The Workers' Paradise A Discussion of Workers Cooperatives and Building the New Economy

September 25, 2015

Worker Development Brings a Better World

Filed under: Human Relations,Pensimientos,Reflections,Society — Tags: , , , — John McNamara @ 11:17 am

REFLECTION NO. 276

Work is the attribute that gives a person the highest honor of being a cooperator of God in the transformation and fertilization of nature and in the resulting promotion of human well-being. That people exercise their faculty of work in union with others and in a noble regime of cooperation and solidarity, gives them not only nobility, but also the optimal fertility to make every corner of the earth a mansion that is agreeable and promising for all. This is what work communities are for and it is them who are destined to make our people progress.


 

Work, in the modern era, may be seen as, and often is, as a drudgery. This is, I think, because work rarely has meaning for the individual (unless they are lucky enough to be in a profession). The effect of scientific managment (Taylorism) has been to deskill work to the point that there is little for workers to care about. It is an assembly line world and without ownership, it is no wonder that many feel like a cog in the machine. It places the individual worker alone and only motivated by self-interest.

Arizmendiarrieta saw work as an enobling act through worker ownership. It was a means to an end and the end was a fully developed human and community that would, in turn usher in world of peace and harmony. In acting in unision, collectively, people not only prosper but care for the environment in which they live. The pursuit of wealth includes a healthy ecological enviroment in which all prosper together. Lofty goals to be sure.

Today, Pope Francis, hit similar a theme in his speech to the United Nations. He said, “It must never be forgotten that political and economic activity is only effective when it is understood as a prduential activity, guided by a perennial concept of justice and constantly conscious of the fact that, above and beyond our pland and programmes, we are dealing with real men and women whove, struggle and suffer and are often forced to live in great poverty, deprived of all rights.” 

He also quoted his predescessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI: “The econoligical crisis, and the large-scale destruction of biodiversity, can threaten the very existence of the human species. the baneful consequences of an irresponsible mismangement of the global economy, guided only by ambition for walth and power, must serve as a summons to a forthright reflction on man: ‘man is not only a freedom which he creates for himself. Mand does not create himself. He is a spirit and will, but also nature.’ Creation is compromised ‘where we ourselves have the final word. . . the misuse of creation begins when we no longer recognizes any instance above ourselves, when we see nothing else but ourselves.'”

There are, of course, many contradictions within the Catholic church and the Co-operative movement. Despite the lofty values of solidarity, social responsiblity and caring for others, many co-operatives do not engage them. Even Mondragon, has its troubles from time to time. Likewise, co-operatives are willing to engage in unsustainable ecological practices as well.

The words of Arizmendiarrieta, on the hundreth annivesary of his birth, resonate today because his work is not done. As Pope Francis concludes his visit to the US, on the even of National Co-operative Month, it is worth taking into account the nature of co-operation and how our co-operative movment, especially the worker co-operative movement engages our values and principles. Are we just about “getting to scale” or do we want to create a just and ecologically sustainble world that allow workers dignity and opporutnity for growth?

 

September 24, 2015

We do not live alone, but in co-operation

REFLECTION NO. 42

There is something in the depths of the human spirit that is firm and eternal. And there is also something that needs to be moving towards a new and superior expansion, in consonance with the interior and social regeneration of human beings. It is for this reason that their social achievements must reflect this transformation.

 


I missed yesterday, but also took the time to read the transcript of Pope Francis’ speech to the American people through their elected representatives in Congress this morning.

In his praise of the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, Dorothy Day, Pope Francis said, quoting Laudato Si which he published this Spring:

It goes without saying that part of this great effort is the creation an distribution of wealth. The right of natural resources, the proper allocation of technology and the harnessing of the spirit of the enterprise are essential elements of an economy which seeks to be modern, inclusive and sustainable. ‘Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving the world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the area in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good.’ . . . Now  is the time for courageous actions and strategies, aimed at implementing a ‘culture of care’ and an ‘integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.”

