Monday, September 24, 2012

Campaign Fatigue

The guys at the golf range pass around emails or Internet pages that they’ve printed off. It’s gotten worse than usual since the election is close. The owner handed the last one to Ronald and asked him to read it. This one stated that both President Obama and First Lady Michelle lost their law licenses under questionable circumstances. It goes on to say that they were forced to “voluntarily retire” their licenses, and that phrase supposedly indicates that there was some type of unethical behavior on their part. It mentions that President Obama probably gave up his license in 2008 “to escape charges that he ‘fibbed’ on his bar application.”
“What do you think?” Mr. White Golf Range Owner asked.
“I don’t believe it,” Ronald responded. He told me about it when he got home, and I looked it up on It originally started circulating in 2010, and, of course, it is false.
“Don’t they think for a moment that if it were true, this story would have been all over the news?” I asked him. I read the paper and watch the news every day.
Ronald printed off the Snopes page and brought it to the range the next day.
“You don’t expect me to read this,” Mr. White Golf Range Owner said.
“It won’t take long,” Ronald said.
A conservative friend on Facebook responded to one of my comments on someone else’s page. The other person had posted a post about a thirteen–year-old black boy who was picked up by police because he fit the description of a burglary suspect. The description was “black male wearing cargo shorts.” Read the post, Helpless as my son, 13 was profiled, cuffed, written by his mother.
Another Facebook member wrote, “Give Obama 4 years & maybe he can help.”
I thought she was na├»ve. Racism has just been more overt since President Obama took office. I responded, “Four years won't make a difference. Don't get me wrong. We need President Obama for four more years, but four years won't change this.”
My friend, and he knows who he is if he reads this, posted, “we don't need Obama at all..... 4 more years will only do more damage.”
I was incensed. How did he manage to turn this into a political argument when a mother was hurting, her son was possibly traumatized, and this event plays itself out in every town in America?
I didn’t respond to my friend’s comment until the next morning. I needed to sleep on it. I posted, “That was insensitive. I see you drank the ARMA juice already. Romney ought to strap you to the roof of his car and take you home before you really get into trouble.” (He was traveling to the annual conference of my professional association ARMA)
My friend responded, “it's politics... and I hold a much, much different point of view on the current President and on who should be the President for the next four years....”
Politics. They are wearing me out, yet I am just as guilty. Here’s a sampling of some of my posts on Facebook:
Some truths are meant to stay secret and Mitt blabbed because he thought he was in a safe zone. He didn't even care that there were wait staff circulating the room -- in his world, they don't count, and he figured if one of them told what he'd heard, no one would believe him anyway. But one of them had a smart phone, Mitt.

I'll never forget the moment when Senator Obama shook my hand in Charlotte in 2008. 47 more days to re-elect President Obama for 4 more years! High five!

Mitt needs a campaign reboot, like Herman Munster needed to be hooked up to some lightening every once in a while. But can you really bring the dead back to life? Let's hope not. Let's put this campaign to rest and get on with the business of running this country by the people, for the people, not by MItt just for 1% of the people. (With a link to The Daily Show)

Hatred stopped this man from accomplishing all he set out to do. But we won't let that happen in the next four years. Our votes will be our voices.

