Tony’s hands grasped the wooden sticks of the picket signs stacked in the corner of his office. He smelled the raw wood. The pile of signs had grown over the days. Now in hand he moved them to the back of his van.
Moving from the office to his van his mind was freewheeling; the phone calls, the meetings, faces flashed before him. He heard those he knew only by their voice and saw others he had spoken to in the weeks leading to today. The phone calls, meetings, contacts with other unions merged and his legs felt weak, his head like it was not a good fit on his neck, he was exhausted. The contacts flooded his brain, was there any coordination, he wondered? Had he forgotten something or someone? He stared at the database on the computer screen. A bad taste was in his mouth, his stomach uneasy. He remembered all of the pizza he had eaten leading to the effort today.
“Can you be there?” Tony could hear himself speaking on a repeating tape loop over and over. “Can you be there?” He knew it was all work that had to be done as repetitive as it seemed at the time. Then he tried to quiet himself mentally, repeating to himself, “Stuff you have to do if you want to be successful. Stuff you have to do if you want to be successful.”
And now today was the day. Fridays were the biggest shipping day at the Powell’s internet shipping room, 10th and Couch.
A work stoppage, a STRIKE. “An unfair labor practice strike”, that was the legal term. The means and purpose was discussed with the attorneys. A plan was made on how to legally carry out the work stoppage while still protecting the workers. Of course, it was all done to pressure the employer, Michael Powell. Powells Books, to settle the contract.
“Good luck man,” were the final words he remembered from his boss.
Even with the unsettled stomach Tony kept moving. The staging work was done. He knew the people, the commitments they made, that’s what was important he told himself. What else could he do, he wondered, still staring at the computer screen.
“The commitment was the important piece,” he heard himself repeating silently to himself, while feeling the last minute jitters, trying to reassure himself. The day had come, it was going to happen, he knew it, he had the feeling. But by nature he questioned himself, “what else could he do” the question kept coming to him in idle moments, “what else could he do”, there was no silencing it.
Then he heard, “Shut ’em Down”, Jeff, the longshoreman spoke with that ornery smile on his broad face. In Jeff’s smile Tony could see himself as a twelve year old. That smile said it, Jeff wanted to have it all, no boundaries! He was stocky like an orange round traffic barrier, solid, just five feet tall, short arms. Jeff looked like he could play center of the line on a professional football team. His hair was so short it was hard to tell its color, the lumps of his head looked like a three dimensional road map. With his thick neck, it looked like his head had been pushed down hard on his neck.
Of course, Tony knew that Jeff would be there at the strike, looking for trouble like that smart-elic twelve year old. “Opportunities to act up was what life was all about wasn’t it?” Jeff asked the question without words and that broad smile made his eyes squint. His whole body shouted, this is one dedicated hellraiser.
“Who are you bringing?” Tony asked Jeff. And then again Tony could hear himself asking the question again and again in the days leading to the strike. The tone of his voice signaled his hopes. His Hope; he knew that Jeff would bring people, “What was a picket line without people carrying signs”, he thought. His Fear: “what else did Jeff and company have planned?” Tony wondered? Looking at Jeff Tony’s thoughts bounced between his hopes and fears.
The fears ran through his mind in seconds, and lodged in his chest. He moved his hand and rubbed the spot in the middle of his chest where he felt the tightness.
As planned, people arrived. They were greeted and given a sign to carry. We had the correct wording for the picket signs. “Powell’s Books Unfair to Labor” It had to be clear that this was NOT an economic strike. According to Carder the attorney it was very important legally that all the signs say it is an unfair labor practice strike and picket line. This protected the workers and participants in the strike action. In an economic strike the workers can legally be fired and replaced. With an unfair labor practice strike, workers cannot be fired or replaced.
The Teamsters had been enlisted as partners, they would legally honor the picket line and not cross it. Jeff and his co-worker Garrett had the legal paperwork and the support of the teamsters. But Tony wondered, “Did the word get out to the driver’s that it was a picket line they had to honor?”
“The paperwork is clear THEY are to honor the picket line”. Jeff said it with reverence like a catechism, his words spoken without question. The paperwork laid in his rough hands.
At times that day Tony saw the action as if he was watching a movie.
“Powell’s Books Unfair to Labor” , “Contract Now”, “Job with Justice” signs circled the corner internet shipping room. The repetitive chants were like acapella atonal music to Tony’s ears. His senses were overloaded.
At 4:20 PM, the chanting, marching, making noise was filling the block when the UPS truck stopped at the corner, 10th and Couch. Jay, the driver, a teamster, popped out of the van before the rig was completely stopped.
Jay was in his late 20’s. You could see in his walk, Jay loved this job he owned it, good pay, good job benefits, retirement, and he met lots of women. Jay; healthy, tanned, muscular, a smile without hidden meaning. He was inviting. Jay’s the guy who can go into a bar and leave with someone most nights. He had a trusting face, and he was easy to look at, like a fancy dessert.
