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by Joey Grihalva
hen I was a little kid I thought “UAW” was a clothing brand, a conclusion I came to after seeing my father and his friends sporting UAW t-shirts and jackets. Little did I know, those letters
stand for “United Auto Workers,” an international labor union. I knew little about the labor movement back then. Young people today seem to know just as little, for an unfortunately logical reason; labor unions have been on the decline since the Reagan era. I grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, located in the American Midwest on the western edge of the Industrial Heartland aka “the Rust Belt.” We produced wheat, beer, dairy products, motorcycles, padlocks, engines; you name it. My father spent almost 30 years laboring in the Master Lock plant. At the dawn of the 21st Century the American manufacturing sector was being gutted. There was a period when it seemed like my father was attending a retirement/“got laid-off” party every Friday. (Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Rebecca Black). Corporations that had supported our city and our communities with jobs— sometimes scholarships and other initiatives as well—were moving overseas for cheaper, union-free labor. Much like her neighbors Detroit and Cleveland, Milwaukee became a de-industrialized wasteland. Deregulation and hyper-capitalism have landed us in the era of Wal-Mart and Wall Street robbery. Balls deep in the Great Recession, we find ourselves up shits creek without a goddamn paddle in sight. The Republican Revolution that exploded in the 1980s and set up this economic mess (/intense injustice) continues to inspire unqualified ideologues like Scott Walker, the governor of my home state and a stubborn incompetent bent on setting back workers rights. Earlier this year his efforts to take away collective bargaining from Wisconsin workers lit a fire under the ass of the American labor movement and sparked a battle back home.
Unions are no strangers to conflict. Throughout the 20th Century they waged heroic strikes and demonstrations, campaigns that would end child labor, secure the 40-hour workweek, paid vacation, sick leave, workers’ compensation, health and unemployment benefits, a safe work environment, to name a few accomplishments. This time around unions are fighting for something far more fundamental: their right to exist. When the demonstrations began in Wisconsin I was attending graduate school in Canada. My winter break fell on the same week as my mother’s 50th birthday, so I planned a surprise visit home. It also happened to be the third week of protests. The local media is in a tizzy when I arrive home and everyone I talk to has an opinion on the issue. My mother—a teacher at a public elementary school—has that Monday off work and decides to venture to the capital and give Scott Walker a piece of her mind. On President’s Day I join my mother and her fellow Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association (MTEA) union members on a yellow school bus headed west on I-94. There we will join other state employees and private sector workers from around Wisconsin and all over the nation. Firefighters, nurses, police officers, retail workers, students, professors, steel workers, celebrities, individuals and organizations of all stripes are showing solidarity on an overcast Monday afternoon in Madison. We march in the bitter February cold outside and inside the state capitol building, where an occupation is in full-effect. A local pizza joint is taking donations (from all over the world) and feeding hungry protestors. My mother and I take a break from the action and eat at a family-owned restaurant on State Street. Throughout this period of unrest in Wisconsin the public discourse is being littered with irresponsible, incendiary reporting unfairly discrediting unions and public employees, particularly schoolteachers. Hoping to offer a counterpoint I interview my mother while she grades her students homework and we wait for our food. “Some of the media is taking this out of context, which is obviously what some of the media do quite often,” my mother says, testing the temperature of her cup of chili that just arrived. 2
“They’re saying that we don’t want to pay into our healthcare and that we don’t want to pay into our pension. They say that we’re the ones demanding everything and we’re not willing to bend, but from conversations I’ve had today and on Friday it’s clear that the teachers, the union people, we’re willing to pay into our healthcare and into our pension. It’s the bargaining rights that we don’t want them to take away.” “If they get rid of this union, which is 50, 60 years strong, it will be so demoralizing for the whole of society. Let me be clear, it’s not about the money right now. It’s about our rights and protecting our jobs. Without the union we’ll have nobody to fight for us. Then who’s to say what could happen? Administrators could get rid of you because you looked at them the wrong way. It’s going to be a long battle, but there’s a lot of states supporting us and that’s a good sign.” As a result of budget cuts in the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) system my mother’s elementary school has lost every one of their specialty teachers. This means no more reading, no more music, no more art, and starting in the 20112012 school year, no more physical education. “The responsibilities we have now are pretty huge. I don’t think people realize that we have to do an uninterrupted 90-minute reading block, a 60minute block of writing, then another hour for math and then in between all of that you have to teach them art because you don’t have an art teacher anymore. You have to teach them music because you don’t have a music teacher anymore. You have to teach them science, you have to teach them social studies, you have to work in language skills, and somehow you have to create this nice working atmosphere in the classroom. But it just feels like you’re asking the kids to be little robots.” “And you’re not just teaching, that’s another thing a lot of people don’t get. We play social worker to these kids, we have to play referee to them sometimes. Some of them come with a lot of baggage and an incident that happens on the playground carries over into the classroom. Those things have to be dealt with and heaven forbid it dips into your uninterrupted block of math.”