So even though my friend angered me for trivializing and politicizing a situation that is dangerous to young black men and Ronald is bombarded by printouts at the golf range that he finds offensive, I realize politics are on everyone’s radar right now. Emotions are running high.
I feel tired, though. I’m queasy. Like I ate a bag of candy and I reached the stars on a sugar high only to topple to a subterranean sugar low. I don’t want to look at another piece of candy.
But things are really going to heat up now. Forty-three days until the election and the debates are just around the corner. I know I will be parked in front of the television when they come on. I know I will watch the analysis afterwards. I’ll read about them in the newspaper and on the Internet. I’ll search and search and read some more, then make comments on Facebook and write about it in a blog post, perhaps. I’ll just open another bag of candy and start eating them, one by one or by the handful.
I know that campaign fatigue is the last thing I need to feel right now. Too much is at stake. The divisions between parties and people are too great, at least from my perspective. It feels like the difference between everyone being a part of America versus only the elite being a part of America while the rest of us, including the 47%, take on the burden of making the rich richer while having our civil rights denied and legislated.
I’ve voted in every presidential election since I was old enough to vote with the exception of one.
My first presidential election was 1976, and I voted for Jimmy Carter by absentee ballot. The one I missed was due to happenstance.  I was out of town, in Rochester at an ARMA meeting (we’d gone as a group on a chartered bus), on Election Day 1992. Bill Clinton was a dark horse, and I didn’t think I liked him at first. I supported Jerry Brown in the Democratic primary. But as the election drew near, I knew Bill Clinton was the right choice.
The bus pulled back into town around 5:30 PM, and my friend Dia met me to pick me up because Ronald was working that evening. He had voted earlier in the day.
Dia had Cara and Mackenzie with her, along with her two boys, because she had kept them after school. She suggested we go eat dinner and then she would bring me to the poll afterwards. She had already voted, too.
We ate, she drove me to the poll, I stood in line, and when I got to the registration table, I was told I was at the wrong poll. I had voted there many times before, but they had changed the polling place a few times over the years. They directed me to another one. I jumped back in the car and told Dia where to go. At the next poll, they told me I was at the wrong place and gave me yet another location.
Usually I call the League of Women Voters each Election Day to ensure I know the right polling location on the rare chance that the postcard announcing my poll location had somehow been lost in the mail, but I did not own a cell phone back then and hadn’t thought to call in the days before the election. It was ten minutes till 9:00, and Dia drove over the speed limit, but the door of the poll was just being locked as I reached for the handle.
After Dia dropped us off at home, I sat in my rocking chair, the television on so I could track the election results. I began to cry.
“I’ve never missed an election,” I explained to Cara and Mackenzie. They were just six years old. I talked to them about how women and blacks had to fight for the right to vote and how some of them were hurt and even killed. I told them that if women and blacks hadn’t believed so strongly in their right to vote and hadn’t given their lives to the cause that Cara and Mackenzie wouldn’t have been able to vote as biracial women. I told them it was very important to exercise our right to vote. I said we should never give that right away through apathy. They had come with me to vote in the past. They had stood in the booth as I pulled the big lever across that closed the curtain and pushed down small levers under names. I wanted them to feel comfortable voting when they came of age.
Cara and Mackenzie headed down the hall to get ready for bed. I sighed and tried to stop crying so I could read them a bedtime story when they were done changing and brushing their teeth. Cara came out a few minutes later and handed me a sheet of lined paper.
“Here, Mom,” she said. “Now you can vote.”
She had drawn a ballot with boxes to check. I took the pencil from her and checked the box next to Bill Clinton. Late that evening, after all polls had closed and reported results, Bill Clinton was declared the winner. He garnered 43% of the popular vote and 370 electoral votes. My vote didn’t contribute to the outcome, but I was still upset that I missed casting it.
This election I am worried that people will be turned away from the polls. I worry that the shenanigans of the 2004 election will be repeated, only in more insidious ways. That’s how strong I think the hatred is. That’s how strong I think the division is.
One vote equals one voice. Please pass the candy. I can’t afford to be tired. None of us can. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Politics Ain't Beanbag

“Politics ain’t beanbag. ‘Tis a man’s game; an’ women, childher, an’ pro-hybitionists ‘d do well to keep out iv it.”
~ Finley Peter Dunne, 1895

