Self Respect through Collective Action

Reginald Marsh, “End of 14th Street Crosstown Line” (1936)

Labor Day

Labor Day was established in 1894 following a period of labor unrest in American history. Its design was to honor, and placate, labor organizations, and in that spirit I quote a passage from one of the best American novels I know about the contemporary labor movement.

The novel is Leaps of Faith (Farrar Straus, 2000) by (full disclosure) my close friend Rachel Kranz. Among other things, Rachel is concerned about how workers have their sense of dignity undermined by working conditions that undervalue their worth. In the following passage, an African American secretary, skeptical about the possibilities of change because of her tyrannical boss, experiences a new sense of self respect as she walks a strike picket line. As she watches her BH (boss from hell) watch her, she feels empowered that he can’t do anything about it.

The book creates a collective protagonist by giving us many voices (hence the parenthetical description). Rachel based the incident on her experience helping organize a successful strike at Columbia University in the 1980’s. Incidentally, Rachel’s apartment, which I visited this past weekend, is two blocks from where the above painting is set.

Vanessa (staff secretary, grade 6, Mines and Minerals Project, Dowling Hall): When [union organizer] Rosie said I should be building captain, I about fell over. I mean, I knew Rosie respected me and all. But I didn’t think it was to the point where she would make me building captain.

Lissa says she’ll help, which is good, because you know Dowling. You can never get anybody to do anything. So all day long, we’ve been taking turns. First she goes out on the picket line. And I start making calls, trying to find out where everybody is (work? home? Why are so many numbers missing from this list?!!). And then we switch—she makes the phone calls, and I go out on the picket line.

BH [Boss from Hell] comes out on his lunch hour to see what’s going on. We’re all marching in the back entrance to the quad, with the B-School people and some of the others, so he has to walk quite a ways out of his way to find us. Because the bar he usually goes to is all the way over on Broadway. But when he gets to us on Amsterdam he just stares and stares. Standing on the corner across the street, watching us march and chant and cheer. Which is hard to do, just for ourselves. There aren’t that many people coming in once the morning rush is over.

But there’s BH, watching and watching. I tell you, it makes the whole damn thing worthwhile. Just to know there’s not a damn thing he can do about it.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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