“On strike, shut ‘em down! New York is a union town!”
With a solid pair of marching shoes, raised fist at the ready, and red light sirens blaring through my house of consciousness, I joined Communication Workers of America (CWA) during their contentious two-week strike last summer against billionaire right-wing menace, Verizon. Known as one of the most militant unions in the country, CWA effectively held that strike line down twenty-four/seven, and rank-and-file leadership kept a contingent of rightfully pissed-off members well-organized and unified. As a union member myself, I’d leave work and head over to Verizon Headquarters to chase after scabs with the ardor of a bona fide Verizon employee, and leave behind billows of smoke from the extraordinary level of conflagrant anger that kept me chasing and yelling until the sun set.
New York is indeed a union town, and every fight to keep it that way should be engaged at full-throttle, only because unions represent one of the very few shots left at maintaining living wages for the working class – and certainly not because the unions themselves, which are run by wealthy attention-seekers who use the tired backs of the rank-and-file to ascend toward Political Hollywood, are any sort of definitive anodyne for us.
The day I signed on to the menial glorified gofer job that I currently hold, I was also mandated to sign on with the union that represents our shop. The experience of initiation was shaky at best – inefficient, overly casual, and uninformative – all under the sizable roof of one the city’s most powerful unions. Naïve and inexperienced with unions, and lacking knowledge about any labor movement, I trod with trepidation on foreign territory. I knew the union was set to break off chunks of my paycheck for dues, but did not understand what my dues would be funding. After a few years of watching the morale of otherwise strong-willed coworkers wilt like lettuce in a steam-cooker as we endured one blow after another while our leadership gave us obligatory condolences and promises to “fight for a better future,” (I love union leadership’s cliché drivel like I love the sight of a fresh pile of steaming dog shit first thing in the morning) now I know exactly where our money’s going – to the flashy gold jewelry ostentatiously displayed by the leadership that inarticulately and ungracefully admonishes us for not being as intelligent as he.
This year, a funny thing happened on the way to contract negotiations – we got blindsided by an unexpected, arguably compromising counteroffer from the employer, and effectively ushered into accepting the demoralizing deal by a leadership that is not shy about conveying its cozy relationship with our employer. For a membership that has endured dictatorial abuse by a corrupt leadership whose crooked deeds are complemented and wholeheartedly endorsed by a handful of rank-and-file who are carefully selected specifically because they excel in lapping at the balls of leadership, this was the tipping point.
Sufficiently fired up on the day of the meeting, members approached the mic, one after the other, with eloquence and passion as they derided the leadership for their blatant disrespect, dishonesty, and hearty attempts at censorship. As the heat in the room approached a five-alarm boiling point, and with five members left patiently waiting their turns to speak in between leadership’s lengthy, nonsensical diatribes that pertained to nothing in particular, the microphone in our cavernous hall suddenly and mysteriously died.
One of the waiting five speakers caught my attention from across the room amid its spirited fracas. “How about a ‘mic check’,” he asked, only partially joking.
I nodded. “Sure, let’s do it.”
Our designated leader, who was seated to my left and draped in his requisite gold décor, turned toward me and vindictively sneered – venom dripping off of his every devotedly enunciated syllable – “There will be no ‘mic checking’ in here.”
This union had been one of the first to champion Occupy Wall Street back in October – an exercise in political jockeying that was void of any genuine interest for the plight of the working poor, no doubt, but a gesture to which it should be held accountable nonetheless. Its president and vice-president, each of whom earn six figures – easily at least five times the salary of the rank-and-file – tried in earnest to communicate their faux commitment to The People by making a big show of getting arrested at one of the Occupy actions.
“I thought this union endorsed the Occupy movement,” I countered, knuckles at my hip and eyeballs at his face.
“We will not bring any political business into this room,” he seethed idiotically.
“What is a union if not political?” I asked, agitated by and bored with his unending lack of logic. “These members,” I waved toward the mic that maintained a line of determined speakers despite the suspiciously abrupt technical malfunction, “deserve to be heard.”
My role during the beautiful four hours in which the membership stood up to a lying leadership consisted of the usual. After the meeting’s adjournment, leadership’s lemmings made a point of hunting me down for a semi-private cornering in which they vehemently reproached me for so publicly illuminating the discrepancies that existed between what leadership told the membership and what really happened behind closed doors; for defying leadership’s misrepresentations by voicing truthful accounts, and challenging my colleagues to argue otherwise. “What you did was very disrespectful,” they said. “You were the cause of the chaos among the membership. What happens behind closed doors should stay there,” they yelled, protecting their master as best they could.
‘Chaos?’ I thought, ‘Honey, that wasn’t chaos. That was the cacophony of awakening.’ Their crude manner was not at all endearing, and I’ve long since ceased to try to figure out why these particular rank-and-file members would vaingloriously wear the collar of ownership that leadership slapped on them so firmly. I’ve finally surmised that to proudly parade a collar that tight, shiny, and farcically strung to a very short leash, some sort of compensation must be in order – low-level corruption at its best. All hail the mighty union. For the people and by the people it is not, but I am not a dust-kicker without direction or hope, however dim.
Like a malicious parent who aims to diminish a child’s self-worth but actually ends up igniting that child’s vigilant resolve to live assertively, leadership, through all of its demonstrated disdain for its membership, has consistently embodied Mr. Stubb’s sentiment in Moby Dick wherein he indulges in a moment of abrading his crew. “The devil fetch ye, ye ragamuffin rapscallions; ye are all asleep,” he chides. All of us in this union could stand to rub the sandman’s dirt out of our eyes and take a cue from the staunch defiance and message-inducing tactics employed by the fittingly red shirt-clad rank-and-file of CWA. Though some of us are either as green as I once was or have been spiritually defeated by years of leadership abuse, this membership has demonstrated that though their fire may have been dampened by years of rain, the embers remain radiant and ready for a suitable catalyst. What leadership does not realize, in the midst of subjecting us to their decade-long castigation, is that the membership is being roused by a rank-and-file dog whistle call to action, best manifested in Mr. Stubb’s next sentences:
“Stop snoring, ye sleepers, and pull… – pull and break something!”
Break something, indeed – the Vader-like grip of unreasonable fear that silences most rank-and-file dissenters would be an appropriate place to start.