In Toledo, Ohio hangin’ with some “union thugs” (or hardworking folks wearing Christmas sweaters)

It’s heartbreaking really, when a middle-age woman in the heart of the Midwest, who actually produces things for a living, says we just have to show the world that we aren’t thugs, we just want rights at our jobs. I mean she is wearing a Christmas sweater for goodness sake! It’s heartbreaking that anyone could call her a thug or that she could feel so beaten up by right-wing, corporate bullies that she feels the need to tell the world – she isn’t a “union thug”.flint

I have one the greatest jobs in the world – I spend the day listening and creating workshops for union members to practice talking to other workers about the power of working collectively. I really can’t imagine better work, than to spend the day with union members as we talk about power, class, and capitalism. (Even if we don’t always use all those words). I wish I had taken a picture of one of the groups’ drawings – circle of workers, linked hands, with words like job security, fair wages, health insurance, freedom from discrimination in the middle.

The last few days, I have had the honor to work with UAW members in Toledo, Ohio. Ohio was won by Obama because of workers such as them. They are not the faces of Occupy or typical lefty liberals. One of the best organizers there lost his only son to an IED blast in Afghanistan when he was 24 years old. This man organized his shop in the 80’s. He talks about the importance of democracy and rights on the job. The people in the room are a dying breed, they have worked in union shops their whole lives. They can’t imagine the precarious work that we have left for our children. They can take time off to care for sick children or elderly parents without worrying about being fired for it. They can stop working if they deem the equipment to be unsafe – without being fired for it. They know their seniority, their earned vacation days, their pension amount. When they go out to talk to unorganized workers – they are blown away by what the rest of us have grown accustomed to – the sheer, terrifying precariousness of modern day workplace.

They wouldn’t understand the choices of workers during Hurricane Sandy literally risked death because they knew they would be fired if the didn’t come to work in the hurricane. There were a lot of insightful articles following Hurricane Sandy about the economy of exploitation that undergirds the wealthy of Manhattan, the armies of low-wage workers that NYC expects to keep working for them through hurricanes and apocalypse. But few people pointed out that unions – workers organized – is a remedy to the unchecked, insatiable demands of capitalism.

I read an article in the NY Times that proposed unions would have to transform themselves into groups like Domestic Workers United, who successfully passed legislation to protect the rights of domestic workers. With all due respect to DWU – it is no substitution for a union and the ability to bargain and fight collectively for your economic interests. Domestic workers had to brave Sandy to go to work, legal rights on paper are little comfort when your employer tells you that you will be fired unless you come in. Union workers know that of they are terminated unjustly, they can go through their union to help them win their job back.

The house of Labor has taken a beating – that’s for sure, as “right to work” was rammed down our throats in Michigan, the heart of industrialized labor. Although, the governor was forced to sign the Act in the back alley because protestors blocked the front doors.

And as someone part of the Labor Movement for most of my working career, I recognize and critique our faults. Despite all the signs of our impending doom, we continue to rely on legislative and lobby efforts instead of mobilizing our members into a grass-roots movement. For sure, some of our members aren’t ready for civil disobedience – but undoubtedly some of them are.  When the National Labor Relations Act was passed, big business fought it and swore never to abide by it. It took unions and specifically the UAW with its historic occupations of auto factories that actually made the law real. Labor unrest and working peoples’ sacrifice transformed America from sweatshops and child labor to a land of working-class jobs that provided a middle-class lifestyle. Autoworkers sending their children to college, Black middle class in Detroit – our ancestors before us through occupation and non-violent resistance won the rights we have today. Since becoming a lawyer, I realized that lawyers enforce the laws, but organizers make the law because organizers push the boundaries of the laws.

The members that sat in front of me in Toldeo, all said the same thing, that they were fighting for the future of their children. It is time for us to remember how we won rights for labor – through struggle in the streets. I hope to see labor out there in 2013, in the streets where we need to be.

Welcome to new addition to our barangay! (& Cancer, mutual aid, con law, chosen familes)

I’ve been having a hard time writing this blog entry, hence the long IMG_0346silence. I think that I have decided it will have to be many blog entries to delve into all of it – cancer, racism, the travesty of our health system, support systems, and survival.  So today, I just want to welcome the newest member of our barangay.

“Octavia” I will call her, since most of this story is hers to tell and not mine. Octavia will be moving in with us while she undergoes chemotherapy.

