Christmas on the line

Not much has been made (yet) of local organized labor's resurgence in the last year. But on the heels of a tremendous statewide victory in the minimum-wage campaign in November, labor is mobilizing around three strikes in the region. (Sorry, the NBA lockout doesn't count.) At Kaiser Aluminum plants in Tacoma and Spokane, workers have been out for several weeks. Virtually none of the steelworkers have crossed the line, despite the strike's length. Protests have extended to Kaiser's parent company, the junk-bond kings at Maxxam (also owners of California's infamous Headwaters grove of old-growth redwoods). Through our public hydroelectric grid, the aluminum industry is one of the most heavily subsidized local industries not in the jet-plane business; once again, management demands for rollbacks in a time of corporate plenty are the cause of the impasse.

Meanwhile Civic Light Opera—a relatively small arts nonprofit in Lake City that has for years refused the unionizing attempts of its musicians even while touting its professionalism to funders—is also a labor-action target. Rallies on December 4 and subsequent days derailed showings of Rags, a production concerning the hardships of organized labor a century ago. Rags is over now, but the CLO is set to move on to auditions for its next show, scheduled to open in February, and labor is threatening to show up en masse then, too.

Finally, there's a strike in its fifth month at the West Seattle Psychiatric Hospital, where staff with SEIU Local 1199 have been involved in a nasty standoff with hospital management. Not so coincidentally, the same lawyer—Richard Omata of Karr Tuttle Campbell—represents both West Seattle Psychiatric and Civic Light Opera in their refusals to bargain.

The common thread in all of these job actions is the refusal of management to take seriously workers' right to organize. It's far more difficult here than in any other western country for workers to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement. The legal hurdles are formidable, and for the last 50 years the trend—well greased by corporate lobbyists and campaign donations—has been toward making it harder. In such a legal atmosphere it's remarkable that even in these isolated cases there's such a strong sense of labor solidarity.

The labor resurgence is rooted in a popular sense that if economic times are booming, everyone—not just wealthy stockholders—should share in the benefits. There have simply been too many years now of headlines announcing that layoffs and stagnant wages send stock prices up. Locally, the paradox is heightened in sectors like high tech, where Microsoft et al. rake in billions using part-time, non-union contractors to avoid costs (and obligations) normally associated with employment.

The real labor test here next year will be Boeing. The contract negotiated in 1995 after a 32,000-person machinists' strike—one of the first of the wave of high-profile national union successes in recent years—expires in 1999. For the last two years, Boeing—attempting with limited success to digest its meal of Rockwell and McDonnell Douglas—has announced layoffs, streamlined production to modernize it, and struggled with lousy stock values. You can be sure that in such an environment workers will be asked to sacrifice next year. With Boeing's huge backlog of Pentagon pork lined up, and a dominant position now in the global weapons trade, it's hard to imagine a company better positioned for the long term. It could be an epic battle.

Christmas out of line

Well, we're now neck-deep in the holiday shopping season, so we're also neck-deep in my loathing of the holiday shopping season. Far be it from me to object to the industries that pay this fine paper's bills, but here goes: The parties and people and family are swell. It's the shopping part that's the problem, and specifically the equating of one with the other. From July pre-Christmas sales to easy credit, from stadium naming rights to advertising in public schools, it seems impossible anymore to avoid being marketed to. We see literally thousands of corporate logos a day. Christmas has become the ultimate religious holiday, with consumerism as the religion before which we all genuflect. What does it mean when we're taught from the cradle to equate possession with happiness, consumption with achievement, personal debt with adulthood? What do we become as a society when we substitute things for time, and our stuff for human connections? Our willingness to forgo engagement with other humans, or to use things (and their purchase) as the intermediary, is deeply political. So is the economic reliance of this country on a consumer culture that is simply not sustainable ecologically. And so is the charity industry, which similarly gears up each holiday season to exploit the vague sense of unease people have that all is not good cheer.

Many folks know there's something fundamentally wrong with this picture. For all its flakiness, the simple-living movement is one response. The Christian Coalition has also seized on this anxiety-provoking cultural dislocation with a ready-made set of political answers. Both, despite their political regressiveness, are on to something: our need for family (however we define it) and community, our need to stop getting emotional sustenance from purchased goods. I would add another element: a need to cast the net widely when we make public policy, to help all those whose help we may one day need ourselves. We need a politics that elevates—or even tolerates—compassion. Meantime, all these ads are getting on my nerves.

 
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