Truthdig Radio: Power in a Union
Posted on Apr 7, 2011
Howie Stier: Draped in a neon-colored toga, L.A. performance artist Ari Kletzky was inspired to transform himself into a polychrome Statue of Liberty to make a stand for workers’ rights. He was accompanied by costume designer Rachel Weir. Can you tell me about your outfit here today?
Ari Kletzky: We are celebrating liberty and justice, which is the ability for everyone to have the freedom to influence our government without being controlled by other people’s privilege and wealth.
Howie Stier: OK, all these union members out here, they’re also protesting and exercising their rights; they’re just not dressed in every swath of fabric you could buy in Santee Alley. What explains this outfit—or do you dress like this every day?
Rachel Weir: I wanted to participate in this protest as an artist, and so I’m a costume designer and I express myself through costume. And I wanted to explore the celebratory nature of justice, and to me that means bright colors, that means psychedelic, that means wearing a wig, that means going in drag. It means being fabulous.
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Rachel Weir: Ah, a little bit. Wish I was working more, but I’m doing some footwork. I’m becoming a member of the Costumers Local 705. And I’m making contacts through there, and being a part of a community.
Howie Stier: You plan to join a union—are they going to get a job for you, or do you have to have a job before you join a union?
Rachel Weir: I currently have a job that gave me the opportunity to join the union.
Howie Stier: Patrick Kelly is the secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local  from Orange County, California.
Patrick Kelly: My name’s Patrick Kelly, I’m with Teamsters Local 952.
Howie Stier: How many people are in your union?
Patrick Kelly: There’s about 9,000 active, and there’s about 1,300 or 1,400 that are out of work right now.
Howie Stier: How long have those 1,300 been out of work?
Patrick Kelly: For the last year and a half, two years.
Howie Stier: And what’s your message here today?
Patrick Kelly: Our message is that union people need to band together, register to vote, raise money for their packs, and start directly confronting the non-union employers, and pushing wages and benefits up.
Howie Stier: Governor Brown just announced billions of dollars in cuts. Is that affecting your union members?
Patrick Kelly: Yeah, it’s affecting everybody. And my remedy on that is, let’s have a tax on the oil industry at the well head, and raise some serious money, because everybody’s getting killed on their gas and diesel prices. We need to recover that money from the oil companies and the energy companies at the point of production. Thoughts on what Obama could do to stimulate jobs for union members—stop supporting the hedge fund Democrats and the financial class, and start creating some jobs for working people and the unemployed.
Howie Stier: Phillip Mesa is an affable, 40-year-old grocery clerk who stocks the dairy department in an Albertson’s store in Ontario, California. He is also the rapper known as Mr. Picket Man.
Phillip Mesa: My name is Phillip Mesa.
Howie Stier: You’re a union activist?
Phillip Mesa: Yes, a union activist, union member. I’m on the executive board for my local UFCW Local 1428. I’m an Albertson’s employee that’s been with Albertson’s for 20 years.
Howie Stier: What does the store think about your rapping and Mr. Picket Man?
Phillip Mesa: A lot of the stores, especially some of the recent management that I’ve had, they understand that it’s not that we want to set the company down, because we need the company to have our jobs. We just want the company to negotiate fairly with us as workers, and I feel most of the managers that I’ve worked for in the past two years understand that—the union would rather work with the company than work against the company. And I think they appreciate me; I’m honest with them and they’re honest with me.
Howie Stier: What’s your hourly wage at Albertsons?
Phillip Mesa: Ah, $19.55, with Albertsons.
Howie Stier: That’s after 20 years.
Phillip Mesa: Yeah, that’s at the top. The new ones are starting basically at minimum wage; I’m at the end, one of the last, the dying breed that probably has made this a career. A lot of the new hires, I mean a lot of the new ones won’t stick around to reach that point. The ones that are like me, myself, I mean, as we retire and get older and phase out of the industry, it’s going to be, basically, I feel that they’re just going to try to squeeze it down to a low-paying, low-wage job with high turnover rate, just to keep their costs down, just like a Wal-Mart does or something like that. And we just want to return it to the status that it once was, and that’s to be a good quality career, job.
Howie Stier: We take you out with Mr. Picket Man’s workers’ rap, “Fight On.” [Rap music playing]
Peter Scheer: I’m Peter Scheer with Josh Scheer, and we’re speaking with Truthdig sports writer, and L.A. Times sports writer, Mark Heisler. And we want to ask, as part of this national-themed show about labor—broaden the discussion and talk a little bit about sports labor. Because really, as you outline in your newest Truthdig piece, Mark, sports is an area where labor movements have been very successful.
Mark Heisler: It’s a weird, ah…really stretching the term labor, there. [Laughter] Because, you know, the labor is rich, by and large.
Peter Scheer: Right.
Mark Heisler: So…and in baseball, the labor kind of runs the game; it’s really more powerful than the administration. So it’s kind of a, it’s definitely a specialized area of labor.
Josh Scheer: I had a quick question, though, for the KPFK audience, because I’ve always actually wondered this, and I was trying to find this out. Do the major league baseball players’ union, the NBA union—maybe you don’t know, maybe no one knows this—but do they actually support the public service unions and other unions, or is it kind of they’re out for themselves?
Mark Heisler: I don’t really know the answer to that, but my impression is—I’ve never read anything or heard anything about it—I think they’re pretty much, you know, like stand-alone entities. I don’t think they have very much to do with each other. Except there is some crossover—I think there’s a guy named Jeff Kessler, if I got the name right [Laughter]—I’m always getting, I get the Jeffs mixed up back there, and you know, some of them work for the league and some of them work for the NBA. But if I got the right one, you know, I think he may be doing some stuff for the NFL union right now…
Josh Scheer: Yeah. And he also does some stuff for the NBA too.
Mark Heisler: Yeah, his big thing is the NBA. And in management, too, Gary Bettman, who runs the NHL … was David Stern’s right-hand man. There was some crossover, you know, within sports. But there isn’t a whole lot outside of that, even if some very important people, like Marvin Miller, you know, came to baseball, came to the baseball union, I think he was like a steelworkers guy or somethin’.
Josh Scheer: Yeah, Howard Ganz, also, he reps both the NBA and the NFL in terms of the management side [Laughs], as an attorney. But it’s interesting, though, because these unions are very successful and they’re very big, but we do—you know, the other unions that are in trouble…these, I mean, these unions expect us to go, like, “Oh, $9.3 billion, that’s a lot of money.” Right? So you’d think they’d want to support the lower-end unions, but…
Mark Heisler: The union movement in general, you know, there’s…you talk about workers and solidarity, and supporting each other…You know, I think everybody kind of understands, as athletes and owners of sports teams, that’s a whole different thing; it’s just like its own little niche. And it’s an elite niche on both sides. And it doesn’t have very much to do with the outside world. So baseball owners…don’t have very much to do with U.S. Steel or anything like that.
Josh Scheer: No.
Peter Scheer: But there was a time when that wasn’t the case. And you had in the, I forget what year it was, but back when basketball, when the NBA was a struggling entity and the players showed some solidarity, the famous players and the less-famous players, refusing to play in the all-star game that year.
Mark Heisler: Oh yeah, I think [there’s] solidarity within the unions and within the sports…
Peter Scheer: But there was a time when they weren’t, you know, pulling together for millions and millions of dollars for the richest among them. There was a time when it was just about having some basic standards, right, some basic safety?
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