Politics are nasty and complicated, and I doubt most of us could weather the election process or the day-to-day decisions that must be attended to in leading one of the world powers. I’ve always thought that I wanted to use my vote to elect someone much, much smarter than I am, not someone whose intelligence I could easily eclipse. I also want someone who can be both rational and intuitive: someone who cares about people but also has the ability to think about the greater good. If I voted today, I would vote for President Obama, just as I did in 2008. In my mind he embodies both those qualities.
I think it’s safe to say, “I’m liberal.” I’ve been called a bleeding heart, a socialist, a communist, and some good adjectives, too, such as empathic, humanistic, and caring. Caring is an important moral value for me, as it is for countless liberals. We are all about creating a safety net and a level playing field for those who are oppressed, victimized, or otherwise left on the fringes of society. I realize that my liberal leanings mean that sometimes I will sacrifice my better judgment in order to assist others.  I’m not ashamed of that, but I know I lead with my heart and not with my mind on many occasions.  
I remember the doorbell ringing at my apartment in the spring of 1979, when I was a senior at Syracuse University. I was the only one home of the four of us women who lived together. I opened the door, and it was a woman and her daughter. They were Jehovah Witnesses. The mother handed me a copy of Watchtower, then prodded her daughter to speak. The little girl was five or six, shy, and severely developmentally and physically disabled. My heartstrings plucked a melancholy tune as she struggled to get her words out. I ran over to my purse and dumped out the contents of my wallet into the woman’s open hand.
Unlike two of my other roommates, whose parents bought them cars, paid their rent, and sent them monthly spending allowances, I paid for my share of the rent and my food out of my work study money and the additional money I made taping books for visually handicapped students. I worked thirty hours a week and carried a full course load. Except for the daily rides I accepted to and from the school where I student taught with one of my roommates, I walked every place else I had to go. After dumping out my wallet in that woman’s hand, I would go without that week, perhaps eating more peanut butter and jelly and less meat sauce and pasta, but my heart felt good.
Thirty-four years later I answered my doorbell again today. It rained all day today. When I opened the door, holding my dog Ru by the collar, a man around thirty years old stood in front of me, his umbrella upside down on my porch, and his large red knapsack at his feet. He wore khakis, a plaid shirt, and a knit tie. His teeth sported a lot of gold fillings, and several chipped teeth caused a distinct lisp. He was selling “Grandma’s Cleaner” at $48.00 a bottle. I listened to his whole story, watched while he sprayed the window on the door, wiped with a towel, and left nary a streak. Then he spritzed a little on my wedding ring and shined it up. He sprayed the cleaner on his clothes and in his mouth to prove its all-natural makeup. He pulled my heartstrings, and I bought a bottle, after which he took my hand and planted a kiss on it. My daughter Mackenzie, staying with us while in transition to a new city, said, “Ma, why did you buy a bottle? It’s probably a scam.”  The seven years she lived in New York City have perhaps made her cynical.
“I know,” I said. “But I don’t mind.”
He was polite, and he worked hard for his money. It’s no different than when Ronald picked up a couple begging for a ride to the soup kitchen. He said that the place was about to close as he dropped them off, and, had they walked, they would have probably missed the only meal they’d get that day. Or when he handed the homeless couple we often see downtown a twenty so they could get something to eat. See my post Get Up, Stand Up: Redemption Songs.
We both have soft hearts.
Ma taught me to champion the underdog, even though we were underdogs ourselves. Maybe that’s why I understand it so well. I never thought being poor was bad, and Dad worked really hard to support us, until he had his first heart attack and we were on Welfare until he could go back to work. He cried the day the social worker came and inspected our home as part of the application process.  He was ashamed neighbors left bags of groceries on our doorstep and rang the bell before running away. They knew Dad wouldn’t take the groceries if he knew to whom to return them.
He didn’t think of himself as one of the “victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it.”
Mitt Romney, who said the above quote in a closed door meeting with wealthy campaign backers, never knew Dad. He doesn’t understand that you can live with dignity even when you don’t have wealth. He doesn’t know Dad dropped out of eighth grade to go to work to help his family. He doesn’t know how proud Dad was to put food on our table and a roof over our heads, or that he worked double shifts as often as they allowed him so we might have a little extra. He doesn’t know that Dad pulled his own tooth, a rotten, infected molar, because he couldn’t afford to go to the dentist. He doesn’t know that Dad suffered for days afterward, his face gray with pain, but he kept going to work anyway. Maybe it’s for Dad that I champion the underdogs.
Maybe it’s for my father-in-law. He finished high school, moved his family up north where there were more opportunities for black men, lived in the housing projects so he could save money to buy a house, and worked for Millbrook Bread and a rag dealer driving trucks. Then got his foot in the door at Niagara Mohawk, the power company, after a group of blacks staged a protest outside the main building because no blacks worked there. He worked as a janitor and studied at night to become an electrician. After he applied for a promotion to a better job posted on the bulletin board, he found his application in the job supervisor’s trashcan the next day. He went to human resources, and they posted a job especially for him. In the years that followed he became the first black foreman at Niagara Mohawk, and he supervised the building and maintenance of the sub-stations. He moved his family out of the housing projects and bought a house on the eastside of Syracuse.  Read my post This Life We Live In.
