There I was, a fresh-faced 18-year-old, ready to start my first year of college. I had busted my ass for two years, bringing my grades up after years of drifting and family chaos, to finally force my way into an Ivy citadel. Bring on the Shakespeare, the Rolling Rock, the late-night philosophical discussions. I was ready.
Then, only a few weeks into my freshman year, the universityís clerical and technical workers went on strike. Picket lines went up. The cafeterias closed, and campus life ground to a halt. Middle-aged women yelled at me on my way to class. My Ivy dream became a nightmare.
How dare they.
So when it came time for me to show up for my work-study job and do the work of a striker, it wasnít much of a struggle. These angry people had ruined my freshman year, so I was ready to scab. I had a million reasons: I didnít understand the issues. I was suffering as a result of the strike. Whatís with all this commie solidarity crap, anyway? How, like, Ď60s. How lame.
In the years after the strike, I found out a little more about the issues. The commie solidarity crap started making a bit more sense when I discovered the struggles of clerical workers to survive on what the university was paying them.
But only in the decade since, spent in the working world, have I really understood what that strike was about and what a truly shameful act it was for me to scab.
In my experience, company after company seems determined to get what it can from employees, then lays them off without a second thought. (Dot-com workers can sympathize with this right now.) Many friends subsist without medical insurance or any kind of safety net, hoping for some divine intervention if the worst happens. Despite all this, employees seem to need to feel loyalty to their company, even if the companyís loyalty to employees seldom survives the calculation of profit and loss.
And still, employees shy away from organizing. I blame this on a kind of Darwinism that runs through American society when it comes to work and money: You get what you have fought for and what you intrinsically deserve. If you canít get what you need from a company, itís your fault. But I have found again and again that this equation doesnít add up: One employee struggling against a company made up of hundreds or thousands of people. Who stands behind that employee? Why does that employee so often stand alone?
The economy is still going strong, and a lot of us can still afford to ignore these questions. We can rest secure in our knowledge that we have what we deserve and that no one can take it away from us. We can shop and spend without concerns for the future. After all, we have earned it. We can afford to close our ears when the union organizers come around, and we can scoff at the corny rhetoric and silly chants. Itís all so unironic. And who has time to find out about all these issues?
But what is happening at Seattleís newspapers can happen anywhere. What is different is that the employees have decided to stick together and fight for what they want. They stand in picket lines all night long as their managers ship in scab workers from around the country and feed them prime rib. They work long hours putting out a newspaper for little money in strike pay.
Instead of planning Christmas-shopping sprees, they are standing in the rain and the cold in picket lines. But at least they are standing together.
When sheís not honking her horn in support of striking newspaper workers, Liese Klein works at a Seattle dot-com.
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