Category Archives: Family

Airport Workers Say, “Poverty Doesn’t Fly!”

The cold wind bit my cheeks as I gratefully pulled on an SEIU purple stocking cap emblazoned with an image of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the words “Destination: JUSTICE.”

This was our way to commemorate Dr. King. My wife, daughter and I joined a rally for airport workers who want to form a union with 32BJ, an affiliate of SEIU. About 100 of us gathered under the bright sky near the King Memorial on the National Mall.

Yikes, it was cold! We stamped and hopped around for warmth while workers took turns speaking nervously at the microphone. We heard from sky cab drivers and the workers who push wheelchairs for passengers at DC National Airport. Neither of those jobs pay the federal minimum wage, because they’re classified as tipped workers. I was shocked to learn the minimum in Virginia for tipped workers is $2.13 an hour!

Every few minutes, chants broke out: “What do airport workers want? $15 and a union! What do airport workers want? $15 and a union!” and “If we don’t get it, SHUT… IT… DOWN! If we don’t get it, SHUT… IT… DOWN!”

IMG_0351Some workers work three full-time jobs, and don’t even have enough time to go home after work. They just sleep at the airport and wake up for the next shift!

“We’re busted and disgusted! We’re tired of working with no healthcare and no benefits!”

One of the speakers was a grandmother who spoke from cards so she wouldn’t get too much stage fright. She said she cleans airplane cabins for $8 an hour. Her pay barely covers her bus fare to work. She’s only able to get enough to eat with help from Food Stamps. She wishes she could provide for her kids and grandkids. That’s why she wants a union.

DC Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton told the crowd that Dr. King had gone to Memphis for the same reason we gathered today. The wind was cold. She declined a hat, joking that she was too vain to mess up her afro. The crowd loved it.

Then we all marched past the King Memorial, where we stopped and sang the civil rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome,” led by Rev. Graylan Hagler of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ.

We marched to Independence Avenue, stopping occasionally to pray and chant, until we reached the corner on 14th Street SW.

“Everybody down!”the organizers hollered. We all sat down in the middle of the intersection. There was a long prayer. The 14th Street light turned green, but nobody moved. The traffic backed up. After a few minutes, we all rose together. Dozens of airport workers boarded busses to get to go back to work.

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Filed under Family, News and Commentary, Unionism

The Return of the Montana Newspaper Guild

Steve Schnall in Great Falls in1983 pedaling to raise money for a Montana Newspaper Guild college scholarship, which happens to be named after my grandfather, also Robert Struckman. Steve is now assistant athletic director at San Diego State University in California.

It’s an uncertain and insecure time for journalists in Montana these days, what with unrelenting layoffs and buyouts at the state’s newspapers coupled with more than a decade of below-inflation raises, when the staff received any pay increases at all. There have been furloughs at the Great Falls Tribune, and staff at the state’s five newspapers owned by Lee Enterprises have had significant benefit cutbacks, estimated by one staff member to equate to a 7 percent pay cut.

But here’s the funny part. Montana’s journalists have consistently produced top-quality news, year after year. The papers themselves have been beautifully profitable, earning dependable millions every year.

I can actually remember when pay stalled for Montana’s reporters. I was a bumbling and excited new police reporter at the Billings Gazette in 1998. As I got my first raise, my supervising editor explained that the paper’s corporate headquarters had clamped down on raises, just the previous year. Instead of good raises—I’m thinking maybe 5 percent or so—I would receive a fraction over 1 percent. It wasn’t me, my editor explained. It was company-wide.

It’s interesting to look back at that time.

Five years earlier, in 1993, the members of the Montana Newspaper Guild at the Great Falls Tribune—scattered among pretty much the entire staff outside the press room and the drivers—had voted out to disband. The Tribune had been an open shop for about 15 years, which means that employees could get the good wages and benefits that the dues-paying union members had bargained for, but without contributing a dime. Still, the members of the Montana Guild were skilled negotiators who won decent raises when the paper made solid profits.

Decades of research has shown that union wages raise standards at non-union workplaces. It’s easy to understand why. The Billings Gazette and other Lee Enterprises papers in Montana offered pay and benefits roughly comparable to the Great Falls Tribune, owned by the Gannett Company. Why? To retain and dissuade the staff from forming unions to gain the full benefits of collective bargaining.

If you don’t believe that Lee Enterprises fears the combined clout of its employees, consider this: Anti-union training is a centerpiece for all company managers, and anti-union videos are routine for new employees. I sat through an anti-union spiel at the Gazette in the summer of 1998. I remember it well. And, as I mentioned before, my editor didn’t hesitate when it came to breaking the law when he threatened to fire me just for talking about forming a union with my coworkers.