Maybe it’s for my mother-in-law who married at sixteen and didn’t graduate high school because she was having her first child. When the youngest of her five children went to kindergarten, she got a job as a bus monitor then worked her way up to being a teacher assistant. She finished her high school degree and went on to take college courses to obtain tenure.
Maybe it’s for my husband Ronald who proved that you can grow up in the projects to serve your community with honor and integrity while putting your life on the line every time you show up for work. Ronald retired in 2006 as a Syracuse Fire Lieutenant after serving for twenty-five years.  Read my post Fighting Fires.
I have a soft heart, but I also know that being poor and uneducated is not the equivalent to being worth less than those that came from wealth, privilege, and entitlement. I know that a country that provides equal opportunity is stronger because its citizens are more able. I know that if someone has a problem such as losing a job, going through a divorce or a catastrophic illness, or living in poverty, that, as a people, we should help that person until he or she can stand on his/her own.
The conservative view differs from that. It isn’t that conservatives are more heartless, at least not all of them. But they view fairness as proportionality – if you work hard enough, you will get your just rewards. If you don’t work hard, no one will carry your load for you.
I get that, but I also believe that when you are down and out, no amount of hard work will get you through if no one gives you the chance to do the work. There may be people who abuse the social programs we have established through the government. There will always be people who take advantage. There are just as many wealthy people, or maybe more, who use loopholes or keep their money in the Cayman Islands so that they pay less than their fair share of taxes, or they cook the books to increase their profits illegally. But why punish those, like my dad, who just needed a safety net to get back on his feet? If we didn’t get Welfare back then, I can’t imagine where I might be today. Maybe I wouldn’t have gone on to college, or become a wife and mother, or become a manager for a multinational corporation, or gotten two master’s degrees. Maybe I would not have been an upstanding, contributing citizen who pays my fair share of taxes and also helps out others when I can.
I read a wonderfully informative book titled The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt, a professor at Stern School of Business, New York University. He has spent his adult life researching moral psychology. He wrote this book to explain why we find ourselves in this time of division, suspicion, and uncooperativeness.
There are three principles to his moral psychology theory: 1) Intuitions come first, reasoning second; 2) There is more to morality than harm and fairness (there are actually six foundations of morality: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, and liberty/oppression); and 3) Morality binds and blinds.
Long story short, we react to something a certain way, partially due to heredity and partially to environment, and we develop reasons to back the reaction post hoc. Liberals tend to view the world through a moral code that is based on the foundations of care and fairness – they often take up causes of inequality and victimization. Conservatives are more likely to see the world through a moral code consisting of loyalty, sanctity and liberty.  They believe in the individual, freedom, and being American.
That’s how we can look at exactly the same situation and come away from it miles apart in describing what we’ve just witnessed.
Haidt, a self-identified liberal, says that conservatives are better able to rally supporters to their causes since they are more likely to frame them using all six foundations of morality, while liberals tend to tick-off conservatives because their appeals tend to rely on just care and fairness. We have to learn to strengthen our liberal stances using the other moral foundations, e.g. emphasizing how we are part of the same group and that all group members will benefit.
He also quotes from the Bible when talking about our differing moral stances.
Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? … You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. (Matthew, 7:3-5)
We have to stop hating and accusing one another, and take a moment to listen and try to understand our differing views. Why is that important?
Haidt says liberals and conservatives are part of a whole, like yin and yang. They need each other. In the past in our country, they worked cooperatively and got a lot of wonderful things accomplished. Liberals push forward socially progressive programs, while conservatives help shape fiscal responsibility. It’s been a successful collaboration that helped build America into a world power. At this time in our history, we are at an impasse and our country and our people are hurting for it.
Humans formed groups tens of thousands of years ago and began acting cooperatively. Groups protected members and distributed labor, so groupism, as Haidt called it, or tribalism, is an important trait. It is also a trait that leads to a kind of blindness, because it is easy to become suspicious of outsiders or non-group members and react with hatred and violence.
Now it seems our tribalism has divided us in America. We’re blinded by our own group loyalty, liberals vs. conservatives, and that causes us to dislike the other group. We need to learn to work cooperatively again.
In an interview conducted by Bill Moyers, Haidt said, “[We need to] share a conscience not an ideology.”
I could use a friend who isn’t afraid to tell me when my heartstrings are singing so loudly they drown out all reason, and I am sure I can be a friend who can help convince another that we need to fight for the underdog. At one time or another, we might be that underdog.
Politics ain’t beanbag. I want an intelligent leader who is both intuitive and rational and who builds his moral conscience on all six foundations. Mitt Romney has proven he has group loyalty and authority as his foundations, as well as liberty, e.g. he has fiercely defended his right to keep his tax returns private, but he missed out on caring and fairness when he said that 47% of Americans are not deserving of his interest and leadership. President Obama is my pick. His moral conscience includes all six moral foundations.
For more information on Jonathan Haidt, his book is titled The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, ISBN: 978-0-307-37790-6. Here’s the wonderful interview conducted by Bill Moyers.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Zen and the Art of Dance