No part of my mother’s job elicits more negative a response than the cadre of federally mandated tests courtesy of the Bush Administration and the No Child Left Behind Act. “There’s so much over-assessment. Everything is assessment, assessment, assessment. It’s overkill. Sometimes there are so many assessments that it becomes all that you’re ever teaching to, which you’re not supposed to do. You’re supposed to have time for creative learning. I talk to some of the veteran teachers and they can’t wait to get out of the system because it’s stifling our ability to teach effectively.” During the last election both of my parents supported Barack Obama in his bid for the presidency. Even so, my mother has a beef with his Administration’s embrace of private voucher schools. “What really upsets me are these voucher or charter schools. Anybody can start a school now and they’re not accountable to state and federal assessments. They take away our students and they take our public money. After a couple of weeks these charter schools will weed out some students and send them back to the public schools, but the money doesn’t follow them. That’s just wrong. It undermines our system.” My mother is among a growing number of public school teachers in Milwaukee who are unsatisfied with the central administration. A couple of years ago the district paid for a social studies unit complete with booklets and a series of workshops. During one of those workshops the presenter demonstrated some innovative teaching methods using a projector and a Smart Board. My mother asked the woman if everything that she was showing them was accessible in the booklets. “Sure, but why wouldn’t you want to expose your children to this exciting new way of learning?” said the woman. “We don’t have projectors in our school and we sure don’t have Smart Boards,” my mother replied. The woman was shocked. “You have to talk to your principals because those are an integral part of this social studies unit,” she protested. Other teachers chimed in at this point, “Are you kidding me? We work for MPS, the district doesn’t have the money for that.” 4
Another example of a misappropriation of public education dollars occurred a few years back when the district purchased a reading program that required students to recite stories out loud and record themselves on a computer, but they did not provide microphones or headphones. My mother’s class eventually acquired headphones thanks to an initiative by McDonalds. That’s right, the same multinational fast food chain poisoning our youth is compensating for a lack of public funds available for education. What a world we live in! “What keeps me in the classroom is being with the children,” says my mother, sipping her decaffeinated coffee. “Getting to watch the excitement on their faces when they learn new things, seeing their eagerness and their ability to improve. When you’re a teacher you’re shaping the future and I like being a part of that. It’s what keeps me going everyday. But I don’t know, it’s getting tough.”
Prior to my return to Canada I had a conversation with my father about his union days. His first experience with organized labor was in the 1970s when he worked at K-Mart—an American retail store—for a summer when he was 18. “Joining the retail workers association was required, but the dues weren’t so much and they came out of your paycheck automatically, which was nice. When I started working at Master Lock that was my big inundation with the unions. To be honest, I thought the first union meeting I went to was a bitch and moan session. So I didn’t go back right away.” “It wasn’t until my second year that I really got involved. I was kind of thrust into it. There was a downturn in the economy and they were asking people to retire and then they were asking for people to take voluntary lay-offs. I was being reassigned. I had a better job than when I first started and was being bumped by somebody who had more seniority than me. Consequently I had to go to a lesser job for a short period.” 5
“After that things picked up and they recalled me to my old job, but on a different shift, which ended up to be a more favorable move for me. But that only lasted so long. Somehow the company had found a way to again bump me and that’s what ended up getting me involved with the unions, because I wanted to fight that. According to the language in my contract it said that they couldn’t do that, yet they were doing it. They were operating in a grey area.” “So what happened is that we went on strike. That was 1981. The company was already threatening to move to Mexico or China and they wanted concessions, just like Scott Walker wants them. We went on strike for three months. Now I was young and I didn’t have that many expenditures, but there were a lot of people who had families to support and needed the income more than others. Eventually they outvoted us, democratically mind you, and so we went back to work under the same conditions that we had been fighting against. It sucked and I was very pissed. I got arrested at that strike actually, just for one measly firework in my back pocket. I mean, I also had a couple of eggs, tomatoes, an orange, but I told