Thursday, June 01, 2023

Labor Issues are Still With Us

 On May 19, as a member of the Oakland Symphony Chorus, I participated in the spectacular (if I may brag!) world premiere of Bodies on the Line, an oratorio commissioned by the Symphony's late director Michael Morgan, about the 1937 auto workers sit-down strike in Flint, Michigan.  I've been rehearsing that for almost 6 months.  It's full of facts about what happened in the old GM auto plants, and what the strikers wanted, and every time I turn around these days, I hear echoes of those lyrics.  

For example, the first of the strikers' eight demands was the end of piecework pay, to be replaced by a daily salary.  A few weeks before performance, there was an article on NPR about the law, passed by California in 2022, banning piecework pay in the garment industry in California!  In 2022 they were still paying garment workers piecework!  And of course we regularly hear that Starbucks workers are trying to form a union, and the workers at Trader Joe's in Rockridge (a little over half a mile from my house in north Oakland) are trying to organize a union.  And on and on.

Today I heard another story on NPR that brought the oratorio lyrics back to me with a bang.  It was a story about a ceremony in (I think) Stratton, Ohio, where the W. H. Sammis coal plant will shut down in mid-July.  It sounded kind of like a memorial, if not a funeral, for the plant, which has operated in the area since 1959.  The plant had employed the people of Stratton (population under 300) for most of their lives.  And listening to this story, another lyric came back to me.  Late in the oratorio, during the strike, the chorus sings about it, and everyone but the altos was in favor of the strike (I sing alto).  The altos sang, "What would we do without GM?  It's GM who feeds us, who feeds the people of Flint."  And you know, I listened to the story of the memorial to a dying coal plant in Stratton, Ohio, and those words ran through my mind; and I cried.  I'm crying now.  These are stories about human beings, and sometimes we're not as much in control as we think.

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