Posted by: MC | February 25, 2011

Working for a Living during Black History Month in Wisconsin

In January of 2009, Nick Minnis sat in a coffee shop watching the street scene on the corner of 28th and E. Burnside in Portland, OR.  We got into a conversation about change.  Nick said, “I’m not a politician.  My world is small.  I work, I provide, and I sleep…very little.”  He laughed.  I don’t know whether Nick is in a union.  I do know he is a working man, a laborer.

Nick continued, “Speaking from my perspective being a black man, because of the history behind us and what I have observed in my lifetime, I will feel I’m going to be shortchanged until I see some definite improvement.  If they say you can be equal, but you never make any gains, you’re going to say, ‘Nothing has changed.’”

A few weeks later, in early March, I stood on the modest deck in a wooded neighborhood in Asheville, NC.  Allen Mulkey sat on the railing.  Allen is a white man who was born and raised in this area.  Now, in his 40s, he is the Buncombe County Vice President for the Communication Workers Local 3601.

“A lot of people view organized labor based on images of the AFL-CIO suits,” Allen said.  “Those folks are elected, but they’re usually very detached from their constituents.  At the local level we’re elected by the folks we work with.  You hear Rush Limbaugh talk about ‘union bosses.’  Man, there ain’t no bosses in my local union.  We’re all co-workers.  The bosses are the managers who tell us what to do.  They’re not in the union.  They assign us work.  They don’t put on boots and climb polls.”

A full moon began to rise in the fresh spring sky. Allen went on. “Just like that Carolina moon,” he said, “we go through all kinds of changes.  Like right now, the seasons are changing.  It’s a beautiful time of year, all of the new plants popping out of the ground. Still the main thing I and all the union members want is to stay employed.  Number one.  If I’m without work, that’s going to effect my loved ones especially.  That’s a change I don’t want.”

Yesterday, two white men sat at a table in the Sweet Spot, a café in Whitewater, WI.  They meet there once a week; have been for years.  Both of these men are retired from everyday work as professors, one in history the other in physics.  Still, as seems the case with most scholars, their love of inquiry and enjoyment of any chance to articulate their ideas will continue as long as breath.

Kim had suggested I speak with these gentlemen.  She’s one of the truly yet humbly gifted staff at this place.  I gotta say it; the Sweet Spot on Whitewater Avenue near downtown in this teeny berg is one of those great American eateries – modest and friendly with coffee, pastries, soups and sandwiches to write home – and maybe even to blog – about.  It was even established and is operated by a local young woman still in her 20s, proving that not all rural youth are heading to the cities.

I had overheard the professors mentioning the headlines.  News out of Madison was marked again by the still intractable civic issue linked with the newly elected governor’s proposal of legislation to effectively eliminate the authority of unions for publicly employed workers.  Millions of people would be affected.  Teachers at all levels, everyone employed in public education or in any other public service position –  including fire and law enforcement professionals, highway and construction and maintenance workers, and of course many others.

We didn’t have much time to chat, but the professors nonetheless had things to say.  In particular they commented about what we all may be missing in the noise and drama.  “Madison’s a circus,” said the history prof. “Literally,” he said, “since yesterday I heard they even brought a camel into the capitol.”

“I’m not sure anyone is listening to people who have positions other than the ones they have,” said the physics prof.  “It also seems we’re not hearing what most of the citizens of the state think about the issue.  Governor Walker won by a substantial margin, you know, so many likely support him.  He was an elected Milwaukee County Executive before becoming governor, had the same kind of agenda and did the same thing.”

“Dialogue and compromise is likely going on behind the scenes,” said the history prof.  “I’ll bet those Democratic Senators in Illinois are in regular contact with their Republican colleagues in Madison, we just don’t hear about it.  When it comes down to it, we’re probably all closer together on what we want and how to solve it than we think.  No one wants to hear about that, though.  These days it’s not breaking news to say, ‘People are talking, making compromises and getting things done together.’  Even though everyone says they want what’s best for the people and the state, there’s a habit of getting stuck in our differences.  I guess disagreement provides more entertainment.”

Last night the Black Student Union at the University of Wisconsin in Whitewater held its First Annual Black History Presentation. The Dean at the University of Wisconsin in Whitewater, the only black administrator on campus, made closing remarks.

For well over two hours, the black students of the university had invoked ancestors, historic leaders, teachers and peers.  They had enacted scenes, sung songs, danced dances, extemporized, rapped and recited.  One theme was pride.  Another was respect, for others, for self, for the Creator and the miracle of being in a life.  And these weren’t just the well-behaved nerdy kids – not just the Gospel Choir or the fraternity-brother-sorority-sister types.  Everybody showed up – urban, suburban, rural.  They were talking – speaking their perspectives from the stage.  And they were listening.

“Nothing makes your parents prouder,” the Dean began, “than to see you move into your lives the things you are saying here in this performance hall.  Nothing makes your community or your ancestors or your God prouder than for you to live out there what you are speaking in here.  That is the privilege of education and the privilege of having community with one another.  To live every day with that integrity is my invitation, my charge to you.”

In a few years, all of those students will be further into their lives – most of them on the job market in one way or another.  The discussions that are occurring right now in the statehouse of Wisconsin will have immediate impact on their ability to find and make livings from their work.  Clearly, the leadership of these states disagrees on how to ensure work and livelihood will be available for these students, for their peers, for Allen and Nick, for Kim in the restaurant and everyone else in the workforce.  What’s needed, as the professors note, and as echoes through the 100 EX:Change voices, is the listening part.

The black students from their vastly varied backgrounds were listening to each other last night.  Maybe it’s because they share being black, but maybe it’s also because they were willing, at least for this first annual event, to back off their positions enough to hold the best interests of the community more central than their need to be right – or the most cool or untouchable or whatever.  Statehouses could stand to learn from such a thing, seems to me.

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