Thursday, November 29, 2012

Woody Guthrie’s Union Blues

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Woody Guthrie’s birth. We celebrated the milestone by attending a concert at the Hurdy Gurdy Folk Club in Fair Lawn, New Jersey. The concert was actually a repeat of a 1957 event held in New York to help raise money for Woody’s hospitalization with Huntington’s Chorea disease. With Tom Chapin narrating and a group of talented young folk artists performing, the spirit of Woody Guthie filled the hall. And all of the issues that were so important to him—migrant workers, life during The Depression, government-sponsored work programs, the Pacific Northwest, working in California fields, trying to get together the “Do-Re-Mi” in order to survive—were sung about with a mixture of joy and nostalgia.

Google's Tribute to Woody Guthrie on July 4, 2012
There was a lot to enjoy and a lot to think about. There are many different ideas about Woody on which I could focus, but as minds often do, mine was drawn in a particular direction during the concert. What struck me most was Woody’s strong belief in working men and women and the role of labor unions in protecting them.

I can’t remember who sang Woody’s song “Union Maid” that night, but I know it got strong audience response.

There once was a union maid, she never was afraid
Of goons and ginks and company finks and the deputy sheriffs who made the raid.
She went to the union hall when a meeting it was called,
And when the Legion boys come 'round
She always stood her ground.

Oh, you can't scare me, I'm sticking to the union,
I'm sticking to the union, I'm sticking to the union.
Oh, you can't scare me, I'm sticking to the union,
I'm sticking to the union 'til the day I die.

Soon, everyone in the audience was loudly proclaiming that we were sticking to the union. I suspect that few in the room really would make that statement outside of a concert hall. Labor unions have fallen on hard times these days and have gotten a lot of bad press. There has been a lot of publicity about “evil” right wing governors, such as Scott Walker in Wisconsin, trying to undermine or eliminate public sector unions. But evil governors are not the only ones who believe that unions have played out their time in America.

I don’t have much of a history with unions myself. Neither of my parents held manufacturing or public sector jobs, so they never joined a union or discussed any aspects of unions at our dinner table. The only one of my family who might have been a union member at one time was my mother’s mother, but I doubt it. She had worked at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory up until only weeks before the infamous March 1911 fire that cost the lives of more than 140 workers locked in the sweatshop in Lower Manhattan. That fire led to passage of a number of labor laws and to the growth of the International Lady Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU). Nana never discussed the fire, her time in New York, or labor issues.

My grandparents in New York around 1910
I can remember debating the Taft-Hartley Act in competition at BBYO conventions when I was in my teens. Our specific issue involved whether there should be closed shops that required workers to belong to a union to get and keep their jobs? The drafters of Taft-Hartley didn’t think so. Congress even overturned President Truman’s veto of the Act. I am certain that I didn’t really understand the debate issues very well then, even as I argued one side or the other, depending on the coin flip before each debate.

When I did have a chance to experience a union in 1971 while I was a teaching intern in Providence, RI, working on my master’s degree, I came under the influence of my department chairman, Iris Kinoian, whom I idolized. As she explained it, Iris did not join the teachers’ union because she did not believe that she could ever take part a teachers’ strike, for whatever reason. She never talked about any other purpose for the union, and I just went along with her thinking. When I started teaching in Teaneck, NJ, the following year, I didn’t join the union. That did not endear me to my fellow teachers, I would guess, though I never was confronted directly in the one year I spent at the school. I was too busy trying to survive in the classroom to worry about anything else at the time. And I was stubborn in my ignorance. I am not particularly proud of this part of my history.

I suspect that had I been a Woody Guthrie fan at the time or had more knowledge of labor history, I would have thought differently. I certainly do now. I have become more cynical in my growing age and less trustful that corporate executives and government leaders have the interests of workers high in their priorities. Shareholders and fundraisers, certainly, but workers not so much. Until that trust is restored, there is a need for both private and public sector unions to stand up for the workers. Most workers don’t know how to be successful negotiators in the labor realm. That’s where union leaders come in. Their role must be different from what it was in the past—because labor and economic conditions are different, but there is still an important role to fill.