And here’s why Lee hates unions. It’s not rocket science. The company’s leadership doesn’t want any pressure to share any of the amazing profits it reaps. After the Tribune‘s union disbanded, Lee’s managers no longer even had to keep pace with the Tribune.

It’s abundantly clear to me now that while collective bargaining offers a rising tide, the reverse is also true. Without collective bargaining, employees experience a relentless race-to-the-bottom. It’s not a fun race, like that tricycle escapade above, but you don’t need me to tell you that.

And yet there is hope. As I’ve noted many times, Montana’s media corporations are profitable. News will also be important in Montana and across the country far into the future. In fact, media spending has been on the rise, even though the share spent on newspapers has been declining.

My point is simple. Newspaper employees—all media employees—from the press room to the advertising floor to the newsroom can still form unions. It’s possible. Membership in the Newspaper Guild doesn’t mean anything more than that each paper’s employees will be able to collectively bargain with management about pay, benefits and working conditions.

There are a lot of people in Montana who remember the Guild. I’ve been talking to quite a few of them. I’ll write soon about the 1974 strike in Great Falls, in which Teamsters, teachers, postal workers and even the young newspaper carriers helped Guild members in a long struggle with that paper’s management.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could form a union without taking an enormous personal and professional risk? Wouldn’t it be an amazing show of solidarity if those same truck drivers, mail carriers, teachers, electricians and public workers came together to help start a race back up from the bottom? The time is right.

And, actually, if anyone could identify the people in this photo, or share their stories, I’d sure appreciate it. More photos soon.

Both of these photos come from the files of the Newspaper Guild here in Washington. I’d appreciate any news about the photographs or the people in them. Feel free to email.

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Filed under Family, News and Commentary, Raw Material for a Memoir

The Decemberists light a child’s imagination: A boy and his parents awash in tales of the sea

This column is about the unlikely love of a landlocked Montana family with sea shanties, and how that love grew to embrace an indie band fascinated with the same genre. This first ran in the Missoulian in 2006, a short year before our daughter was born. With the exception of a few edits, the essay below remains faithful to the original.

One of my 8-year-old son’s favorite songs is a gruesome sea shanty about the British Admiral John Benbow, who got his legs torn off by a cannonball in 1702.

We love that sweet and lilting air.

At bedtime at our house, imagine me lying in the dark of my son Josiah’s room, singing about brave Benbow or the sailor who sunk the Turkish Revelee or the wonderful tune about the sailors in the waters off Greenland.

In the dark it’s easy to imagine, encapsulated in the magic of those old lyrics about heartbreak and loss and sailors buried at sea, that we’re rocking in the cozy belly of a wooden ship on the high seas. The feeling between us is one of the things the bland word “love” is supposed to mean. But that word can hardly convey the power of that nighttime ritual.

Yet it helps to explain why the trio of our family will be at the Wilma Theater on Thursday at 8 p.m. to hear the Decemberists sing “bloody and gruesome” numbers about, well, “crazy, weird, exotic imaginative themes,” to use the words of the group’s lead singer Colin Meloy.

We’ll be in the balcony, according to our tickets, and we may be the only couple bringing a second-grade child who ought to be tucked into bed about the same time the show will begin.

Our relationship with the Decemberists began last spring, long after the group– which I know almost nothing about–had begun performing modern songs that echo those classic melodies.

Do you know the term “shantey?” I’m not talking about a ramshackle hut built of cardboard and scraps of tin. Sometimes written “chantey,” it’s a song that sailors once sang while doing work or, I imagine, to while away the awfully long and endlessly boring hours at sea.

As a kid in the 1970s, I listened to “Whaling and Sailing Songs from the Days of Moby Dick” by Paul Clayton. At bedtime, I’d sneak into the living room in our apartment in family housing at the University of Montana beneath the looming hulk of Mountain Sentinel, crouch next to our enormous wooden stereo and lean against the barely audible speakers to hear Clayton’s versions of those lively and, I later learned, often ribald tunes.

I’ve never been on a big wooden ship myself, except once for about three minutes in 1997 when one docked in Oakland, Calif., when I lived there. The tall ship that day seemed rather banal, the volunteer crew too obsessed with trivia about the old whaling and sailing days. I felt like an outsider in a club too lame to join.

Truth be told, I’m an amateur compared to dedicated shantey-ists. I’ve never dressed in flowing shirts to perform at festivals.  If I went to sea, I’d probably lay in bed seasick the whole time, groaning. I don’t know how to tie any fancy sea knots. I’ve never read much about maritime history, except for the liner notes on the Clayton’s yellow and faded album cover.

Really, though, Clayton lays out all you need to know.

“Boney the Warrior” tells the story of Napoleon. “Blood Red Roses” is a prosaic reference to the red outerwear favored by British soldiers going around Cape Horn. (You remember the Redcoats from your school lessons about the American Revolution, right?) I’ve just never understood why soldiers would have been hunting for whales, but never mind.