Co-operation does seek to build financial wealth among its members, but it also strives for community wealth and social wealth. It operates within the values of solidarity and mutual self-help to build sustainable economic systems that bring all of the members of the community up together without destroying the physical environment upon which our collective economic and human lives depend.

I have seen many in the co-op world (especially in the worker co-op community) see the model as just another form of capitalism and that the only metrics that matter on the financial bottom line. However, co-operation is perhaps the most inefficient at maximizing personal wealth. Its aim, from the beginning, is to have a social bottom line.

The co-operative movement cannot stop at creating financial wealth, it must also reach the human and help them connect with their community to see that the financial wealth is, in our socio-economic model, a benevolent side-effect of the main effect of creating a community based on dignity for the human and respect for the world that provides its resources so that we can flourish.

September 1, 2014

We Need to Reclaim “The Sharing Economy”

There has been a lot of discussion of late regarding the so-called “sharing economy”. This phrase refers, generally, to organizations such as Uber, Lyft, AirBnB, and others that provide an on-line broker service so that people can monetize practically everything in their life. The term sharing economy is a great marketing ploy to suggest that this practice engages the voluntary actions of the participants who just want to earn a little extra money from their assets. On the face of it, it makes a lot of sense–if someone wants to pay me $10 bucks to use the lawnmower that I am not using, why not? If I can give someone a ride to work on my way to work and it pays for my gas, that is a great deal and I am helping out a fellow human who may need that ride due to lack of access to public transportation or a personal vehicle. However, that isn’t what these organizations are really doing and I would argue that the the people engaging in it do so because they are rather desperate in a late-stage capitalist economy taking full advantage of having largely crushed the labor unions.

The New York Times recently ran a “balanced” article chronicling the days of a couple of workers. In this article, the workers seem content and like the variety and hustle-and-bustle of the life of managing multiple phone apps, 10-14 hour days, and not being able to spend time with their family to earn about $10 an hour after self-employment taxes and expenses. They would probably be better off with a menial minimum wage job, but that would limit their total hours or require them to maintain multiple jobs such as the women who recently succumbed to fumes and died while taking a rest break in her car. The non-sharing economy doesn’t have a lot to offer to workers today either.

Maureen Conway, of the Aspen Institute, sums up the reality of this new effort by capitalists to avoid any responsibility to the communities from which they extract wealth:

“In the end, the sharing economy is nice words for what is really more of the same. More money going to business profits held by a few, and less money going to the labor income that is the primary means of support for most Americans. What we need is a sharing economy in which working people share in the wealth that their labor creates. Unfortunately, this version of a sharing economy does not promise that. “

The “sharing economy” is about workers “sharing” their labor and capital with venture capitalists for a percentage while also accepting 100% of the risk (expenses, accidents, taxes, etc). This isn’t a new effort. Last week, (August 27, 2014), a Federal Court finally ruled in a long-running dispute that FedEx improperly classified many of its employees as “independent contractors”. FedEx has tried to claim that its drivers were independent contractors mainly because it has shifted most of the expenses on to them (they have to buy the truck, rent the equipment to track deliveries, etc). I remember one argument that FedEx made in a similar case that is still to be decided that the drivers could use the truck to run other deliveries provided that they removed all the FedEx decals first and then reapplied them in time for their next shift. Seriously. Had FedEx won this case (and it might still go to the Supreme Court), it would have been a watershed moment that would essentially bring us back to the early days of 1800. What company wouldn’t love to reclassify its workers as independent contractors and immediately save on payroll taxes plus other items? However, that is essentially what the sharing economy is hoping to do.

There is a real sharing economy, however. It has existed (as an on-going concern) since 1844 and in different forms for many years before that such as the first mutual insurance company founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1752. Cooperation brings people together to share their capital for the common good. Instead of groups such as Uber or AirBnB in which people provide their labor and capital to provide wealth for a third party, the labor and capital provided to a cooperative benefits the users of the cooperative–the members. Further, in the true concept of sharing, democratic decision making allows the opinions of the different people sharing to be expressed on an equal basis (Uber, Lyft and others essentially present the terms of service to the workers and either they accept or quit working for them). Any surplus generated from the cooperative sharing economy gets distributed according to the inputs into the enterprise.

