“If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your Revolution”

That quote was by Emma Goldman. She was a Russia Jewish immigrant to this country at the end of the 1800s; an anarchist and labor organizer. Feminist and hell-raiser. Also a great thinker and writer. She was deported back to Russia during the era of the Palmer raids, when the director of the FBI was rounding up radicals and sending them anywhere but here. You can read her work widely, and read more about her and her work here: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/goldman/

But my point here is not to dwell on the lessons of dead anarchists, though there are many. My point is the idea that Emma put forth in that claim: “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” It also reminds me a lot (though it came quite a bit earlier) of Martin Luther King, Jr.’ s concept of “agape”, of the “beloved community. Dr. King, whom we all were taught was heavily influenced by Ghandi’s nonviolent protests, talked a lot about doing things from a place of love, rather than anger. Emma Goldman’s quote reminds me that even though we fight for civil rights, women’s rights, voting rights, workers’ rights, what we are ultimately fighting for are HUMAN rights. The right to live our lives with not just dignity, but joy. That the reason we engage in the process of fighting is not simply to win, to beat the other side for the hell of it, but because we believe that we can Do Better. Because we believe that our work and our worth are connected, but they are not the same thing. We believe that we should have higher pay and better benefits because we have earned them. And why do we want them? Because we have worked hard, and all the children of God deserve to live well and provide when we have worked hard. We believe that the human rights we fight for as a labor movement should extend to all workers. We are not simply trade unionists: At our best, we are HUMANISTS. We believe that human beings have inherent worth, simply by being ourselves. We believe that all workers means all people. For what is the human experience, if not to toil?

I’ve been trying to keep these things in the front of my mind as this Right to Work legislation gets debated, as the Emergency Manager gets put into place, as the Right wing reactionaries get bolder and meaner. But I just remember that Emma & Martin, decades apart, wrote about love & joy. These are the two things that I’m trying to keep highest in my reservoir. It’s not easy, but I know that because I am human, I am granted nearly infinite capacity for both. I am trying, trying, trying to approach the fights ahead with a deep well of both love for my human family and the joy in knowing that the struggles that undertaken are fueled by that love. And I’ve started reading The Art of War, just for good measure. I’ll see you on the picket lines, in the voting lines and at the marches, with all the love in my heart.

In solidarity,

Stepchild in the Promised Land

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Back to the trenches.

I spent the day at the Capitol today with about 20,000 of my nearest and dearest friends. Labor came out in force to protest the new Right to Work legislation. For those who don’t know (of whom there were many), Right to Work is a SERIOUSLY misleading name. It does away with the closed shop. A closed shop means that anyone who works in it automatically belongs to the union. Dues are deducted automatically, and they are used to fund the workings of the union. Supervisor gunning for you? Call your steward. Is the sup making up stuff to try and get you fired? File a grievance and go through the process of keeping or losing your job. Have a workman’s comp claim because a piece of faulty equipment (or repetitive stress) has hampered your ability to work? Talk to your steward to get help working through it.

Oh, you don’t believe in unions? Well, unions believe in you.

The Labor Movement has been on the front lines of creating a middle class in this country since at least the 1800s. But especially since the 1930s, when the UAW won its first contract with GM. Organized labor is responsible for things like: OSHA, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration. Ending child labor. The weekend. Health benefits for working people. Overtime pay. Sick leave. Paid vacations. Profit-sharing. Organized labor in every industry is responsible for setting the bar of pay, benefits, everything. Even non-union employers use industry standards when putting together compensation packages. But we’ve heard all this before in the fights about this legislation.
The Republican governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder, a complete asshole if ever there was one, pledged that Right to Work legislation was not a priority of his. He lied. He, and the Republican-led LAME DUCK (codeword: coward) state legislature ran this legislation through in under a week. This is a travesty. It’s a sad day for democracy, and it’s a sad day for working people in Michigan, the cradle of organized labor. People think of labor and they think of fatcat union bosses. I’m not worried about what the vice president or president is doing. Those guys are abstractions to me. God love ‘em, all of ‘em, but they’re not my major concern. Here is what Right to Work legislation means to me. I’m just one person, born and bred in Detroit, the once and future Promised Land. It means an unraveling of gains for which people fought and died.

It means, if we let it, that those people who occupied the GM plant in Flint in 1937 taught us nothing. Here is the story of the Flint Sit-down.


