Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Sexism, work and memories of a working man

I have been wanting to share the letter above with others for a long time. It was written by a co-worker who defended me during a difficult time, but he was also defending workers' rights; it is us at our best.  Being a workers' representative can be hard at times, but then there's moments like these. This is the story behind it.

I found the letter today. It is a letter a one time friend and long time co-worker wrote in my defense after I filed a very controversial grievance some time ago. I would have to go to my files in the garage to get the date but I would say it was 20 years or so ago that this happened.

I was the steward in my work unit that had at that time about 90 workers in it, mostly blue collar guys.  I took my job very seriously. We had one woman worker in there at the time and I am still in touch with her on occasion.  The supervisor who was a charismatic guy and quite the ladies man, had organized some sort of presentation for one of his forepersons at our weekly safety meetings.

As we gathered outside the meeting room before the shift began a van pulled up. I recall seeing some woman come out of it and if my memory is correct a guy or two.  Something wasn’t right.  There was some sort of package as well.

I went in to the office area where two women clerks worked and in some way or another I got wind that this was going to be one of those deals where a naked woman jumps out of a cake to wish someone happy birthday.  I couldn’t believe that would be happening and got in to a bit of a conversation with the two women clerks saying that as a steward I couldn’t be part of anything like that if it was true. I would not go in to the meeting.

All I can remember now is that as I was talking to them I hear this noise, or cheering or something and turn my head to look out in to the hallway.  I was stunned.  A half naked woman skips on by, breasts and all, and runs in to the male toilet, I assume to get dressed, or perhaps it was back to the van.

I had to act.  I got a grievance form and filed what we called an “institutional” grievance which was a grievance you could file if the worker was afraid to. It was a grievance on behalf of the Union and any members that were violated or offended by the activity of the employer. I went in to the boss’s office and began step 1 of the grievance procedure.

Well the boss went off.  He was a ladies man but he was also very aggressive and a bit of a bullying character at times.  He came out of the office waving the grievance and telling the guys about what I had done, how I was a spoilsport basically and was attacking them.  I can’t remember exactly what he said except “look at what Richard’s done” repeating it. He made the point that through my actions, all coffee and cake retirement events would be stopped and other threats .

It had a bit of an effect. A lot of the guys respected me, some of them liked me, but they bought the bosses argument for a moment.   A couple of them questioned my manhood and stuff like that and I explained as best as I could that this was the workplace, there’s only one woman in here and this does not belong in the workplace. How could she complain being the only one? It was a bit of a tough time but what really helped was the next day, a co-worker came in and handed out his views on it, the letter above. It was a very powerful statement. 

He was a well respected worker and a road racer on his own time, racing at Sears Point and other racetracks. We were friends then and he was not the type to be afraid to speak his mind.  He was a picket captain during the strike of 1985.  Sadly, much later we had a nasty disagreement over his role as the bosses attempted to undermine classifications and introduce other aspects of the Team Concept.

We had what the guys called a “paper war” as we went back and forth on the merits of class descriptions and in opposition to the Team Concept basically. It made our co-workers feel very uncomfortable because they respected both of us. But on that day the stripper jumped out of the cake he responded without fear as he always would on issues he felt strongly about. He helped sway opinions in that workplace about what we should support and what we shouldn’t and about the need for men to consider our sisters or any worker's feelings when they are in a minority. He wrote a beautiful personal letter but also a sound political one.

After our disagreement we were never close again though I always respected him. There were times near my retirement when I wanted to approach him and try to patch things up.  He became a foreperson and then towards the end of his career a supervisor.  But he was always his own man.  Never dressed the part as a supervisory person and never used his position to get back at me, I worked for him many times.  I look back on our parting with regret and wondered if I could have handled it differently, I think perhaps I could have.

I wish I had because he died in a tragic motorcycle accident not long before he was able to retire, about three years ago. It was not his fault either. His bike machismo he could take out on the racetrack he was a very mature safe rider in the streets.

Despite our differences he was a courageous worker, a hard worker, and knew where his roots would always be, among working class folks.  Rest in Peace Joe Montoya, I’ll never forget what you did for me and for all of us in Central Yard back then.

Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired

No comments: