Elizabeth Faue: Feminist Labor Historian Sought the Exotic in Her Youth; Returned to Working Class North Minneapolis Roots.

19251021_1821631977881188_1884800297_n

19th Century Minnesota Roots

I come from a mixed marriage: Norwegian Lutherans and German Lutherans.  

My mom’s family (her mother’s side) came from Norway in the 1840, joining a chain migration from Dane County, Wisconsin, to Dodge County, Minnesota, to Woonsocket, South Dakota, and ending up in the Twin Cities. These migrants were the younger siblings who did not inherit the farm, who came in search of land, to re-create what their parents had in Norway. The land they settled on in South Dakota (like that in Wisconsin and Minnesota) had originally belonged to the Native Americans.  

In Woonsocket, these families grew diverse crops — flax for weaving, wheat, and corn. They had a few sheep and goats, a cow or two. A little for the market, but mostly for themselves—a subsistence-plus existence. Their kids went to school.

Woonsocket today is a bar, a place you can get your car fixed, a library, some houses, and cemeteries. It was a rail hub for a while (1880s) when the railroad went through, but people began to leave after a period of decreasing rainfall by 1890s. What had been crop land slowly became grazing land.  My grandmother (Myrtle) hated the place, and she left South Dakota when she could—after going to Normal School in Madison, SD.  

The other side of my mother’s family came in about 1895, first settling in Crawford County, Wisconsin, near the Saint Croix. But my great-grandfather (Bersven) was a cabinet maker, so they moved to the Twin Cities where he could practice his trade. There they experienced a great tragedy: his wife —my great grandmother Malena — was killed in a fire. As a result Berven split the family up. His son Mel, who became my grandfather, ended up back in Wisconsin and later in South Dakota working as a harvest hand. I believe he was a Wobbly, (member of the  IWW — Industrial Workers of the World).

Grandpa was an ambulance driver during World War One. After the war, he came to the Twin Cities, re-united with my grandmother (They met, I believe, in South Dakota), and they married promptly. My mother Yvonne was born about a year later.

On my father’s side were the “territorial pioneers” of Minnesota, something I did not know growing up. The Hohensteins came in the 1850s, and Henry Faue came in about the same time. Henry Faue was a “Freiegemeinde” or Freethinker, a religious liberal. These people founded their own congregation in Medina, Minnesota, in rural Hennepin County. They built their own cemetery, which is still there. Henry Faue enlisted in the Union Army late in the Civil War (1864) as a private.  

His son, my great grandfather Louis, inherited land in rural Hennepin and Wright counties, but he was a “wastrel” (so says the family story) and so he lost it all. His children at best felt conflicted about him; some hated him. My grandfather Louis, the second oldest son, was thrown out of the house when he was quite young and went to live with an uncle.  Louis became a carpenter and mechanic—a fixer of creamery machinery. His carpenter skills were legendary.  He built a dining room table with 800 separate pieces of wood, fit together into a mosaic design.  Louis became the manager of a cooperative creamery in St. Michael — until he was fired during the agricultural depression in the 1920s. After that, he worked as a traveling machine fixer for creameries and dairies.

19578193_1821634041214315_932619333_n

Double wedding of my grandfather Louis and his brother Bill, who married sisters (Lillie my grandmother and Lizzie, my great aunt), in Hanover, Minnesota  1880s, I think.
Parents Growing Up in North Minneapolis

The family moved into a small house in North Minneapolis on Bryant Avenue. That is where my father Vince was born and where his older siblings (five of the six) went to North High School.  His sister Vernetta, also born in Minneapolis, went to Patrick Henry after the family moved farther north.  My Dad didn’t go to high school.

My mother Yvonne was born just blocks away from my Dad, in a tiny house not too far from Victory Memorial Drive and close to Camden. Her father worked as a Minneapolis public school janitor.  When he got his veterans’ bonus, they bought a bigger house — on 43rd and Sheridan, two blocks away from Victory Lutheran Church, where my mother, and all of us, were baptized.

Victory Lutheran was a Norwegian congregation. My grandfather was one of the charter members, and my mother was one of the first children to be baptized in the unfinished church (the baptismal font was in the basement). It was sold some time back. It think it’s a Baptist Church today.

My parents met when my mom was 14 and my dad was 18. He decided she was the world. Shortly after they met, he went into the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps).  Then he was drafted in 1940. After basic training, and before he was shipped off to Europe, he got permission to take three days off to go home and get married.

19551009_1821633564547696_711013096_n

After my Dad returned to Fort Knox, he was sent to Northern Ireland and then to North Africa. He became part of a reconnaissance unit in North Africa — a half-track gunner in the First Armored Division led by General Patton. He hated Patton. After that campaign, I believe he did not want to kill any more. He volunteered as a stretcher-bearer at Casino but went instead to Anzio.  He served as a medic in Italy until the army go to the River Po. After 30 months of combat duty, the Army stationed him back home in Hot Springs, Arkansas, at an army hospital, where his job was making prosthesis for injured soldiers. My mother went to live with him there. After the war, the army offered him a permanent place. He said “hell no” and came back to the Twin Cities.

