by Donna Schoenkopf
I walked into the unfamiliar Walgreens drugstore and heard a loud male voice, complaining.
“She is unbelievable! She even wants to tell me how to wipe my ass! I oughta quit this damn job!”
Across the store was a young man, mid-twenties, talking loudly and passionately to a skinny, unhappy-looking young woman, perhaps nineteen or twenty years old.
“Hmmmm,” I thought. “They need a union.”
Unions were on my mind because I was in the drugstore to buy some posterboard to make a sign for the solidarity rally I was going to at noon at the state capitol building in Oklahoma City. I had been excited for a couple of weeks about the intensity of the action in Madison, Wisconsin, and now I could add my voice and body to the cause.
I was in the drugstore very early because I volunteered to bring my neighbor’s new dog into the city to get spayed at the really, really cheap spaying clinic, as my special gift to her. Her husband was dead, she had three young children, she was barely making ends meet, and she had a dog that needed to be spayed. So being the Bleeding Heart Liberal I am, I saw my chance to make the world a better place. That meant that by 7:30 am I had already dropped off the dog and had four and a half hours until the solidarity rally began, which meant I had time to make a poster or two.
So I got two sheets of fluorescent chartreuse posterboard from the art supply section and walked up to the register.
The Angry Young Man who had been upset with his boss had recovered nicely and was all smiles when I got to the register, and began to ring me up.
This was the perfect opportunity for me to do something else that was good for the world, so I said, “I’m buying this posterboard for the solidarity rally I’m going to at noon at the state capitol building.”
“Oh, what’s that?” asked the now smiling young man.
“It’s for standing with the union. Supporting the public employees in Wisconsin,” I replied.
“Oh, I’m against unions!” he retorted. With a smile. A smirky smile.
I stood there, kinda dumbfounded.
It always amazes me how people lose sight of their own best interests. Yes, I know they have been influenced by the Big Lie told often enough to sway minds who don’t have a lot of facts because they’re busy watching Dancing with the Stars or NASCAR racing.
(Sorry. I apologize. I am painting anti-union people with a very broad brush and that just isn’t fair. But I’m writing this, so you’ll just have to put up with my poetic license.)
And I know what the lie is. I believed it myself when I was a kid. Unions were for uneducated, mean-spirited, lazy good-for-nothings who would use any means necessary to enrich themselves in an unsavory way. I never knew anyone in a union. I had the usual succession of low wage service jobs in high school. I was paid practically nothing, respected less. But I thought that was just the way things were. Employees were slaves. If they weren’t, they were fired. That’s how business worked.
After some years, with a little bit of education under my belt, I found myself falling in love with unions. I read their brave history, every bit as courageous as any pioneer or soldier. I read how men and women sacrificed their lives for the common good. I read how they stood up for justice against unbelievable power. I thought of how badly, how disrespectfully, I had been treated in the workplace. I realized that the workplace was somewhere democracy did not exist. I didn’t have any say-so whatsoever.
Unless I belonged to a union.
“How,” I thought, “could anyone be against a union?”
And I still wonder about that all these years later.
I did eventually get a union job, a teaching job. I began to blossom in the work world. Without a heavyhanded boss, I found myself relaxing and opening up. I was realizing my full potential. I was happy. I became innovative. I became a good teacher. It was the best job I ever, ever had.
(As an aside, good teachers know this about teaching. If you’re kind and just and respectful of students, they do their best, too.)
And, of course, I became a union rep for my school.
I loved being a union rep. I loved the monthly coffee and donut meetings before school in my classroom. I loved bringing the news back from our area meetings. At first, I was horribly uneducated in just about everything, but slowly I began to acquire some basics. I was fearful about approaching the principal on various matters, but I thought about Norma Rae and Cesar Chavez and Joe Hill and how they believed and how their belief made them brave.
Well, I believed! And it made me brave, too.
There was nose-to-nose combat with the powers that be. There were a lot of teacher-principal-union rep meetings and negotiating and note-taking and conversations and formal letters. I was the teachers’ voice in the wilderness. I was the Big Mouth. My cup of tea.
Teachers would come to me privately to cry or vent or just to be with a friend who was on their side. Most of the time they didn’t want anything done. They just wanted to have their story heard. They were afraid of consequences.
And there are consequences for those who bump up against the powerful. There are all kinds of psychological tactics that can be used against a teacher. Lots of visits from the principal. Being written up for little things no one else is written up for. Bad evaluations. Serious stuff.
But, BUT! There is some shit we should not eat. (e.e. cummings wrote that.) And if you’re a human being you must speak up when injustice is done. So little by little teachers who had their backs against the wall began to speak up ... bravely! I would look up the contract, find the violation(s), write up complaints, and take them to grievance meetings. Those grievances were now on file and official. And it let principals know that we had a voice and we would speak truth to power.
