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Labor & Economy

Finding Grace at Local 416




Sebastian Alonzo graduated into “journeyman” status a couple of Fridays ago at the Iron Workers union hall in Norwalk. The 26-year old, who struggled to make it out of high school, completed the five-year training program and now will make top wage – about $33 an hour – in his trade.

“It’s the best achievement I’ve accomplished in my life,” he said, pointing out that his family came there that night to cheer him on.

As part of the graduation ritual, Alonzo and 35 other new journeymen stood in front of a packed audience whose members had traveled from across Los Angeles and Orange Counties to watch the proceedings. The graduates this night included men and women, whites, Latinos, African Americans and Asians. The group – as the cliché goes – looked like America.

As in most union ceremonies, the apprentices had to recite an oath before receiving their certificates. At Section 19 of the oath’s “Obligations for Members,” graduates raised their right hands and promised “by all honorable means” to be respectful of “widows, widowers, orphans and the weak and defenseless.” Less Karl Marx than the Boy Scouts. From the determined look in their eyes, it struck me that they had every intention of following those precepts.

While I grew up going with my father to union meetings, where these kinds of passages were spoken, the vocabulary and syntax has always struck me as exotic – a holdover from the era of Samuel Gompers. Members are referred to as “brothers” and “sisters,” while “rat” and “scab” are words of ultimate excoriation, and “The Boss” is not Bruce Springsteen but the person who demands your time, your mind and your muscle.

For many labor and cultural historians however, it is the decline of these seemingly archaic practices within the larger society that should be lamented.

The labor historian Herbert Gutman wrote about the ways in which the expansion of capitalism transformed both the workplace and communities. On the job site, time became a commodity that was obsessively managed while “rural” or “artisan” habits of work behavior or moral standards were undermined. Ethnic “subcultures” – traditional celebrations and time-honored expectations of ample leisure time – were sanctioned if they did not fit into the emerging ethos of efficiency and control. You can help the “weak and defenseless” on your own time, thank you very much.

Before this great transformation, Gutman argued, working people and their families were better able to “surround their way of work with a way of life.” Contemporary sociologists may mourn the decline of bowling leagues, but it was whole communities that fragmented first. Local institutions – the neighborhood church, the union hall and the pub – were places where people met face to face, important information was exchanged and larger solidarities created.  While these places to meet still exist, their ability to help form a widespread communal purpose or to challenge the hypnotic power of the media – have diminished.

As I stood in the middle of all of these iron workers and their families – surrounded by banners, posters exhorting political action, religious icons fashioned out of iron rebar – I imagined how strange the atmosphere might be to the vast majority of Americans who have never been inside a union hall. Nationally, only 11 percent of workers now belong to a union and, with many dispersed geographically, it is often difficult to convince even the members to visit.

But in another way, it’s possible that the union hall’s eccentric vocabulary is what attracted me. Unordinary and “remote” language, Aristotle wrote, can cause wonder and wonder is pleasurable.

It is fashionable in entrepreneurial circles to celebrate the diminished hold that “old” organizations and “outdated” practices have over our economic and social life. “We thrive on chaos” and “We break things” are the mantras of self-help leadership gurus who don’t seem to understand that it is much easier to tear down institutions than to build them.

When I was driving from Norwalk to my home on the Westside, I imagined the other places I could have been on a Friday night: dinner, a movie, hanging out with friends.

But I also thought about something else Sebastian Alonzo said that made me feel lucky I made the choice I did.

“We are young and we have strong backs,” he told me. “The older guys teach us what they have learned through the years and we help them with the physical part on the job when we see them struggling.” This beautiful statement recognized what I wish was more obvious. There are times in life when we are all strong, and other times when we need the help of others. Unknowingly, he had lifted me up.

Unions, like many once-cherished institutions, have suffered through hard times. Some pundits say they are through, that they are vestiges of a different kind of world. Others believe they are needed now more than ever, a crucial rampart against economic despotism.

I don’t imagine most of the members of Local 416 see themselves as one of the last bastions standing between democracy and oligarchy.  But to embrace someone as a brother or a sister is to incur obligations that are not easily discarded.  To freely carry out these responsibilities is what is called character.   Whatever the historical outcome for unions may be, I hope room is retained in our society for the deep values and radiant language that was central to the solemn oath those new journeymen took one Friday night.

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