Wednesday Oct 16

EXCERPT FROM Red Nose Mike

Ready

Real estate in the French Quarter was way too dear For a hotel to wash the towels and linens on site. Instead, the Royal Sonesta owned an industrial building in the near part of Uptown. They were all about keeping costs down, alright.

Cecile had stood at the bus stop one day in the previous week Gathering signatures on a raise-the-minium-wage petition. For collecting names/addresses of workers this was our technique. I grabbed the sheet and jumped in my old car with one ambition: To talk to Sonesta laundry workers and see what they had to say. The first one on the list lived across the river in Algiers. I knocked on her apartment door, she answered right away. Her name was Catherine Smith. I was all attentive ears

As she started to describe working in that dreadful place: The pay, in fact, was the very lowest allowed by law Paid sick days, holidays or vacations? No, nothing in this case. But economics seemed hardly the worst of it as Catherine began to draw A picture of some 19th century neo-slavery, Dickensian sweatshop: In winter freezing cold indoors, in summer boiling heat Abusive supervisors, racial taunts that would not stop They were required to deal with vomit and worse on any sheet.

Forced overtime in the high tourist season: If you don’t come in to work all day on Sunday Then don’t bother to come in at all on Monday (Or ever again). This harsh policy was the reason That the women often missed church for months in a row. By summer the rush was over and then they let most go.

Catherine scanned the list, said which co-workers had actual followers, Crossed off the big mouths and do nothing whining wallowers She told me which ones to go see and exactly what to say To agitate, stir them up and get them to commit to a day To meet and plan a campaign. I was lucky, almost all were home And nine out of ten said they would for certain come.

At the close of our first committee meeting, I looked around the table Reminded them of the challenge ahead and asked if everyone was ready. Catherine never blinked, her voice as calm and steady as she was able “Mike, we been bein’ ready,” said she.

Postscript

What Catherine Smith said may not have been proper English, but she expressed herself perfectly, her words weighted with centuries of meaning. She was conveying a continuous state of patient readiness, right now and in the past — a history of slavery, Reconstruction gone wrong, lynchings, the Great Migration that took so many out of the South, and the civil rights movement — to act together and try to do something to make a better life. Catherine and the other leaders were able to sign up a solid majority of their co-workers and move toward building a union that could negotiate for better pay and working conditions. But none of us — neither workers nor staff — were prepared, after all, for the vicious counter campaign of threats and intimidation mounted by the employer. The campaign fizzled.

Our independent union was called the United Labor Unions — worst name ever. It grew out the side door of ACORN and later folded in to SEIU. Our mission was to organize and win for low wage workers. In its heyday, there were organizing efforts in five cities: Boston, Philly, New Orleans, Detroit and Chicago. The whole thing ran on a shoestring. The organization’s only real asset was a remarkable staff of hardworking young (the oldest was 31 at the start) people who later went on to do remarkable things.

This poem is taken from Red Nose Mike: And Other Stories in Verse Mainly by Mike Gallagher distributed by Social Policy Press and available at www.socialpolicypress.org

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