This isn’t intended to be condescending or self-congratulatory, but the one thing that’s always made me proud of my old labor union (AWPPW, Local 672) is something that, oddly enough, was linked to the social dynamics of high school. To understand it, we need to take a brief trip down memory lane.
In my day, high schools had stereotypical “types.” We had jocks, party animals, scholars, clubbies, science nerds, motorheads, student leaders, bozos, and enforcers.. We also had “nondescripts”—boys and girls who didn’t travel in packs, didn’t belong to any identifiable group, didn’t even have any real friends. They sat alone, ate lunch alone, wandered about by themselves. For want of a better term, they were “benign outcastes.”
Mind you, these were all perfectly decent, well-meaning kids. There was nothing wrong them. But within the context of the school’s warped social calculus, they were “guilty”—guilty of not having excelled at sports or clubs or academics or the art of forming friendships—and, as a consequence, were ostracized. These kids weren’t trouble-makers or flamboyant non-conformists; indeed, they didn’t stand out in any way. They were more or less anonymous, blending in with the school’s drab, institutional landscape.
If you’ve ever wondered what happened to these anonymous boys and girls, I can tell you that many of them grew up and got jobs in America’s factories.
Interestingly, even after maturing into full-fledged adults, many of them remained as anonymous as they had been in high school. It’s true. Their high school persona had been supplanted by their workplace persona. And while big-time paper mills like ours (1,000 employees) didn’t feature all your standard high school demographics, we did boast of many of their sociological equivalents.
We had people on the factory floor (“campus”) who were variously acknowledged as sociable, attractive, talented, fashionable, funny, smart, wicked, eccentric, etc. These people stood out from the herd. We had ex-jocks, ex-studs, ex-cheerleaders, retired class-clowns, former problem children. And we had our nondescripts—men and women who quietly performed their jobs, kept to themselves, stayed out of trouble, exhibited no remarkable skills or talents, and, as you might expect, didn’t create so much as a ripple on the pond.
It was our handling of these particular people that made me proud. Proud because we so diligently served them. Having vowed never to let the place morph into everything that was toxic and vile about high school, we not only didn’t allow these people to be snubbed, we became fanatics about it. Crazy men. We catered to them, coddled them, went out of our way to make sure they got every last thing they were entitled to. Because it was our mission to mete out justice, Local 672 was turned upside down. The nondescripts were now the VIPs. I’m not exaggerating. It was a spectacle to behold.
Arguably, this would be the only time in these people’s lives that their interests would be placed above the interests of the privileged and celebrated (the football quarterback, the prom queen, the student body president). So why did we do it? For two reasons: (1) Our union Executive Board was composed of defiant, iconoclastic rebels who rejoiced in doing the unexpected, and (2) we believed that that’s what labor unions had been created for….to protect the underdog.
Again, I don’t mention this to brag or condescend. Although I’m proud to have been part of it, in truth, we probably did it more out of conceit and orneriness than pure altruism. But we did it nonetheless. And if there are other agencies or institutions besides labor unions capable of administering this kind of justice, I’d like to know who they are.
DAVID MACARAY, an LA playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor”), was a former union rep. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press. He can be reached at email@example.com