Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A Letter From the Frontline in the War on the Working Class...

The dance that stigmatized a generation of fat kids...
One of my many secret shames is that I’m a lazy, lazy man. Just ask my dissertation advisor…if he even remembers who I am, as I’ve been a bit lax in my writing since my ABD status. If there’s a shortcut for something, I’ve probably found it. If there’s a workaround for something, I’ve done it at least once. It’s not that I’m maliciously lazy—rather twenty years of trying to find fulfilling work as a Gen X’er with an arts/humanities and education background has left me with an all purpose “why bother?” malaise. Years and years of earning degree after degree has left me in a state of perpetual underemployment, and after a decade of chasing a financial carrot on a stick, I realized that I’d be just as successful doing little to nothing as I would be on the resume/interview treadmill. When I was thinking of monikers for blogging, I’d considered SubliminalSloth, but a fear of the inevitable Goonies analogy (I was always more of a Chunk man, myself…right down to performing the occasional, awkward Truffle Shuffle…usually after an unspecified amount of alcohol was involved) made me look elsewhere in the animal kingdom for a cute and cuddly avatar to hide behind.

The thought of doing anything on a Saturday that involved showering, dressing, and being at a specified place at a specified time, qualifies as “work” in my world view. True to my Gen X roots, my time is my time and no one else’s.

But there are always exceptions.

I was alerted to the current labor situation in Wisconsin as it erupted. A dear friend of mine is a Wisconsin state employee, and she filled both my Facebook and Twitter feed with details of Scott Walker’s plan to cripple Wisconsin unions as well as the public reaction against it, all in glorious real time.

I started to feel excited as I saw the feeds and pictures of the protesters in the rotunda, as I heard the audio of the chanting masses, peacefully protesting this latest salvo in the right wing’s war on the middle class. I felt my own inner armchair activist starting to come out of hibernation, as I started passing along articles on my own Facebook page and retweeting appropriately. It started to revive a longing I’d long since stifled.

I’ve never hidden my loathing and contempt for the Baby Boomers. As a matter of fact, I’ve worn it on my sleeve to the point of drafting an essay (that’s recently been picked up by a publishing firm no less) about the Boomer/Gen Y love affair…expect the obligatory plug later. But in spite of the venom that I reserve for a majority of the Woodstock generation, I’ve always had a secret admiration of the idealistic activism that was so ubiquitous and abundant in their late adolescence during the 1960’s and 70s…even if it did transmute to selfish greed as soon as they started getting MBAs and BMWs in the 1980s. I remember the 20th anniversary retrospectives of the Summer of Love in the pop culture media, longing to join the demonstrating masses I saw in archived video. Listening to Paul Hardcastle’s “19” in the mid 80’s, I entertained daydreams about joining in the antiwar protests of the Vietnam era. Seeing Hair as a college freshman in October 1990 had me fascinated with protest culture for years to come, but ingrained complacency kept me indoors.

Part time, no bennies or full time with...
…But as the Wisconsin protesters entered their second week entrenched in Madison, word went out about solidarity protests across the country on February 26th—one in every state capitol, and then some, I felt that inner protester becoming restless. Suddenly, over my shoulder, like the clich├ęd conscientious angel (or was it a devil?) of the Tom and Jerry cartoons of my youth, I had a little Bob Dylan standing over me, strumming the opening of “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” It was no summer of love, but it was a protest for something I believed in.

Growing up in Flint, Michigan, everyone had an opinion about unions—loving or hateful. For that matter, when I was growing up, organized labor seems to be one of the few things that everyone in the Flint region seemed to hold an opinion on, even in the days since GM’s decline left the city an economic wasteland. Growing up in the 70’s and 80’s, the presence of organized labor was everywhere. UAW meeting halls were scattered throughout the city. Tradespeople advertised their professional affiliations on buildings and bumper stickers. UAW local ______ jackets were as ubiquitous in the cold months as high school varsity jackets were.

