Writers block

Blah blah blah…Ive got all these questions about life and how to navigate it, and ideas about what things mean, but I cant make coherent sentences turn into coherent paragraphs, or any of those turn into things that bring about serious introspection or  discussion. I’ve written this lousy post four times already. I feel like my thoughts are legitimately blocked. Yuck. Know when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em. I give. 

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When I started this blog, the title was a very specific reference to the work it was about. I was a tier-two autoworker in the post-bankruptcy Chrysler. I loved the title, because there had always been the belief in my family that Detroit was the Promised Land–“where you could change your life without changing your class,” my mother always says. But it’s all different now. For me, I mean. I’m no longer in the plant, and I’ve changed my life–and my class. The disconnect I feel trying to sort out a much more comfortable middle-class existence has me in a similarly unsettled state as when I started writing this blog. I’ve since gotten married and had two more kids, so now I’m a stay-at-home suburban mom. My husband is a doctor. We don’t have the kind of financial pressure that pretty defined my entire adult life. Things should be pretty gravy, right?

Except, they’re not. I’m more settled into our life now, but for a while I was so incredibly conflicted and wracked with guilt that I could hardly function. Guilt because I know how hard people work, and stay poor. And we’re living this great picture of American meritocracy, colliding with privilege of all kinds. My husband has worked incredibly hard to be able to provide the kind of life we have, but he has also been the beneficiary of all the best public schools, two professional parents, and plain old fashioned white-male-cis-hetero privilege. I’ve spent my whole life watching people work just as hard and end up with so much less. It’s crazy-making. 

So I’m going to try and sort some of this out, for my own self. I have a lot of contradictions cooking right now, so I think I’ll keep the title of the blog, even though the work is so different. It still feels like I’m in some kind of Promised Land, just not sure whose or who I got here or whether I belong. I still feel like I’ve been handed a periscope and a mirror, with minimal instruction for which one to use, when. I have a lot to think and say and write about class, about gender roles, about the nature of work in a family (paid and unpaid), about geography and development, all the things that I guess everyone thinks about. Maybe some folks have an easier time with them, but I just feel so rife with contradiction. It’s also been a long time since I’ve tried to write anything resembling an essay form, so I hope to strengthen the writing as time passes. Thanks for joining me. 

In solidarity as always,

Elisa, Stepchild the Promised Land

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“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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