Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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“One Nation, Indivisible” features excerpts from The Sun’s archives that speak to the current political moment.
At a suburban Walmart that is advertising a “job fair,” I am seated at a table with some balloons attached to it (this is the “fair” part) to wait for Julie. She is flustered when she shows up, after about a ten-minute wait, because, as she explains, she just works on the floor and has never interviewed anyone before. Fortunately for her, the interview consists almost entirely of a four-page “opinion survey,” with “no right or wrong answers,” Julie assures me, just my own personal opinion in ten degrees from “totally agree” to “totally disagree.” There are the usual questions about whether a coworker observed stealing should be forgiven or denounced, whether management is to blame if things go wrong, and if it’s all right to be late when you have a “good excuse.” . . .
What these tests tell employers about potential employees is hard to imagine, since the “right” answers should be obvious to anyone who has ever encountered the principle of hierarchy and subordination. Do I work well with others? You bet, but never to the point where I would hesitate to inform on them for the slightest infraction. Am I capable of independent decision making? Oh, yes, but I know better than to let this capacity interfere with a slavish obedience to orders. . . . The real function of these tests, I decide, is to convey information not to the employer but to the potential employee, and the information being conveyed is always: You will have no secrets from us. We don’t just want your muscles and that portion of your brain that is directly connected to them; we want your innermost self.
“Cleaned Out,” Barbara Ehrenreich, January 2003
My daughter and I were on welfare, along with millions of other people, during the Depression. When I came to this country, I came as a single parent. You had to go down every week to the zone office. Now it’s called the welfare office, I guess. You went there to get your food voucher. Once, there was a man outside the office asking people to sign a petition to get the legislature to dismiss the state militia and use the money to finance unemployment insurance.
I asked him who cooked up this idea, anyway. He said it was the Communist Party. I wanted to know more about it. I was invited to a class studying Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto. The class was held in a woman’s apartment. When we all showed up for class, we discovered the poor woman was being evicted for nonpayment of rent. The sheriff went in and brought some furniture out and placed it on the sidewalk. Then we’d pick it up and take it around to the back door and inside again. We were going round and round. The sheriff got sick and tired of it and left. So we got all the furniture back in and then had the class.
“Reflections of a Ninety-Three-Year-Old Revolutionary,” Hazel Wolf, interviewed by Cat Saunders, September 1991
I graduated and got a job with the WPA [Works Progress Administration]. The WPA did what free enterprise couldn’t do. The free market fell on its ass in the big stock-market crash of October 1929. People didn’t know what had hit them. The wise men of Wall Street were going crazy. The WPA provided jobs for millions who were unemployed. And now they’re talking about privatizing everything! Privatizing is what killed us then. It was all privatized. We were saved by the government. There is no memory of this. We are suffering from a national Alzheimer’s disease. And this didn’t begin with [President George W.] Bush. Bush is the cartoon spirit; he’s a caricature. It began with Ronald Reagan. . . .
What is the first big thing he did after being elected? In 1981 he broke the air-traffic controllers’ strike and blacklisted eleven thousand seasoned air-traffic controllers. That union was the most conservative union in the country. They backed Ronald Reagan 80 percent in the election. Now, what was the issue that caused the strike? They were striking for more psychiatric care, more counseling, because the work would wear them down. They also wanted more R & R. In the hands of one air-traffic controller rest the lives of thousands of passengers each day. In short, they were striking for more passenger safety. So they were striking on behalf of us. And guess what the poll result was: a majority of Americans applauded Reagan for showing up those guys.
“Hope Dies Last,” Studs Terkel, interviewed by Michael Shapiro, November 2006
Strike: a new word in our vocabulary. Mama explained to us that the people who worked in the shop were striking for a living wage, better working conditions, and benefits. She also told us that some of the “home workers” did take the work home but she wouldn’t. She explained that if the home workers continued to do that then the bosses would fill their orders and never try to settle with the workers. And she felt that the men who were striking were family men and they were fighting for survival. And no matter how much we needed the extra money, she was not going to be a . . . scab. (Another new word in our vocabulary.) The strike lasted through the spring. That meant no new shoes for the holidays, the winter; that meant not enough coal, and of course, no extras that we used to look forward to.
Mama did not live long enough to see the end of the strike that she supported for so long. She died at the age of thirty-nine (of cancer), still holding out. Ten years later, I was working in a union shop, with a forty-hour week, overtime, vacation, and pension plan. The day the union sent me with the delegation to Washington to represent our local was the proudest day of my life. I was continuing the fight that Mama helped start.
“Family Stories” (Readers Write), Rose Safransky Scheinberg, June 1979
Business relationships were once the basis of our communities. I grew up in a small town where you knew all your local merchants and everybody hung out down at the drugstore. After my dad retired, he used to go down there every morning. On Saturdays, the men in our town would sit on the front steps of the local hardware store, before it was torn down. And at the local butcher shop, the butcher would ask my grandmother and mother, “How was your turkey on Thanksgiving?” or, “How was that steak last Saturday night?” My parents had direct relationships with local businesspeople. But that became lost over time. . . .
When we talk about local economies, it’s important to recognize the co-optation of the word local. Walmart is threatened enough by the buy-local movement that its ads now say, “Shop at your local Walmart,” and they refer to themselves as “your town’s Walmart.”
“Table for Six Billion, Please,” Judy Wicks, interviewed by David Kupfer, August 2008
My father’s mother worked as John D. Rockefeller’s washerwoman when she was a teenager. As a bedridden, ninety-year-old woman, my grandmother would talk about how Rockefeller came out on the streets to pass out nickels to kids, and her face would flush with rage: this arrogant rich man scattering a few crumbs to the peasants while fighting against workers’ rights to unionize. A lifetime later, she was still infuriated just thinking about it.
“Weapons in the War for Human Kindness,” David Budbill, interviewed by Diana S. McCall, March 2004
Reformists get their power from the existence of revolutionaries. It’s clear that Martin Luther King Jr. had the impact he did in part because Stokely Carmichael was there accusing King of selling out. The AFL-CIO was successful because the Wobblies were there. The National Organization for Women became what it is because the radical feminist groups were around. In the ecosystem of social change, somebody’s got to be out there, very pure, very unreasonable, very unwilling to compromise. And somebody’s got to be inside cutting a deal. And the insider gets to cut a deal only because there are revolutionaries in the yard. There is no social change without revolutionaries, but the social change you get, if you’re lucky, is incremental, progressive reform — under the threat of revolution.
“Risky Business,” Peter Sandman, interviewed by Gillian Kendall, December 2003
As representatives of the United Farm Workers, Eliseo and I were standing on a picket line in support of the employees of a metalworking factory, who were on a wildcat strike. . . .
There were several cars marked LAKEWOOD POLICE and KUNTZ SECURITY SERVICE parked nearby. The Kuntz guards (you can guess what the strikers called them) and the police were huddled together. I overheard one of the guards telling a cop that they were going to bring the “replacements” into the plant on our side. I relayed this information to the picket-line captain, who went to get reinforcements.
Just then a long line of cars came up the street and stopped by our gate. Out of the lead car stepped a man with a revolver. Eliseo and I and a factory worker with a large paving stone in his hand stood in front of the armed man. I could smell the whiskey on his breath.
“Get the fuck out of my way,” the strikebreaker said as he stuck the pistol in my gut.
“We’re not moving,” I said. “You’ll have to come through me.” I was afraid, but my biggest fear was that the strike would fail.
I heard a click but felt nothing. Then the man yelled, “These motherfuckers are crazy,” and he got back into his car, made a U-turn, and left with the other cars trailing behind him. . . .
Not long after that, Eliseo and I were telling this story to a group of young volunteers. When I told them about the click, Eliseo said, “I didn’t hear any click.”
“That’s because the pistol wasn’t in your gut,” I replied.
“Narrow Escapes” (Readers Write), Hugh “Hawkeye” Tague, January 2010