The first time I met her, she was easy to spot on the nearly empty street of Richmond, Virginia. I was part of a spoken word ensemble, we read our works at a club called the Underground Railroad.  Her future husband was a manager there. I was walking across the street when I saw her; she had red dreads, a nose ring, and very New York fashion forward clothes.

I knew she was arriving, so I took a wild guess and said – “Octavia?”

She stopped, “yeah, how did you know it was me?”

And so began a long and enduring friendship, I was at her wedding, read poetry at the reception. I watched her first child be born into the world. Whenever there was a crisis – with love, job, or friendship – I brought over Red Stripe and we laughed instead of crying. Octavia isn’t the crying type. She is the type that says,  “Ok I am going to shake it off, raise my daughter and remain friends with the father.” Because she is just mature like that. She always just took care of it, and shines while doing it.

I mean she is like sunshine, her spirit and even now- with stage 3 breast cancer**, she faces her challenge with a fierce and joyful spirit. We are so happy to have her here, because she brings light and laughter into our house and high fashion.

We prepared our children with the truth, “Aunt Octavia” is going to come stay with us because she is sick with cancer and needs to stay here, near the city for her treatment, and this is what we do for each other, we help when we can.  Alejandro, looked serious, “is it contagious?” looking relieved when I assured him it was not.  Then he asked the big question, “could she die?” I took a deep breath and thought a second about what to tell children, and landed on the truth. “Yes. But she won’t because she is going to get treatment from the doctors and love and support from her family and friends.” Alejandro nodded, “ok.”

Lately, the Occupiers have been using the phrase “mutual support” to describe the amazing system of support for the forgotten and forsaken of Sandy that they built from the ground up.

Of course immigrants, African-Americans in the Jim Crow South, and other oppressed groups have long created and relied upon webs of interdependence.  While I love and admire what Occupy has built, sometimes, they act like they created the concept of mutual aid.  For example, the “Green Pages” was an indispensible book written by Victor Green that listed all the places in segregated South that African –Americans could stop, get gas, or lodging. The book was self-published and passed on through word of mouth in an era before social media. Or today, undocumented immigrants and families help each other through texting about “la migra” when our era’s Gestapo come raiding neighborhoods, demanding papers, and splitting apart families. They also often pool resources, living together in tight quarters so they send all their hard earned money back “home” to families who depend on them in the 3rd World.

If we are immigrants, people of color, poor, queer, disabled we often have to create our own support systems. Sometimes it’s a legal necessity because our identity is outlawed like Black Americans in the segregated South, or undocumented immigrants, or for breaking the gender rules.  Or sometimes we have to search outside our biological family because our biological families reject us for who we choose to love, or our politics, or maybe because our blood family is just too abusive, wounded, or addicted to stay around.

The State has not often welcomed these webs of interdependence, outlawing it often. In 1973, The Congressional Food Stamp act, defined eligible households to consist of relatives. This was because Congress wanted to prevent hippie communes from being able to access food stamps. Thus, the “Hippie Commune” case in my Constitutional Law class, actually called US Dept of Agriculture vs Mareno. In this case, the Supreme Court struck down this part of the Act.  But zoning laws that restrict the number of people who can live in one place, laws that criminalize helping undocumented immigrants, all of these go to stopping mutual aid.

The gathering of supportive and loving family, whether chosen or not, is a fight for our lives. Our Brooklyn barangay is a small attempt to create that mix of blood and chosen family, a safe haven. The word barangay is from the Malaysian word for a large boat, and we are in this boat together against the rising tides. And we are now officially at 8 people! Thank-goodness we own our place, or someone would likely have complained!

Today, Octavia went ahead and shaved off all her hair, rather than it let it continue to come out in clumps. She looks beautiful because her face continues to light up even in the face of the unknown ahead. Don’t get me wrong, she is afraid and so am I. But together, her family and friends, we are in a fight for her life. So we try to live at an everyday level the world that we are fighting for as activists. Because it is a fight for all our lives, our children’s lives and all the earth’s creatures.

** And because she is among the legions of unemployed Americans right now she, she began this fight without health insurance. (And so this part of the story – the impact of a health care system tied to employment, the fact that Black women have been some of the hardest hit by the recessions and the slowest to be rehired, the impact of facing cancer as a Black woman on Medicaid, this part will have to wait. It’s too enraging and painful for me to tackle in this initial blog post.)