Hey right wing, how's that working for ya?
Opinions, for the most part, were divided along class lines. A majority of the blue collar workforce in Flint had a positive opinion of the concept of the union. If they weren’t union themselves, they had friends, family, or acquaintances who were. The only blue collar employees who were openly anti-union were those who weren’t employed in a unionized profession. These naysayers, however, tended to convert as soon as a friend, relative, or acquaintance got them into the Shop. Sour grapes, I suppose. Meanwhile, most of the white collar workers in Flint had nothing but contempt for the unions, especially those white collar businessmen whose businesses were either unionized or targets for unionization. Even now, I remember the constant picketing in front of the various Kessels grocery stores in the area, workers demanding a union presence in the workplace. Al Kessel lived in our neighborhood. His son was in my cohort in school. I remember one day on the bus, he mentioned that his father had installed a remote starter on the family car, fearing sabotage in retaliation for refusing to unionize his stores. Whether true or not, stories like that became urban legends in the middle and upper classes of the Flint area—thuggish organized labor threatening the poor, innocent, benevolent employers. For the children of middle and upper class professionals, they became our cautionary tales. “Do well in school and succeed…or you’ll wind up like them.”

My father’s business never directly depended on unionized labor, but union activity and actions indirectly influenced it. After all, when you’re locked in a bitter strike that extends for weeks or months, financial sacrifices have to be made. Usually, attorney bills are the first bills to get tabled when scarce cash has to be divided between rent, utilities and food costs. So my father always saw the UAW as the force that put a hold on his income when union contracts were due to expire and the negotiations almost always meant a work stoppage at the Shop. Growing up, he didn’t hide his contempt for organized labor. I remember a fight nearly breaking out one night, as we pushed past union protesters in front of a Hamady grocery store. They hurled unsavory words towards my father as he walked in; he hurled even more unsavory words towards them as we walked out; the presence of children on both sides of the conflict prevented fists from hurling as we walked to our car.

Yet growing up, I saw the human face of organized labor, in spite of the classist paranoia that filled my childhood and neighborhood. I had friends whose families were union. In 1981, the Grand Blanc school district closed several facilities, including Anderson Elementary, which primarily served the lower socioeconomic part of the district. Anderson refugees were bussed across the system, including to Indian Hill Elementary, the school I attended, which served several of the more affluent neighborhoods. For me, the mixing of social classes (race would have to wait, as even the poorer parts of the Grand Blanc district were still Tea Party-white) started to make me aware of not only my privilege at the time, but the stresses placed on the working class, including having to endure the financial crush of a strike. When it’s adults on the TV news talking about having to make ends meet, that’s one thing for a kid—distant and interpersonally disconnected usually. When it’s your new best friend telling you about how his family’s struggling because the union and GM won’t agree on a new contract, so he can’t get new comic books or G. I. Joe toys, it’s not only closer to home, but also far more engaging of the sympathies. Of course, with my father’s perpetual anti-union stance, I had to keep my opinions to myself for the remainder of my adolescence.

…then I became a union man in my mid-twenties. The family scandal wasn’t nearly as tumultuous as I’d braced for. At the time, my sister was involved in an interracial relationship. True to WASP form, racism trumped classism on the family gossip scale, so she took the heat that I’d have likely taken. In August 1998, I tired of the graduate student lifestyle—perpetual underemployment and poverty, existing as the lowest lifeform on the academic totem pole, and a diet of ramen noodles, generic label macaroni and cheese, and store brand cold cuts. A friend had arranged for me to test for a technician position with Lucent Technology’s Orlando microchip factory, Cirent Semiconductor. After taking some basic math and reading tests, a round of interviews, and a full physical, I was offered a position making $7.17 an hour on a guaranteed 36-48 hour swing shift, with full medical, dental, and optical benefits.

