Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The "Perils" of Being Inconvenienced

You are fighting a righteous fight. Your cause is just. You are facing powerful forces with little but your own courage. If ever the broad masses of people are going to be mobilized into supporting the cause; now is the time!


There are some people who just don’t want to be bothered. “Your cause may be just but please take your demonstration to another part of town”.

ADAPT, the militant, confrontational and proud of it; arm of the disability rights movement held its biannual meeting/demonstrations September 10-13 in Chicago. Each day hundreds of people with disabilities took over major office building to press their demands.

It is expected that the leaders of the American Medical Association, the political leaders of the state of Illinois and the leadership of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees would have strong objections to being the targets of ADAPTs wrath. So were a vociferous few office workers and others to whom the blockades created an “inconvenience.”

Reading the internet stories about the takeovers unleashed some pissed off people.

“I support anyone’s right to speak their voice, but why involve innocent people and disrupt their lives?”

“Making a pest of yourself is not usually an effective way of gaining attention for your cause. All it does is gain attention for the fact that you're an annoying pest”.

“Look I'm all for protest, freedom of speech and taking a stand when something is wrong. That being said, it is not OK to take away the freedom of my fellow Americans who happen to work in a building that (you are) protesting in front of. That is what happened. You can poo poo the argument and say that it was only a few hours and you have to live in deplorable conditions, locked up, etc. I agree with you that is BS but locking me into the building does not help your case. Yes I understand now that you are pissed, but now I hate you. Think about that.”

Some people don’t know how to act when confronted with a moral question. On the one hand, there were quite a few who empathized with the general thrust of the protestors but were outraged that they themselves were actually confronted.

Nobody likes to be inconvenienced. Very few know how to respond when confronted with moral stands.

But, happily, many do.

Being inconvenienced has its own rewards

Fifteen years ago I was working for the Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union in Washington, DC. There was a labor dispute at one of the major hotels (The Mayflower, if you’re familiar with D.C.). We were doing our best to annoy the guests. Hopefully, they would check out, complain to management, or show solidarity in some way, shape or form. Usually, however, the aggrieved guests would show us that their loyalty was with management and not with the workers.

One day, a cab pulled up in front of the hotel. A woman bound out of it. She was dragging her suitcase with one hand and holding a briefcase with the other. Sexist it is but, I couldn’t help notice she was quite attractive. But she was very upset and was talking very fast.

“Oh my God! I flew in for a conference at this hotel! I didn’t know there was a strike! There is a conference here that I am attending! My agency made my reservation! My grandfather was a Progressive Union coal miner! My Dad was a shop steward! I would never cross a picket line! What should I do"? She said with tears in her eyes! One of my responsibilities with the union was “guest relations” so I went to talk to the inconvenienced woman.

Our eyes met. I assured her that she could attend her conference. I asked her to complain to management and demand that her room be “comped” (free) and get the conference organizers to urge management to settle the strike immediately. I told her that every morning a 6:00 am we would be waking the hotel’s guest with greetings from our bull horns.

She walked the picket line everyday on her lunch break. She brought others to walk the picket line. She complained to management. She had the conference sponsor protest. The workers referred to her as my “girl friend.” This was a person who embraced her being inconvenienced. She brought encouragement to everyone who walked the line with her. My boss told me to get her name and address so we could send her our thanks. Unfortunately, she had checked out and I didn’t get her information. She was gone.

Five years later, I was smitten by a woman in an on-line chat room. I told her I had worked for the Hotel Workers Union in D.C. She was quiet for a moment. “Did you manage the strike at the Mayflower Hotel?” I had found my “girl friend.”

We are married now and are very happy about the way things turned out.

Not everyone who is inconvenienced in the struggle for justice is going to wind up with a great love, but you never know.