One thing that Taskmaster, Favor Delivery, Lyft, et al have pointed out is that a market exists for connecting people with others. This can and should be done in a cooperative format that doesn’t exploit the people providing the labor. Dane County Timebank has made a start, but seems to come up short. This needs to be national, it needs to be modern (phone apps), it needs to engage more than bartering. I realize that Timebank seeks to demonetize society as a key part of its mission–it is all about getting off of the currency addiction. Unfortunately, for many working people, money comes in pretty handy. Landlords don’t accept barter and neither do health clinics, gas stations, and a host of other places that provide vital goods and services. Until they do, a “sharing economy” needs to provide the means for people to earn a decent a living and maintain a quality of life.

Cooperatives need to reclaim the concept of the “sharing economy”. We need to help people struggling to find work, make ends meet, and otherwise seek their dreams understand that they don’t have to rent out their bodies and everything they own (is their a site where someone who likes parenting, but doesn’t want the hassle of a full-time kid, rent somebodies child for an afternoon?). Cooperatives (worker, consumer, producer and financial) need to challenge these profiteers by helping people combine their resources to create dynamic cooperatives that can provide the things that the “sharing” apps provide which is essentially services for people who need them.

There is also a role for labor unions. SEIU, CWA, USW have all been engaging worker cooperatives of late. This “new” economy offer them a real opportunity as well. Through the creation of a “union coop” of drivers, they could help Uber and Lyft workers negotiate better terms. This would be similar to the Campbell’s union drive in which Campbells’ claimed the farmworker’s conditions weren’t their responsibility since Campbell’s only contracted with the farmers and didn’t employ the farmworkers. Unions could also organize the “favor” workers to negotiate better terms. There really isn’t anything new in the “sharing economy” model, but it needs a response.

Sharing constitutes the basis of cooperative life and economics. As cooperators, we share our labor, our capital and our knowledge with each other to create a resilient and sustainable economy and environment. Over the years, many times, the selfish economy have borrowed our ideas to advance their personal goals. Today, the investor class corrupts the very concept of being a good neighbor by using the noble concept of community to extract wealth in a one-way relationship. Cooperatives have always offered an alternative to the selfish economy but have generally operated under the radar. We need to stop doing that. We need to quit being the world’s best kept secret. We need to claim the “sharing economy” as the “cooperative economy”.

May 21, 2012

The Madison Conference

Filed under: Movement,Society — Tags: , , , — John McNamara @ 9:40 am

I am surea that I don’t need to tell any of the readers of this blog that it is the International Year of the Co-operative. The United Nations designation has paid tribute to our economic model exactly at the time that the world needs a better economic model: one that allows communities to keep their identity, maintains decent jobs, and builds a sustainable economic structure at the local, national and global level.

To that end, there are a number of conferences this year that will be focusing on these themes. One of the first, and I hope, not the least will be the Madison Cooperative Business Conference.

A Little History

This conference began, in a sense, right here at The Workers’ Paradise. Back in January of 2011, I began discussing the upcoming Mayoral Election. Both major candidates had invoked the idea of cooperatives as an economic model and I hope that this would actually become an issue for two candidates that were almost identical in their approach, philosophy, and support. As that campaign began to gain steam, the Governor of Wisconsin unleased his vision for the economy. This only pushed the idea of cooperation even more. As the candidates began talking to the people of Madison, the word co-operative started to become repeated. One candidate engaged in the call-and-response which is why I urged co-op members to vote for Paul Soglin. Paul won by just 363 votes or about 182 voters (less than the total number of worker co-op members in the City of Madison.

We gave Paul a few months to settle in and then a number of co-operators asked about the conference. The Mayor stepped up and assigned key staff people to it. Despite a difficult budget year, he found matching funds for the conference.

