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.