When my parents came back to Minneapolis, they started having kids right away. First, Jeff, and then five years later, my oldest sister.  Eventually there were six of us. I was the fourth.

Dad had PTSD after the war, although they didn’t call it that then. In other ways, the war affected him.  He wouldn’t go camping because it reminded him of the army. He always supported his government, but he never liked war. We never had a gun in the house. No toy guns either, until my brother Greg came along. My older brother, who grew up when no guns were allowed in the house, became a firm pacifist. Greg, on the other hand, had a romance with the military, joined the Navy, and served in the first Gulf War. While he was serving in that conflict, Dad started having his post-war nightmares again.    

Two Generations of Janitor-Engineers in Minneapolis Public Schools

My mother’s father helped Dad get a job working for the Minneapolis school system as a janitor engineer. It’s a job most people don’t understand. The custodians stoked and maintained the furnaces and (later) cooling system. Part of the job is quite technical — the kind of expertise you now have to go to college to obtain. Grandpa was there to give Dad advice as he rose through the civil service ranks.  (Both of them being veterans, being quiet men, they always got along.  And, to think of it, they both had shortened education; my grandpa only finished the eighth grade.) The technical parts of the job of Stationary Engineer are coupled with everything from cleaning the floors and windows to —well— everyone’s been in an elementary school. The janitor is the one who talks to the kids who don’t have anybody to talk to.

When he started, Dad got moved around to a lot of schools. To get the right number of points to advance to a good position, he got assigned a junior high — the hardest job.  He worked as third man, second man, and did night shifts. When he got the seniority, he settled at Cleveland Elementary in North Minneapolis. (The school closed, and the building is a Post Office now. A block away, in Cleveland Park, is Lucy Laney Elementary).

Dad loved being a school engineer at Cleveland Elementary. Not the cleaning — he told me how much he hated some of those tasks. What he loved was being his own boss.  He got along with his second man, Stan, and they both made good overtime.

My maternal Grandfather — who was a member of a farmer-labor club in the 1930s — was a founder of the union —Local 63 of the International Union of Operating Engineers.  The union’s slogan was “Janitors Carry School Houses on Their Backs.” My father became a member. The two were never leaders, but they were joiners. They participated in a janitors’ strike in 1951 that I have written about.  Dad used to say, “What Labor Has Fought to Win, Labor Must Fight to Keep,” echoing the sentiments  of his beloved Minnesota Farmer Labor Governor, Floyd B. Olson. 

The job quality of janitor/engineer has been eroding in recent years. There has been a continual pressure to privatize, create a two-tiered system with benefits and pay, and force speed-ups in the work. I cannot think that it would have allowed us the life we had.

Me, Growing up on the North Side

 

19551294_1821632404547812_889069130_n

I grew up near Brooklyn Center and went to Patrick Henry High School.  It was a quiet, post-war neighborhood, built on the site of a former truck farm.  With six children, we were a bit cramped in our small cape cod house.  My younger sisters Anna and Debbie and I shared a room throughout almost all of our childhood. They have been an important part of my life and not just because we shared close quarters.

My family was not deeply religious, but we were churchgoers.  Almost all of us sang in the junior choir as children.  I worked Sundays watching toddlers at Victory Lutheran after I was confirmed.  I didn’t like the services, but I liked the music and could hear it in the nursery.

My parents were quite conventional believers. All of my sisters still attend a similar church. As for me, I lost my faith after being confirmed. This was after I thought about being a minister. For a while I was a raving atheist. By the time I was 19 or 20, I decided that the only reasonable approach was to be an agnostic, to know what I did not know. It was also in some ways more compassionate and respectful to not insist on having a monopoly on the truth. In the vein of my favorite ancestor — the Freethinking Henry Faue — I’m a Unitarian now.

Our household was pretty normal for our neighborhood, though more bookish. We had books all over the house. My mother was an avid reader. My dad read the newspaper, from page one to the end, every day.  The oldest brother’s college books, classic children’s fables, two encyclopedias, and cereal boxes and games—These were my library, along with the Bookmobile. My parents had all the Reader’s Digest condensed books. I read that version of Nicholas and Alexandra: The Classic Account of the Fall of the Romanov Dynasty by Robert K. Massie. I was dazzled. I was fascinated with Russia and other places and times exotic to me. I studied the Byzantine Empire,  listened to the music of Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky.  

I decided by the time I was 11 that I was not going to have my parent’s life. With my two oldest siblings gone, my brother Greg bullied me from time to time—mostly verbal teasing, and that made me want to run away. My parents were busy grieving my older sister, who disappeared for a few years.  They didn’t pay any attention to us, giving my brother the opportunity to boss his younger sisters around. We later resolved all this; but as a teenager, I felt besieged. My way of escaping was to delve into far off exotic lands. I read all the time.