There is nothing so public yet so intimate as a dance concert where feet squeak and thump on Marley floors, sweat glistens under stage lights, and breath audibly expels. I’m afraid it will go the way of conversation. As conversation moved to text messages on a cell phone, live performance is fast becoming a You Tube submission viewed on a handheld screen, the dancers the size of insects.
This weekend I was fortunate to be an audience participant at my daughter Cara’s faculty dance concert at High Point University, featuring, among others, her twin sister Mackenzie. I’ve been watching Cara and Mackenzie put on shows almost from the time they learned to speak, though they didn’t start dancing until they were thirteen. They have always moved cooperatively, harmoniously, and in synchronization the way twins do: in utero, as babies sharing a crib during their first few months, as children creating shows and reenacting movie scenes for our pleasure, and, now, as adults, who perform on stage and in film.
Both have used dance as a launching point to engage in other performance arts. Cara writes and performs songs and stories and makes film; Mackenzie performs aerial dance, ala Cirque du Soleil. This weekend’s concert had all of that: original songs sung a cappella by a wonderful ensemble of women, contemporary dance, film, and aerial performance.
I like to sit up in the balcony. I think dance is best viewed from above so the whole structure of the dance can be seen or one can zoom in easily on an individual dancer.  I’ve learned to train my eye to do both almost simultaneously.  It enhances the whole experience.
Ronald and I sat in the last row of the first level balcony on Friday night and the first row of the same balcony on Saturday night. The reason we sat four rows lower on Saturday was that I noticed we were just slightly too high on Friday night, and Mackenzie, when she reached the top of the fabric on which she performs her aerial work, was partially obscured by the proscenium curtain.
In the opening work Raven choreographed by Belinda McGuire, Cara and Mackenzie wove, ran and dove amongst a web of light. Lighting is integral to live performance in that it focuses the eye, sets the tone of the work, and facilitates the movement. This photo belies the beauty of the lighting but captures the beauty of movement.