Most of the remaining shanties are self-explanatory, if you can make out the lyrics, but why bother; the melodic range of Clayton’s renditions are absolutely some of the most beautiful I’ve heard.

Not that I would talk about all this publicly. That’s why it was a revelation when the first “Pirates of the Caribbean” came out in 2003. Turns out there’s tons of us closet, old-timey sea story lovers.

I enjoy “Pirates” as much for its goofiness as for its sailing ships and story line.

That, too, is why the Decemberists’ “Mariner’s Revenge” made me grin.

The ballad is fantastical, ridiculous, really, and it has logical gaps, which is why it’s so fun.

It begins in the belly of a whale: “Its ribs our ceiling beams./ Its guts our carpeting,” I believe the lyrics go.

The narrator then tells his companion, also stuck inside the whale’s belly, why he’s going to kill him. He explains that long ago connection, the companion seduced and defrauded his mother, which led to her death and his life as a desperate urchin in the streets.

And now, trapped with the object of his lifelong hatred, the narrator is poised to wreak his revenge.

This is the perfect sea music for me and my family. It draws from and looks back with a smirk to those wonderful songs of the sea. It’s funny. It’s not too serious. It doesn’t require us to join a nerdy club.

Well, I should qualify that last statement. I don’t think we’ll join any nerdy clubs. The balcony may be crammed with moms and dads and 8-year-olds. If that happens, who knows? Maybe I’ll form the club.

 

Here’s an incredible, unofficial video of ” The Mariner’s Revenge Song.

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Filed under 2006, Family, Old News Stories and Columns

What’s Up With ‘Brokeback?’ My Relatives Got Pissed

You can gather from my earlier posts that I have a lot of family in Montana. I can name all of my cousins, aunts and uncles, even a few second cousins, but after that it gets fuzzy.

Those relations jumped into focus when I drew comparisons in a newspaper column a few years ago between my grandfather George Meakins and a gay cowboy.

My grandfather, George Meakins. Taken at my Aunt Della’s home in Hall, Montana, by my father in the early 1970s.

One of my mom’s cousins–a woman I don’t know but who clearly lived in the Missoulian’s circulation area–mailed an outraged letter with the clipping to my grandmother.

My mom told me about what sounded like a furor among her cousins. One of her sisters joined the detractors. My uncle and another of my aunts rushed to my defense. It was actually kind of intimidating to learn that distant relatives were lining up against me, some of whom I wouldn’t even recognize on the street!

On the other hand, I do understand that family members can get worked up over representations of our shared history. Yet the letter, with its obvious homophobia, bothered me.

For some people in my family, a column about gayness obviously crossed the line… even though the column itself wasn’t about sexuality at all, but about the hard life of a ranch hand and his family. Yet to an ignorant reader, I had apparently insinuated that my grandfather was gay. Or maybe it’s just that my family’s bigotry couldn’t accept any association with “Brokeback Mountain.”

Additionally, I know some family members expressed outrage at my forthright descriptions of their poverty.

And yet it pained me to think the column might have bothered my grandmother, Lillian Meakins, who came up in a time and place so different from our own that it’s difficult to fathom. She was born in 1914. She grew up on a homestead on the Missouri River in eastern Montana–forty miles by horse or wagon south of Malta. She killed chickens with her hands. She could bake a cake on an open fire. My grandmother was a tough lady, but also soft and somehow uncertain of herself.

Some months after the column had appeared, I sat on the couch in her trailer home near Billings. For years, she and I had had a careful relationship, by which I mean that we avoided anything like a sensitive subject. We talked about regular things, like the weather. Or else I asked her about her life, questions she answered gruffly, as if the answers should have been obvious. “What dances did we do? Well, the two-step!”

It was time, I thought, to be straight-forward. I asked my grandmother if the column had bothered her. I reminded her what it said. I described the movie, “Brokeback Mountain,” including that it was a love story about two men.

She surprised me with the strength of her response. No, she said. It didn’t bother her. She thought I should write whatever the newspaper would print.

I believed her. It was one of her sweetest, most grandmotherly moments.

Here are some things I know about my grandmother. She rejected racism against black and Indian people. About a neighboring Indian family, she said they “had the cleanest laundry in town.” For my grandmother, it was not only a high compliment, because it meant they worked hard.  But it was, in her mind, a direct counterpoint to the common slur of the “dirty Indian.”  She didn’t only tell me that anecdote, or my mom, I imagine, but her coworkers at the cafe and nursing home, or the elderly neighbors for whom she drove errands.

I understand, now, that her acceptance extended to gays.

What a lady.

With my grandmother behind me, I didn’t care about the fuss.

My grandmother, Lillian Meakins, was  more irritated than amused when I used the “Photo Booth” feature on my new computer to capture her image. She was 92.

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