|The dance that stigmatized a generation of fat kids...|
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...|
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?|
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...|
|"I'm here for the job..."|
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’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...|
|No really, it's not sexual at all...|
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...|
|"Big Boned Patriot"|
More pictures of the Raleigh Rally to Save the American Dream can be found here…