Lucinda Flanagan was never one for frills. Her roots in Chicago prepared her well for life in working class New York, where she learned all about organizing tenants, neighborhoods and of course workers. Daughter of ‘notorious’ labor organizer Joe Flanagan, who stands as a hero to radicals but is the scourge of bosses throughout the mid-West, Lucinda clings to her family pride as most would a precious stone; at his most boastful her father insists that their lineage leads right back to James Connolly. Joe is into his sixties now but continues leading campaigns for his international, refusing the cushy desk job they offer time and again, and Lucinda happily walks her father’s walk. BUT, she makes clear, has no intention of hanging on his coat-tails. Where Joe stormed the barricades of Chicago’s warehouses, factories and construction sites, Lucinda has been firmly planted in on the east. And her people are the terribly overworked and underpaid human service workers of the city that never sleeps. But rather than talk about her from afar, let’s go ahead and meet Lucinda:
“Hey, first thing—please call me Luce. My parents meant well but that name carries with it a little too many syllables and a little too muchbourgeois”, she laughed. “So don’t worry about what’s written on this card except for my cell number”, she explained, handing her business card to a tired-looking group home counselor. “Call me any time. And I will call you tomorrow so we can sit down with those co-workers you told me about, okay? I know this has been a long time coming for you”. The young woman sitting across from her looked back intently– her deep brown eyes appearing relieved and at least a little frightened. Luce gripped her hand gently and smiled. Placing the card deep into her breast pocket the woman nodded affirmatively and she was gone.
Lucinda looked downward at the small stack of business cards in her hand. She’d been at this game for 7 years already but it never failed to give her a quiet thrill to see the title ‘Lead Organizer’ follow her name. This is where she needed to be.
“Oh shit”, its 7:30 already and I haven’t called Tony yet—damn.” Running down the hall with campaign literature beneath one arm and her open appointment book still in her hand, Luce raced against time to get home to the meal she was already late for, that which she and her husband had planned a couple of days ago. But if there is anyone that might understand Luce’s insane schedule its Tony, Antonio Pagamento. Luce and Tony married several years ago after meeting on an organizing campaign–she the Organizer attempting to increase union density at one of their sites and he the Representative for those employees who already were members of their local, the fighting Community Workers United. They made a great team and had a shared pedigree: Tony’s grandfather had organized textile workers and his mother spent college as a New Left activist. Tony was even named after Gramsci, no less, so the pair had plenty of ideology to hold them together.
“There you are!”, Tony happily exclaimed as he switched the oven back to ‘off’ again, trying to maintain the integrity of the meal just a little longer. Luce fidgeted with the keys, pulling them out of the security lock on their apartment door several stories above a bar on Avenue A. “I called down for a bottle of
Merlot and they have it chilling now. Go get washed up and I’ll get the table set”, he called out to her as she bolted into the bedroom, plopping down her bag and coat on the bed and running into the postage stamp sized bathroom just off the hall. “Oooh, wine too. Wonderful, babe. It was a long day so you in an apron is a welcome sight”, she said laughing as Tony lit some candles. Slipping out of her boots, CSWU tee and khaki pants, Luce gave herself just a moment to decompress. “So how was your day?”, she called out through the bathroom door as Tony proceeded to tell her about this or that event in the shop. She pulled her long blondish hair out of the tight pony tail and ran a brush through it. Now spreading cool water over her face she looked into the mirror and rubbed her weary eyes. Looking down at her body, all of 27, Luce worried that she’d been losing too much weight and was looking beat. Strategically dabbing on perfume and climbing into her silk robe, Luce gave herself a come-hither look and decided that she still had it, even if too tired for much more than a meal tonight.
THE NEXT DAY Lucinda was in the union office early. Her supervisor Stanley Grimes, a studious and intense middle-aged man who’d been a mainstay of the movement since his own Black Panther days, was already typing away at his computer in the corner office, the one crowded with posters from organizing drives over the years. Stanley was able to type rapidly while balancing a cigarette in one hand and manning a coffee cup with the other. No, smoking wasn’t allowed indoors but who cared? “Hey soldier”, he called out to her without ever once raising his eyes from the contract language he’d been working on since God knows what time that morning.
