My first year of grad school, when I was 22 and apparently much less afflicted by social anxiety than I am now, I walked into this building to find the seven TAs in the University of Iowa Dance Department and ask them to sign authorization cards for UE Local 896/COGS. I didn’t know any of them, I didn’t know anything about dance, but in my department (history) almost everyone had already joined, so those of us who were most committed to organizing went out and adopted other departments. I took theater, dance and music.

I don’t remember how many of the seven Dance TAs I signed up personally, or how many were signed up by the woman I recruited to be an organizer for her department, but I do remember that Dance was the first, and possibly only, department to get 100% of their co-workers signed up on authorization cards.

The last two weeks I was in Iowa helping Local 896 prepare for the recertification election required by Iowa’s 2017 anti-union law and, I have to admit, I came in with a little bit of a doom-and-gloom attitude. In the last two-plus decades, I’ve seen the labor movement lose more than it won, and have gone through bitter and embittering internal struggles in almost every organization I’ve been a part of. I now have this wisdom and experience to see every potential terrible outcome of every action.

Of course, if I had had that “wisdom” when I was 22, I never would have stepped into that building. I never would have given those Dance TAs the option to say yes rather than no.

Happy Labor Day everybody.

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The Smash Up Derby: Bringing Working Class Politics to Podcast Nation

Originally published at Labor Online

Earlier this year, my friend Sam Smucker and I started the Smash Up Derby podcast – a podcast about “working class politics.” By working class politics we mean a political perspective rooted in the shop-floor struggle for power in the workplace, expressed through unions or other organizations advocating for working people.

We’ve both been in the labor movement, on and off, for over two decades, and we were both inspired by the Bernie Sanders campaign and the phenomenal growth of interest in socialist politics in the last year. However, we’ve been dismayed by the frequent disconnect between this new political energy on the Left and the labor movement. We started collaborating on this project with the hope that we could bring working class politics to new audiences while producing a show that is fun and entertaining.

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Quitting time

In the late-90s/early-2000s, when my trade of ticket-selling had not yet moved to the web, my co-workers and I had identified a number of archetypes among our customers.

One of these was the Tragically Hip fan. Working-class, generally with thick Vermont accents, mostly from the then-still-industrial towns along the Canadian border where they heard more Canadian than U.S. radio, they would flood into Burlington and sell out the 2600-capacity Memorial Auditorium. Most of them would refer to the band as “T. Hip,” and, in keeping with the economical approach to everything characteristic of New Englanders, some would say nothing more than “T. Hip tickets” when we answered the phone.

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Watching ourselves watch each other

A couple of weeks ago I read David Foster Wallace’s essay on television and American fiction, “E Unibus Pluram,”* and I have been turning it over in my mind ever since.

One of the commonplaces of “communication professionals” in the age of social media is that the advent of the internet, and especially social media, represents a qualitative, epoch-defining shift in how humans communicate with each other. The old era of one-to-many mass communication, stretching from Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press to cable television, has now given way to a new era of many-to-many communication, in which anyone with a smartphone and a YouTube account can “go viral.”

I am old enough to remember the pre-internet era, and when Foster Wallace refers to television as “having its pretty hand around my generation’s throat,” I relate, even though I never watched much television. My parents (East Coasters who relocated to the Midwest for an academic job, much like Foster Wallace’s parents) strictly supervised my TV-watching habits as a kid: limited screen time, mostly PBS. They refused to get cable until well after I left for college. They blamed the rightward drift of the country under Reagan in part on television.

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Secret Histories of America

I was a true child of the 80s. I have very few memories that go back before 1980. In fact, one of my earlier memories can be definitively dated to the summer of 1980, as it is of vacationing with some family friends — true East-coast liberal elites — and overhearing them talking with my parents about how they couldn’t believe that Americans would possibly elect a know-nothing actor with retrograde right-wing views, but were kind of worried because the Democratic candidate was weak.

The popular music of the 80s was made exclusively by people who used too much product on their hair and too much electronic processing on their instruments. One the one hand, Top 40 hits were all made with synthesizers and drum machines, and on the other hand you had heavy metal guys whose guitars looked like lightning bolts and went through a battery of effects pedals: distortion, delay, compression, EQ.

The first concert I went to was when I was twelve, and I convinced my father to take me to Kemper Arena in Kansas City to see Nightranger, on a double-bill with Starship. I was pretty indifferent to Starship, but one of my father’s co-workers, who was a few years younger than him, heard that he was going to see Starship and insisted on lending him a bunch of old Jefferson Airplane records.

This blew my 12-year-old mind.

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What would a Just Transition in healthcare look like?

Almost eight years ago, the Vermont Workers’ Center launched the Healthcare Is a Human Right campaign, which powered Vermont’s move towards creating a equitable, universal healthcare system. While the current Vermont governor, Peter Shumlin, who was elected on the promise of delivering a single-payer healthcare system, announced in December that he was abandoning that goal, the Healthcare Is a Human Right campaign was never just about winning policy change. It is about winning recognition that the right to healthcare, and really, the right to health, is a fundamental human right that needs to be supported and promoted in all parts of our communities.

Health is about more than just the absence of illness. Indeed, when we use terms like “healthy communities,” “healthy schools” or “healthy relationships,” we mean communities, schools and relationships whose members are not just free of ailments, but are respected, supported, and encouraged to fully develop to their potential as whole human beings.

As Dr. James S. Gordon, the director of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine, pointed out twenty years ago in Manifesto for a New Medicine, a sort of bible for the wise use of alternative therapies, the “biomedicine” developed in Western Europe in the 18th, 19th and 20th century has been fantastically successful at curing and preventing a wide range of maladies that have caused an immense amount of suffering and death throughout human history. However, it has been much less successful in dealing with the chronic suffering that afflicts many of us – suffering that Dr. Gordon and other practitioners of “holistic” medicine have had success in treating with an approach that emphasizes understanding patients as whole and unique individuals, respecting patients as active partners in their own healing, investigating the contribution of social environments to physical suffering, and incorporating elements of the world’s other healing traditions, such as traditional Chinese medicine and Indian Ayurveda.

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