Workers’ Rights

Charley Smith


I was just lying on the grass at Peavy Park on May Day. There were progressive and activist types all around. I felt alienated as always; even on International Workers Day, I was in the minority as a crazy, angry, blue-collar-working trash person.

My friend asked me to write something on workers’ rights. I said, "Sure." Later in the day I was at the metal working shop where I work. I thought about being a poor, American, working-class person. After work I got drunk and figured American workers have several major problems that stand in the way of getting their rights.

The biggest problem for workers in America is education. The education system in America is very middle-class oriented. When I was in high school, no one ever told me I have the right – legally – to be in a union. And no one ever told me in school that unions could be about poor people getting their share of housing, goods and health. No one ever told me I have the right to work and make a living wage. What were my social science teachers talking about? Not much, mostly vague, middle-class references to freedoms that mean nothing if you’re homeless, dying and alone. Like the freedom of religion: What good is praying if I can’t eat?

Since no one told me these things in school, I had to learn by going to work. I worked 16 hours a day in a salmon cannery and slept in a tent next door. I learned a thing or two about racist and sexist hierarchies from the management. It was non-union and favoritism was the rule of the day. I saw and still see people who will never do a hard day’s work in their life yet they live a more quality life than I can imagine.

I dream for a revolution. Not for me – it’s too late for me – but for those that will be after me. I hope to leave unions behind so that people can work and make it; so they and their loved ones can live decent. But schools don’t teach this. Schools make students into functionally illiterate, culturally nihilistic consumers who are hedonist idealists. Schools make my fellow citizens into strikebreakers and profiteering snitches who see others as tools or pieces of machinery or a market. They don’t see other people as humans that need respect, food and shelter.

The next biggest problem in America for workers rights’ is a cultural one. Most workers don’t look at themselves as workers. They look at themselves as members of their ethnic group or leisure culture or consumer choice group: I’m white, I’m punk, I’m a woman or I’m vegetarian. Which is not to say that identity is irrelevant, but it’s important to respect that other people have identities, too.

Without tolerance there can be no working class unity. Working class unity is hard to create because of the extreme diversity – physically, emotionally, morally and spiritually – of all the different clans of poor people in this country and in the world. Rich people have the money and time to create, define and achieve beauty and value. Poor people have only their cultural values and their will to survive, things that are free, but also well-earned.

Poor people have to have strength in our bodies and desire in our hearts to survive in the gutter that is our birthright. The cops don’t protect us; they arrest us. My family doesn’t help me; I loan or give them money. And people who create moralities think if I wasn’t an executive’s kid I would have ended up a junky instead of a social worker or the manager I currently am.

The middle class fears poor people who can live and work without hope, and fight hard and play to win when our backs are to the wall. Good luck to all and may you be happy and healthy.

Sidebar: Employee #77, Store #4744

Laurie Voeltz

Working the check-out lane you know…
the smell
of bubble gum candy
and the want
of loud bright children
below those dry rows
of buzzing fluorescent

you know
the wary smiles
of worn parents
of consumerism
plastic/magnetic strip/
the paper and change
the grimace
of unsatisfied children
trudging towards the
sensor-exit door
no change for the red
metal-crank machines

you know
behind the stick-on
letter name-tag
and garnish smock
you are a number
under pipe-smoking
and going-nowhere
climbing the plastic ladder
stepping on the heads
of the numbers below

you know
the thick smell of money
and you sneeze
on your way out
after ten long hours on your

you are electric for the dark walk home

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Workers’ Rights

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