“Hey captain—how’s it coming?”, she shot back. Stanley shook his head in slight disgust, consumed as he’d been with the losing campaign at the Alliance for Global Rescue. The union had made multiple attempts to win an election at this UN-based non-governmental agency, one with a harshly anti-union management; no surprise as AGR had been established as a distant arm of the CIA during the Cold War. Its mid-town office included a team of refugees who were now employed by this organization, indebted to the boss and afraid to speak out. With the awful wages and nearly non-existent benefit package they received, the union organizers thought of these workers as indentured servants and had battled against management’s intimidating tactics for years. Now again, a team of organizers had been in touch with a small group of workers who sought membership in the union. In addition to the long hours and little pay, some were now complaining of harassment by their supervisors and threats which, for the refugees, they feared could result in deportation. Staff had been severely cut and the two hundred-ten AGR employees left were now working longer and harder than before. Still, the majority of them were too afraid or blind to recognize the need for unity and Stanley had to consider if he had enough experienced organizers on staff to take on this battle now, at a time when he had several other campaigns going on simultaneously.
“Uhhh, Luce, I may need to bring you in on this one”, he said, blowing smoke out of his nostrils in a quite illustrative sigh. Finally looking up from his computer his eyes met hers. Stanley took off his reading glasses and rubbed one hand against a gray temple. “Maybe we should sit down together for a while. There’s a hell of a lot going on in this one…”
By 5PM Luce was waiting in a 42nd Street coffee shop for the three AGR workers who’d been serving as primary contacts. One of them, Vojin, had been a refugee and had more to lose than the other two but as he explained, life in Kosovo had taught him what he did NOT have to put up with: “We cannot go on this way—management speaks to us like servants and the pressure for increased productivity is continuous” Vojin explained while looking over his shoulder at regular intervals. “Ever present is the threat that we who were refugees must fulfill our tasks in order to maintain residence here. But what happened to the promise of safety, the promise of a job and home?”, he asked incredulously. Back in the safety of a huddle with his fellow workers, he and the other two–Brenda and Deter–presented Luce with several weekly schedules which demonstrated that most of the employees were being assigned to work two jobs per shift, a cheap way to make up for the loss in staffing. They also carried with them numerous pay stubs which clarified that while they were working well in excess of forty hours per week, few if any were receiving overtime rates. These documents were accompanied by copies of several threatening letters from one of the supervisors, the angry tone of which clearly indicated an attempt to intimidate. Management had also begun a series of mandatory anti-union meetings which again included illegal threatening statements. All Luce could think was that this so-called Rescue agency had a most unique way of demonstrating empathy.
That evening, after documenting her meeting in a log-book, Luce discussed the situation with Tony. “I felt so bad for these folks and was especially concerned about the rest—those who were unwilling to come to our meeting. Some of them were simply terrified and management has really set the stage for a fight here. You know most of the AGR workers must opt out of the health benefits due to extremely high premiums and deductibles, so when several have become ill they have been forced to go to work sick. One of the older employees recently had to go out on Disability and they are fearful that he’ll just whither away after giving AGR sixteen years of service. With so many vulnerable people at stake, I am really worried about how to proceed, but something must be done”, she admitted. “I began the draft for the ULP I want to file with the Labor Board, but this case must go much further than that”.
“Hmmm, sounds like you almost have the makings of a modern-day Triangle Factory here”, he said. “I cannot pass this up. I have some contract negotiations to deal with right now, but with a good strong committee in place, I can split my time. Count me in on this campaign with you”, Tony said quite righteously. And they discussed strategy over a late-night supper.
ONE WEEK LATER the pair, along with Stanley and two of the CWU organizers, Maria and Sylvia, set up the large conference room at the union hall. They placed the chairs and labor literature on a table down front, pamphlets explaining how an organizing campaign works and about the union’s history and benefits. But no brochure or chart or graph could ever tell the story that a face-to-face meeting could. Stanley knew damn well that as management has the workers at its disposal every day for eight hours, his people needed to present well and thorough. This could be their one opportunity.