One of the original GM workers from that strike was there today at the Capitol. I’m sure he never imagined he’s see such times as these.

These are the times in which all working people are seeing their hours increased while their wages stagnate. In which democracy is subverted a little bit more with each election, right down to our local school board in Detroit. The presidential election cost how much? A billion dollars? And we’re supposed to think that President Obama is going to save the working class? I’m not even worried about the middle class. They’re just a myth anyway. While CEOs make record salaries and bonuses, people wonder whether they’ll ever be able to retire. As I’m writing this, I’m sitting in the once-posh suburb of Grosse Pointe. I’m overhearing a conversation in which a woman who is 70 if she’s a day, is discussing the two part-time jobs she works. This is what it’s come to. This is where we are. Back to the 1930s. Back to the trenches. As much as it hurt my heart to wake up today and know that all those gains have been rolled back, one thing kept me from going completely into mourning. We have generations before us who lived that good life, who know what it is, who know what it is to work for it. And we have in this city, this state, this life, people who are veterans of long struggles for human rights. We have coalitions appearing which would not have been if the Republican right hadn’t played so rough. Yesterday at the capitol, there was the Planned Parenthood crowd, mostly young white women; the teachers were out in force because of the EAA (another whole story); UAW retirees, building trades, nurses, you name it. This coalition is greater and stronger than the first time Labor had to fight. Back then, it was mostly white men. Now, there’s a much better sense of inclusion (though still not perfect). There’s a better sense of shared destiny. There’s the knowledge that these battles don’t represent the impossible, for they’ve been won before, but merely the very difficult, for we are in wondrous new times. A friend of mine said after George W. Bush got re-elected that we were living in times that forced us to be relevant. Well, he couldn’t have imagined what that would come to mean. We’ve a long fight ahead of us and it’s not going to be easy. These are dark times, like the Middle Ages before the Renaissance. Well, goddammnit, we’ve got the moral high ground. Light candles, light fires. Our times are calling us. As my mother says, “See you at the barricades.”

In Solidarity and sorrow, anger and hope,

Stepchild in the Promised Land. 


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Lansing, December 11 2012

I’m on a bus right now headed up to protest Right to work legislation. Roads are closed, the state police hlow their riot gear out. The buses are filled retirees who are coming in force to defend the gains that allowed them the chance to retire with dignity. Now that right, indeed, the very right to self-determination is under attack. Emergency managers replace elected officials. Right to work replaces right to organize. These are the times that try men’s souls. More later. As my mother says, “See you at the barricades!”

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Sunday morning and stories

I’ve been wanting to write about so many things lately, but of course I can always find an excuse for avoiding it. I’m not one of those brilliant, feverish writers who is just compelled to write, to tell stories. But I’ve had a lot of death around me lately, and it was also my birthday this week. If putting those things together doesn’t make you reflect on things, then you probably ain’t got much to say anyhow.

As is often the case, I’ve been thinking about stories. The importance of telling one’s own story just grows larger and larger in my mind. But it’s also easier and easier to lose the thread of a story, to forget to tell it because we’re too busy. It’s even easier to forget to ask for the stories of those around us. And these stories are the glue that hold us all together. Not just the stories, but also the act of asking and telling. I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve thought of something that I would love to tell my mother or one of my sisters or someone close to me, but they simply weren’t available. The impulse to tell the story, though, simply won’t be denied, so I’ve told someone at work, next to me. I’ve had more interesting conversations start up that way. Of course, I’ve had my fair share of weird looks shot in my direction, but the usual reaction is that the recipient of the story warms to the tale and shares one of their own. I’ve learned about people’s families, old bosses, ex-spouses, haunted houses, brothers, sisters, family recipes, kids’ sports teams, industrial accidents, favorite songs….you name it. These may not be earth-shattering revelations all the time, but they certainly create fuller pictures of people, which is the only thing I’m really interested in, at the end of the day. As much as I want people to know me, I want to know them. Probably more, to tell the truth. I come from a family of storytellers, and story-getters. People who hold a collective memory and history. My mother has been collecting oral histories of the Mexican community in Detroit for about the last 15 years. I know that sometimes it’s very hard to tell one’s own story, it can be too painful, or too shameful or just too much. Sometimes it’s easier to pass on the story, let someone else hold it for a while, until the edges are dulled a little bit and then they can return it. My project for the week is to collect some stories and to tell some stories. I’ll figure out what to do with them a little later.

