Lionel Rolfe Lionel Rolfe

Published on February 12th, 2014 | by Zamná Ávila

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Talking Union

By Lionel Rolfe

There’s a curious thing about talking union. It’s not cool. Unions ain’t cool. They’re so not cool you’ll notice almost nobody writes about them. They ain’t trendy. But they’re the coming thing.

True, most of the great folk songs about workers organizing are from yesteryear. But ignoring something doesn’t mean it’s not there. There is no doubt more songs yet to be written.

For many years, Harry Bernstein was the Los Angeles Times‘ labor reporter, and while his politics were distinctly middle-of-the-road, he knew his subject. During the glory years of the Times, he provided generally fair and knowledgeable coverage of labor, which was amazing considering that the newspaper had been known as the most anti-labor rag in the world.

Bernstein was a good antidote to the newspaper’s history, and it also strongly suggested the owners really were trying to build up the old paper into something great and important.

Now, Bernstein is gone, and the Times apparently has no one left who can or would be allowed to write intelligently about labor. Despite what you might think, Hollywood is not the only economic driver of Los Angeles. The Los Angeles area is one of the world’s greatest industrial areas, comparable to the Ruhr in Germany or the vast industrial areas of Shanghai. There’s a lot of organizing in the city these days. Some even dream of organizing Wal-Mart and McDonald.

When I went to work at the San Francisco Chronicle in 1969, I felt particularly proud to receive my newspaper guild card. I still remember talking with “Slim” Connelly, the first president of the Los Angeles Newspaper Guild — he was, needless to say, not slim, quite the opposite. I was only 16.

I loved reading Heywood Broun, the first national president of the Newspaper Guild in 1933. Heywood was a Depression era columnist who famously feuded with Westbrook Pegler, as right-wing as Broun was left.

All these folks were masters of invective as well as beautifully polished prose that brought you to whatever scene they were describing more vividly than any television news crew can today.

My love of unions came early. When I was still in junior high school, I used to deliver the Long Beach Press Telegram. I was up at5 a.m., folding newspapers and pedaling my way around town. I had a history of being a newspaper boy. Before the Press-Telegram, I delivered Manchester Body’s old Daily News in the West Los Angeles neighborhood adjacent to the Fox Studios when I was barely out of elementary school.

I began delivering the Daily News because my dad didn’t want me growing up soft and lazy. What my dad did not count on was my discovery of class struggle. At his most left, my dad was a middle-of-the-road Roosevelt Democrat. Later in life, he was a Reagan Democrat. Like Bernstein, he wasn’t an ideologue but as a workers’ compensation appeals court judge he knew class struggle wasn’t just an ideological term. It was a descriptive term.

I read lots of Charles Dickens and Jack London, and I saw the faces of young men all over the world, peering out from dreary factory windows, or mine shafts, or ships, or agricultural fields. I saw those factories in England when I took a train from London to Weymouth, where George II kept his navy. We passed rows and rows of dreary brick work houses from Victorian times, haunting in their ugliness and oppressiveness.

At the Press-Telegram, I determined to organize the other paper boys. My boss was a large, red-faced Irishman with 12 kids of his own, who all worked with him. He came to my father and urged him to rein me in. He told my dad if he couldn’t deal with the situation, the newspaper proprietors said they would fire him. My dad, the judge, understood class struggle, but he had grown up in the Depression relatively comfortable, because his father had been in the “wholesale liquor business” in Minnesota with old Joe Kennedy during Prohibition. Ben Papa was my nice old grandfather who doted on me. His greatest joy in retirement was constantly polishing the magnificent chrome dashboard of his Chrysler, and then taking us to the drug store for a five cent malt and a five-cent Saturday Evening Post.

My dad forbade me from continuing my organizing, but it taught me a lesson — I had some ability as an organizer. I’m a shop steward for my union at work today, which is somewhat allied with what’s left of the old Newspaper Guild. In the case of my first organizing attempts at the Press-Telegram, I capitulated to my dad. I think we got a symbolic raise, and I got a tour of the city room on Pine Street, where I was allowed to write a pro-Adlai Stevenson letter to the editor. That’s when the ink first got in my veins.

I knew that I probably did not have to look forward to a life as a member of the industrial proletariat. But I felt perilously close to it when an editor at my current employer used to constantly remind me of the tenets of true industrial journalism. We’re producing Chevrolets and McDonalds here; we want all those stories rolling off the assembly line looking the same. That was his constant refrain.

Now I know this is a far from perfect world, and labor unions are not all run by perfect gentlemen and gentlewomen.

The father of an ex-wife of mine owned a furniture factory in Gardena that employed about 100 workers — mostly Mexican. My wife, the writer and musician Nigey Lennon, had worked for her dad — and he had run afoul of her father’s straw boss, a real white guy, a Southerner by background, who was a Baptist minister on the side and also made continuous racial jokes about the mostly Mexicans who worked for him. He also would look at me. I don’t think he used the term “kike,” but he liked to use his hands to indicate I had a big nose.

A lovely fellow, indeed.

One day a fellow named Tony showed up and announced he was organizing the factory for the Teamsters. My ex father-in-law wailed that he had always run a nice establishment where everyone was treated like family. He was mostly blind to his straw boss’ considerable failures, not the least of which was a nasty habit of shipping furniture out the back door, all the while talking about how we should all accept Jesus.

Now,  Tony was not a gentleman. He was a Native American Indian with a rugged, red face, and wore loud plaid jackets in which he conspicuously carried a weapon. He liked to brag and wink and show that weapon off.

My former father-in-law begged his daughter and me to help him write messages to his workers, telling them why they should not join the union.

And to us, he said Tony and the Teamster were corrupt. Probably, we said. But your workers are demeaned and insulted by your straw boss. He’s lucky he hasn’t been stabbed and his body hadn’t turned up in the alley at the rear of the factory.

The Teamster got in, and Tony was around a lot. When they negotiated, my father-in-law said they went into a room and watched a ballgame, just so the guys would believer the union was fighting for them. Instead, an envelope full of cash was handed to Tony. He was pocketing part of the money he had negotiated with the boss for himself. Still, Tony gave his workers some clout, even if they only negotiated a corrupt, sweetheart deal. And the workers now had some real say so over the fundamentalist straw boss who hated Jews and Mexicans.

And that’s when I learned a basic lesson. When you talk union, the bosses aren’t allowed to totally fuck you over. It’s not so much the raises, which are mostly paltry, although more than the bosses would offer on their own. It’s the dignity you have by having some real clout as a worker and are not being treated as nothing more than a wage slave.

When you’re in the union and you talk to the boss, it’s nice to know that you got a Tony at your side.

Tony, by the way, was later shot to death in Delano where he was trying to kick out the farm workers and organize them for the teamsters.

 

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