Saturday, March 24, 2007

Hope Dies Last

Maybe it's just my personality. I tend to focus (sometimes to the exclusion of all else) on those things needing to be changed. The wrongs that we need to right. The wrongs which will never be righted. The gray areas in between. The space that's created by just discussing and thinking about these issues is part of the moral imperative where I live. It's one part what's possible, one part what's wrong, and a few parts doom and gloom.

In my professional life, this works great. In my mental life, well, let's just say I'm not much fun to watch the news with.

While I was down in Florida a few weeks back, I picked up Hope Dies Last by Studs Terkel. It's a collection of short essays of the kinds of American characters you'd expect from Studs. Dennis Kucinich has a short passage that talks about his poor upbringing (he lived in twenty places by the time he graduated high school, and two of siblings died in childbirth). There are couple of freewheelers in the mix too, like the interview with a bike messenger.

But the part that spoke the most to me are his passages on those in the labor movement, and organizers, who are detailed in a chapter called 'Discovering Power'. In their voices is a lot of sadness, disappointment, and a certain degree of jadedness. Roberta Lynch, who is one of the top bigwigs in AFSCME of Illinois says, "I would not describe myself as an optimist...I would just say that I am person who is periodically visited by hope."

This is how, on a day to day basis, the professional troublemaker often feels (at least, it's how I feel). After all, the poor still are poor, the hungry hunger, and the powerful retain their lofty perches. We lose a lot. Like in that song by Randy, "Karl Marx and History":

It sure rains on our parade,
The winds will change, the clouds will fade.
But change will come eventually.
So says, Karl Marx and history.

But the title of the book gives the game away. Studs is pushing 100 years old himself, and you don't make it that long on a steady diet of cynicism. The rest of the chapters lay out what what a popular psychology for the organizer might look like. Ken Paff, of Teamsters for a Democratic Union talks about a life spent in the pursuit of democratic, shop-floor militancy. How the miracle that Ron Carey's election pushed the Teamsters to strike (and win!) against UPS in 1997 for their part-time employees. He's a man with hope.

Much space in the book is devoted to the characters who won a living wage for Harvard's janitors several years ago.

Young people who did the sitting-in talk about being jeered at by their classmates for caring about people that most of the students didn't even see. But they won. They brought Harvard to the table, and they won.

The custodians are hoepful people. They went from being nobodies, to getting respect on their job, and they made billionaires sitting on a $2 billion dollar endowment, give up just a little of it so that their janitors might live a little better. They did that when all the trustees wanted was to say 'no', and have them go away. But they won.

Bob Kelly, who describes himself as a 'glorified custodian' recalls how blue collar people used to view college protestors in the '60's, and how the Harvard campaign led him to realize "Instead of [thinking] "We're taking care of spoiled little rich kids," it's "Can you believe they're doing this for us?"...Boy, people can surprise you."

Edward Childs, a cook at Harvard for 27 years tells how he went from being asked by a friend to help the cooks get a 50 cent raise to putting in a career at Harvard: "I got the union bug, and the union bug is much stronger than anything else."

It is. Boy, it really is. The message is delivered again and again in this book: hope isn't something you pray for, it's something you live. And when your life is dedicated to busting the odds, it's something you better take to heart. You can't ask people around you to take on the biggest issues, their bosses, the system, racism, war, whatever, and not live hope. Because you will be disappointed.

But then, after a hard fought won, or an equally hard fought loss, you will hear what IAF Organizer Mike Gecan calls 'the most beautiful question you could hear in organizing'--what do we do next?

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