Saturday, December 20, 2008

San Diego Show, Jan 11.

Omar Torrez and the Stephen Siciliano will perform 'Vedette Does La Danza' at La Gran Tapa in downtown San Diego on Sunday, Jan 11, at 5 p.m and 7 p.m. La Gran Tapa (6th and B streets) is a downtown institution dating back to 1984 with an elegant, woodsy interior, delicious Spanish menu, and a regular stream of performers. We hope you'll join us for a unique presentation.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Chicago Sit-In: Final Take

As "victories" go, severance pay and vacation coupled with two months of health insurance (get sick quick!), it isn't much.

Michael Luo and Karen Ann Cullotta of the "New York Times" finished up what Monica Davey started with her coverage of a sit-in at a Chicago window factory conducted by Local 1110 of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of American (UE).

As we noted in "A Resurgence of Things Past," the labor coverage, especially of a factory takeover by an infamous and radical union, is a rarity from our mainstream media and perhaps symbolic of a change in the tenor of the times.

Defrauded by Wall Street's payback for years of fawning coverage, media types seem most fascinated with this new toy of industrial relations the current national troubles have thrust under their noses.

Luo and Cullotta's coverage makes clear that, in the real world, our own goals are usually at odds with those who employ us, because we want more pay for the service we're rendering and they want to hold the remuneration down.

The coverage depicts the ways in which union representation brings a certain degree of clout and specific know-how where waging this venerable battle is concerned.

In the case of Republic Windows and Doors, the company's sly moves toward disinvesting itself of a nearly 50-year old factory and the 250 people who manned it, did not go unnoticed to the untrained eye, according to the piece:

"But a few of the factory's union leaders had been anticipating this moment. Several weeks before, they had noticed equipment disappearing from the plant, and began tracing it to a nearby rail yard."

Luo and Culotta then note that reps from an old industrial gladiator like the UE have specific remedies for just such situations:

"And so in secret, they had been discussing a bold but potentially dangerous plan: occupying the factory if it closed."

And then further application of industrial knowledge expressed by "groove cutter" Melvin Maclin.

"We knew keeping the windows in the warehouse was a bargaining chip."

UE also knew how the workers' peremptory dismissal reduced their options by eliminating any chance to formulate personal survival plans, which played into their hands. To wit:

"I ain't got no other choice," Alexis McCoy, 32, a driver's assistant, said later. "I have a newborn. I have to take care of my family."

Hailed as symbols of something larger afoot in the land, the workers said all they wanted was what they had coming to them under the law: 60 days severance pay and earned vacation time.

So they took over the factory and the negotiations began.

The company's Chief Executive Officer, Richard Gillman, "demanded that any new bank loan to help the employees also cover the lease of several of his cars -- a 2007 BMS 350xi and a 2002 Mercedes S500 are among those registered to company addresses -- as well as eighth weeks of his salary, at $225,000 a year."

To quote F. Scott Fitzgerald, "Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me..."

The UE people did not know that the factory's owners had set up a new company and purchased a window and manufacturing plant from Red Oak, Iowa, where it planned to employ 102 nonunion employees.

The news about the cars and the new plant were not common and widely available knowledge, but the result of good investigative reporting.

highwayscribery would like to point out that this kind of thing -- justice, in a name -- happens when two endangered civic institutions, unions and the American newspaper, thrive.

So the whole sit-in/takeover thing resulted in something of sorely needed triumph for organized labor and a updated primer for many beleaguered Americans on the virtue and uses of trade unionism.

The "Times" asked Bob Bruno, director, labor studies, University of Illinois at Chicago, to put it all into perspective:

"If you combine some palpable street anger with organizational resources in a changing political mood, you can begin to see more of these sort of riskier, militant adventures, and they're more likely to succeed."

That remains to be seen.

Mr. Bruno's perspective is a somewhat, shall we say, Ivory Tower one. the highway scribe can say so because he lives and works in the Tower, too.

Here's a crucial paragraph explaining why things went the way they did instead of the way they usually go:

"Local politicians discouraged the police from arresting the workers [the usual] Exasperated company officials decided not to press the matter as the news media began arriving in droves" [the unusual].

the highway scribe thinks the mass media is less likely to hop around from factory sit-in to plant takeover if this sort of thing becomes epidemic.