It was sometimes difficult for me to get my needs met in the family. At ten I told my mom I needed glasses. My mom said, “We don’t have money for your foolishness.” So I went without glasses a few more years. I would find ways to work around it: go up to the black board after class to write things down …I got through faking it until 10th grade.  Then my German teacher asked me to read something on the black board. I said,“ I can’t see the board.”

It was clear that she was mad. Her anger was important to me. She was mad at a system in which a student would not have glasses. It was empowering. I loved that teacher — Liz Borders. Everyone did. She wore turtlenecks and short plaid skirts and looked like a tall Liza Minnelli. She would take small groups of us on hikes along the Mississippi and planned field trips to the German restaurant. She took me and a group of other German students to Minneapolis Institute of Arts to see an exhibit on Albrecht Duerer. That was not my first but one of the most important museum visits.  And because of it, we all wanted to be her.  

After school that day, I went home and said “I have to have glasses. I can’t see the board.”

Mom said “Money is really tight right now. If you can wait until March, we will get you glasses.”

I think now, if I had told my mother earlier, I would not have spent so many years squinting at the board; but I knew that we did not have lots of money.  Still, when I finally got glasses, it was transformative.  I had really long thick hair at the time. I got my glasses and got my hair cut in a shag. I was a new person.

Two years later, when I was a senior and angry at not being able to go on a trip abroad, Liz Borders asked me to stay after class one day.  She said, “If there is anything I can do, you should tell me.”  I felt as if I could not tell her.  It seemed an extraordinary thing I wanted—I felt unjustified in wanting to go, but her words mattered.  Someone cared enough to listen me.

I had a few other great teachers.  Francine Moskowitz —my English teacher in 7th and 9th grade. She kept in touch with me. We went to a coffee shop (Florence and Millie’s) near Henry to talk. She took me to dinner on occasion and to a play. She read my poetry and talked about ideas.  She took me to the University to see it before I began college. And she was, in many ways, my big sister and mentor. Another teacher in high school, Doreen Savage, who read everything I wrote—poetry and prose—through high school and college, watched over me.  She also paid most of my way on that school trip to England.  

If any teacher did that today, wouldn’t they end up in court?

In high school I was in college placement classes with the bankers’ and professionals’ kids. My father had a ninth grade education. My mother had a high school education but knew nothing about college. They were smart, and she was well-read; but they were not people who knew the world I was entering. They weren’t simple people, but they weren’t people who had a whole lot of knowledge about how you navigate the world outside north Minneapolis. By the time I was 10 my mom had me making calls to billing companies and Sears and Roebuck. She was that uncomfortable with the world. To have been her must have been difficult. To be her daughter was to know that you had to help out.  

My parents did not let their children down when it came to food, clothing, housing or basic education.  Still, when I was emotionally troubled or faced worldly obstacles, my parents had no idea what to do. So those teachers—and my big brother Jeff—they brought me through.

I was aware of the class differences and racial differences in our high school. I don’t remember any African American students in my college prep courses (They constituted 3 or 4% of the entire class), and I know they were treated differently. The top 3% of our class was all White. I shared a lunch table with a group of Black girls my age  in junior high school. They were so much better read on politics.

My cohort was — and still is — self-segregated by race. Today, whenever there are reunions, the Black students are the ones no one can find.  I never go to the  reunions-but I always check the list. I really want to re-connect with my old friend Jennifer Jenkins–but she’s always on the missing list.

 

During high school, I was able to take advantage of a program called the Twin City Institute for Talented Youth.  Every summer they had a program at Macalester College. You would take a specialty topic in the morning and spend the afternoon at the library, or a play, or attend a workshop. It was great! It got me out to the house, which was really important. I took Russian language with Larry Buckland and Gene Adamchik.  We also learned Russian folk dance.

I don’t know why I ever dropped doing that dancing. I really loved it.

There is a popular quote from T. H. White’s The Once and Future King: “Learning is the one thing that you can never lose.”  It is a quote that hints at the joy we get from learning new things. That was the three summers at Macalester for me. Creative writing and Russian and extracurricular events. The time spent learning opened me up to new ideas and possibilities.  I met Catholics who hated the Catholic Church. I met young Marxists. I met deeply conservative people. The program brought public and private school kids together so I met kids form Northrup and Blake, all of whom were college bound. In my high school less than a quarter of the students went to college.

College. Seeking the Exotic, Coming Back to my Roots

When I went to the University of Minnesota. I thought, since I had this Russian thing going— and since it was the 70s and we were talking Détente with Russia, that I would major in Russian and journalism. But during orientation someone said. “You like writing, I’ll put you down as an English major.”  I wound up majoring in English, although I took Russian and Modern Greek.  