What we do know is when confronted with a demonstration; a strike, or other action, people need to get outside themselves. Consider why they are being inconvenienced, look for ways to support the cause and be proud that they were on the right side in the struggle for justice.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

AFSCME: Lost Its Way

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) is a union with a proud history. It led the way in actively organizing Black people. It battled for workers who were legally forbidden to unionize. It inspired many with its spirited struggles.

Dr. Martin Luther King made his “I have a dream” speech amidst proud AFSCME workers. Dr. King gave his life supporting AFSCME members on strike in Memphis, Tennessee. Clearly, AFSCME made its mark standing with people of color and others on the outside of the predominant society.

September 12, 2007, ADAPT, a national organization of people with disabilities (PWDs) shut down the Illinois headquarters of AFSCME.

So What’s the Problem?

Why would an organization that represents the interests of people on the outside of society shutdown the headquarters of an organization that has a history of representing people also on the outside?

People with disabilities have always been excluded from the mainstream of society. Until the middle of the nineteenth century PWD’s were hidden in attics, sent out to beg, or left to die of neglect. Reformers encouraged the establishment of institutions for PWDs, where they could live and perhaps receive medical care. For 100 years, institutionalization was the primary way people with disabilities were treated. Inspired by the civil rights struggles of the late 1950’-early 1960’s, PWDs started agitating for their own rights. Among these rights were to live independently, outside of institutions.

There were and still are powerful forces that resist closing institutions. You have the owners and other people who make a living from these institutions; Doctors who commit people to places where they hold a financial stake. Then there is AFSCME.

AFSCME members spilled blood organizing the low paid and underappreciated workers. They succeeded in raising the pay and standard of living of these workers. But now, they perceive the job security of these employees and dues paying members in jeopardy by the struggle of PWDs to escape the claws of the institution.

“Hey Hey, Ho Ho, Institutions Have to Go”

AFSCME’s reputation is at stake.

Not only does AFSCME want to keep these monuments to the nineteenth century open; they even want to increase funding to these places where people are held against their will (interesting, AFSCME represents a large number of prison guards as well).

AFSCME refuses to support legislation to increase spending on home and community based services for PWDs. Henry Bayer, the leader of AFSCME in Illinois pledged his support for more federal spending on community care if ADAPT would agree to fight for MORE funding for institutions! AFSCME lobbied long and hard that institutions such as the Lincoln Developmental Center in Lincoln, Illinois and Bellfontaine in St. Louis, Missouri, remain open.

AFSCME does not see PWDs as human beings. To them, we are a source of jobs. More jobs will result in creating community settings for people with disabilities, not less. But AFSCME cannot see that. Instead of hanging on to an outmoded, demeaning, and shameful model of treating PWDs, AFSCME should be looking to the future.

AFSCME is leading other organizations who should know better. “Jobs with Justice” uncritically supports the institutionalization of PWDs. Their justification for this is supporting AFSCME members job security over the freedom for those incarcerated in state institutions.

Sadly, the leadership of AFSCME is exposing its back pedaling on basic trade union issues.

AFSCME is throwing away its militant history along with its progressive principles.

How many times has the AFSCME rank and file heard these words?

“…we could accomplish more by finding common ground and being productive rather than being divisive and confrontational.”

This is not management talking. This is AFSCME’s whining about the ADAPT demonstration.

Martin Luther King, III spoke at a national meeting of ADAPT several years ago. He spoke of the history of the Civil Rights Movement and compared it to the struggle of PWDs. His message: “Our struggles are entwined”.

Randy Alexander, Memphis ADAPT Organizer said of AFSCME;

"For an organization that has its roots in the civil rights movement, their treatment of people with disabilities is even more despicable. The union and its members make a lot of money by advocating keeping people with disabilities and older folks stuck in nursing homes and other institutions instead of being able to live in their own homes like other people. It's unconscionable that the union fights for workers' rights at the expense of our rights. In ADAPT, we know that you can't have one without the other."

AFSCME can no be considered a progressive organization as long as it stands in the doorway of progress.