Friday, February 25, 2011

Wisconsin and "The Union"

When I was 21 years old I had a great boss. The problem was, he had a terrible boss.

He'd hired me, cold out of college, the year before. It was a strict union shop - United Press International, Wire Service Guild - and so it paid on seniority and I didn't have any, so that first half-year all he had to pay me was $8,710. Six radio sportscasts a night on a network serving a thousand stations, and a two-minute commentary and I had to write breaking updates and reports and call up players for interviews, and I had to take in the "feeds" of interviews from our stringers at the ballparks and edit them by hand with a razor blade and splicing tape, and on the weekends I also had to 'engineer' a newscast or two, and every once in a long while I'd get back-to-back days off.

Photo is from about 8 months later

A tough job, even when my salary went up five grand when I hit my one-year anniversary. But as I said, my boss, Stan Sabik, was great. 20 years in the business and the Bureau Manager for UPI Audio and still he treated me like I wasn't a punk kid with a really bad mustache and incredible arrogance. If I didn't like one of his decisions he'd hear me out and once in a long while he'd say "how is this possible? You're right" and change his mind. I could even go back at him two or three times to appeal something and he'd yell and I'd yell back and we'd never hold it against each other.

So on a Monday in September of 1980 - just before one of those rare back-to-back off-day combinations - he'd yelled and I'd yelled back and I went to my office and he went to his office, which is where he found his boss, just back from lunch and - as usual - drunk. His boss didn't like me, largely because I was 21 and younger than anybody else in his shop by twelve years, and because I did strange things like commentaries about dying ballplayers and baseball trainers who liked to cultivate tomatoes in the bullpen instead of monsters of the midway and that crap. And he looked at the half-admiring, half-furious smoke coming out of his ears and he slurred something about "dat kid been gibbin you lip again?" and before Stan could say it was ok, the fire was lit in his drunken eyes.

Stan's boss, a cigarette dangling from his lower lip, grabbed me by the right shoulder. "You pack your stuff and get outta here. Yuh don't gib no lip to no mannijehs. Yuh fide." I actually thought about telling him off or fighting him, but given the likelihood that when he lit the cigarette he'd self-immolate from all the booze in his system, and the fact that Stan was peering in behind him, horrified, his expression telling me to be cool, I just brushed his hand off and wordlessly began to pack my desk. "And I knows about dat job yuh think yuh geddin at 88. I'll be takin care of dat, too." He stalked out to phone the news director at '88' - the CBS all-news radio station in New York - and kill my chances at a job there, for which they had first called UPI for permission to approach me about.

Stan said simply "I'm sorry, I couldn't stop him," then recounted the story I've told here. "Go home. We'll fix this. Don't do anything rash." He was white as a sheet. So was I. My job was gone, my possible next job was gone, my $487 rent was gone, and for all I knew my drunken ex-boss was going to spend his last moments of consciousness calling all my potential new employers and poison my career the way he was poisoning his liver.

Three hours later the phone rang in the $487 apartment I could no longer pay for and it was our Sports Director, Sam Rosen, who now does the New York Rangers games and was just as great a boss as Stan. "You are a piece of work," he started, with a laugh. "I'll see you Thursday." I mumbled something like 'huh?' "You have the next two days off as scheduled. They were going to charge you for today as an off day too but the union stopped that. And they stopped your firing. Turns out you can't get fired for arguing with Stan. And they said we can't recriminate against you so you're still going to cover the World Series next month. But I do have to write a nasty letter about you for your file."

As the blood returned to my head Sam started laughing again. "You should have been there. He was still loaded. The shop steward - for the whole building, not just for Audio - he cut him to pieces. And he got so agitated that the Personnel Director sent him home. Not the shop steward, the boss! Sent him home with a warning and a letter in his file too. Apologized to the union guy. Oh it was wonderful, we shoulda sold tickets."

Two days later I was back at work as if nothing had happened. I didn't get fired by a drunken boss because while I was being paid so little that if I could get a free meal at a ballpark on an off-night that meant I could bank the $3.25 I would have otherwise spent on dinner at Burger King and I felt like I had just gamed the entire economy, the Wire Service Guild union was there when I really needed them and their pain-in-the-ass rules and the foremost of them was the boss couldn't just fire somebody for being a pain-in-the-ass and if he tried to they could get him sent home and get a letter put in his file too.

And that is why what's going on in Wisconsin thanks to this nitwit Scott Walker (elected Governor while the usually bright and with-it people there of all political stripes slept), is vital to every American. Wisconsin wasn't selected by the Koch Brothers and the Rovian Wannabes at random, nor was this year. Wisconsin was the first state to provide collective bargaining rights to public workers - exactly fifty years ago.

The generic concept of "The Union" might be big and on the big scale it might over-reach and when you look at it only in the largest context it might sometimes be as irresponsible as some of the smaller of the big corporations, when you look at what it really is - the collected drops-in-the-bucket of the individually powerless $18,568 teacher's aide in Fond du Lac or the $23,559 traffic warden in Milwaukee or the $48,152 cop in Appleton, or the $22,233 radio sportscaster in New York in 1980 - "The Union" is the only protection you have when the drunken boss comes in to fire you because he doesn't like you, or because he got elected on a promise to his puppet-masters that he'd fire you and everybody else like you so as to soften this country up to pit the urban middle class against the rural middle class so nobody's paying attention as the corporations reduce everybody they can to subsistence levels while they take the collected drops-in-the-bucket of the mere thousands of bucks stolen from the fired or the de-unionized or the retirement-delayed, and turn them into more millions to stuff into their own pockets.

More important perhaps, "The Union" represents the good faith of the nation. The deals Scott Walker is trying to renege on are not some vague promises made in fatter times. They are contracts, and you won't spend more than five minutes with a Corporatist before he starts talking to you about The Sanctity Of The Contract. He may even mention Ronald Reagan as he does so, and then start crying, and then use that phenomenal ability to select only the facts he likes and present Reagan and his ilk as defenders of The Sanctity Of The Contract even though Reagan fired all the Air Traffic Controllers rather than fulfill a contract made by the government he supposedly led.

I told you about this buffoon Walker last September when he put out at an ad in which he showed himself wearing boxing gloves - and a shirt and a tie - while he ranted against his opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. That would be the Barrett who had been severely beaten up when he stepped in to a domestic dispute among people he didn't know, to try to protect a woman and her infant granddaughter. Barrett might never regain full use of one hand and candidate Walker decided to advertise how he was going to don boxing gloves to, you know, beat up the cripple. Even before he took office, Gene Robinson and I told you how Walker killed off a high-speed rail line project between Madison and Milwaukee because Walker claimed the 5500 jobs it would bring to Wisconsin weren't 'the right kind.'

Killing off high-speed rail projects and the infrastructure and automobile-alternatives and jobs they create is something of a fetish for Neanderthals like Walker, and his slicker cousin Governor Kasich of Ohio, and his unbearably smug fellow traveler Governor Christie of New Jersey. Their elections were bought and paid for by big corporations with one purpose in mind: stop spending government money on anybody except rich people.

Watching Wisconsin unfold is like watching Tahrir Square earlier this month, and last. Well, it would be, except the television networks - for whom this is a) far too complicated, and b) far too troubling to their corporate bosses - are treating it like it was a dispute over which Green Bay Packer really should've gotten the Super Bowl MVP award, or not treating it at all. Even the news that the Wisconsin Republicans tried to lure the Democrats back in-state by threatening to vote on a heinous voter-caging bill has been ignored for a little more on Charlie Sheen or his Libyan counterpart.

You've seen the lengths to which the Corporatists/Tea Partiers will go to manipulate the media and pervert the coverage of the protests by pulling something straight out of the Mubarak playbook and shutting down internet sites. Maybe you've seen the scheme to actually infiltrate the Wisconsin protests with Tea Partiers pretending to be violent, hateful union members. But maybe you haven't seen the larger plan to "bot" web comment boards and even Twitter and Facebook with computer-generated right wingers with sufficient back stories to make them seem real.

I'd call it "Artificial Intelligence" but I'm only confident that the first word applies.

But for the big picture about the Right Wing's desire to take a dollar out of everybody's pocket, one hour, one day, one pocket at a time, I refer you to this wonderful essay from earlier this week by Marty Kaplan at TruthOut which not only correctly identifies Wisconsin as the start of the attack on - well, on practically everybody - and as the augur for a long-dreamed of societal rollback - but also does so by invoking one of the great touchstone moments of early television history, the Rod Serling "Twilight Zone" masterpiece, "The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street."