Parenthetically, Major League Baseball union leader Marvin Miller died yesterday. No one did more to improve the life of professional baseball players than Miller, who helped push for free agency under his watch, which led to greater freedom for players and significantly higher salaries. You don’t have to agree with all of Miller’s actions, and you might feel that salaries are really out of whack now, but the sport is still alive and obviously profitable, even as players are getting to share much more equitably in those profits. So how is Miller treated by the baseball establishment for his role in modern baseball history? He was conspicuously not elected to the Hall of Fame during his lifetime. Perhaps it will happen after his death. If so, I think that will be hollow recognition.

There is a lot that scares us about debt and economic downturns these days. But I don’t think it is unions that should be scaring us or deserve so much wrath. Woody tried to tell us that many years ago. According to the narration at the anniversary concert, Woody belonged to more than 100 unions in his life. And his songs have inspired millions of working people. Count me among them.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Entering the New World, not so Bravely

This post is a logical follow-up to my last one about the darkness that enveloped us when “Superstorm” Sandy struck New Jersey and New York a few weeks ago—which is pretty remarkable since what I planned to be writing about is our decision to spend Thanksgiving in Vermont this year. 

Packing for the trip, we gathered up lots of food for our feast to augment what we planned to purchase in the quaint market near Mount Snow. We had already reserved a fresh Vermont turkey a few weeks ahead. What is so special about a fresh Vermont turkey, you may wonder? We discovered that one difference is cost. At nearly $4.00/pound, this one would be one of our priciest turkeys ever. Was the taste worth the cost? I can’t tell you, since I was eating tofurkey instead. (The vegan “bird” is really not a fair substitute for a turkey, but you can delude yourself into believing it is, especially when you cover it with the gravy provided in the package or with Johnny Harris barbecue sauce.) 

Into a small corner of the rear of our Jeep, we shoehorned shopping bags and a small ice chest containing the tofurky, applesauce (both store-bought and homemade), homemade cranberry bread, gravy base, various fruits and vegetables we had on hand that might spoil before we returned to New Jersey four days later, butter, cans of seltzer for Brett, food and toys for the dog, and a gallon jug of iced tea from Trader Joe’s. The rest of the space was occupied with suitcases, several items we planned to leave in Vermont, loose coats and sweaters, the dog’s crate, and a whole slew of electronic items—which is where the connection to the Superstorm comes in.

We had iPhones, an iPad, a separate speaker system for the iPad, at least one computer, several iPods, a small radio for me to listen to sports at night, and lots of charging cables. One cannot go anywhere these days without charging cables. As the number of bars decrease on our phones or the power indicator lines begin to descend on our other devices, we begin to quake with fear. Soon we will be cut off, we worry. And if we get cut off in the mountains of Vermont, boy, we are really going to be isolated!

This was the fear that overtook most of us in New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy cut off our electric power. We could put on an extra sweater as the heat inside our houses went down. We could find prepared food if we were unable to cook. We could probably find a place to shower if our hot water heater stopped working. But we had to find a working electric outlet (or three or four) so we could recharge our electronics nearly every day. Brett tells me that the Verizon store in his neighborhood in Queens posted a large sign reading: “Free charging inside”—which seems like an oxymoron to me. In Glen Rock, the town hall (which mercifully had power) and many county libraries were opened to residents to come plug in. We found our life line by accessing working power lines.

Nothing could be more symbolic of twenty-first century survival than the ability to take charge of technology and modern communication devices. And that's what has me worried. I fear that I am already behind the times and falling back quickly, no matter how many charging cables I employ.

