December 14, 2016
NYSARA Executive Director John Costello Reflections on the Momentive Strike and Being “Uncomfortably Numb”
Like many unionists who got the e-mail to join the rally for workers at the Momentive plant in Waterford, NY, we knew it would be worthwhile to join them on the chilly evening of December 13 to show them the support of the New York State Alliance for Retired Americans (NYSARA), our statewide association of retirees.
Clear night but 28 degrees at best. And the forecast is for colder weather to come. I’ve lived my life in the union movement, made a decent living advocating on behalf of teachers, university professionals and healthcare employees. We are labor. Sam Gompers, George Meany, Albert Shanker, John Lewis. All labor giants. They had a vision of recognizing the value of labor. Nothing gets built or done without labor.
In a year where the presidential election has resulted in the peaceful transition of power from a progressive Democrat to a pro-business showman elected on the Republican line, the country is at a crossroads. Donald Trump campaigned to bring jobs back, and to make America great again. Yet here I am on a picket line with men and women – and a few children – marching to keep their jobs from devastation, maintain their health insurance and protect benefits for retirees by a multi-billion dollar corporation intent on increasing profits by slashing salaries and retiree benefits significantly. And I don’t mean 5 or 10%. Momentive is the target company at this rally, but they are the tip of the spear as companies will be emboldened to squeeze every dime they can out of workers pockets in the name of profits and making America great again.
Hundreds of people showed up to give the strikers support. Local politicians including Carrie Woerner, Patricia Fahy and John McDonald Assemblymembers from the region were there to show their support. Assemblywoman Fahy pondered about the wisdom of electing a man who proclaims to be a fighter for the working man, and then goes on to appoint billionaires to his cabinet.
On my way to and from the demonstration route from the gathering place to the main gate I passed entryway after entryway to the plant with (mostly) men on the line as the sun had set and it was cold and dark on the road to the plant. At each station, the striking workers had 55 gallon drums ablaze with firewood from wooden pallets and any other combustible wood. To say that “The Grapes of Wrath” left an impression with me is indisputable. These people are on the picket line 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in shifts.
“Whenever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there.” said Steinbeck’s Tom Joad. That’s what I thought as I walked the line on the way to and from the rally.
On my way back to my car, which was parked about a mile from the rally point, I passed more entryway checkpoints where strikers castigated the scabs driving through the entryway. They know they scabs are trying to feed their families, and they know that they are ignorant about the consequences of their actions. These scabs are accelerating the race to the bottom of the wage war, right here in the capital district.
The last striker guarded entryway I passed before I got to my car at the end of the night was flanked by a Jeep, with the American flag waving proudly off its tail. The jeep’s sound system was broadcasting Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb”.
How ironic. These striking guys are uncomfortably numb from hours on the picket line at 25 degrees. Been this way for a bit, and we are looking at a deeper freeze this week below zero some nights. This night these folks will be out there uncomfortably numb.
Those of us who labor, who work for a living, and those who are in organized labor especially, have a responsibility to get off our couches, chairs and assorted resting places. Too many of us have become “Comfortably Numb.”
What’s happening at Momentive is a harbinger of things to come. I think many of us have become “comfortably numb” as long as it’s not our own personal ox being gored. But it’s coming if you don’t get on the line and show the newly elected populist president that labor makes profit possible. Respect must be paid, as well as fair wages. The working women and men of Momentive demand a fair and equitable contract.