During college, at Doreen Savage’s urging, I read Report To Greco by Nikos Kazantzakis. Inspired, I signed up to go to Greece with the SPAN program (Student Program for Amity among Nations). I spent two summers there (including one at the Balkan Institute), and the year studying everything Greek.

I still think of myself now — at 60 — as a shy person, but it was much worse in those days. Greece was an important part of the process of learning how to talk again.   I had an awakening there—I discovered who I was and a little bit of what I wanted.  I also found people to talk to.  My friends Jill and Patrice and a kind Swedish student who called me a butterfly, emerging from her cocoon.  It was that and more.  

Greece is a different kind of beauty than we have in Minnesota — It was warm and beautiful, and the food was amazing, and you could eat vegetables and bread and be happy.

The biggest mistake I made was continuing to live at home when I returned. Because I had taken those steps out on my own, and then I walked back into a family crisis that lasted few years. My parents leaned on me to get them through. It was not a good time for me. So when I started graduate school I was depressed and confused.  And learning woke me up again.

Feminism and Graduate School

I had my first feminist awaking at 15, when we were all talking about the Equal Rights Amendment.  But then I forgot I was a feminist — until I took a class from Tony McNaron on Virginia Woolf. It was eye-popping. I wrote my honors thesis on Emily Dickinson and her way of seeing the world.  It was the beginning of women’s studies for me.

I wanted to keep my job at the library, so I graduated with more than a year of extra college credit!  During my last semester, I signed up for a 17th century literature class. The professor — whose name I have blissfully forgotten — was rocking himself in front of the class. I was literally getting sick watching him. I talked to my coworker about how I needed to get out of this class.  She said, “There ’s this person who teaches women history. She is supposedly pretty good…”

I went to Sara Evans’ class on the second day and went down to the front to get the syllabus.  She handed me it to me and smiled!  I have to tell you, I had never seen a professor smile. I was somewhere new.

Sara gave a lecture that day on Native American women. It was the best thing I had ever heard. I had taken many history courses, and I had never heard anything about Native American women.  Come to mention it, other then Catherine the Great, there weren’t any women at all discussed in those courses. Evans started talking about the “Manly-Hearted Woman” in Native American societies, and … Whoah!  

I transferred into the class. When Evans talked about the Lowell Mill girls, it was the first time I had heard anyone talk about workers. All the classes I had taken were about monarchs and writers and revolutionaries — not ordinary people. By the end of the semester, I had decided I was going to study women’s history—and labor and social history. It was clear to me that the way to change women’s position in society was to study their history. We didn’t know enough about women.

In graduate school I had some great mentors. Sara Evans invested in me.  She read everything I wrote up through my first book. Mary Jo Maynes taught European social history—She has a capacious mind. Rus Menard was funny, skeptical, and systematic. He knew where the pieces fit together.  There were others. I was interested in studying where class intersected with gender. The first step of that had to be looking at the labor movement.

Rewriting Minneapolis Labor History

My first book’s subject was an accident. I wanted to study textile workers in the South in the 19th century, but my committee persuaded me to write a dissertation on the 20th century labor movement and to focus on something local.

Great Depression in the 1930s was a period of labor activism and organization. Minneapolis had this major truckers’ strike in 1934, key to Minneapolis and the state of Minnesota becoming much more liberal and unionized. In that moment of organization, I knew I’d find women organizing.  Oral sources were scant. There were some taped interviews about the truckers’ strike or Hubert Humphrey the Minnesota Historical Society did in 1970s. They were not interested in women involvement or gender questions.

Women in the Twin Cities in the 1930s worked in industries where they were not prominent or where unionization was low. The huge Munsingwear plant up on the near North side employed hundreds of women workers. It wasn’t unionized until the late 1930s, and the unionization campaign did not involve much organizing.  The Company negotiated with the CIO without much worker input.

About 5000 Twin Cities women worked in various aspects of the garment trade. Relative to other cities that was not a big number.  I found some sources on those women in the national ILGWU (International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union) papers. The Minneapolis labor papers then, only provided bits and pieces.  I was frustrated.  I just didn’t have enough for a book, and I didn’t have a governing thesis.

Then two things happened.

  1. I was reading the labor papers and taking notes on the cartoons for my own amusement. One day I’m at the Minnesota Historical Society recovering from a headache from reading microfilm, thinking about Joan Scott’s contention that sometimes in women’s history silence speaks louder than words.  That is when it struck me. There was no female representation in the cartoons. Social construction and solidarity in the labor movement were all based on male models. They were also racially constructed.  I wrote a chapter on these cartoons. It has had the most lasting influence on the field and was the basis of many job talks.19578349_1821640474547005_1661172932_n
  1. I was reading two books at the same time: American City: A Rank and File History of Minneapolis by Charles Rumford Walker, first published in 1937 and Mary Heaton Vorse’ s Labor’s New Millions, two entirely different visions of the labor movement. Walker was a proto-Leninist guy who believed a small group of guys would lead the class to victory, and Vorse believed in the people and wanted the workers to get justice. Her vision is of the revolution at Pengally Hall in Flint, where women and children were making meals and walking the picket line with men. Hers is rooted in community, and Walker’s in an elite group (a vanguard) of workers. Both were operative in the 1930s, but only community-based unionism brought the women in.