The Madison Cooperative Business Conference 

(June 7, 2012, with a pre-conference seminar on June 6, 2012)

We wanted this conference to be different that most of the other conferences. We wanted to focus our attention on three groups of people: City and Regional Planners who might not see the co-op model as viable for delivering services and solving problems, business owners interested in retiring, and people interested in starting a co-operative to solve a failure in the market. We want people who are new to the co-op model to attend. We want business owners to learn that they can escape capital gains taxes by selling their business to their workers (they get retirement and the legacy of their life’s work continues). We want communities to see how co-operatives might help provide solutions to homelessness, hunger or even provide new fancy destination projects such as a Public Market.  The key note speaker will be Roy Messing from the Ohio Employment Ownership Center out of Kent State. There will also be speakers from Richmond, CA (Terry Baird, assistant to the Mayor in charge of worker coop development) and from the Quebec ( Michel Clement, from Co-operative Development Management). In adiditon to a number of workshops, the conference will end with a plenary discussion about how to move forward and start putting the ideas into action in the Dane County area.

What You Can Do

If you are in Madison, register and attend the conference! It is only $25 for the day (and $25 for the pre-conference seminar with Roy Messing)–$40 for both events. More importantly, if you know someone in the South-Central Wisconsin area who owns an business and is within 10 years of seeking retirement (think of your favorite locally owned company), urge them to attend (or at least send their accountant).

If you are not in Madison, or can’t be during the conference, then please let your friends know and encourage any business owners you know to attend.

Conferences can only do so much and this one has been specifically designed to ignite people who aren’t knowledgable about co-ops. It is designed for people whose kids might not want the family business, but don’t want to see their life’s work disappear when they retire (conversly, for the kids who inherited a business and would rather do something else, but don’t want to lose their parent’s legacy). It is for communities that want to start building a sustainable infrastructure and looking for ways to solve problems without having to depend on diminishing State and Federal assistance.

Unfortunatley, I cannot attend, but I hope that this gets a large turnout and that we will one day be able to look back at this conference as a turning point for Dane County, if not Wisconsin.

May 14, 2012

Take Wisconsin Back? Create Real Jobs

Filed under: Society — Tags: , — John McNamara @ 8:27 am

This morning, while listening to the news, I heard a report in which Paul Ryan, the conservative US Representative from Janesville, urged his fellow Republicans to work hard and “take back” Wisconsin in the Gubernatorial and Senate recall elections on June 5th. I found this quite odd since the Republican party currently controls the Senate, the Assembly and the Governor’s office. In fact, it is the actions of the dominant party of Wisconsin that has caused the recall election.

I am watching the race from a far. It will be a flurry of activity, no doubt. While I understand that the incumbent governor has raised over $13 million from out of state and the Democratic challenger, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett has barely $1 million on hand, I can hope that there will actually be a discussion. My advice to the challenger? Take a cue from Mayor Paul Soglin. Start championing the cooperative community of Wisconsin as the real job creators.

Co-operative jobs are, simply, better jobs. They will stay in Wisconsin. They will be sustainable over the long term. The cooperative model can even help provide services to the communities. Presuming that the Affordable Care and Patient Protection Act survives the US Supreme Court, cooperatives will be the most sustainable and effective model of health care delivery.

The State needs to do more to help cooperatives move forward.

  • Allow workers to pool their unemployment benefits in a lump sum to start a worker cooperatives;
  • Help workers buy out companies in crisis (crisis due to not being profitable enough) or to allow the current owners to retire without losing their retirement to Capital Gains taxes.
  • Examine educational options such as Ed Visions in Minnesota as a means of a true overhaul of the k-12 school system.

Co-operators exist throughout Wisconsin. A message pushing the co-operative model will find a lot more support than Mayor Barrett might think. It might even encourage people who normally vote Republican to cross over. It is time to start a new chapter in Wisconsin’s progressive history. A candidate in this recall race who embraces the core values of co-operatives will also find that they are embracing the core values of many Wisconsinites and the historical beliefs of small “r” republicans and small “d” democrats.

The GOP leadership, such as it is these days, wants to take Wisconsin back to a place that most of us really don’t want to live. It is also a place that really never existed in the United States. The GOP race to the bottom for the vast majority of the citizens while their wealthy benefactors receive a blank check needs to be aborted.

