This Week on "This American Life": A Grassroots Picket
Labor organizing requires grueling hours on the road, which is why most of us have become devout podcast subscribers. Built on a solid reputation of entertaining and nuanced storytelling, "This American Life" is often at the top of most organizers’ playlists.
This mutual interest has led to an interesting dynamic where our conversations include discussions about the show itself or the use of specific stories as reference points. We have even come to notice a subtle phenomenon where certain stories are internalized such that one often struggles to recall "This American Life" as the source.
But as organizers we still remain expert listeners trained to recognize the siren call of an anti-worker, anti-union message despite the means or messenger.
After reading just the headline of Mike Parker’s March 31 blog, "'This American Life' on Auto Workers: A Hack Job,'" I immediately skipped past my podcast backlog to hear which story would be woven around such a controversial issue as the turbulent American auto industry. (The episode of the public radio show purported to explain how the auto industry could have been saved, if only executives had learned from the innovations pioneered at the NUMMI plant in California, a joint Toyota-GM experiment created in 1985 that closed last month.)
After a second listen and some perspective from my coworkers, I sent an April 16 email to "This American Life’s" producers:
I am ashamed to have supported "This American Life" for the past few years. I won’t lie that I donated much more than a few dollars during one of your fundraising drives, but I was a loyal subscriber to the podcast and frequently talked about episodes with my co-workers. We are on the road a lot. However, I have unsubscribed from the podcast and will be recommending to all my coworkers that they tear up their Ira Glass tickets for his Fairbanks, Alaska, appearance this month. In full disclosure, we are all (union organizers). And very proud of it.
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The Nummi episode was an egregious attack not only on the vision of unions but, more importantly, also on workers themselves. A seriously misdirected company with a poorly managed workforce is not any union’s responsibility to rectify—although many do try! The point of workers' organizing is to protect their interests from systematic attack (the “race to the bottom”), arbitrary supervisory decisions, and to allow those who actually do the work a seat at the table in decisions about their workplace. What a novel idea to have democracy in the workplaces where we spend the majority of our lives.
The intent of this letter is not to convert you to the principles of worker solidarity, economic justice or even democracy. However it is my intention to address your poor judgment, intentional or not, in peddling PR for Toyota and their “lean management system” that destroys whistleblowers, breeds cover-ups, and “promotes productivity” by chewing up workers after years of stagnant wages. Great side to choose, "This American Life" staff! And yes, you have chosen sides.
I have yet to receive any response.
Next on April 26, we headed to the local high school where Glass was scheduled to speak. While a large crowd shuffled in the foyer area, I managed to distribute 50 printed copies of Mike Parker’s blog post. Most of the people were in small groups, so I tried to primarily approach these attendees hoping that they would take in another perspective and perhaps talk about it together. My co-workers attended the show and managed to question Glass about the difficulty of making an emotional connection with interview subjects while maintaining journalistic standards. I'm told this innocuous question solicited a very long-winded and defensive response. Maybe he was aware of the the flyer circulating throughout the audience?
A small action on our part, but maybe an embryonic model for other labor activists to build upon in the many upcoming Ira Glass “lectures”. My favorite moment of the night took place over the 50th flyer, which I handed to a lady running a few minutes late. “Labor Notes! I know them. My husband reads that stuff all the time.”
Chris Garrigues is a United Staff Union member and AFSCME organizer who lives in Virginia Beach, Virginia, a few days each month.