In Minneapolis in the 1930s women were involved in the movement-building stage; but they were eased out when things became bureaucratized. One of the mechanism by which this happened was the social and psychological casting of labor solidarity as masculine. Born in manhood.  This is why women can both be central and yet invisible and excluded at times in labor.

All of it came together in my book — Community of Suffering and Struggle:  Women, Men and the Labor Movement in Minneapolis, published in 1991.

Because I haven’t lived here since the book came out, I don’t know what affect it has had locally. I am friends with people at the Historical Society. Labor historian Peter Rachleff — now at the East Side Freedom Library — liked the book and taught it. I see it referred to on web pages about local strikes, women, and the labor movement.  

I’ve given talks at the Minnesota Historical Society, but I have never been invited to commemorations of the Teamster’s strike. The truckers’ strike in the book is to show how the Teamsters local was instrumental in helping to organize the rest of the city and played a prominent role in the struggles discussed in the book. So it is there, but it is not central.  The cartoons came from a Teamster paper. Sometimes the labor agenda and feminist agenda conflict. A book that points out the discrepancies may not be welcome at a celebratory event.

Half of my second book was set in Minneapolis. It is a biography of a labor journalist Eva McDonald Valesh, who was here in the 1880s and 1890s. I talk about labor and working class culture in Minneapolis, which was quite vibrant. Mainstream Minneapolis newspapers in the 1880s and 1890s were sold to working class, and they covered labor issues.  I got terrific stuff on the strike of women garment workers and the Minneapolis’ Scandinavian Uprising (Streetcar strike of 1889) and a good deal about what workers of the time did and thought.  My most recent book, Rethinking the American Labor Movement, also talks a bit about Minnesota workers.

Teaching Labor and Women’s History in Detroit

I have been teaching labor history and the history of feminism at Wayne State University in Detroit for 27 years now. Wayne State is an institution with about 30,000 students: 55% White, 25% Black, with a growing number of Latino students, and immigrants from all parts of the world.  Most of the students grew up in Detroit or the surrounding suburbs and most are  first generation college students.

Politics on campus are center to left, but we also have some White students who come from the suburbs who don’t share those feelings.  We have dorms, but many students live at home or independently off campus. Many are returning adult learners. A significant number are not Christian, but Muslim or of other religions.

The Flint Water Crisis in Context

The crisis of 2008 was acute in Michigan. Pervasive gerrymandering is what allowed Governor Snyder—and the Republican-dominated legislature—to win in 2010. As in many states, the Democratic votes are underrepresented and have less power than they should.  Snyder’s background experience was as the head of Gateway, overseeing the lay-off of 30,00 workers. He has overseen the privatization of the state. Public lands and resources have been taken over in cities. Bridge and roads left in disrepair. Snyder cut corporate taxes, and his appointed Emergency Financial Managers sold many public assets. They even tried to sell off the treasures at the Detroit Institute of Art—unsuccessfully due to a political bargain. But Snyder appointed financial managers in Detroit and Flint and other cities, and they were able to make decisions without community oversight. The decisions behind the poisoning of Flint water were not entirely about budgets and certainly disregarded the long-term effects on the community.

Comparing Labor Movements in Michigan and Minnesota

The labor movement in Michigan was different than Minnesota. The United Auto Workers (UAW) was and is nearly everything. Minnesota has a mixed economy while Michigan — everything is made or broken by the fate of the auto industry. When the auto industry falters, it is very difficult to organize labor.  And the economy seems to cascade downward as it did in the 2008 crisis. Today, the auto industry is doing well, and even the cities are doing better, but we still face real challenges.

Finding Home in Two Midwestern States

When I first moved to Michigan, I traveled a lot. I did not much like the state. I learned over time to appreciate it and its beauty, but it was not until the last year or two that I have begun to call Michigan home. I found a vacation haven in Traverse City 200 miles north of where I live. It dawned on me recently that it was what Emily Dickinson called “the slant of light” there that made it feel like going home. It is the same latitude as Minneapolis — 45th Parallel.  

For now Michigan is my home. I have thought about moving back to Minneapolis with my partner in retirement. I would love to be in a city with public transportation and green spaces and many people that I love.

It is good to know that you can make home in more than one place.

Family history is what taught me how rooted I was — figuring out I had a grandpa who was part of the farmer-labor movement and a Wobbly, and another ancestor who was a Freethinker. For years, I pursued the exotic as a way of finding myself when I was young—learning about the peoples and cultures of other lands; but for the past two decades I have steeped myself in the history of chosen ancestors closer to my own roots, finding home in those stories as well.  