In Solidarity,

Stepchild in the Promised Land

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Labor Day 2012

I haven’t had much to say for a while. I changed departments, I changed shifts, I moved out my beloved city. In the midst of all the upheaval, I had no insights to offer, merely my own sense of being constantly disoriented, and little bit displaced, despite all these moves being my own choices. Just getting settled, I suppose.

I haven’t gotten too much more settled (it might just be a personality trait), but I have set myself up enough that I feel like I can see the bigger picture around me just a little bit more than I had for the last few months. It was every day, just hit the alarm clock, roll out of bed, try to learn the job and just make it home. Stay awake long enough to make lunch for tomorrow and then do it all again. Alarm clock, try to learn the job, fight traffic, make lunch, fall asleep on couch. 

But enough of that. It’s Labor Day weekend, and I intend to celebrate as well and as honorably as I can. If I have the energy, I will go tomorrow to the parade. Last year, I marched with the tiny contingent of a DPS school board candidate, and I met the folks from Autoworker Caravan. They opened my eyes to a lot of issues within the auto industry and made clear that supporting your union doesn’t always mean toeing the party line. I’ve also learned that sometimes NO ONE understands what’s happening on the floor except those of us on the floor. Not the leadership, not the dissidents. That’s part of the reason I write this blog, to try and make sense of what IS happening on the ground in our auto industry. It’s also, I suppose, to reach out to those who romanticize (or demonize) life in the darkest days of a mighty, mighty Union industry. Big Capital hasn’t been this powerful since the Gilded Age of the Roaring 20s. There is constant talk about economic recovery, but here in Detroit, we’re slow to see that.

Instead, we have people scooping up land, prospecting in schools like it’s some kind of Gold Rush. The unions are stressing a constitutional amendment ballot initiative this election season, the Protect Our Jobs amendment that would enshrine the right to collective bargaining in the Michigan Constitution. However, the ballot initiative that is more far-reaching and has much scarier consequences is Public Act 4, known as the Emergency Manager Act. It allows for the governor to appoint Emergency Managers over pretty much any government body that finds itself in debt. Sometimes the debt can be as little as $10,000. I owe more than that on my car. People I know owe more than that on their credit cards. We’re talking about entities like entire cities, school boards and the like. Government bodies that deal in large sums of money should not be held to household accounting limits. Particularly not by Lansing, which is a snake pit on its best days and looks like a Keystone Kops movie the rest of the time.

This amounts to taxation without representation, and it’s being applied almost exclusively to majority Black cities (like Benton Harbor, Highland Park) and school boards, like Detroit. It provides no accountability for those who would spend our tax money at the behest of a governor who clearly disrespects us. It provides no recourse for those of us who would do our civic and elect different leadership. Instead, it pillages the electorate, steals the money that we would use to govern ourselves. It violates every sense of home rule, a principle which is the foundation of American Democracy — the notion that we need not be micromanaged from afar, and that we can make our own decisions.

So this Labor Day, I will probably drag my tired bones from my suburban hamlet and make my way down to the parade, which is staging this year, for the first time ever, in my old neighborhood. If only I had held out a little longer, it would have been right in my front yard. I’ve been homesick for my neighborhood since I moved earlier in the summer, but this was almost too ironic for me. Last year the parade turnout was pretty small. I hope that it’s better this year. In the meantime, we continue the struggle for self-determination. It’s our right and duty as citizens of a democracy to cry out loudly and angrily when that democracy is subverted. It’s our right and duty as human beings to cry out loudly and angrily when the rich steal from the poor and the powerful abuse the weak. It is our privilege and joy to do so in the company of others. The Labor Day Parade in Detroit is the only one like it and that’s because THIS was the Promised Land. We work hard. We deserve respect. We will enjoy the fruits of our labor, even if we have to go wrest them back from the table of those who would steal them.

In Solidarity,

Stepchild in the Promised Land

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It’s a great life if you don’t weaken…

This weekend was the first ever New Workers Conference. The University of Michigan-Dearborn has a Center for Labor and Community Studies, and they put on conferences several times a year. These serve as basic labor education and edification. It’s a chance to meet unionists from other locals, other companies, other unions. They’re also a lot of fun. This conference was kind of low-key, but it was a pretty big success and THAT is the important part. A lot of things worth discussing are happening. 

