The standards of objectivity preclude one from taking part in overt political demonstrations, even up to putting bumper stickers on your car or elections signs on your property. This mindset inevitably leads to a feeling of setting oneself apart from others: You're an observer, not a participant.
So today I found myself in the curious position of participating in my first public protest -- well, sort of. I stood for a little over six hours in the August sun in front of a union hall, trying to convince my former Indy Star co-workers to vote against an onerous contract that included, among many other nasty items, dropping the arbitration for myself and six others employees laid off in December in blatant violation of seniority rules. I, along with one other person, handed out flyers and talked to people as they were going in to vote.
In the grand history of demonstrations and union agitation, my actions rated about a 0.07 on the Richter scale. But I thought I'd share my thoughts about the day. (Hey, this way I'm still kinda/sorta a reporter.)
- Believe it or not, my biggest concern prior to the protest was the sun. I am quite fair-skinned, and can sunburn in literally 10 minutes. My second concern was my back -- it tends to lock up after a lot of standing in one place. I made sure to bring a fold-up chair and heavy-duty sunscreen to address these seemingly minor issues.
- I had to stay outside because the music hall was an official balloting site, so no campaigning can take place inside. I also checked it out with the union president to make sure they had no objections; they didn't. One of the officers even kindly offered me pizza.
- I didn't want to have to bother with running back to my car to feed the parking meter every couple of hours -- one of my goals was not to leave my post unmanned for even a minute. So I parked in a free spot way north and walked about 15 minutes to the music hall.
- Checking my reflection in the hall's glass doors, I worried that I would look scary to people. I was wearing shorts and a bright red polo shirt, but also had on a union cap and prescription sunglasses to protect my head. It has a subtle but certain psychological effect when people can't see your eyes. I tried to remember to remove the shades whenever potential voters neared.
- The biggest trick of the day was figuring out who of those walking near were voters and who were just passers-by. I recognized about half my co-workers, but had to make some educated guesses on others. I ended up unintentionally accosting a couple of non-combatants when I asked if they were voting today, and they were just trying to catch the bus.
- The flow of voters started at a trickle, just one in the first 20 minutes, but picked up as the lunch hour wore on. About half the people were willing to stay and talk a little bit about the case.
- I finally got to meet the Star's sports columnist, Bob Kravitz. The sports guys often work crazy hours and are out of the office much of the time, Bob more so than others, and I'd joked that in my 3.5 years working there I never ran into the paper's highest-profile employee. We chatted for a few minutes, and he made some funny but intemperate comments about the contract situation I won't repeat here.
- Perhaps I was being paranoid, but every time a police cruiser drove by, I worried about being rousted and arrested as a loiterer. Hey, considering the strong-arm tactics that have been brought to bear in this process, an anonymous 911 call is not that far a stretch. I even prepared for this contingency by printing out a message from the guild president granting me his blessing to protest, as long as I stayed outside. Nothing happened.
- Of all the loopy scenarios I imagined happening, I didn't foresee the one that did: A counter-protester. Yes, really. One of the former Guild officers showed up around 2:30 p.m. or so and started handing out her own flyers urging people to approve the contract, arguing that a terrible contract is better than no contract. I suppose I could have argued with her that no contract that goes unenforced is worth anything, but I thought it best to be pleasant. We exchanged small talk and I offered her some sunscreen, which she slathered on copiously. Interestingly, she herself was laid off last month, but her case is not being grieved by the union because even though she had been there a decade, she was the least-senior person in her department. She departed after 90 minutes or so. I did not object in any way to her presence -- after all, she was exercising the same rights as me -- but I did find it very puzzling.
- James Yee, one of the other seven awaiting arbitration, showed up promptly at 3 p.m., as promised, to spell me for a while. I hopped over to Bazbeaux for a bathroom break, some AC and refreshments. James ended up staying the entire rest of the day, which pleased me mightily. I enjoyed the company, and I think it made a lot stronger statement to have more than one of us there.
- I asked as many people as possible if they knew the amount of the monetary settlement the seven of us would be getting. I would say about 80 percent of them did not. As I told the guild officers, I wish they had never introduced the idea of these settlements into the mix, because it resulted in a lot of misinformation. Some guild members were under the impression that we were partners in the negotiations and welcomed the settlement. It was simply appalling. When told the exact amount, people's jaws nearly bounced off the hot pavement.
- A few people waved off my offer of a flyer, smiling and saying "Oh, I'm already voting no!" In general, I was very pleased by how receptive people were to our petitioning.
- In fact, during the entire day only a single person gruffly refused a flyer or to talk. Ironically, it was one of the guild officers (past and/or present).
- The conditions weren't too bad for the first couple of hours, when the sun was east of the music hall and provided some bit of shadow. It evaporated by 1:30 p.m. or so, and we were left in Sol's full glare. My sunscreen did its job where I applied it, but I ended up getting mildly burned through my shirt. My back did OK, too, although it was getting pretty stiff after 5 p.m. My throat was sore and I sounded hoarse. I spotted a fellow features denizen walking on the other side of the street and hailed him, but it kind of came out as a croak.
- I do know that I swayed at least a handful of people's votes, because they told me so. As a lifetime observer, it was thrilling to know you're having a direct impact on the democratic process. I tried to tell everyone that no matter how they were voting, I thanked them for participating.
- I arrived home to find dinner nearly ready. This is a rare thing in our household, since even before my layoff I did almost all of the cooking. It was rather nice.
- The guild president called around 6:30 with the results: The contract was approved 56-45. I had rather expected this, but still held fantasies of a rejection, perhaps even a resounding one. So my last, best and final chance of again working for the Indy Star has evaporated.
Is that what has transpired? Was it worth it? Once it was clear that the company was demanding the union throw the seven of us under a bus, should I have stepped off the curb and indulgently placed my head under the bumper? Compromised my principles and my rights to make it easier on my former co-workers?
I honestly don't know the answer to these questions. All I know is that I stood outside all day and did not merely observe and report, but got involved and made my voice heard.
I lost. But if there really is nobility in defeat -- if that's not just a story we tell to make ourselves feel better -- then perhaps I found a little of it.