“And above all else, we have to believe in that which we are advocating for, that which we know to be the key for these folks”, Stanley said as he laid out stacks of the union authorization cards that must be
signed by a majority of the workers so they can file for an election. Instinctively, Stanley pulled a CWU, AFL-CIO cap onto his head, the well-worn cap which had already seen dozens of demonstrations and meetings in the past year. Slowly, the employees of the Alliance for Global Rescue began to file in, right on time with the main three activists, Deter, Brenda and Vojin leading the way. Deter was a fifty-something German-born book-keeper who’d been living in this country since age five. Quiet and relatively unassuming, his was a simmering kind of anger, a self-righteousness that lingered beneath the radar. As such, he was able to avoid any negative attention by management and could acquire necessary information—especially working in the back-office as he did—for the organizers. Brenda, a young African-American woman was raised in the south but had been living in New York since attending Columbia University. An idealist, she signed on with AGR after serving as a community activist in upper Manhattan during college but quickly became disturbed by the back-story of this agency. Luce was impressed with her boldness from the start…
“Hey Luce I guess I don’t have to tell you about the dirt I got doing a little bit of research”, the young woman said as their earlier meeting came to a close. “AGR employed under cover State Department agents who carried the title of ‘Special Outreach Worker’ starting with the late 1950s and this continued right up till the Berlin Wall fell–and then for some years after that. They were doing special ops in all countries with Left-wing governments and were used to try to dismantle unions in South and Central America. Supposedly, they pulled the agents all out by the Clinton years but with all of this attention on countries like Venezuela and Brazil these days, who knows?”
Now Brenda and her two co-workers sat alongside the organizers as the rest of the AGR employees entered. Looking around the room with varying levels of anxiety as they first crept in, the workers were soon drinking coffee and gobbling up donuts (“ people always feel better when they eat”, Stanley reminded the others), though handling the food with some distrust. After some general conversation one worker, still holding half a jelly donut and large cup of coffee, asked the union staff what they could do for the AGR employees.
“Remember people”, Luce explained, “it cannot be the union officers and organizers that make the changes in your lives—it has to come from you”. And with that she asked what the problems were and what they wished to see changed. The crowd of forty or so people anxiously looked at each other or at no one at all. The air grew thick with silence and then finally a middle-aged white man with glasses and a loosely hanging cardigan blurted out that the union would get them all fired. “What can you do for us when they just do a mass termination? You’ll go on to the next organizing drive and leave us holding the bag, jobless”, he insisted.
“Yeah!”, a heavy-set Latina cried out, followed by a nervous-sounding young man whose voice carried a thick Senegal accent: “AGR helped us and now you are asking us to turn on them? How you can do this??”. Others mumbled concerns and several were clearly echoing some of management’s well thought out anti-labor statements, contrasted by a few others who spoke out against management’s recent intimidating tactics: “The way the bosses are fighting this move to unionize, they are going to
start firing us all before we’re through”. This did little to settle fears. The maelstrom began, building from a buzzing, rocking din. Previously timid, studious social workers and statisticians and accountants were now bearing teeth and shaking the occasional fist.
Brenda stood and tried to offer some reality checks but was shouted down as the crowd became more overt in their protests; a few of the workers put on their jackets and began to move toward the door, seeking escape from the noise and confusion. Deter avoided the rest, looking downward, head in hands, as Vojin called out to his co-workers in futility. A flustered Middle Eastern man had one of the anti-union flyers from the boss, misinformation about the efficacy of the union’s contracts in other agencies, and began waving it angrily as he stood above the fray. Luce looked the group over and then shot a look at Stanely.
“Okay soldier”, he said to her intently, “ this is your show now, you know”. She looked back at him uncomfortably as he added, “So go to work”, and smiled, tapping the brim of his cap.