The next piece was a short film by Cara titled On Learning.
It is a memoir in movement and voice as Cara talks about one of her mentors who taught her dance and inspired her to be a dance teacher.  It was not my first time seeing the film, but I tear up each time, because it reinforces the tenet that it takes a village to raise a child. We did not do it alone, and I am ever appreciative of all the people who assisted us. Trish Casey, the teacher featured in the film, was in the audience Saturday evening. After the show she could only voice how humble the experience left her.
Mackenzie performed her aerial piece next. She was a bird in flight, gracefully moving up and down the fabric until the end of her piece when she wound herself in the fabric almost to the rigging twenty feet above the stage floor, then dropped about fifteen feet in a spin that caused me to gasp aloud each performance.  Here she is, wrapped in silk.

Linda Donnell performed Compartment choreographed by Cara. Linda is my age, and I was mesmerized watching her lithe ballet-trained body adapt to Cara’s physical and unstructured movement. Vintage commercials from the 1950s were played on a screen behind her, an ideal time captured in the ideal world of advertisement, in contrast to the reality of how we live in a world of stress and constant motion.

I love the clear sound of a cappella voices, too, and after a brief intermission, Eve at the River opened with an a cappella solo titled Our Quilt, written by Cara and sung by Toni Manuel in her resonant, beautiful voice. The song, stark and soulful, is about the work of women. Her voice reached down to my soul, like the chill of dipping toes in cold stream water that both surprises and refreshes. Later in the piece, singers Toni, Suzy McCalley, Linda Donnell, and Cara each told a story then blended together unique voices in song, and I felt lifted as their voices rose and suffused the theater while surrounding the dancers, Breanne Horne and Mackenzie, in the fount borne of women’s work, love, sorrow, and joy.

Cara shares her art by having a conversation with the audience at the end of each concert, inviting them to ask questions or share thoughts about what they’ve witnessed. It is her way of extending the intimacy of live performance and making art accessible. On Saturday night, Ronald raised his hand. His was not a question but a comment about the way the performance had moved him.
Art has a way of transporting one from everyday worries and concerns. Certainly I spent last week glued to the television, watching the Democratic Convention that was held just down the road from where I live. I cheered; I cried; I fretted; I applauded; I felt hopeful. But in reality, politics don’t often make their way directly into our homes nor impact our lives on a day-to-day basis. No matter what goes on in Washington, no matter who is elected, as appalling, or even heroic, as it all seems at times, life goes on in spite of it.  (That’s no excuse not to vote, though! That’ll be another post topic on another day!)
So I was happily transported on Friday and Saturday evenings into a whimsical world with light and voice and music and movement, interrupted by occasional darkness as the stage was set for the next piece and dancers changed costumes.
I know Cara and Mackenzie’s interest in the arts was inspired by their childhood. I exposed them to story in print, on film, and in live theater, and Ronald exposed them to visual arts and music. Then we made the choice to support them as they pursued dance, a choice we were able to make as middle class parents, though it was still a financial challenge. 
Any foray into the arts is fraught with hard work, missteps, isolation during the creative process, lack of funding, lack of opportunity, and competition for audiences. As I’ve experienced in my writing career, it isn’t easy on the ego either, and I admit my skin is thinner than theirs and, yet, they still feel the hurt of rejection and critique.
Often I share their emotional, and sometimes physical, pain as they take their journeys both together and separately.  Sometimes I still want to stick my nose in and give my opinion, and I do and often I regret it later and only hope I caused least harm in the process. Sometimes they want to know what I think or just want to talk about their frustrations or the creative process or new ideas, and I am there for that, too, just as Ronald is. (For more on the topics of parenting and creativity see my posts Parenting Creativity and Parenting Creativity Part 2.)
I think that’s the best roles we can play as parents and as artists, too: listening to their creative ideas and processes, and being part of the audience. Even as adults, they look to see where we are, and they know that if there is a balcony, that’s where they’ll find us.
I was transported and transformed by the beauty of live art, and I hope I transported you for a few minutes as you read this blog, viewed the film On Learning, and looked at the lovely photos taken by Kenneth Jackson during the dress rehearsal. 