Chrysler and GM both got E-TAP reinstated in the 2011 contract. E-TAP is the education benefit, the tuition assistance program for which the Big 3 have been famous. It allowed for rank-and-file union members to take classes. They could get into the skilled trades apprenticeships, they could enroll in business courses, they could put their kids through college, or they could get take classes that looked interesting, learn some things and cultivate a life of the mind, even if they stayed working in the plant. It was a great thing for a working-class intellectual. Of which I find more and more. I met a guy the other day who has degrees in history and anthropology. Has close to 20 years in at Chrysler and works the line. That day passed quickly for me in a meandering conversation about race, class, the East side of Detroit, the history of the auto industry and the best remedies for Swamp-ass. We are, after all, in a plant where the temp climbs to 100+ in the summer. Levity is key to survival. A million conversations, I’m sure, were paid for by E-TAP. A good number of people go to Labor School at Wayne State with that money. An even greater number went to labor conferences with that money. For a couple hundred bucks, a labor conference like New Workers allows a rank & file union member to get with other union folks, air grievances, commiserate, celebrate, and then strategize, organize, get educated and build real, lifelong solidarity. At Chrysler, our TAP benefit no longer covers labor education. We can use it to take management classes at Baker College or someplace that just turns out business degrees, but we can’t use it to go get real education and real empowerment from our Brothers and Sisters in the movement. People always say that I’m so conspiracy-minded, but I’m just a big-picture-looker. It seems almost unbearably convenient that the company won’t pay for us to go get ourselves educated on our rights, our conditions and our potential. It’s always easiest to get over on people when they feel isolated, and beat down and most especially if they think that they have no rights, no recourse, no power. But we have to keep on finding ways to educate ourselves, reach out to our working Brothers and Sisters. We need to expand our understanding of who our allies are (should be everyone) and make connections across industries and lines of all kinds. Big Capital certainly knows how to create solidarity among its class; we should take that lesson to heart. We are the working-class. We have power. Hell, we ARE power. But, like anything, we need to harness that power into solidarity and collective action. If you’re reading this and you work on a shop floor somewhere, please take the time to talk to someone new when you go back to work. Solidarity-building is a process. I’m lucky enough that I simply like talking to people. I know it’s not easy for everyone. But we have a common interest and we have a common destiny. If you work for a living, your rights are under attack now like never before. In the auto industry, we have our contract coming up in 2015. That’s just around the corner. Elsewhere, in the ‘real’ world, we have elections coming up in November. Yes, the presidential election, but more critical than that, we have local elections. In Michigan, the Protect Our Jobs ballot initiative seeks to enshrine the right to collective bargaining in the state Constitution. That’s important. It will cover our Brothers and Sisters who are public employees: teachers, cops, firefighters, welfare workers, etc. These folks (even the cops) are members of our class. They have taken brutal cuts in pay and benefits while states gave HUGE tax breaks to corporations. THERE IS ENOUGH MONEY TO GO AROUND. It’s just being concentrated at the top; this is not new, just more visible than ever.

Perhaps even more important than the Protect Our Jobs initiative is Public Act 4. This is known as the Emergency Manager Act. This is the legislation that allows the governor to appoint financial managers over any entity which is in too much debt, sometimes as little as $10,000. This means cities and school boards, county commissions, etc. Those are all elected bodies. This act goes against the very nature of democracy. It allows for the governor to basically rule by decree. Those who are appointed as Emergency Managers are not accountable to the communities in which they ‘serve’. There is no transparency in the processes used to appoint them, or in how they make their decisions. It is the closest thing to fascism that we have working in the US today. Always in the vanguard, I suppose. 

So please, get out and talk to your people. Talk to your steward, your committeeperson, the person who pushes the cleaning cart. Talk to your kids’ teacher. Talk to the cops you see directing traffic at the baseball games. Talk to that quiet person who eats lunch on the line. Our greatest, most powerful weapon is our numbers, but only if we seize that power. We are in a moment of profound peril and possibility. Let’s make it count.

