became a member of the UB, as did other agency persons. Jessie was behind many activities that caused dissension in the blind community. He also led a crusade to discredit NFB leadership by sending inflammatory letters to the employers of Federationists as a form of harassment. He and other MSB staff members drove blind persons to the Capitol to testify against our Commission Bill. Many blind persons that they brought were those who had in the past supported the idea of a Commission. No one from MSB testified at the hearings.
In 1977 someone had taped an NFB of Minnesota board meeting. The tape was altered to discredit the board members and the organization. It was then circulated outside the organization. Disgruntled members who were being manipulated by MSB had gotten into the NFB office at the home and had gone through the files. Attention needed to be focused internally to restore harmony in the organization.
Although MSB had gotten the United Blind to back down, not all of the organizations of the blind had turned their backs. Early on, the Alumni Association of the Minnesota Braille and Sight Saving School had given their support to the NFB's efforts to reform the Society and continued to do so. In May of 1978 MSB appealed the entire case to the Minnesota Supreme Court. On July 13, 1979, The Minnesota Supreme Court upheld the Hennepin County District court decision and ordered the election of the board of the Minneapolis Society for the Blind. The election was scheduled to take place November 14, 1979.
During the fall of 1979 each group was working throughout the country to collect proxies. At the fall regional conference of National Industries for the Blind, proxies for MSB were passed out but the NFB's proxy was not. This was in direct violation of the court order. Jessie Rosten told the shop workers on September 7, 1979 that if they did not vote with the Society, that the NFB would take over and close the shop and they would not have a job. On October 6, 1979, the UB voted to give their support to the Society.
MSB took out full page ads in the local papers. In large letters, MSB used lines like "After November 14, you'll be hearing a lot more tapping down Hennepin Avenue." and "After November 14, you could have a new responsibility to avoid" to play on public fears of blindness. Later, when they were running up their public relations bills a bit too high, they took out a 1/4 page ad that said, "If it's hard to face most of our blind people thrown out into the streets, we can help you hide." This one had a pair of dark glasses being put on the reader's face. Each of them asked for a dollar and had a coupon that was supposed to be sent back to MSB. These ads were an act of desperation that came back to haunt MSB for years to come.
Eight Federationists were elected to the MSB Board of Directors on November 14. They were Tom Scanlan, Curtis Chong, Mary Hartle, Marie Whitteker, Roger Drewicki, Janet Lee, Nadine Jacobson, and Carol Del Favero. They were known as the "NFB Eight." This brought the total of blind persons on the 30-member board to 17. At the same meeting, MSB again voted to expel all the newly recruited membership.
The hostility and lack of trust continued. At the annual meeting of the National Accreditation Council for Agencies Serving the Blind and Visually Handicapped (NAC) following the MSB election, MSB President Richard Johnstone openly attacked the NFB and its leaders. During the January 30, 1980 MSB board meeting, Richard Johnstone got passed a NAC resolution that refused to recognize the National leadership of the Federation. The NFB Eight tried to get a resolution passed at the December 19, 1979 MSB board meeting that would say that the Society would try to work with the Federation. It was voted down TWICE at that meeting. Earlier at the December 1, 1979 NFB of Minnesota semiannual meeting, the Federation passed a resolution that promised to work with the Society to better the lives of the blind.
All committee meetings were closed to board members who were not on the committee. In fact all meetings were closed to anyone except those appointed to attend. This made it impossible for Federationists to know what was happening at the agency. It effectively kept them from being fully-participating board members. It kept any interested blind consumers from having any input into board decisions and it kept the blind away from the board. On February 15, 1980, we went back to the judge and asked that we be allowed to see all the material that MSB had concerning the election. The Society executive board had voted in January to refuse to let us review any material unless ordered by the court. On March 24, the judge issued a decision that said we should be allowed to see the election material. They then filed for a motion of protection and this motion was denied.
On September 19, 1980, the MSB board was told that Jessie Rosten was taking a 3-month leave of absence, but not much later it was reported that Jessie had been asked to resign as the Executive Director. He announced his resignation at 9:00 A.M. and was out of the building by noon.
In September 1981 the information sheet Why Minnesota's Blind Do Not Always See Eye to Eye was widely circulated. This was a factual piece comparing the philosophy and structure of MSB and the NFB of Minnesota. Shortly after its release, MSB President Richard Johnstone demanded that the NFB Eight disavow statements in the piece. However, Society officials could not find a lie or a misstatement. They said that it was factual, but the Society felt that the circular should not have been printed in the first place. On December 15, 1981, the eight NFB members who had served on the MSB board resigned. Their resignation was because the rest of the board refused to share information on financial and operating information with the eight members. Clearly, no effective change could occur with MSB's attitude and none had during their two years on the board. Distrust was just as prevalent with both sides as it had been before the election. In a news report of the resignation of the NFB Eight, Richard Johnstone exposed his true feeling that blindness is the worst of all handicaps. "I'd rather lose arms and legs first," he said. His statement again revealed the tragic and hopeless feelings held by MSB staff and board members.
The seven-page policy statement on why the eight resigned was circulated widely and printed in the Minnesota Bulletin. Federationists pointed out times when they were to vote on budgets, but the budgets were not put into braille for the blind board members. For instance, when Mary Hartle asked if there were any changes that would affect blind people, she was told to "just get with it and vote for the budget."
After the resignation of the eight Federation members, the Society wasted no time. On January 13, 1982, MSB went to the Judge again to ask him to issue a ruling that they had done everything correctly during the election of 1979. The Judge asked them for a precedent but MSB could not find one, and the motion was denied. At this point, it seemed that the best thing for the organized blind to do was just to ignore MSB, and we did just that.
Since then, MSB has been taken over by the St. Paul Society for the blind. At least partly because of the publicity at the time of the election and the resulting loss of public support, they decided to change their name. Not once, but twice. First they changed it from Minneapolis Society for the Blind to just MSB, and then after the forced merger with St. Paul to Vision Loss Resources. Enrollment in their rehabilitation program has steadily declined until it holds less than a quarter of the blind students seeking training in the state today.
How the mighty have fallen. Moreover, the new name Vision Loss Resources does show their true philosophy: one of loss.
The NFB of Minnesota did more than just fight MSB. When we decided it was beyond reform we started our own training program. That program is Blindness: Learning in New Dimensions (BLIND). Contrast the two organizations as reflected in their names. One is loss, the other is learning.