Luce shot up. “Okay people, people!”, she called out to the crowd. “People—HEY!” Heads whirled around and a few of the AGR employees looked back, surprised. “You can keep yelling if you want—don’t let me stop you. You can turn this into primal scream therapy if you feel it will help but let me first ask you this: will shouting at us give you a pay raise? Will yelling now give you the kind of benefits you and your families deserve??”, she challenged them. The boil now simmered.
Luce approached the angry man who’d waved the flyer, that which was rolled up and now held aloft like a sword. “Can I see that?”, she asked, pointing to his ersatz weapon. The man glumly handed it to her and once in her hand Luce began to shake the page with a snap. The front row in mild bemusement, moved about, straining to get a better view. Opening it up, she looked the page over quite theatrically and then shook it again several more times until the flustered man asked her just what in hell she was doing. Luce looked back at him, smiled carefully and said, “Hey I see how much importance you find in this flyer–so I was just trying to see if there was any more money hiding in it for you, or maybe if a new benefits package would fall out when I shake it!”. She looked back at the crowd with a grin and raised brow. Re-examining the page now, trying to peer into the bottom , the side; trying to look through it by holding it up to the light. The man’s annoyance went in neutral as several frowns melted into a rather reserved chuckle. And then several others began to softly laugh and soon, many were snickering too.
“Yeah”, Luce quickly added, “This little ol’ piece of paper must carry one magic bullet. What else did they give you?” And another employee, a young South Asian woman, raised a color brochure about the agency being One Big Family. “Ah, yes, of course—it’s a good thing to know your workplace is like a family, isn’t it?”, Luce asked directly. A couple of the workers in the front row nodded uneasily while one more who remained a loyalist responded annoyedly: “Yes, it’s a good goddamned feeling. Let me tell you, we have been like a family for years”.
“And we would never want those positive feelings to change, brother”, Luce assured him, “but I cannot help but wonder how warm the feelings are when someone in the family has to struggle to earn a living
or suffer the indignity of not being able to get proper benefits for their children. Or they themselves need to retire early and collect government benefits because they cannot afford coverage. Families look out for one another and, without trying to insult your good relations here, I have to ask if you think that a family-like atmosphere should include intimidation, unexplained terminations, a deliberate reduction of the workforce and the serious overworking we’ve been hearing about. It just doesn’t seem right—does anyone here feel that it’s appropriate to be treated that way?” The crowd now became more forthcoming in their agreement with the young woman. Some of those standing in the back that’d been ready to leave now slowly moved back toward the seats. One older woman who’d been listening attentively throughout now stood and said, “That’s right. They call us ‘family’ but we are treated like in-laws at best”, and the crowd loosened, sharing a good, affirmative laugh.
“Yes, sister”, Luce said softly and with a gentle smile, “yes, you are right. And in-laws are often—outlaws.” Luce now walked to the center of the room, standing amidst the employees spread out before her. She continued: “It pains me to see good workers who reach out to those with great, great needs, themselves having to struggle with such basic human needs as a sense of security and decent pay; REAL benefits and reasonable workloads; simple respect. No one in this room wants to see the Alliance for Global Rescue fall into problems—and it won’t. But it seems like a UN-affiliated N.G.O. should be the first to live by the UN’s charter for human rights. Is that too much to ask for? Is your right to organize, to stand together in unity, TOO MUCH TO ASK FOR? Tell me, aren’t you—your spouses and kids—worth at least that much??”And the group sat in an oddly calm stillness.
Luce walked over to the table her team had placed the literature on and sat on the edge with her hands folded comfortably in her lap. She smiled at the workers and nodded down toward the union authorization cards sitting on the table. “It’s time, people. It’s time to make a decision about your future. Its time to have a voice, to forge the realities of your work life–and the lives of your families. And the one way to do that is—together.” Stanley and Tony stood quietly and walked over to the table, just behind Luce, and raised a stack of union cards each, extending them out to the workers who were now standing up and slowly moving forward. And as one would stand he or she next to him would begin to stir. And stand a little bit straighter. And walk a little more assuredly.
One by one they reached for the union cards.
-April 10, 2010, 11:47 PM, Brooklyn NY