My formative years were spent in the second half of the twentieth century. I am old enough to remember when black-and-white television first gave way to color by the late 1950s and early 1960s. This was momentous for me not only because I could finally see that Lucy’s hair was indeed red but also because the change pushed my father into giving up the television and radio repair business he had established when my brother and I were little. My father knew tubes and wires—at least those in a black-and-white set—but he needed more training and costly equipment to deal with color sets, and he couldn’t afford the time or money to retrain and retool. He moved along to the grocery business, which meant working for other people instead of himself. I think the change took something out of him, though he never complained. That was not my father’s way. I think it was not the way that any fathers were expected to act in those days. It took us baby boomers to introduce vocal dissent and discontent into the fathering business.
My father learning about electronics.
He's the man on the right with all the hair
So, just as my father had trouble adapting, I am a little concerned that I too may be coming up short. I recently was required to take part in an on-camera preliminary interview in order to qualify for an in-person job interview. My relatively old desktop has no camera attached (something which can be easily remedied, I am sure), so I borrowed my wife’s new Apple laptop and went through the slow, painful process of responding to questions on camera. In this case, I could review my responses and replace any I felt didn’t show me at my best. (I did a lot of replacing, which explains why the interview was slow and painful.)  When I questioned my son, the 31-year-old job recruiter, about the necessity for going though such a process, he was very positive about it. “They want to see if you can live in the modern world,” he remarked, in those exact words or in something like them.

Hell, we’re talking about writing and editing print books, I noted. That’s a business as old as the hills. I have moved with that business from typewriters to electronic typewriters to computers with simple word processing programs to desktop publishing programs to large-scale electronic page-setting and editing. I am not a computer-phobe, but my learning curve seems to be increasing as the technology gets more complex. And my “worry quotient” is increasing, too.

This Internet photo is labeled "electronic device."
Could anything look more complex and imposing?

I am somewhat consoled in my worry about my electronic ignorance by the fact that I found my way to blogging using Google's program called Blogger and a print book called Blogging in a Snap. I have made rudimentary design changes in this blog (and plan to make some more), but I am a little nervous that my lack of sophistication shows through. Recently I needed to prepare some PowerPoint slides for a presentation. I recruited a 20-something former colleague to help me. In two hours she did what might have taken me two days. I am proud of the fact that I was able to edit a few of her slides and even added two new ones of my own, following her format. So I know I can learn. I just feel a little overwhelmed sometimes by how much there is to learn. (As you can see, my father may never have complained, but I have complaints aplenty!)

I did not intend this post to be about the clash between old and young ideas—what we used to call the “generation gap” in the '60s. I really meant to be writing about Thanksgiving in Vermont with high-priced turkey and a small but select group of family members who celebrated together in our house in Vermont and via Facetime from Helsinki (where Amanda was dining on reindeer meat or whatever the Finnish serve there on our holiday.) Luckily, our phones and pads were charged when she called in. Luckily, she had wi-fi and we had 3G and 4G to make the connection possible. Unluckily, I have no idea what any of those terms actually means. I am just going along for the ride in the 21st century. And I am hoping that the power stays on in both my house and my brain as long as possible.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Seeing the Light about Darkness

The Jewish morning service opens, each day, with a set of 14 blessings. The first of these blessings praises God for enabling his creatures—us people and everything else that lives—to distinguish between night and day. There are numerous other prayers that deal with light and darkness, some of which thank God not only for creating light but also for creating darkness (which is more than just absence of light, it would seem).

Classical poets and playwrights also focus a whole lot of their imagery on the interplay between light and darkness. I have read scores of these images and probably wrote more than one pedantic college paper on the “organic” interplay between light and dark in some poet’s work. But I never really understood any of this until a few weeks ago when “Superstorm” Sandy blew through New Jersey and literally blew out the lights in our house and in most of the houses in and near our town. For eight and a half days, we were in the dark. We were luckier than most, however, because our neighbors had power and generously ran an extension cord from their outdoor outlet to our house. I could plug in a refrigerator and save our food from spoiling and smelling and even charge my iPad and cell phone. We also had hot water and could light our stove burners with matches. So we could take warm showers, use our drinking water, and heat up food on the stove. All in all, we were doing pretty well.

What we didn’t have was light—from dusk to dawn every day.

Not surprisingly, the powerful storm had struck when the moon was full. What was remarkable, however, was that the cloud cover was so complete for over a week afterwards, that no moon or stars shown through at night. The sky was dark. The streets were dark. There was no residual light from street lamps or storefronts. It felt like a blanket had been laid over our neighborhood. Most movement and even car traffic came to a halt after dusk each day. This became even more evident within a few days when gasoline shortages led to even less mobility.

And our house was dark. We had four flashlights ready and put them to use. We had a series of candles that gave off a soft glow. We had a battery-operated FM radio for entertainment and news. So we weren’t really literally or metaphorically in the dark, but we were certainly disoriented.