The choice reminded me of a Simpsons episode entitled "Home Sweet Homediddly-Dum-Doodily.” In it, Homer and Marge temporarily lose custody of their children to their ultra-religious neighbors, the Flanders. The episode climaxes with Ned Flanders trying to baptize the Simpson children in a nearby lake, ala John the Baptist. Homer and Marge arrive just in time to stop Maggie’s baptism, but Maggie finds herself conflicted. She looks over to the Flanders and sees the family set against green grass and a blue sky. She then looks over to her family and sees a charred, desolate wasteland. Only the emergence of Marge from nearby brush sways her ultimate decision. Like Maggie, I had to choose: graduate school or the Lucent job. Unlike Maggie, there was no warm and loving Marge figure emerging from the brush in grad school to sway me.

I reported for training the next week. The academic world could wait.

The "Right to Work" state in action...
Florida is what’s known as a “Right to Work” state, essentially meaning that unions could exist, but they weren’t mandatory for the workforce to join. Moreover, nonunion members could enjoy the benefits paid for by union members, essentially negating the need to join and pay dues in the first place. (I guess I’ll ignore the obvious irony that the right wing has heavily favored the “Right to Work” concept—one wherein freeloaders and leeches essentially reap the benefits paid for by a small majority…which sounds like just about anything they relate to the working class. I suppose that “economic fairness” only applies when they’re dealing with CEOs and their corporate benefactors…). Having grown up in Flint, I already knew that I’d be joining the Union, and within a week, I was a card carrying member of the IBEW local 2000.

"I'm here for the job..."
Now admittedly, unions aren’t perfect. Their critics make valid points at times. Yes, they protect employees who would otherwise be fired in a non-union shop. During my time at Lucent, I saw several employees routinely hide behind the union when they made what could only be classified as stupid mistakes or repeated acts of sheer, unapologetic laziness. No, in spite of my previously confessed slothful demeanor, I was never one of them. That having been said, union protection isn’t a perpetual “get out of lazy/stupid free” card. The union instead was a path for a second or third chance, an opportunity to remediate and remedy poor workplace behaviors—something that is almost unheard of in the non-union workplace, much less in an economy where blue-collar workers have all the disposability of a store-brand tampon: yank one out, toss it away, and throw another one in and bleed it in. In an American workplace that perpetually dehumanizes its workforce, the union provides a necessary, humanizing buffer between the workers and management.

That humanizing force, at least to me, is what makes the union necessary in the modern American workplace. In an age where HR “professionals” treat workers no better than children of my generation treated green army men, and managers apply the tampon model of dealing with employees, the working class needs an entrenched advocate within the workplace culture. On April 5, 2001, I was one of nearly 300 people to get laid off (I still remember the quizzical look on my former supervisor’s face if I could have a real pink slip…or at least a pink piece of paper, as a souvenir) when Cirent made their first round of workeforce cuts that would ultimately lead to the closure of the plant in 2005 and bulldozing in 2010. In a scene from a blue collar version of Sophie’s Choice, we were separated in line as we waited to clock in. Some got to work, others were shuffled to the auditorium, where the company CEO applied the axe. This was followed by a full confiscation of company property (like our badges and PDAs), and security escorts as we cleaned out our lockers and left the premises. In spite of the completely dehumanizing treatment, the sole redemption was the $5000 educational disbursement for retraining that the union negotiated for us—members and nonmembers alike. The IBEW did little else to help us find work, but I was at least able to use that educational disbursement to finish the graduate degree I put on the backburner and earn my MA. Had we no union, I suspect that we’d never have gotten that benefit.

Love them or hate them, the working class needs a strong union presence. So when word of the February 26th solidarity protests started to trickle across my social networks, I decided to show up.

I’m no fan of the color red. I have just enough Native American in my bloodline to put a reddish tinge to my face that warm colors only exaggerate. Additionally, for my current part time job, I have to wear a red shirt as part of my uniform (I’ll ignore the Star Trek analogy here), so the color red has been coded as a “work” color for me. So there’d be no donning of red and white (University of Wisconsin colors) in the name of solidarity. I did, however, have badgers about—several stuffed badgers (I’ll spare the long story, as this is getting long winded already) that I keep over my desk. So as a show of solidarity to the Badger state, I grabbed one, and off we went.