We were a great little union school in Central Area, which is the inner city of L. A. Our school was just blocks from the Rodney King riots. (Another aside: Did you know that not one school was harmed during the riots? Businesses everywhere were burned to the ground, but every single school remained untouched.) This is where the union needs to live, and it does. Our school always had a lot of teachers in attendance at union rallies in the city. We marched alongside thousands of other teachers—long marches through the streets of downtown L.A., with so many union teachers that we filled those wide streets from side to side and as far as the eye could see.
Yeah. We rocked.
Here I will insert something dear Joyce sent me...a great sign at a recent Solidarity Rally.)
THE MORE YOU SCREW US,
THE MORE WE MULTIPLY!
So I told this poor young man, (Remember him? He hated his boss and hated his job and was in a living hell?) that he needed a union.
And he looked at me with eyes full of suspicion and cynicism, and told me that he was against unions.
I left the store. Sad. And pissed off that he had been brainwashed, just as I had been, by powerful vested interests.
I walked to my car and realized I had forgotten to buy a newspaper for the long morning ahead of me. I went back in and saw a rack of Daily Oklahomans and picked one up. But I didn’t want that damn paper. It was voted the worst paper in America in 1999 by the Columbia Journalism Review. It cited the paper’s right wing slant on the news and all the editorials, as well as racist hiring practices. No. I didn’t want to buy that rag.
There standing at the register was the skinny, unhappy young woman who had listened to the Angry Young Man complaining earlier. She scowled at me when I asked if they sold any other papers.
“No. Just that one,” she said.
I knew she had heard the conversation I had had with her cohort, so just to stir the pot I said, “Well, this paper is really anti-union and I hate buying it.” The imp inside me was dancing with glee.
“I hate unions,” she said, looking me straight in the eye.
“Too bad,” I said. “They are on your side in the workplace.”
And I left.
I know. I know. You would have done something better. Or nothing at all. Why mess with a person like that? Nothing will come of it but bad feelings. But I do what I do when I can. At least, somewhere deep in her brain, she will have a bit of information about the Daily Oklahoman being anti-union. And therefore anti-worker. Who knows? Maybe someday she will be in a union. Or be a union organizer! It could happen.
Just call me Donna Union Seed.
Well, all that seed planting had stirred up my appetite, so I drove down an unfamiliar boulevard and there, on the right, was a funky little restaurant where I had a magnificent Mediterranean omelet while reading The Daily Oklahoman, all the while tsk-tsking about its reportage and editorials. Delicious.
Then off I headed to the capitol. It was only 8:30. And really, really cold. I drove around and around, trying to navigate the usual horrible Oklahoma signage, and eventually managed to get to a parking lot somewhere sorta near the capitol building. I sat in my car and waited. It was going to be a couple of hours before anyone showed up and it was 37 degrees outside, according to my car’s thermometer. I still had a lot of newspaper to read, so I shook it open. That kept me occupied for quite a while. Then I got out to make two signs on the hood of my car. I wrote Union Maid and UNION! in huge letters on the poster boards. As I finished I looked up and saw the tiny figure of a person in a red poncho moving away off in the distance on the capitol steps.
I zipped up my jacket, put on my gloves, grabbed my signs, braced myself against the wind, and headed toward the capitol building.
Just as I got there people began arriving in little groups of twos and threes. Almost everyone had a sign. Almost everyone was a member of a union or a union supporter.
People were talking, smiling, bundled up, signs in their hands. Eventually I encountered my friend, Judy Sing, in the crowd. She’s a tall, lanky, beautiful woman who grew up in the simplest of circumstances in a big, strong family. They lived in the country just south of where I live now. She’s really smart and really nice and we happen to agree on just about everything. She was carrying a small sign that read Labor Conquers All. Below those words, written in small, almost invisible letters, were the words, “Oklahoma State Motto.” I laughed at the irony of it. Oklahoma, a state with a history of socialists and unions working for social justice for the wretchedly poor in the early 1900s ... is the same Oklahoma that is now a right-to-work state, trying to cut back on public employees’ pensions.
I stood on the steps with Judy and some other union people, facing the crowd. Standing behind me and to my left were a bunch of Teamsters, manly men in their black, sleek Teamsters jackets, big and tough, not to be messed with. They could make a girl swoon, I swear to God. I told them how much I liked their jackets and that I was wearing my United Teachers of Los Angeles union shirt under my jacket. They laughed their manly laughs and told me I needed to show my “colors!” So I took off my jacket and dropped it to the ground and discovered I wasn’t cold at all. And so I stood on the steps of the capitol in my red and black shirt, “Central Area” emblazoned on the breast. Yeah. I was tough, too.
Speeches commenced, some dull, some glorious. We clapped. We cheered. We sang “Union Maid.” For three hours we witnessed for truth and justice, standing together as one.
We are UNION, brothers and sisters!
WE ARE UNION!!
And slowly, in twos and threes, we drifted away, back to our cars, back to our everyday lives, filled with the spirit. We are union.
Dedicated to Jim and Carole
I love you!