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.