the cops it was just my lunch. They didn’t believe me.” “After the strike I got more involved in the union and became a representative. I’d help settle grievances; most of them were disciplinary grievances between the company and other employees, mostly pay issues. There was a lot of “hey, that’s not my job” type stuff. The company was outsourcing work at that time, so I’d have to go in there and say, “look, we’ve been doing this work all along, you can’t do that, there’s language in the contract that says you can’t do that.” That’s kind of what they’re fighting for now, the teachers, because Walker is notorious for hiring people outside government to come in and do a job, but he hasn’t shown that it’s any cheaper or any more regulated than it was before.” When I ask my father about the retirement/laid-off parties he remembers them all too well. “It got more intense in 2000 because what was happening was that we were presented with this contract that said, “Okay, we’ll give you senior people what you want, but when we hire new people, they’re going to be at a lower rate. They’re not going to have as many benefits as you and that’s just the way it’s 6
going to be.” They pretty much stuck it to us, all the while saying, “We have a plant in Mexico and we buy from people in China who put our name on the product, so we don’t need you.” At that time they hired temporary workers for a while, they’re probably still doing it now.” I learned from own my experience as a temporary worker in Scotland on a six-month visa that you’re willing to work for a low-wage and zero benefits in that position. “That’s what they’ve been wanting to do,” my father exclaims. “They want to avoid having to pay people a decent working wage. I talk to my friends who still work there and they’ll tell you the working conditions are just awful compared to what they used to be.” “I’m a union guy, don’t get me wrong, but at this stage, what power do they really have? I don’t know for sure, but I know that what they do have is worth fighting for, that’s why I agree wholeheartedly with the MTEA.” My father was fired from Master Lock after 27 years of employment. “I got fired for insubordination,” he contends. “It had nothing to do with union issues. Well, you could say, if you wanted to, and I maintain that because I was a union rep and had been for so many years, that they wanted to get rid of me. So you could say that. Whether it’s true or not, I don’t know.” As my father drives me out to the airport at the end of my visit home in February I ask him if he thinks the demonstrations in Madison are a big bang before the end or a big bang before a rebirth of the American labor movement?” “No, there’s no rebirth,” he concedes. “As much as I’d like it to be and as much as I wish it to be, there’s no rebirth that I see in the near future.” “Why do you think that is?” I ask. “Greedy people. And when I say greedy people I don’t just mean big business. I mean those who have abandoned the cities, those who have moved out to the suburbs, the people who have gotten too much into the “Me.”
“We’re not a community anymore. It’s all about “What can I do for myself and my family?” The Right says, “Oh, well we’re good Christians,” but that’s B.S. They run away from the cities and build their phallatial mansions, leaving hardworking people to fend for themselves. It’s horrible. So no, I don’t think they’ll be any resurrection of the unions. Big business has seen to it to move manufacturing out of this country.”
Since I conducted these interviews in February my father landed a job at a manufacturing plant that strictly forbids unions. At his age, in this economy, he’s considered lucky just to find work. My mother recently welcomed her class of 2012, who will undoubtedly be a greater challenge than the last, considering a paltry state budget has again cut funding from her school district. Labor unions are needed now more than ever. As a result of the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission America finds itself in a bold new age of political cronyism. There are no longer any limits on donations made to election campaigns. Apparently, in America money does talk—it’s considered “free speech.” Don’t get it twisted; both parties are in bed with big business. The elephants just get more action. Democrats have depended on union support for many years but their relationship with corporations has never been closer or more shameful. Consider how they handled the illegal wiretapping of our cell phones under the Bush Administration. Right before the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver their representatives dropped a case against AT&T. You can guess who was the top sponsor of their big party in Denver. Democracy in the “land of opportunity” is on life support. The U.S. government has shown it can no longer be trusted to provide a check against the legal and environmental abuses of corporations. To make matters worse, the most formidable opponent against the greedy capitalists—the labor movement— struggles to survive. How can America hope to become a more perfect union when one of her all-star engines of progress fades? 8
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