Jay approached the store and Tony lost sight of him as the space on the picket line between Jeff and Garrett closed. Tony couldn’t hear the conversation between the men, but he didn’t have to hear, their rigid stance told the story. The longshoremen were not backing away from the door, there was no light or space between them.
Tony imagined Garrett, paper work in hand reading from the same catechism, as Jeff. ”The documents are CLEAR . . . “. Jay, the UPS driver was speechless. He was there to pick up packages as usual. Tony saw Jeff’s face in profile, stern, rigid, ready to fight. Garrett’s arms were tight, his fists clenched. It played in Tony’s mind like a scene from the waterfront. Tony watched as Jay, the driver turned and walked stiffly back to his van, head down looking at his feet, arms rigid at his side, the muscles in his tanned legs were tight. Tony heard the van speed away.
While the UPS driver was confronting the longshoremen, another scene happened almost simultaneously at the doors of the shipping room. Several of the Powells employees inside decided to roll the carts, rectangular canvas sided bins out to the UPS driver. The bins just fit through the double doors to the sidewalk. The canvas bins were filled with packages, differently shaped boxes, with a common black and white label. The packages sat at different angles in the bins, forming a pleasing random pattern. It looked as though each box had been carefully placed in the bin, an artwork.
The canvas bin in the doorway changed its shape, pressure coming from inside and outside the doors, each pushing against the other. In the doorway, an equilibrium was reached and neither side moved.
Tony heard the banter from both sides, the canvas sides of the bin were giving but not moving either out the doors to the sidewalk or back into the shipping room.
“Not go’in out.”
“Get outa the wayy? “Move!”
While Tony heard the exclamations, his eyes focused on the packages in the bin.
The pushing match in the doorway lasted a couple of minutes, it seemed like a long time. He knew the book bin was not going out the doors. Without words, Tony could see that the other side, the employee pushing the bins out, lost heart. Their body language carried the message. He imagined them saying, “What’s the use?” “Who cares anyway.?” That was what he saw on their faces.
The employees walked away from the bin almost in unison. “How had they reached a consensus while engaged in the tug of war?” Tony wondered. The bin rolled back into the shipping room without resistance, the doors closed. No packages left the shipping room that Friday afternoon.
While the UPS man was walking toward his van the US Post Office driver was walking slowly toward the picket line. The Postman walked up to the picket line like he was walking up to a bonfire, carefully and slowly he stepped. Watching him, Tony could see that the Postman was not looking for any trouble.
Before any words were exchanged the postman signaled surrender. Tony saw it. The postman threw both hands out in front of him palms up, shoulders raised, eyes wide, eyebrows raised. He then turned and slowly walked back to his mail truck.
“WHAT DO WE WANT? . . . CONTRACT!! WHEN DO WE WANT IT? . . NOW”. “WHAT DO WE WANT? . . . CONTRACT!! WHEN DO WE WANT IT? . . NOW”. The words blended, and seemed to echo. The picket line was a success! Tony joined in the chants with the group.
“Hey man”, Jeff seemed out of breath when he approached Tony walking the picket line.
Eyes bright and shining Jeff looked like he had come home a winner from Vegas. “The smile, that smile” Tony thought to himself. He didn’t have to say any words. “What is it Jeff?” But before Jeff could speak Tony heard a murmur, “The Powell’s delivery truck has two flat tires,”. Tony didn’t see the person who spoke the words because the sound came from behind him, muted.
Later, recalling the day Tony wondered if he had seen Jeff from a distance walking back toward him with a large knife. Was he imagining this still photo of Jeff with that broad grin of his, that silver blade shining. Tony couldn’t be sure.
Then the final chapter began with a FLASH!
All he saw was the FLASH when the photograph was taken. He never saw the photo. Tony could imagine the photograph in fine detail. A close up shot, slightly out of focus, a photograph of himself; glasses, brown medium length hair, from the waist up. He imagined it like his morning mirror reflection after a shower, the mirror slightly fogged. The photo had his left hand and arm in motion signaling to stop in front of his neck. Taken at 5:41:03 PM.
The FLASH temporarily blinded him and Tony didn’t get a clear image of the person with the camera, FLASHING, FLASHING. “Was it a manager,” he wondered.
Tony never met the person who made the Unfair Labor Practice complaint against him. He wondered if it was the unseen photographer holding the point and shoot digital camera with the FLASH. Tony made the “stop”, sign, his hand moving, signaling cutting across his neck. The gesture was made to one person, the one on the other side of the glass with the FLASH camera.
It was a rainy, mostly misty wet late afternoon as he remembered it. He felt the damp chilly air as it felt then, even today.
He remembered the afternoon well.