I’d never been to a protest before. I didn’t know the etiquette or procedures. Did I spontaneously start a chant, or was there a chantmaster who would be directing us? Was it gauche not to show up with a sign? Should I have made a collapsible, telescoping protest sign beforehand, with blank canvas and attached marker, like Moonbeam had in PCU?

...proving that the most dangerous weapon is the human mind...
The only guidance I had was from my mother, in a frantic text message as I walked to the capitol: “Don’t get arrested! Don’t get arrested! Whatever you do, don’t get arrested!” So armed with my iPhone’s GPS app, I wandered over and across streets, eventually turning into the Chillyfest block party. Over the sound of street performers and a jam band warming up, I heard the sound of an impassioned speech and cheering crowds approving. I instinctively followed the noise…

No really, it's not sexual at all...
…and promptly ran into a guy in full Revolutionary War era cosplay, complete with “don’t tread on me” flag. Then, I saw the wall of police officers on both sides of the street. Between that and the hateful stares that I was getting from the cosplayer’s buddies, I realized that I’d come up the street to the wrong side of the protest. For a brief moment in time, I had a visual definition of the word “awkward” as I waited for the traffic light to change, with about fifty Teabaggers behind me.

As an undergrad at Florida State, November meant several things: the ramping down of the semester, Thanksgiving holiday, and the inevitable arrival of “Brother” Jed Smock. I had no idea at the time, but Jed’s week on campus each year was a taste of protest culture. Jed stood in the middle of a circle of students, preaching and taunting as students fired logic, barbs, and one-liners (not necessarily in that order) back at him. Once I crossed the street, I stood at the back of the crowd, raised my plush badger in the air, and cheered the speakers. The whole experience was energizing. I was surrounded by like-minded people, all there for a single objective. I started to experience that feeling of collective belonging that I’d seen the Boomers reflect upon in their own youth activism.

I hear he's getting a transforming robot in the next revision...
As soon as the roar of the speeches ended, the Teabaggers engaged. I wandered the crowd, taking pictures and taking in the whole scene. For about an hour, both sides stood on opposite sides of the street, shaking signs and yelling at one another over political differences. Of course, the right-wingers eventually resorted to religion, shouting out various bible verses at us, which completely confounded me within the context. Maybe my memory has degraded in the two and a half decades since I last read a bible, but 70’s era Ted Nugent exterior aside, I always took Jesus for more of a union guy than a moneyhungry businessman. I mean anyone who can take five loaves of bread and two fish, feed five thousand people, and not demand payment for it just doesn’t strike me as the rabid capitalist figure that I see and hear elevated to dietyhood in Libertarian and Teabagger circles. Using shared resources to help a group was straight out of the union playbook I worked with at Lucent. But then again, I’ve not engaged in the recent wave of Christian revisionism, so I may not have gotten the latest memo or talking points. All I can say is that the Jesus of my youth never rode a saddled dinosaur…but that’s the topic for another blog entry, I suspect.

"Big Boned Patriot"
When I see what Scott Walker is trying to do in Wisconsin, I see a blatant, open, and aggressive war on the working class’ last, best hope at staying strong and empowered—organized labor. As the American Corpocracy continues to annex our government one elected official at a time, and our country continues to slide towards plutocratic rule, Walker’s budget repair bill (ironically repairing the shortfall of giving $137 million in tax breaks to his corporate cronies) may have well as been the bullet that killed Franz Ferdinand, as it’s done what nothing has been able to do since Ronald Reagan’s attack on PATCO in 1981—rouse and rally the working class in the name of American labor. I worked to keep my union strong when I was employed by Lucent Technologies ten years ago, and on Saturday, I worked again to keep the American union alive.

More pictures of the Raleigh Rally to Save the American Dream can be found here