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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Hijastra de la tierra prometida

That’s Spanish for Stepchild in the Promised Land. I was incredibly lucky this week, Stepchild has made a tremendous leap, right out to the Caribbean. It’s been published in translation in a digital magazine called Cruce, coming out of Puerto Rico.

Here’s a link, if you’re curious, or like to read Spanish. I’m so overwhelmed, I hardly know what else even to say about it, except to thank Beatriz Betances Ramirez for her excellent work translating my sorry writing on such short notice, and for the invitation to submit to Cruce. Check it out.

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Riding pretty, even in the second tier.

Update from the 2nd tier: I am perhaps the least alienated worker these days. I just bought a brand new Chrysler 200, the first big thing I’ve ever bought in my adult life. I had to do some fancy footwork to get financed because I “don’t really have anything on your credit report except some deferred student loans.” I try really hard to live within my means and not spend money I don’t have. But the transmission on my 15-yr-old Toyota Camry (which I drove to Chrysler without one iota of shame or misgiving) blew on my way to take my son to school one morning. That side-of-the-road stuff was just wearing me out. And besides, I build the damn thing! I wrote before that I never wanted a new car until I started building them.
I did, however, have a weird experience shortly before buying the car. I kept seeing my grandfather in the plant. I know it sounds crazy, since he died before I started at Chrysler and he never worked the main line, but I’m just saying what I saw. For about a week I kept thinking that I saw someone standing around, but when I would turn to see who it was, it would end up being a rack of fenders or a fan or some other thing that was of the right height, but most assuredly not a spectral human. I just shrugged it off. I’ve never been one to be bothered by ghostly things. I don’t generally have weird, prophetic dreams, or hear the moans and groans of the restless departed. I’ve just always been way too grounded in this particular dimension for all that. And my grandfather would be probably the last person who would ‘haunt’ anyone. He was the most hard-headed pragmatist, ever. He was really creative, but never flighty or dreamy. But sure enough, I saw him in the plant, on the Friday before my Camry died and I undertook the purchase of the car that I build. It occurred to me later that it would only be to deal with a car situation that would bring my grandfather back to see me. And probably only me. His years at Chrysler defined him and I feel like I have a special passkey to see his world now that I’m there. Not my mother, my aunts, my grandmother, no one else is in Chrysler like my grandfather was. I feel a weird kind of lucky. So maybe that’s what he was doing, telling me to buy what I build. It seems like something he’d do.

When I opened the packet of papers that came with the owner’s manual, there was a sheet in there that detailed the day and time that my car came off the line: August 25, 2011, 19:47 hrs. I can say with complete certainty that I was there at that time. That there is a good chance that I put my hands on that very vehicle before it was even a ‘car’ in the way that we understand it. That I was the sweating and dirty autoworker who attached the 25lb steel bumper or who ran the 20-ft station to attach a fender, who hustled to keep up with the line while attaching brackets & screws that are almost too tiny to pick up with our big heavy Kevlar gloves in the 100 degree plant. It is the sweat of my brow that pays for the car, and it was the sweat of my brow that built that car. We work, we sweat, we grind. And once in a while, we sit back in the fruits of our labor and partake in what we have made.

In Solidarity,

Stepchild in the Promised Land

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I have been thinking a lot about the idea of  “skilled” versus “non-skilled” work, not just in the plant, but especially in there. My line has a variety of jobs, none of which are considered skilled. But they all require training, and some have yet to be mastered by more than two or three people. That deficit makes it hard on those of us who can do the jobs, as we are left to pick up the slack and do the jobs for multiple turns in a night. A friend of mine who used to work on my team left it because she wanted to do something else. She didn’t go far, just to another team, one with less heavy lifting. However, since she’s repairing imperfections in metal, she has to learn how to weld. In the post-bankruptcy Chrysler, there are no more “semi-skilled” classifications. It used to be that if you had a skill like welding, you got paid a little more for it. After all, it added value to the car, right? A few months ago, I considered going to a team where I would learn to weld. But I was informed that not only would I NEVER get welder’s pay, the person who did the same job on day shift was grandfathered in and would Always get his welder’s pay. I gave the supervisor back the weld jacket. If I can add value, I can add wages. Some supervisor had the nerve to joke with me, “Oh, so it’s all about the money, huh?”  I can tolerate jokes of all kinds: tasteless, raunchy, off-color. But to imply that we, who are on the floor, are somehow greedy is just beyond the pale. I just told him that if I was interested in volunteering somewhere, I’d be at the soup kitchen in my neighborhood, cooking for the homeless folks. We are all skilled workers in this life. Maybe not all tradesmen, but we all have skills.


