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Government Cheese

During the 1980s I was a negotiator on a contract bargain that began with great promise and optimism but ended in a 57-day strike.  Our 5-man negotiating team had sat at a table in a cramped room of the Holiday Inn for more than four months, arguing with the company over one thing—money—before reluctantly announcing to the federal mediator who’d been assigned to our negotiations that a stalemate had been reached and we were pulling the plug.

While the decision to strike was, on one level, agonizing, on another level it was easy.  The previous 3-year contract had yielded annual GWIs (general wage increases) of 9-percent, 10-percent, 10-percent.  But this time around, after months of grueling negotiations, the company’s “last, best and final” offer was zero-four-four; moreover, they demanded we leave Blue Cross and accept a yet unnamed insurance carrier.  This was no emergency austerity move; the annual stock report showed the company was rolling in money.  They were low-balling us and we had no choice but to strike.

Because striking employees typically don’t qualify for unemployment benefits or food stamps, the membership would be forced to live off savings accounts, part-time work, the occasional job on the docks thrown our way by the ILWU (Longshoremen’s union), and the $100 a week strike fund (raised to $125 after the first month on the bricks) provided by the International.

Although the hardest hit members were single mothers, remarkably, it was these same women—single moms with a couple of kids, living paycheck to paycheck—who complained the least.  They diligently reported to the union hall, always on time, always ready to take their places on the picket line; they never beefed, never got twitchy.  When they couldn’t arrange a sitter, they’d leave their kids with someone at the union hall, or take them to the picket line.

Not to point fingers, but the people who complained the most—who whined the most, whimpered the most, argued the most, threatened the most, uttered the weirdest and most outlandish oaths—were the tradesmen, the mechanics and electricians whose wages were the highest in the union contract.  Reminded that they were making the most money, one of them retorted, “That means we’re losing the most money.”

As it happened, a sudden and unexpected benefactor presented itself.  It came in the form of 5-pound blocks of cheese.  Without informing the local union (it was a surprise!) the International had arranged a massive delivery of government poverty cheese, the distribution of which would be handled by the local—presumably, on a weekly basis, passed out along with the strike fund checks.

Because no one had ever heard of government cheese, and because the cheese had more or less appeared, unannounced, people weren’t sure what was going on.  When they reached the front of the queue to collect their strike checks and were reminded by the paymaster to pick up their cheese, they were confused.  “Cheese?  What cheese?”  In twenty years, no one had ever seen any cheese at the union hall.  “Government cheese,” they were told.  “Five pounds of it.  Enjoy.”

Surprisingly, a number of the local’s 700 members refused to accept the government cheese.  Apparently, they viewed it as a form of pity or charity.  “I’ve never been on welfare in my life,” a woman (“Kay,” a machine operator) defiantly told me, her chin raised and her eyes moistening. “Even when I first moved to California, and couldn’t find work, I didn’t take welfare.  And I’m not going to start now.”

The president of the local pleaded with this woman.  “It’s not welfare, goddamnit.  It’s cheese.  What do you have against free cheese?”  But Kay and the other non-takers were adamant.  Even when the strike entered its second month, and people began getting antsy, most of the hold-outs stuck to their guns, too proud to accept it.

On the other extreme you had people who not only appreciated the cheese, but fell in love with it.  They regarded the cheese as more than sustenance; they came to view those 5-pound blocks as emblematic—symbols of the proletarian struggle—and boasted of coming up with cheese-based dishes: macaroni & cheese, cheese soufflés, fried cheese, grilled cheese, cheese omelets, cheese soup, blintzes, sauces, enchiladas, quesadillas, you name it.

The free cheese split the union into two camps:  the takers and the refusers.  While it never got ugly (Why would it?  The takers were happy receiving the cheese, the refusers were satisfied rejecting it), there were some awkward moments.  On one occasion, with twenty or thirty people looking on, a woman loudly accused one of the refusers of being “stuck up,” and the refuser loudly told her to keep her bleeping mouth shut, because it was none of her business.

Late in the strike—during the fifth or sixth week—I got a call at home from a union member (“Gary”) who, years earlier, had been a student of mine in shop steward school.  Gary had been an excellent student and went on to become a very effective steward.  By his voice, I could instantly tell he was uncomfortable.

Gary told me that he and his family had reached the point where they were relying on government cheese not as a supplement, but as their primary staple.  Consequently—with a wife and three hungry teenage sons to feed—they were using up their 5-pound block in less than a week.  Meekly, Gary said, “I know I’m way out of line asking this, but do you think we could get some extra cheese?”

Even though I wasn’t a member of the local’s decision-making executive board—and was aware that the distribution program required that the cheese be strictly monitored (your name was checked off when you received your block)—I nevertheless assured Gary that it wouldn’t be a problem, that he and his family could have all the cheese they needed.

For one thing I didn’t want to put this man through the humiliation of listening to my sanctimonious reasons for denying his request, and for another, I was privy to some “inside information.”  I happened to know that there was an abundance of cheese at the hall.  By refusing to accept their free cheese, the hold-outs had, in fact, created a considerable surplus.

By coincidence, I had already volunteered to be strike captain at the union hall the following Sunday night.  Sunday graveyard was the least popular shift to pull union duty, which was why we negotiators (the men who called the strike) willingly volunteered for it.  Despite the local being composed of strong union people—not one scab crossed the picket line—we knew we needed all the good will we could muster.

I told Gary to come by the hall at around midnight on Sunday—after swing shift had cleared out and the graveyard picketers had been assigned to their gates—drive his pickup to the front door, and I would personally hand over 20 pounds of cheese, no problem.  He thanked me profusely.  He became emotional.  I told him to forget it, that his request wasn’t out of line, that we had lots of extra cheese, and that it was no big deal.

Oddly, Gary never showed up.  He never showed, never called, never mentioned the cheese conversation we had, even though we ran into each half a dozen times afterward.  And just as oddly, I never mentioned it either.

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright (“Larva Boy,” “Americana”) and writer, was a former union rep.  He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net