Monday, September 3, 2012

We Built This

I learned about people from Ma and about labor from Dad.  Both were integral to my development, my openness at accepting others who are culturally and philosophically different than I, and my liberal and humanist worldview.
Ma collected people like she collected bone china cups, no two ever alike and each beautiful in its uniqueness. No matter who ended up knocking on our door, she invited them in, put the kettle on the gas stove, brewed a pot of tea, percolated the coffee, and took out the special cookies (the ones we weren’t allowed to eat so she had something for company) that she kept hidden in the honey oak china cabinet with the red shelves. Bone china cups were set out on the honey oak table that sat in our eat-in kitchen (there was no dining room in our tiny ranch house) and that was covered with the printed plastic tablecloth. Teaspoons (tiny silver-plated spoons with ornate scrolled handles), paper napkins, the sugar bowl, saccharine bowl, and milk pitcher completed the setting. I was sure to find a seat at the table, no matter how shy I was or how many people were seated at the table, so I could have my cuppa, black with a teaspoon of sugar, a Stella Dora anisette cookie or two, and a chance to hear the adult conversation. Ma made people laugh with her bawdy humor, but she also listened, advised, comforted, and solved problems and indecision for everyone from the other Australian war bride who suffered from nervous breakdowns to the interracial couple who had trouble finding friends and places to live to the gay couple who lived a couple houses up the street, fought as much as my parents did, and needed a mediator. Even though we didn’t have much, she always managed to find extra for anyone who needed it.
Dad started working when he was seven as a newspaper hawker on the corner of Madison and Green in downtown Albany and also as a jumper on delivery trucks. He rode in the truck bed and at delivery stops he would jump out and help unload cargo. He dropped out of school in the eighth grade so he could work full time to help support his family. When he was old enough to drive, he worked for Hamilton News driving a delivery truck. It was a union job. He worked union jobs until he retired, and then he worked them part time when they needed an extra man on the shift.
Dad was born on March 7, 1912, but one year earlier on March 25, 1911, a disaster in New York City, the city my father was born in, would give rise to unions in the United States. A fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. The workforce consisted of young Jewish and Italian immigrant women, mostly between the ages of eighteen to twenty-three. The youngest was eleven and the oldest was forty-eight. The management locked the workers in the workrooms so the workers could not pilfer or take breaks. When the fire broke out, the women had no way to escape. Many died of smoke inhalation or were burned to death in the fire. Others leaped out of the eighth, ninth, and tenth floor windows to their deaths. In total, 146 garment workers died on that tragic day.
The tragedy prompted legislation to protect workers, and it spurred the growth of the first truly successful union, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union.
For more information see Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.
The Depression and the implementation of President Roosevelt’s New Deal spurred further union growth, specifically The Wagner Act which gave unions the legal right to organize. The first female Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins, lead the charge in protecting workers rights.
For more information see Labor Unions and Frances Perkins.
I joined the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Local 200, in 1980 when I became a library worker at Syracuse University. Dad had taught me the importance of unions, and I quickly got involved as a union steward. I sat at the table during labor contract negotiations and sat in on grievance meetings representing my colleagues. I protested with other SEIU members at a nursing home that refused to let its workers organize, all of us at risk of arrest. I volunteered to assist a grassroots organization called 9 to 5 the National Association of Working Women, to organize secretarial staff at the university, though they were never able to obtain enough signatures to organize there.
For more information see SEIU and 9 to 5.
Then Jesse Jackson formed the National Rainbow Coalition in 1984, and unions became a large base of support for the organization. I became a political activist. We passed out campaign literature, walking miles and going door to door.
 During both of Jesse Jackson’s runs for presidency, he stopped in Syracuse because of the large support base. I saw him both times. The first time I was pregnant, and held my hands in front of my baby bump to protect my twins, calling out, “Excuse me, pregnant woman coming through,” as I negotiated my way to a spot where I could see him clearly.