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Return of the Mack (that’s a joke, by the way)

So Stepchild has been on hiatus while I sort my life out. It’s been a very busy couple of months. I’ve moved out of my beloved city, changed shifts, changed departments and dealt with some weird and unexpected health issues. Most of that time, I was also working about 50 hours a week. So I’m sorry I haven’t been around to comment on all things working class or automotive. My guess is that very few miss that commentary anyway.

I’ve thought a lot about the Willie Lynch dynamic that Chrysler has working for it in the team leader structure. I’ve devoted tons of mental time to trying to understand what it is about auto work that makes me so sentimental, when it’s clear that it doesn’t love me back. I’ve really sat with questions about solidarity and haven’t come up with much. The best I can come up with is that there are some real rat bastards out there, that people will lie when the truth won’t hurt and no matter how you cut it, we should not be spending so much time worrying about what someone else is doing. Of course, for every rat bastard wanna-be-a-boss jerk, there are at least five other people who are enormously decent, will lend a hand if it’s needed and are just trying to get by, same as me. I’ve never been a wide-eyed pollyanna, but I do have an unshakeable faith in people. I can’t help it. I think I get it from my mama.

That said, I’ve stepped off the Main Line and into something really new. I’ve gone from a highly-coveted department –Body In White (I love that name, I’ve always thought it sounded like an avant-garde ballet), where all the overtime is– to the Trim department (that name is far less lyrical, I’d say). Most people make the opposite move: Going from Trim, where the work is very fast, with very little overtime to Body, where the work is a little slower (but with more heavy lifting), with a lot of overtime. About ten hours of difference per week. That adds up. I’ve taken a pay cut to leave my former team, my former department, my former shift. It was like starting a new job, but without the stress of having to find my way to work.

In the meantime, however, other stuff keeps presenting itself. As was noted in an earlier entry, Stepchild went bilingual. I’ve been invited to present it as part of a talk in October at the North American Labor History Conference. Another conference has been created, called the New Worker Conference. That’s a very polite way of say Tier-2 conference. This is a big deal to me; organizing new workers, the second tier. This is especially important at Chrysler, where we have SO MANY new folks (I’m not even new anymore. After a year and a half, I have enough seniority to get on the day shift) and it’s going to really matter when the next contract comes, in 2015. It’s already halfway through 2012, the new contract is just around the corner. And the prevailing wisdom points to a strike. How could it not? WHY on earth would the company give up its new serfs? The majority of us in the second tier are fresh off the unemployment line when we arrive at Chrysler. We are of a generation that doesn’t get health care with our multiple 20-hr/week jobs. We can scarcely imagine making over $50k in a year, especially not with just a high school diploma. No matter how hard we work. And believe me, we are working for it. We are terribly uninformed about our rights, our history, our legacy. As nice as it was to see commemorations of The Battle of the Overpass and the Flint Sit-Down, I only saw those on my own. It would have been really something if there was something in the plant that reminded people of those events. A flyer, a newsletter, a sticker. Any damned thing. But nothing. The UAW has so much to be proud of, but instead it shies away from telling CURRENT AND NEW members anything much of our history. The Flint Sit-Down didn’t occur in a vacuum, and neither are the 2-tier structures. We need discussions about how we got to the state we’re in, and what that means. I need to know how much my labor costs Chrysler. I keep getting emails from my grandmother (the widow of a Chrysler retiree) saying that Chrysler’s profits are up so much from before. Because they only pay me about $16 an hour! I’ll be glad when I get my little two-thousand dollar profit sharing check, but I’m not the least bit fooled by it. I’d still rather be on track to making $28.32 or whatever it is. I work my ass off. Just about everyone I came in with works their asses off. We deserve more, we want more. We aren’t really sure about how to go about getting it. So how about it?

We need, we need, we need, labor education. And Chrysler’s newly re-instated tuition program doesn’t cover it. It only covers degree-seeking curricula at accredited colleges and universities. You can get Chrysler to cover your tuition if you want to be a supervisor but not if you want to be an informed, educated line worker. If you’re reading this and you’re a ‘Traditional’ UAW worker, please consider contributing to the Elise Bryant Educational Grant fund, or your local’s Education Committee. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. It’s like the 1930s out here. The bosses know it, and they’re acting like it. It’s time for us to acknowledge it and start acting like it too. Start putting away those bonus checks and vacation checks. I’m sure a rainy day is coming. It’s going to be the only way we can have the sun shine on everyone.


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