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Op-Ed

Unions and America fit together like … Legos

An author's message to her grandson: If we don't love and support the working men and women of this country, we are in deep trouble.

September 05, 2011|By Anne Lamott

I love unions. I love them in the same way I love libraries and redwood groves. They are like churches: sacred. They are what make this country great. So, besides taking my 2-year-old grandson, Jax, to a library or to a park with redwoods almost every day, I have also helped him to get to know a community of union workers. A year ago, I got a huge box of medium-size Lego blocks and figurines, and we have been holding rallies ever since. Power to the People. And while we're at it, Solidarity Forever.

I don't have the time or space to introduce you to each of these union workers, but let me just mention a few.

There's Mavis, a blond Molly Ivins type and the leader of the International Ladies Garment Workers' Union, and Al, a longshoreman. There are two matching zookeepers who are older, and brothers, born to the same green plastic mother (at a hospital where the nurses are proud union members). There is Phil, the sailor, of Seafarers International; Libby, who belongs to the California Federation of Teachers; and her wife, Deirdre, who is a Teamster. Sydney, who dresses like a jungle explorer in a safari jacket and helmet, is a union rep, working on behalf of all workers to keep unions strong.

Everyone loves Sydney: He is one of those exquisitely decent, old-fashioned working-class guys who made this country great. Jax and I often build him a low platform and podium of Lego blocks from which he talks to other workers about the fight for workers' rights, telling them to never give up, and reminding them that the pendulum always swings back toward fairness and equality.

I have taught Jax all the old union songs that my parents taught me — "Joe Hill," "We Shall Not Be Moved," "John Henry," "Bread and Roses." So sometimes as we play, we also sing: "Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses."

For good measure, I sometimes play him "La Marseillaise" on the kazoo, and he plays along on a bongo drum.

Why do I do this? Because I believe that if you don't love and support the working men and women of this country, you are in deep trouble. You are going to get a terrible seat in heaven. Probably a patio chair, with plastic lattice bands, the kind that leave fat welts on the back of your thighs when you stand up.

Are you hearing that, politicians? I wasn't going to name names, but I'm still not over being appalled with Arnold Schwarzenegger's attacks on unions. Remember his compulsive trash-talking about nurses and teachers? Nurses and teachers, for God's sake! Could he possibly think that God shares his bad opinion of them? Of course not. It was almost funny to watch him bullying them and their unions. It made me ask myself something I used to wonder constantly about Dick Cheney: Hasn't this guy ever heard the word "karma"?

I guess it is a plank of the Christian right to be anti-union now. But remember, there are still a lot of us in the Christian left, and we don't feel that way. When I was growing up, everyone I knew was pro-union, just like everyone used public libraries and everyone in California was proud of the public education system and loved the state's natural beauty. People would fight and rally and protest and donate to help preserve it.

Then Ronald Reagan came along, and having seen one redwood, he had seen them all, and it was pretty much a straight line from there to Arnold's shaking his mighty broom at us as he trash-talked the nurses and teachers.

I understand why politicians want to see labor as the cause of most of our societal and economic problems. It takes the focus off the banks, the corporations, the military-industrial complex. But public school teachers? I guess they really are sort of greedy and grabby — not to mention rich. Especially those greedy-grabby public school special ed teachers. My younger brother is one of them, and boy, is he raking it in. Talk about take, take, take.

My grandson and I just about went crazy watching the unions protest in Wisconsin in the spring. "Those are our people!" I shouted to the television, although neither of us actually has a job. He joined the chorus, in his native Latvian. We clapped, and ate Cheetos, and danced and put all the workers together on the green Lego base plate. Our pride was contagious: My two union dogs milled around, licking us enthusiastically and levitating Cheetos right out of the baby's fists.

The whole world will be bombarding my grandson with messages about individual and personal success aimed at teaching him to love the almighty buck, but I want my grandchild to grow up in a family that loves labor, as I did. And I want him to know that when workers' rights or libraries or redwood groves are threatened, it's incumbent on us to show up with our kazoos and bongos.

Otherwise, I tell him, this country is doomed. And then I add, "But not on our watch, right, dude?" and he claps and cheers.

Anne Lamott's latest book is the novel "Imperfect Birds."

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