 

Labor activist in Minneapolis recalls her 40 years of struggle.

FullSizeRender (1)I interviewed this Minneapolis union activist on July 2.  When I sent her the  draft of this essay she held on to it for two weeks. She finally decided to allow me to publish it, but did not want her name or photo attached, for fear of reprisal.

My parents met at Wayne State University in Michigan and moved to Minneapolis so my dad could go to grad school. They bought a house on 55th and Fremont. It cost $15,000. Four bedrooms. Two car garage. It was a working class White neighborhood. Still is I think. 

We lived with my mom after my parents divorced. I was about 10. Mom got a job as a Machine and Tool designer. The “Grandma” next door took care of us during the day. That was when you walked to elementary school and came home for lunch.  One day she made us sardines on crackers. We didn’t like food with spines, so we threw them against the wall. We went off to school and “Grandma” had to clean them up. I still feel guilty about it. 

All the neighbor kids ran around together. We performed plays for our mothers. Mom was the best costume designer. She made halloween costumes for the whole neighborhood. A tube of Colgate toothpaste, The Quaker Oats man,  Big Ben clock, Mr. Peanut. We made periscopes out of milk cartons, mirror and the bottom and top, and use them in the garage to spy on people.

We spent summers in Detroit with my Aunt and Uncle. Mom would take us up there on the train. We’d pack bacon and peanut butter sandwiches and Tang. The last week we’d spend at Dad’s parents. Dad was second-generation Lebanese, fully assimilated, but at his parents house we ate kibbe, cooked or raw stuffed grape leaves, tabouli.  Dad did go to Lebanon in 1970 with grandpa. He died very young, in 1976. He would have been a sheik if they were back in Lebanon.

I went to Anthony Junior High. In 9th grade I skipped school to attend an anti war rally. We took the bus downtown. We chanted “Hell no we won’t go!” We were excited to be saying a swear word.

I began Washburn High school in 1970. It was about 10 % Black. There were lots of fights between White and Black kids. We had police dogs in the hallways, paddy wagons outside the school. You could sense the tension when you walked into school. Some of the Black kids were really militant and organized. One of the leaders, Ronald Judy,* was in my homeroom. I had a high regard for him. They demanded and won a Black Studies course. That was progress. I was not involved.  I used the fights as way to convince my mom to give us excused absences from school. I played the flute and had two friends who played the violin. We would skip school together, make tuna sandwiches, smoke pot and play trios. 

I had my first boyfriend in high school. He was abusive. He’d hit me, say he was sorry and he’d never do it again.  Then he would hit me again.  When he came at me with a gun I tried to hide under a bed to get away from him.  I think that is why I hate guns to this day. The last straw for me, however, was when he came at me downtown when I was coming back from the library to pick up some music. I had my flute with me. He took it and threw it on the ground. All the pieces on the street.

That is how much my flute meant to me.

I never allowed a man to hurt me again, but when I hear about women who stay with abusers, I understand it.

At 18 I got a job in Dinkytown at Sammy Ds. I lived in the apartment over Grays Drugs Store that Bob Dylan had lived in. Mama D had this great community reputation. Police would come in and eat for free. She would have free meals twice a year and people would line up around the block. People didn’t know she would make us work the meals for free. She was a strict boss. We had to clock in to get paid. Sometimes I would forget to clock in and I would have to go up to Mama D’s son and get my time card adjusted. He threatened that the next time we forgot to punch in we wouldn’t get paid. It happened to me and he refused to pay me. I called the department of labor and they said “You must be paid for every hour you work.” That was the end of them giving us a hard time about our time cards.

That was the first time I stood up for myself at work. 

Soon after, I got a job at the Radisson downtown. It was a union shop, but I still didn’t get it. All I knew about unions is they deducted dues. I didn’t pay any attention. One day when I was in line to get a paycheck I was handed a ballot. It said, 5 cents, 5 cents, 5 cents, Yes or No. I asked the waiter in front of me how I should vote. He said ‘Do you want to go out on strike? If not you better vote yes.’ So I did.

I left that job to follow a boy out to Vancouver. When I got there he treated me badly so I left. I called a friend in Minneapolis — a gay man I worked with at the Radisson. He joined me and we hitched our way down the coast to San Fransisco, bought a week of rooms at the Y for $12. We ran out of money, went to the mission for a meal, standing in line with the homeless folks.

After my trip out west I got a job at Radisson South. HR signed me up with the union. That was wrong. It should be union person who signs you up and explains the benefits.

I worked in the Tiffany Room with women that were in their 40s and 50s. We had these uniforms — a polyester cranberry skirt with a velcro waistband. In the back of the dining room  we had silverware, coffee pots, and our ashtrays. We all smoked while we worked. We’d take a puff and then go back and serve the food. My first day I was walking back to get a coffee pot with one of the bus boys and my skirt got caught on the handle of the silverware drawer and it came right off. I learned to pin it after that.