No, this is not us huddled in the dark.
We just felt this way.

And the house got a little colder every day though we were never in any danger of freezing. But even our dog started huddling in closer and closer each night, trying to cadge a little of our body warmth, despite her having a fur coat that we envied. The three of us became very tightly bonded during the nine-day period. And we went to sleep earlier and earlier each night after the darkness became almost total. I joked with my children, saying that now I understood why farmers of old always went to bed by 8:30. Then I added that the early bedtimes might also explain why they had very large families. (I probably should have omitted the last part of my joke, which seemed to embarrass them, for some reason.)

And morning light was very welcome. It really did feel a little like the earth was being reborn when we could see without artificial light each day.

(Remember that blessing I mentioned above about separating light from darkness? Traditionally, religious Jewish males had a special blue thread included among the fringes on their prayer shawls. When it was light enough to distinguish the blue thread from the white ones, which is surprisingly impossible in darkness or even near darkness, it was time to chant the morning prayers, starting with that blessing I mentioned. After experiencing eight pitch-black nights, I understand that tradition and the blessing better.)

Our lives were disrupted somewhat but not really harmed in the aftermath of the storm. We didn’t even lose a tree this year, as many of our neighbors did. Of course, we had lost four large trees in the snowstorm that struck on Halloween last year, so there weren't many left to fall. We didn’t have flooding either or any of the other types of terrible destruction that we have seen on the news. So I have no real reason to complain. And, I’m really not complaining. I am just describing what it felt like to be blanketed in darkness for eight nights, starting at around 5:30 p.m. until around 6:30 the next morning. Vampires may be comfortable with darkness—and raccoons too—but not us.

When the power suddenly snapped on around 3:30 p.m. on Election Day, we felt literally (and punningly) light-headed. We watched the election returns. We reset our clocks. We reset our lives. Then, around 1 p.m. the following day, the lights went out again. Was this a cruel joke? I assured myself and shared my belief that the utility company was just making a temporary adjustment to bring more of the town online, which proved to be accurate. By 5 p.m., we had light and heat and cable—all the comforts of modern life.

Sometimes it takes a “superstorm” to really see the light when it comes to the power of darkness. We have put away the flashlights and the candles. We’re now trying to guess how changing weather patterns may be “clouding” our future. We’re even talking about generators and space heaters to keep our lives lit and warm in case those clouds do roll in.

Rubens' Prometheus gets his liver pecked out
each day by an eagle at the gods' command.
It is clearer to me now why the Greeks honored Prometheus for his gift of fire—a gift that helped bring light and warmth to people, especially in that scary period between dusk and dawn. But what I don't understand is why the gods made him suffer so much for sharing their fire with us. Should we be worried?

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Power Politics in the Grassroots

When I was 17 years old, I got my first taste of “power politics.” In December 1966, my cousin David was running for Aleph Godol (President) of the Southern Region of BBYO (the B’nai Brith Youth Organization). Now, you may not think that Jewish youth organizations engage in power politics. You would be wrong. This was a cutthroat election, featuring David from Savannah in this corner and Goliath (-er Scott) from Atlanta in the other. Scott was Goliath because there were more attendees from the Atlanta Council at the Regional Convention, and thereby more voters. In modern political parlance, he had a larger base.

The official AZA Aleph Godol pin is at the bottom
Joel, a friend from Atlanta, and I agreed to become David’s campaign managers. No politicos ever took the role more seriously than we did. We began to formulate our strategy for overcoming the seeming voting edge that Scott held. We knew that the secrets to victory would lie in solidifying David’s base among the southeast Georgia and South Carolina contingents, appealing to the kids from Macon and Columbus to join our coalition, and getting some Atlanta kids to switch allegiance for the “greater good” of Southern Region. (We actually talked like that in those days. We considered ourselves budding James Carvilles or (heaven forbid) Karl Roves.)