He would also note that, as we were recently reminded, Chicago politicians are somewhat a breed apart and replication of their response to the sit-in should not be expected elsewhere in the country.

"The Times" never did get into the UE's more radical-than-thou-history and communist pedigree, but maybe that's a good thing. Maybe had they done so the scribe and other laborites would be questioning the relevance of a union's politics from 60 years ago while accusing the reporters of red-baiting an honest-to-goodness effort.

In all, the coverage was certainly welcome and even over-generous to the workers, whom are pictured above, in declaring them "victorious."

For theirs was the kind of victory we treasure in our mediatic culture: victory in the arena of public relations, because of the way we reduce all things to products for consumption whether they be a blender, a book, or a strike.

The strikers' "story" sold better than the malicious management team's and so they gain the trophy.

But true victory would have involved a company commitment to close the new plant it purchased and which we can only assume still represents its near future.

A true victory would have involved Bank of America ponying-up some of the money it had received in the federal bank bailout to relieve existing management's crushing financial problems.

Or better still, it might have financed a new worker-owned (gasp!) and run entity at the same location.

Those workers clearly know what they're doing.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

highwayscribery launches "Vito's Page"

Today is the birthday of former Rep. Vito Marcantonio. Today the scribe launches a My Space page to commemorate the great man. highwayscribery has written about Marcantonio as part of a series known as "Vito Says..." wherein the progressive congressman's mid-twentieth century political positions were linked with issues of relevance today.

The page is meant to serve as what they call a "platform" in the book business for the scribe's upcoming fictionalized account of Marcantonio's life, "The Goodfather." The platform is a way of identifying and contacting potential markets, sales "positioning," and general public relations for the project.

For now there is some basic information about Mar, a great series of photos, and blog re-posts of "Vito Says..." Later, as they are ready, chapters from "The Goodfather," will be deposited on the site.

"Vedette Does La Danza" and London

"Vedette Does La Danza" has placed second in the "audio books" category" at the Do-It-Yourself London Books Festival. It is the second kudo in as many months. The flamenco-infused spoken word/musical presentation of the scribe's novel "Vedette," to cuts from Omar Torrez' albums "La Danza en Mi Corazon," and "Dynamisto," won the "abridged fiction audio books" category in the USA Book News Awards contest last month.

Monday, December 08, 2008

A Resurgence of Things Past

The winds of political fashion are not so whimsical as those that blow the hemlines of the apparel industry up and down, but they are more enduring and significant.

About two months ago, an online personality at the writers community This Is By Us, who goes by the handle of Xigent, took the time to watch a video presentation of "Vedette Does La Danza."

Among other interesting and kind things Xigent had to say about this musical/spoken word collaboration with Omar Torrez, was "Attendance to performances like these will really pick-up considerably during the coming Depression, you'll see."

What seemed a light-hearted quip about our nation's dire economic circumstances turned out to be prescient. Daily plays at the "Vedette Does La Danza" My Space page have jumped considerably of late.

"Vedette," the novel from which all this musical material is drawn, is essentially the tale of young flamenco singer's engagement with anarchists (of the kind pictured) who assume control of the town in which she lives at the Spanish Civil War's outset.

It is full of direct action politics including an attempted takeover of a rich bullfighter's ranch, the declaration of free love in an Andalusian village, collectivist experiments, and atheistic tropes, all of which left the highway scribe sitting, in literary terms, where he sat for years regarding things political...

... way outside.

Back in February we posted "highwayscribery on Super Tuesday" a full-throated endorsement of then-Sen. Barack Obama.

There was nothing novel in this. Since he was old enough to vote the scribe has backed the leftish guy in the Democratic Party primaries (Ted Kennedy '80, Jesse Jackson '84 and '88, Jerry Brown '92) only to suck it up, hold his nose and pull the lever for the likes of Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, and yes, Bill Clinton, in the general elections.

Then a weird thing happened. the scribe's first choice won the nomination and then, to his complete and enduring shock, the general election.

Clearly something had changed in the American psyche, which is very closely linked to its wallet. So much so that sales of "Vedette" actually began to pick up. They are not mass sales, but they are much better than zero and unlike anything enjoyed before.