A few months in there was a notice about a union meeting in the union newspaper. At the bottom it said people who do not go will be fined. My friend showed me the article. He had highlighted the last line in yellow. I didn’t want to be fined so I went. So did 3 or 4 other people. They showed us the film, With Babies and Banners, about the 1936 Ford Sit-Down Strike. I was so moved by it. At the end of the meeting they appointed me and my two coworkers to be stewards at the Radisson.

That is how I became a union activist.

We went out on strike in 1980, demanding major medical insurance. We were out for three weeks. The union ran a full page ad about a woman of color, a single mother who worked full time in a hotel downtown, but was paid so little she qualified for food stamps. The ad was very effective.

When the business agent called me to say we were on strike I was working.  The manager had left early, leaving us the keys so we could lock up. He often did this. We took all the water pitchers and silverware and locked them in cupboards. I took the keys with me.  When I was on Highway 62 driving home, I threw them out the window of my car — a big ring of keys. When we returned to work, the doors of the cupboards had been taken off.

I was the picket captain on the graveyard shift. The trucks that brought food to the hotel would come at night. The hotel was next to an Embers and the hotel would shuttle scabs in through the restaurant parking lot so they didn’t have to cross our picket line. A teamster trucker would come with produce every night. He would stop the truck and a scab would drive it into the parking lot. Then he would take me out for breakfast at the Embers and we’d talk union.

Our hotel was the first to go out. Every day another hotel would join us. My friend was working the Radisson downtown as a waiter. He and a few friends used some creative tactics. At the Sheraton Ritz they poured dish soup in the fountains and stuffed the toilets with toilet paper so they overflowed.

There was an arcade between the Radisson and Daytons and the hotel got an injunction so that we couldn’t run a picket line on the arcade. Scabs used the arcade to get to the Personnel office without going through our picket line. My friends went one night and glued the doors to the personnel offices — 20 tubes of crazy glue. So then the scabs had to cross our picket line. They didn’t get the door open for three days. 

When we went back the scabs left quickly because none of us would talk to them. They would get their dishes on a plate that was so hot they’d burn their fingers. One guy stuck it out. He was Lebanese. I finally started talking to him, got him to join the union.

We had this young whippersnapper of a manager. He really rode us. Wrote people up all the time. One night we were really busy.  He was at the front desk, standing up at the podium and he turned around and said “I am fucked.” We wrote him up. We posted it on the union bulletin board behind glass so he couldn’t take it down. He quit writing us up.

In the ’80s a number refugees from South East Asia worked at the hotel. They put them in the back of the house— the dish room, housekeeping. We heard the  employers would get subsidies from the government for hiring refugees. Around that time a group of us from various hotels — union activists — organized ourselves into a rank and file group we called Workers for a Strong Union — WSU. We would we write educational flyers to distribute to the workers in the hotels. For each flyer we would chose a section of the contract or a labor law. They were  know-your-rights flyers. We translated them into Vietnamese, Spanish, and Hmong.
To get them to the housekeepers we had  people in room service slide the flyers under the door of the maid’s closets. 

One of the bus people in the dining room was from South East Asia.  Other workers made fun of his name —  called him “cow.” I asked him about his name. He told me it was Mai Khao, so that’s what I called him. One of the waitresses said “why are you calling him your cow?” He invited his coworkers to come to his place for dinner, to feed us the food of his homeland — made a huge feast– seafood dishes, beer. I was the only one who showed up. It was terrible. I sat there and ate as much I could.

We had a friend who worked for a graphic arts company on Stinson Boulevard. The graphic arts workers — GCIU — went out on strike. We went to the picket line. The company got an injunction stipulating that only a certain number of people could stand on the driveway, so we would line up on the curb. When the scabs came we threw rocks at their cars. When the the light turned red we would run into the street and gather all the rocks.

Around that time Minneapolis taxi drivers union had a strike. All the companies. Yellow, Blue and White. They lost that strike. Shortly after that Mpls cab drivers became  non-union.

I knew someone who was at a Paint manufacturing company. The workers were trying to organize a union– the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union — OCAWU. He was making good money, but the conditions were hazardous.  No matter what he did he reeked of chemicals. He would breath them out! He was fired for union activity. The Union took his case and he prevailed. The NLRB put him back to work.

When I got a divorced I needed higher pay work. My mom saw a notice in the paper about women working in the trades. I decided to go into Heating and Air conditioning. For two years I waitressed at night and went to school in Eden Prairie during the day to get my trades license. My mom took care of my kids.

By the end of the first year I had these new skills. I put a new compressor in my neighbors refrigerator, a new motor in my brother’s dryer, a new compressor in my own air conditioner. It felt good.