We took the roster of all convention attendees and began working our way down the list, checking off those we knew were in David’s camp and crossing out all of those we knew we could never win over because they fell into one of these categories: Scott’s many cousins, his friends, friends of cousins, friends of cousins’ friends, or just plain Atlanta chauvinists. We looked at the numbers and felt a slight optimism. The counts of checks and cross-outs were close enough to give us hope. Plus David was a particularly nice guy known for his strong sense of responsibility and leadership abilities. So we sketched out a meticulous plan for winning over the names not yet committed. We were ruthless. We looked among our check marks for girlfriends or boyfriends of the non-committed and met with them one-on-one to ask for their help in cajoling votes from their beloveds. (Is using even implied sex for votes dirty politics? Not in our minds.) We met personally with other non-committed voters and probably made some outrageous promises. We got assurances of votes and added to our check marks. The night before the election, our counts of check marks and cross-outs were extremely close. This was going to be one tight race.

Joel and I didn’t sleep for two entire days and nights; we just campaigned and counted. We were walking zombies by election day, sort of like Diane Sawyer during ABC’s election night coverage last week. We both anticipated and dreaded the actual voting process. Had we gotten to every potential David voter? Could our vote count have been flawed in any way? Had we overreached?  We would know in just a matter of hours. Then we could sleep, either in joy or in frustration.

Now, it is probably pretty obvious why I am telling this story. As I watched the vote returns come in last Tuesday night and heard David Axelrod and David Plouffe discuss the Democratic strategy for winning votes in the nine toss-up states, I was drawn back to my truly grassroots political experience. Candidates make speeches and shake hands and even kiss babies. They get to approve those incessant messages. Political strategists stay in the background, pulling strings and tying ropes, if necessary. It’s a dirty job but so much fun if it works.

In 1968, I was one of the managers of the Humphrey-Muskie campaign on the Yale campus and was covering the Democratic Party side of the election for the Yale Daily NEWS. I even got to ride in the press bus when Edmund Muskie came to New Haven on a campaign swing and stood behind him when he made a speech to a large crowd of union workers who had taken a few minutes away from their jobs building a new Knights of Columbus tower not far from downtown. It was thrilling being one of those smiling faces you always see behind a candidate on television. No one suggested I should be impartial. I guess I would have fit in pretty well with today’s “reporters” on MSNBC or Fox News.

On election night, I pulled an all-nighter with my friend Bob Shapiro at our small campaign headquarters, watching the vote totals come in and hoping beyond hope for a miraculous Humphrey finish. After all, our man had been climbing steadily in the polls during the final week of the campaign, until he was almost dead even with Richard Nixon when the actual voting began. The miracles didn’t happen, of course, and when we finally got to bed, our sleep was pretty restless. If you remember 1968, you know it was a pretty tumultuous and scary year. It didn’t end well for those of us who considered ourselves idealists. Most of all, it didn’t turn out well for Hubert Humphrey, who deserved better from history than he has received.

But the Humphrey-Nixon campaign came nearly two years after the David-Scott battle for leadership in Southeastern BBYO. And, luckily, that campaign had a happier ending. The voting took place, the counting began, and a winner emerged—my cousin David was elected by a margin of perhaps two votes, almost exactly the result we were predicting. (We never got the official count, but that’s what we heard. And it’s the story I’m telling.) We had helped pull off a small upset. We were political geniuses!

David went on to get a Ph.D. in political science, taught college for a number of years in New Jersey, Washington, DC, and even London, England. Then he moved onto political activist roles in New York and Washington. I’d like to think I played a part in his early political development. After my disappointment in the 1968 Presidential campaign, I stayed true to my Democratic Party allegiance, though I didn't do too much campaigning until 2004, when a college floor-mate, Howard Dean, made his aborted run for the Presidency. I have stayed behind the scenes—voting, making small financial contributions, writing some letters, and shouting at television ads and speeches. And I was smiling last Tuesday night, particularly because I could actually watch the election returns on television since our power had just been restored after eight days of blackout  following Hurricane Sandy.    

In his victory speech, President Obama explained the value of politics to his supporters as he thanked them. He also connected politics idealistically with service. In my experience, politics also connects with long sleepless nights, lots of cajoling, and often bitter endings. But when your candidate wins, and when your efforts are a part of that win, it’s pretty magical. Some rabbits got pulled out of a hat last Tuesday. And my love-hate relationship with politics got renewed on the love side this time. But I plan to keep antacids close by because the next campaign is already starting.