“Workers of the World, Unite!”


[Labor Day update for our Kickstarter.com project]

The year is 2007. Walking in Adelaide with our small touring group of Korean students, we came ‘round a corner and found ourselves surrounded by an intense column of marchers carrying signs, decked out in printed headgear and banners and out to press home a point to their fellow citizens, “We are Australian Labor; we are your workers; ignore us at your peril.” Having once been of their number, and being still avid students of US labor history, we left our own entourage in Missus’s capable hands, so that we might join the column and thus declare our solidarity.

“What union is this”, we asked?

“Plumbers. Where y’ from, mate? Y’ sound like a Yank.”

“Too right, mate, and a union man for forty years,” we lied.

“Fair dinkum, mate, bloody long time that is! What union?”

Resisting the temptation to puff out our chest a little bit, and with a question not easy to answer, we opted for uncharacteristic modesty, “Building labor.”

“Ah, well, good on ya then, Mate. Welcome to Australia.”

Not as determined of step as this group, we stepped out of the line and slowed to let it pass by us, before returning to our group, taking a side trip down memory lane on the way back to them. It’s true enough that union blood flows in our veins. It was inevitable, growing up with Grandpa. He was a grand combination of storyteller and longtime member of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. To be for long in his presence was to experience a longing to belong to that world of brother workers, united under the banner of organized labor.

Thus prepared by our upbringing, and propelled leftward by the combined energies of war resistance and a serendipitous encounter with a bona fide movement hero of the United States (ask us later), that we should come winging out of icebox Idaho to slide down the Snoqualmie slope into an epicenter of the the US Labor Movement was an intellectual equivalent of running away to join the circus. The difference between our schoolboy fascination with labor history, and life as we found ourselves living it between Pioneer Square and the Pike Place Market in 1966 was akin to the contrast between reading the National Geographic Magazine and spending a year in the highlands of Papua New Guinea.

We arrived in Seattle invited by the Boeing Airplane Company, and in the two weeks that passed between the day of our arrival, and our first day of employment at the Renton Plant, we had an opportunity to explore the city. We took lodging as nearby Seattle University as we could afford, between Harborview Hospital and Yesler Way, a block from the point where it crests Capitol Hill. Nothing could have been more natural than to traverse that block and turn downhill toward the Smith Tower, the most beautiful building of its kind we had yet seen, and follow the Skid Road all the way to the harbor.

Reaching Pioneer Square, one of the first things to catch our eye is a sign bearing the word “Id”, two doors south of the intersection of Yesler and 1st Avenue, and facing east, the direction from which we had just come. Drawing closer, we make out the word “Bookstore”. Of course we make a beeline for the entrance. Once inside, we quickly make the single, and singular, discovery that conveyed to us better than perhaps any other could, that for the time being at least, we had come home.

Inside, the shop was in disarray. “We’re not really open today” said the woman at the desk near the door. “We’re hanging the paintings for our opening tomorrow. Please come back then. The art is amazing, and there will be food and drinks and a lot of interesting people.” Art, food, drink, interesting people! All that was needed for a royal flush was a jazz trio and Billie Holiday. We knew we’d be back before we’d had the chance to see anything of the art, which appeared to consist of dozens of comparatively small watercolor panels seeming to have a vaguely (from that distance) Hieronymus Bosch-y thang going. One step closer, and the impression disappeared.

“What’s the show?” we asked, in no hurry to leave such a splendid find just yet.

“They’re scenes from Seattle’s labor history,” replied the lady. She was soon to become our good friend, we could tell.

A few days later, we became a part of Seattle labor history, too, as we began our employment at Boeing. A combination of shop politics and LSD would have the result that our job there, and the first of our journeyman tickets in five different labor unions, would come to an end after our first two very interesting and eye-opening months living in the City on the Sound.

The paintings were amazing, and they were being hung that day by the grandsons of the man who painted them, a man whose middle namesake was one of the only two men in US history to be imprisoned for conscientious objection in both world wars. The other was the bona fide hero of the labor movement in America that we mentioned having met in Idaho, shortly before leaving. That’s another story. You can  see the paintings here.

Enjoy your Labor Day in a spirit of solidarity with working men and women everywhere.

 

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