I got a job at the U and was a pre-apprentice in the pipe fitters union. The U was considered easier than working for a contractor. All the guys were near retirement and their bodies were shot. There was only one other woman in the fitters union and she also worked at the U. The only younger man there was Native American.

I worked in the refrigeration shop. All men. Every day Jim, the guy I was paired with, would say to me “You shouldn’t be here. You should be home with your children.” Finally one day I said to him. “Shut up. I have to make a mortgage payment just like you do” and he never said it again.

We drove the truck around campus, Jim in the drivers seat. We would do the chillers in the basement of Coffman Union down where the floor was dirt and the centipedes hung out. One day instead of stopping at Coffman, Jim kept riding. He  wouldn’t tell me where we were going. He took us to a diner and we had breakfast. I was a nervous wreck because I knew we could get fired in a heart beat, but we never got caught. He paid for my breakfast and told me to save the money for my kids.

On my child’s first day of kindergarten I told the shift leader I wanted to come late so I could put my kid on the bus. He said “You are not going to start that — kids and busses, coming in late and all that shit are you?” But he said OK and he punched me in so I wouldn’t lose time. It was nice I guess, but  every Friday I would have to punch the guys’ time cards so they could leave early to go up to their cabins. They’d leave at noon. They told me I had to do it because I was the junior person. I was always scared of losing my job because of it, but we never got caught.

I was assigned to work in a shallow tunnel with “Doug”. The other guys all warned me about Doug. They said ‘Remember four things 1. Don’t talk to him. 2 Do what he says. 3. Stand back from him when he is working. 4. Make sure he takes his medication.

Doug didn’t shower. He was very fragrant. A trucker would come and pick us up and take us from one area of the tunnel to another. The drivers would complain about how he smelled….

They had removed asbestos from the tunnel the summer before. It had dirt floors. It was hot down there so Doug ran a fan, kicking up dust. I had friend in Canada working in Health and Safety. He said the standards in the United States for asbestos safety were really low, that I shouldn’t be bringing that dust home on my clothes. So I went to administration and told them I wanted full asbestos gear. They told me I didn’t need it. I told them I wanted it. They gave it to me.
Doug was mad. He said he “kicked asbestos off the boiler and sat down for lunch and nothing happened to him.”

I left work for a week to go to my brother’s wedding. When I came back I wasn’t assigned to the tunnel anymore. Doug had complained about me. They put me back in refrigeration. Later this guy who was a welder was assigned to go down with Doug. Doug went nuts and tried to strangle him. I was glad I wasn’t working with Doug anymore.

I got laid off in November. They had a big union meeting. I introduced myself to the guy next to me. He wouldn’t shake my hand. I tried to tell him where I worked.  He interrupted. “I know everything about you. You better watch your step. When you start union school you will see its one night a week. You need to be quiet about that when you are with the fitters’ wives because they think its three nights a week. You tell and you will be lucky if you get out with your life.”

When the hall called me about positions a few months later, it was all the worst jobs — like drilling holes in concrete for a parking ramp. Finally I said ‘will you guys let me collect unemployment?’ and they said yes.

I soon got a job as a labor union business agent. Been doing that ever since. I negotiate and administrate collective bargaining agreements. Many of my bargaining units are public schools. Recently one district tried to outsource bus drivers. All the workers showed up at the school board meeting and talked about how most of them went to area schools. They knew the kids, the families, they watched the kids grow up. We won. That one. 

When I was working for OPEIU Local 12, the clerical workers who worked in union local offices went out on strike. A male business agent negotiated their contract. It was insufficient. Most of us who worked for the union, staffed the picket lines and did work at home. We would not cross their picket line. The international union was furious. Turned out it was illegal to have your employer also be your union…

Union reps are not always on the right side. I have seen labor officers cross picket lines. Postal workers union officers crossed the line once. We picketed his union meeting. They called the cops.

Some unions today are willing to move beyond their industry and strict labor issues. Take stands on the environment, Black Lives Matter. They organize the organized. They are working to expand beyond the old white boys network. Some unions have learned to reach out to immigrant populations.

A few years ago I went to Riverside Clinic for a mammogram and one of the people that I represented at Local 12 checked me in. He told me about the Twin Cities Labor Chorus and encouraged me to join. I did so reluctantly. At first I didn’t go every week, but it grew on me.  The members are my friends. Union activists. We sing for everybody. We do picket lines and union meetings, picnics and union parties. We bring the lighter side to events. I want us to get more young people, to recruit more People of Color in our choir.

These days I get my energy from the Twin Cities Labor Chorus. I want to spread that energy.

____________________________________

*I looked up Ronald Judy. He is a professor of Critical and Cultural Studies in the Department of English at the University of Pittsburg.  I asked for an interview.As luck would have it, he was coming to Minneapolis to see family.  We talked on July 18th.  The result of our conversation will be published here soon.