I think about a world to come where the books were found by the golden ones, written in pain, written in awe by a puzzled man who questioned, "What are we here for?" All the strangers came today and it looks as though they're here to stay.

-David Bowie "Oh! You Pretty Things"

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Union and Separation

How I Slipped Down a Rabbit Hole and Found Myself Mired in America

When I was first commissioned by the Lowell Ledger to report on a "union meeting" at the Englehardt Library, I had no idea that I would get involved in a story that was far too big to be contained in the one article I was writing. Over the next few weeks, the struggle between two opposing sides over the wording of a contract for utility workers would bleed over into other facets of my life, confusing the boundaries of "that story" and "my story" until I found myself part of a narrative about the people and the governing bodies they elect. What I was actually experiencing was the life story of a small town in Michigan called Lowell, or, in other words, a big dream in the collective consciousness called America.

My mission was bi-fold, to reveal and to simplify - to reveal because the contract negotiations had gone on for over a year between union lawyers and city lawyers "behind closed doors," and to simplify because the entirety of the story would have to fit on half a page with a possible addendum in the back of the paper. When I was first hired on to the Ledger in November of last year, publisher Jon Jacobs described how difficult it was that City of Lowell and Lowell Light & Power would not give even the littlest scrap of information to the public about their negotiations. Nearly a year later, I had thought that everyone at the Lowell Ledger had forgotten about this struggle when I was given my first assignment to cover an informational meeting that a municipal watchdog group named VOICE (Voters Organized in Civic Excellence) of Lowell had put together.

Democracy at work in Lowell, Michigan.
The revelation was easy. Finally, the people of Lowell had eyes on the process that had been unfolding for so long without their input. It was the simplification that proved difficult. If the world were simple, then you could reduce the one side - the Lowell Light & Power workers, the City of Lowell workers, their families, the IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) union representatives, and the members of VOICE of Lowell - to the one word "union" while reducing the other side - the City Council, the Lowell Light & Power board, the city manager, the manager at LLP, and their myriad lawyers - to the word "city." In fact, VOICE of Lowell and the IBEW do not share the same mission. If the IBEW were corrupt and it was bringing harm to this little community, it would be the duty of the VOICE to call them out. Furthermore, VOICE of Lowell is an open group, a group that Perry Beachum could join, as well as anyone on board, even Mayor Jim Hodges. Truly understanding the struggle unfolding in Lowell requires throwing the concept of simplicity out the window.

If the diametrical opposition still screams in your ear, consider the similarities one can find between the "two groups." Barbara Barber took over leadership of VOICE of Lowell after founder Ivan Blough died in June of 2010. Ivan Blough was a legend of a man, Lowell's own Paul Bunyan or John Henry. I'd even heard stories of the man, and I was raised in a completely different town. Ivan never put any limits to the types of structural problems he could repair nor the types of social injustice he could battle, doing repairs on the Lowell showboat and striving to keep the community informed on what was going on in their town. If you were to try and find someone to compare in Lowell today, I'd be hard pressed to find anyone more committed than Greg Canfield of Canfield Plumbing and Heating. I first met Greg while reporting on his activity in raising money for the local food pantry at Flat River Outreach Ministries (FROM) through Lowell's Food Fight charity competition, but Greg's philanthropic work extends to paying for water heaters for people in need and doing pro bono work for flood victims. You could argue that taking the time to be on the Lowell Light & Power board is just as charitable as any of his other work, especially because running your own business keeps you busy enough as you are. Of course, you cannot make this comparison if you think we're discussing yeses and nos, odds and evens, pros and cons, because these two great-hearted men who have so much in common exist at opposite ends of the extreme, at least according to "the simplification," Ivan Blough with the people and Greg Canfield with the powers that be.

The Canfields supporting Flat River Outreach Ministries.
Ultimately, I wrote my simple article and I got paid for it, but whether you consider the preceding paragraphs  a well-articulated, touching and emotional statement or simply verbal vomit of all the thoughts stuck in the author's head, they prove that this story doesn't color within the lines. I stand with the people who want to be let in on the process of government, but at the same time, I feel for the council member who is so wired from being on the defensive that he can't get a good night's sleep. The process of government is scary. To take sides in a seeming dichotomy is wrong, or at least in bad faith. My instinct is that the people are getting the bad end of the bargain of American democracy, and that the people in power are selfish and manipulative, but my experience includes instances of people purposely giving away their every freedom because laziness is easier than involvement. My experience includes instances of public officials who are really trying their hardest to make a better world, from President Obama and Speaker of the House Boehner down to each and every council member I encountered in Lowell. In fact, I would go so far to say that they are mostly all coming from a good place when they make those pronouncements that seem so discordant with liberty and justice, or, at least, the origin of these campaigns came from a wholesome place.

But for the workers at Lowell Light & Power and City of Lowell utilities, a contract will be forced upon them by their municipal leaders whether they like it or not if negotiations do not result in an agreement within the next couple of months, so all of this peace, unity, and camaraderie that is so evident to me is likely to be on hiatus for those who are in the thick of it. I get to walk in and out of this situation, but these people have no other home for the next few months than the jungle. My heart goes out to them all.


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