64 - Crossing the Line

Union Flag

My early years were filled with reading. I was an omnivorous reader, reading any and everything. Two books that radicalized me were Thorstein Veblen’s ‘Theory of the Leisure Class’ and Ethel Mannin’s ‘Comrade O Comrade’. From the latter I determined that Anarchism was the best brand. When I got to New York City’s Lower East Side in the 60’s, well before it became gentrified, I sought out and joined an Anarchist group called the Libertarian League. Affiliated with this group was a relic of early American Unionism, the I.W.W., also known as the Wobblies, spearheaded by Sam Dolgoff. From Sam and the others I learned to venerate unionism. I learned that the means of production should be in the hands of the workers. If I had known then what I know now, my view of unions might not have been so rosy.

These were primarily armchair Anarchists, long on theory but short on practice, although the two leaders, Sam Dolgoff and Russell Blackwell, had been very active when they were younger. One thing I learned from them was that the end does not justify the means and long after I left New York I carried this belief into all my future endeavors.

The I.W.W., or Industrial Workers of the World, felt that worker control of the means of production was the way to a true Anarchist society where none would lead but all would participate. The unspoken belief was that man was basically good and, if not tied down by external forces, folks would head in the right direction. Doing the right thing in a morally correct way was very important. They were idealists and so I became an idealist too. Dirty tricks, lies and bullying were not acceptable tactics. In opposition to the Communists we did not believe that a worthy end was justified by unworthy means.

I was in the group just before and in the time of the Civil Rights movement in the USA. Seemed then like everyone I knew was seeking higher moral ground.

When I came back to Canada I ended up working for the Government. At that time there were many support staff. Bubbling under, during the years that I worked there was a grievance identified as Pay Equity. Support staff were not receiving equal pay for equal work. We were living in the tail end of a top down paternal system which assumed that women would be paid less, no matter what they did.

Now, this was a very just cause. No question about it. There was unfairness and it was not being addressed. I went to many union meetings and listened to this and listened to that. As we geared up to Strike I was immersed in union propaganda. I received all kinds of encouragement to go on strike. I was debating the matter in my head.

There were certain people who fell into an area between management and support staff. Their positions were covered by the Union that wished to go on strike. Some of these folks did not support the strike for reasons of their own which I was not privy to. One of these was a friend of mine, originally from Czechoslovakia. He had been the recipient of the attentions of the Soviet Union during the ill-fated 1968 Prague Spring, when the Soviet forces invaded Czechoslovakia to crush this pro democracy movement.

Certain members of the Union in my own workplace, and I’m not saying that the whole Union supported this, were phoning those who refused to go on Strike and threatening them over the phone. My friend had such a call. His children were there and one of them answered the phone. This child was threatened with reprisals by a Union member because his daddy was a bad man who was going to cross the picket line. My Czech friend told me about this. He said, “These people are amateurs. I’ve been bullied by professionals” by which he meant the Communists.

I could not take a light-hearted view of this, and other instances of bullying. There were others who were threatened with nastiness as well.

In my mind, morally, the end did not justify the means. My Anarchist group had taught me this. Without question the cause of the Strike was just. Unfairness needed to be addressed. This all needed to be sorted out but I could not support their tactics, I could not, I could not, I could not support their tactics. Bullying was wrong. I made a decision. I would cross the line.

Cross the line I did. I was faced daily by a screaming mob as I tried to go to work. They never jostled me or physically assaulted me. It was all verbal. These were the people I worked with and their supporters. They were standing there screaming in my face as I tried to get in the door. One time I turned around and retreated. They followed me, almost chasing me, so I stopped and faced them again and they moved back. It struck me then that they were cowards.

At one point they were blocking the door with their bodies. I was nose-to-nose with the one who was closest to the door handle. While they were screaming at me, a businessman, walking by with his suit and his briefcase stopped and said, “Leave her alone!” They heard that more than anything they might have heard from me. Obviously a meeting was held and a decision made because the next day there was no more screaming. They just turned their backs on me as I walked in. If a reporter’s camera had caught the confrontation the day before it would have been bad publicity for them, I suppose. Either that or they may have sensed that I was not going to give in.

I was told to use an entrance at the other end of the building where some of the folks I worked closely with were stationed. There was some name calling, ‘Scab!” and so forth. Management had to escort me in those doors when that became the entrance, a job they did not relish.

Inside, perhaps by coincidence, the air conditioning had gone off, so there was no air circulation, and no-one would come in to repair it. This was in a closed building and the air became very dead and muggy, unpleasant to breathe and hot since this was in the summertime. Everything was deathly quiet. I had to sit at my computer and do what work there was, not too much of that, until the allotted time for working was over.

Things had ground to a halt, due to the Strike. I helped with some technical stuff, accessing data and so forth, which I could do because I’m a demi-geek.

I was not very happy. I was quite shaken. I would go into a washroom stall and meditate on a pillar of light trying to armor myself against all the animosity. It wasn’t easy.

When, finally, the long Strike was over and they won, working with those who had gone on Strike wasn’t easy. For the next several years, as long as I worked there, I experienced animosity. Some folks gradually mellowed but the he die hard Union people certainly didn’t. I wasn’t ‘best beloved’ but I was what I was and some of them came to accept that. I never told them why I had crossed the line. It involved another person and my reaction to the telephone bullying and I just figured they did not have the ears to hear me, so I said nothing. I just kept it to myself and very gradually the wounds healed over.

It was a moral stand and, in this instance, I had to cross the line.

Wavy Line

© Sonia Brock 2007

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