Monday, August 17, 2009

A Day Standing With Retail Workers

I spent a couple of hours today in an "informational picket" outside a retail company that is slashing health benefits for its employees despite the enormous profits the company is making. (For now I'm withholding the name and location of the store for operational security, but pretty soon I'll bare all!) There were several of us on the sidewalk in front of the store holding signs, passing out fliers, and talking with passersby. We were there to support the workers' fledgling union and their fight against the arbitrary cut in benefits.

Rather than getting into the specifics of this particular dispute, I want to tell you briefly about the conversations we had on the sidewalk. Two things surprised me about the interactions I had: the overwhelming public support for these workers' fight and the confused anger of the few who opposed it.

First of all, it was inspiring to see the little pieces of democracy coming together on that sidewalk. Several folks approached me and asked how people who did not work at this company could support the workers. A few others walked up and talked about their membership in other unions, the similar situations they faced with their employers, and the common struggle they therefore shared with the workers at this store. Others wanted to point out that it wasn't just this company's greed and power that was to blame for these health benefit cuts, it was also the health insurance companies themselves and the power wielded by corporations in general. Amen! I can attest that the grassroots people-power movement was alive and well on this Monday morning sidewalk. If just a third of the people who asked for information decide to get involved, then we will really have something going with this retail giant.

But something else was alive out there too: a small and angry conservative opposition that was out of touch with reality. Interestingly, each of the few encounters with conservatives involved people yelling from vehicles and speeding off. They certainly didn't want to stick around and discuss. And they mostly wanted to yell about President Obama. Maybe they just saw the words "health care" on my sign and thought it was one of those tea-bag town hall meetings.

Here is one encounter that sticks out in my mind and is fairly representative of the few conservative reactions we got:

I was standing on the corner in front of the store, holding a sign that said: "[Company X] is doubling workers' health care costs... while its PROFITS SOAR."

A middle-aged White man pulled up in a truck, rolled down his window, and yelled, "You voted for Obama, so that's what you get!"

I responded, "No, we're talking about [Company X]. See. They're doing this."

He yelled back in a mocking tone, "Oh but Obama's supposed to fix it, ain't he?! He's supposed to fix everything!"

I answered, "I don't know about him, but the workers could fix this. With a union. A strong, fighting union!"

He choked on several curse words as he rolled up his window and drove off, with a look on his face like he was chewing a battery. Apparently he wanted to argue against the fairy-tale notion that everyone on the Left thinks President Obama is our savior on a white horse. The fact that working people can unite and do things for ourselves seemed to be a novel idea to him--and one that hurt his feelings. I didn't know why. Maybe he owns a big corporation, I thought. But as he pulled through the intersection, I saw the navy blue McCain-Palin sticker on his rusty back bumper and realized that he doesn't own or manage, he just defends big corporations.


Becky said...

Interesting about the support you saw for their cause.

As I read this, I was thinking about all the news reports about the "public option" in healthcare being dead. And I thought, "How can it be dead? Don't most people want it?"

Dave said...

It ain't dead, despite some of the wishful/panicked reporting. And you're right, most people want it: