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Working In These Times

Thursday, Sep 23, 2010, 10:35 am

A Picket Line Should Be a Symbol of Hope—Not the Butt of a Late Night Joke

BY Mike Elk

Monday, my eyes glistened with pride as I was watched 150 picketers storm the sidewalk in front of Morgan Stanley's Washington D.C. office. My union, United Electrical Workers (UE), had arrived. I grew up in a union household—my father has been a union organizer with UE for 33 years. And it made me excited that day to see its members running a lively, politically smart picket against Morgan Stanley for its role in advocating for the privatization of Social Security.

Tuesday, when I saw picketers on the Daily Show (see above video), I wanted to cry—but for entirely different reasons. A United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) local in Nevada had hired non-union temp workers at the rate of $8.25 an hour to picket a Wal-Mart. The Daily Show commentator joked, “the union was paying workers low wages to protest Wal-Mart paying its workers low wages.”

Beyond the poor treatment of the picketers, what upset me most was how poor the picketers looked. As one union official commented, “the picketers looked like scarecows, not union members ready to beat corporate America.”

The head of the 7,000-member local claimed he had to hire the half dozen people to picket because he couldn’t find any members to picket on a regular basis. To those watching at home, it looked as if the labor movement wasn’t just powerless to take on corporate America, but powerless to get its own members to fight for themselves. (In fact, the UFCW officials blamed Wal-Mart for the fact that the picketers were low-paid contractors.)  

The labor movement should be about standing up for yourself. It should serve as an inspiration to us all. I owe the labor movement for helping me overcome the greatest fear of my life—the fact that I am high function autistic living with Asperger’s Syndrome.

It was watching members of the labor movement stand up for themselves that I realized I could stand up for myself. Watching union members endure financial ruins, firings, and harassment, I realized that living openly about being autistic and being happy about who I am was nothing compared to the abuses workers go through on a daily basis.

I get tears in my eyes when I see members stand up to the boss. So it hurts that the labor movement is viewed negatively by a majority of Americans, according to recent polling. The new Comedy Central bit, watched by millions, only contributes to that perception, which in this instance is understandable. It's truly sad: A picket line should be a symbol of hope, not the butt of a late night joke.

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.

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