Which brings us to the sit-in by union factory workers in that city du jour, Chicago.

Monica Davey of the "New York Times" reports that some 250 workers at Republic Windows and Doors have begun to stage a sit-in of the type favored by Vedette's comrades, after learning their jobs were being terminated... with three days notice.

There are class rumblings in all this that are related to the ever-growing distance between rich and poor in this country.

For some 30 years now it has been fashionable to declare the antagonism between classes an historical oddity substituted by dreamy soft-sells like the Bush administration's short-lived "ownership society" or the popular "team concept" of industrial relations hatched in Japan and imported to American projects like General Motor's "Saturn."

Not that class warfare is a good thing or its termination undesirable, but the unrelenting greed of international capitalist class did everything it could to fan the dying embers and now we've got the desperate poor resenting the extremely well-heeled across a divide once occupied by the conflict-absorbing middle-class.

The result is events like the Chicago sit-down, which is a plant takeover by any other name, where the workers, according Davey's piece, are not buying claims the decade's-old company is in financial straights, "and they suggested that it would reopen elsewhere with cheaper costs and lower pay."

There's ample precedent for this thinking, of course.

Which brings us back to the President-elect. There has been some hand-wringing of late in progressive circles as Obama casts about for people with experience in the business of government and settles upon a number of Clinton holdovers.

But asked about the plant takeover in his hometown, rather than dredge-up tired bromides about the rule of law and imply police action in private property's defense, here's what Obama said:

"The workers are asking for the benefits and payments they have earned. I think they're absolutely right and understand that what's happening to them is reflective of what's happening across the economy."

As a long-time and professional observer of labor relations in the United States, the scribe can assure you that Obama's position represents change of the most dramatic kind.

How important are his pronouncements?

President Bush made it clear that whatever you have at the top, such as disdain for democratic traditions, you have throughout the government, and ruling cliques the nation over.

And so, picking up on the President-elect's position, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich (D) said the state would do no more business with Bank of America until it restores credit to Republic Windows and Doors.

Davey is doing a nice job of covering the sit-in, but she may lack experience covering American labor.

the highways scribe, who does not, can tell you that the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America - "UE" to those in the know - are an old and radical left-wing union thrown out of the Congress of Industrial Organizations in the 1950s for its alleged communist ties.

the scribe covered their convention some 20 years ago, a time of yellow-dog contracts and picket-line retreat everywhere, and was quite taken aback at one UE leader's threat that, "We can and will do economic harm to any employer who thinks the Bill of Rights ceases to apply once one of our members passes through the factory gates."

Later, the delegates at that same convention enjoyed an address from a leader of the International Longshoreman and Warehouse Union , which shared a like pedigree, and whom spoke on "The Meaning of Left-Wing Unionism," fondly recalling the rate of syndical affiliation during the "New Deal."

"It was a thing to behold," he waxed nostalgiac.

The resurfacing of such groups and sentiments are the kinds of things that happen when the powerful lord too much over those who have not, pry away hard-earned things, and back them into corners.

This Is By Us, by the way, is closing February due to lack of advertising revenue.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Kudos for "Vedette"

First of all, the highwayscribery would like to announce his return to blogging after a post-election respite. There is much to comment on in this tremendous and amazing world we've created and the juices are flowing anew. the scribe took a break after the Obama triumph not to recharge so much as to work on his journalism job ($), research a new novel about Vito Marcantonio, and read a bunch of books.

Speaking of books, we told you some time ago "Vedette or Conversations with the Flamenco Shadows had been recipient of an Eric Hoffer Award, which was an honor except for when they threatened him for posting a "copyrighted" picture of Hoffer on highwayscribery.

But that's all in the past.

The Hoffer people put out an annual collection of "Best New Writing" and the 2008 edition says of the novel:

Siciliano's "Vedette" is a fantasy, brilliantly intertwined with the myth of flamenco and the history of the Spanish Civil War. Vedette is part Lolita and mostly a survivor, and much to the author's credit, her story is told in shaded points of view that only increase the mystery. Like the people she supposedly haunts, Vedette's story frequents your thoughts long after reading.

All of which we are totally in agreement with.