Just as I was about to launch a run as the first female vice president of SEIU, Local 200, I was offered a management job in 1987.
So the second time Jesse Jackson made a campaign stop in Syracuse, I was invited to attend with my union colleagues even though I had left the union. I was photographed with them at the event, standing in the front row with our SEIU support signs. The photo was printed on the front page of the Syracuse Post Standard the next day.
For more information see National Rainbow Coalition.
Unions helped build the middle class in our country. Manufacturing workers were able to afford homes, cars, and health care. They got paid time off including sick and disability leave. They had pensions that ensured they could retire in relative financial comfort. Unions kept executive pay in check. Back in the 1950s executive pay was about 50 times that of the average worker. Now it is over 500 times higher.
For more information see Executive Compensation.
Unions supported and were activists for many social initiatives such as paid maternity leave (and now family leave). The initiatives unions were able to push forward benefitted all workers. For example, whatever percentage salary increases we negotiated for our union members, the rest of the university staff received as well.
From the 1920s through the 1950s, unions and labor movements were often associated with Communism. Like threats of Socialism today, this lie helped perpetuate the belief that unions or any initiatives that protect workers’ rights should be feared by the masses. What they threatened, and still threaten, is a classist society driven by capitalism where the few get rich on the backs of the laborers.
Unions and the Democratic Party forged a unique bond over the years. Their longstanding relationship flourished in the late 1940s and into the 1950s, when the anti-labor Republicans came into power.
Now I live in the right-to-work state of North Carolina, and I see how not having a strong union presence has been detrimental to workers’ rights, including the lack of equal pay for equal work, lack of access to health care, and the ability to make a living wage. I also see that the Republican Party and the conservatives overall want to continue chipping away at workers’ rights. The wealthy, the 1%, are getting wealthier while the middle class is eroding and falling into economic decline and even poverty.
But unions took their first big hit in the 1980s under President Ronald Reagan. Air Traffic Controllers went out on strike, and Reagan, citing the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, ordered them back to work and fired over 11, 000 of them when they refused. It hurt the bargaining power of all unions after that and union membership has experienced a steady decline since then. Interestingly, President Reagan, in his former career as an actor, served as president of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) from 1947 – 1952 and again in 1959. During the Red Scare and his tenure as the union president he agreed to spy on Guild members and open the organization’s member records to the FBI.
For more information see Ronald Reagan and Air Traffic Controllers.
My husband Ronald, who is black, worked his whole career in a union shop, too, as a firefighter. When he first got on the Syracuse Fire Department in 1981, the union steward who worked on his shift told him he refused to represent him. Today the Syracuse Fire Department union has its first black president.
One cannot speak about labor history in the United States without talking about slave labor. Slaves, 5.5 million of which were forcibly immigrated to countries in the Western Hemisphere between 1492 and 1776 (only one million Europeans immigrated during that time period), provided labor ranging from field hands, stable boys, and domestics to artisanal labor such as coopers, carpenters, and stonemasons.
For more information see National Geographic.
They were also hired out, and buildings such as the Capitol Building and the White House, among other buildings and monuments in Washington, D.C., were built by a workforce that was predominately slave labor.
For more information see Slaves Built the Capitol.
I can only imagine what Dad would think about the conservative point of view in regard to workers rights today. Or how Ma, who loved to help others, would view the way in which people want to limit the rights of others to attain more profit and personal wealth.
We need to rediscover what the unions were so successful at doing: activism and the ability to organize. We need to celebrate all workers on this Labor Day and everyday. We built this.
Here’s my dad, Frank Liuzzi, second from the right. I chose this picture because he was already working when this photo was taken. He and his brothers, Jimmy, Danny, Lenny, and Rocco, (Rocco was not yet born when this photo was taken) all worked in the newspaper/printing businesses as delivery drivers and in the mailroom and were union members.  Happy Labor Day!