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O Chrysler, my Chrysler…reflections on a year

I creak back into writing, one of a few new year’s resolutions. Of course, there are the usual others: eat better, drink less, be nicer to people, etc. But really, I’m trying to be a more organized and disciplined writer. That’s the best way for me to make sense of things, and, as such, one of the reasons I started writing this blog. It is just a nice coincidence that my anniversary at Chrysler is at the start of the year. I meant to write something for the new year, but the time got away. So this is even better.

I, and 250 fellow toilers, celebrate our first year in the plant. Nearly a thousand people came in around the same time, much as we’re reading about now. We were the first big wave of brand-new tier-2 hires. Fresh off the street, many of us. A few refugees from places like American Axle, people with memories of the good life, before the 2-tier system. For a bunch of people, it’s their first job; we watch them with trepidation, hoping they don’t blow a good deal. If you’re willing to work, the work is here. Most of the time, at least. For others, like me, it’s just the right thing at the right time. I got my job in the plant right at the same time that I finally finished my degree. But I wouldn’t trade this past year for anything. Life at Chrysler has been, often in the same day, so rich and funny and human and bafflingly subject to dictatorial whims, technological disasters and plain stupidity. I’ve spent nights wandering the plant because of breakdowns and other nights working so hard, so fast, for so long that I didn’t think I’d make it back to my car, nevermind all the way home. Nights we built not one car and nights we built over 600 cars.

I’ve had my patience tested to the utmost, but not often. I’ve seen co-workers display staggering generosity for funerals, houses burning down, ‘adopting’ a kid at Christmas (which we didn’t do, so then, feeling guilty, ever single person on my team donated money, which was probably way more than we would have done anyway). I’ve seen people do the dumbest shit possible. I’ve seen people carpool like you wouldn’t believe. I’ve seen people buy groceries for co-workers, using their own Bridge cards. Cause sometimes it’s like that. I went three weeks with no paycheck, but during that time I took my son on our first ever TRIP, that we planned and paid for, bit by bit. We went to Universal Studios in Florida, stayed in the fancy resort and took the water taxi back and forth from the park to the hotel. Bought VIP passes to skip the lines. Spent money like there was sure to be more coming. And, eventually, there was.

It’s no crystal stair, though, that’s for sure. I’ve missed all the parent teacher conferences of the year. I’ve made it to one swim class (a random layoff), and for the first time in his life, spent my son’s birthday away from him. I only spend one or two days a week with him now, because working second shift means never being around to put a kid to bed. I try to remember that it won’t be forever. He’s a good, level-headed kid, though, and takes it in stride. And, he tells me, that when he sees the cars that come from my plant, he always points them out and tells whomever he’s with, “My mom builds that car. She’s tough, like Rosie the Riveter.” I am immensely proud of this, his pride in me.

And of course, it’s so easy to be sentimental about working in the auto industry. It’s Detroit, after all. It absolutely rules our narrative. Nearly everyone came here at some point because this was where the work was. Great big factories all over the place, each one a beehive of humanity and opportunity and possibility. The promise that hard work would pay off, you could buy that cottage Up North, send your kids to college, or get them a job doing the same thing, with the same good life possible. I am not looking at anything like the life my grandfather was able to build working at Chrysler. For one thing, he went in at 16 and spent 42 years there. We have no reason to do that. I’m simply too old to do that, but the youngsters in the plant don’t have that pension waiting for them. They have a 401(k), which is held by Merrill Lynch. A bank that was bailed out unconditionally, while the auto bailouts came with the conditions that allowed for the 2-tier system to be so easily implemented. I don’t know what those guys are Merrill Lynch did with their bailout money, but I can tell you that thousands of jobs came from the auto bailout. Ask RJ’s Lounge, or Maceri’s Italian Kitchen, or any of the other businesses that are thriving now because we have people working and spending money. You know, participating in the economy.

So, to cut it short, cheers, salud, mazel tov to my brothers and sisters who came in with me last year. Second tier, loud and proud, making our way. Picking through the ashes of what used to be, and creating what’s to come. “Because this is the Motor City and this is what we do.”

In Solidarity,

Stepchild in the Promised Land

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