We don’t need a welfare state for any group. We need a community that believes in sustainably, mutual self-help, and self-responsibility. I think that message, through the co-operative model, crosses party boundaries. I hope that Tom Barrett gets it.

September 20, 2010

Roadblocks on the Path to Mondragon: The Theft of Labor

Filed under: Society,Worker Rights — Tags: , , , , — John McNamara @ 8:00 am

The three English countries (UK, Canada, and the United States) have, at their core, a culture that promotes and accommodates the theft of labor in a way that simply didn’t exist in Euskera (The Basque Country). Really, it is a problem for all of North and South America, but for this discussion, I will limit to North America; however, the effects of slavery culture and US imperialism have certainly caused its share of problems in worker development in the south as well.

The most obvious example of this theft was the slave trade and US slavery that was ended with the Civil War. The United States economy and society was built on slavery and the white form of it: indentured servitude. All of English society benefited from this theft of labor). In fact, this can be said for the entire Americas as all of its modern nations were based on the slave trade. In Paraguay, they even call their currency the Guarni (the name of the indigenous peoples who served as slaves).

Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor for The Atlantic, has an excellent blog post on this subject called The Big Machine. Go read it and then come back. . I’ll wait. While Coates comments on race relatons, my focus is one economic class.

With the rise of capitalism and the industrial revolution, the theft of labor became a matter of principle. David Ricardo, an 18th century economist, even argued for The Iron Law of Wages which suggested that it was part of a natural economic order that workers only earn enough to sustain them to continue to labor. It was this point when the value of work was divorced from humanity and made to be simply another marketplace. Of course, as in most of the propaganda regarding “free markets”, it was a rigged system in favor of those who held capital. In the UK, workers who attempted to unionize or organize for better wages were deported or jailed. In the United States, they were murdered and blacklisted. Even Canada has its history of shooting and jailing workers.  Capital, in the English speaking north, has always trumped labor.

It would be nice to think that our culture of subsidizing our society through free labor was a quaint artifice of the past. However, it isn’t. Every summer, college students are expected to work for free (to better their future prospects). In the taxi industry workers are deemed “independent contractors” and expected to pay for the ability to work (NYC cab drivers often average only about $30 a day through this system). Of course, in college and professional sports, millions are made off of the labor of the athletes. Only a small percentage (the superstars) ever sees a share of that profit and in the college, the system takes extreme steps to ensure that the player doesn’t see a dime. A friend of mine who did legal work for migrant farm workers has dozens of tales of wage theft and outright chattel slavery in Ohio during the 80’s and 90’s.

This idea is so embedded in our culture that even the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives uses the apprentice/internship model for its Democracy at Work Network of peer advisors.

I don’t want to say that all volunteerism is wrong. Don José famously refused any compensation for his role as “advisor” to the Mondragon co-opeative. The workers even had to steal his bicycle so that they could justify buying him a new one that was motorized! Volunteerism has its place in truly fair and cooperative society, but in our society, we need to understand the fine line between volunteerism and exploitation. (Dr. Laurie Mook has a great book–What Counts? Social Accounting for Non-Profits and Cooperatives–on how to quantify volunteer hours with an expanded value statement that every coop should use).

The key point: The devaluation of labor in the US makes it a lot harder for the distributist model to take hold. Our culture establishes a base of distrust between the worker and the organization that uses their labor. It creates an environment where workers express solidarity with each other by enabling them to “get one over” on the machine. We can create worker cooperatives, but to change the culture of the workers from the asymmetrical survival strategies that they have spent a lifetime learning requires more than simply writing some by-laws.

We need accountability structures because we have a society based on theft. The original theft is from the worker who can then justify behavior as a means of fighting for their rights. We can’t really divorce ourselves from that culture without taking some extraordinary steps or developing our cooperatives from a different paradigm and working to only accept workers who have achieved that level of understanding (this might be why Cheeseboard and Rainbow Grocery can operate as they do). In the US, we had a strong labor movement until the neo-liberals under Reagan went on the attack. While they destroyed private sector unions, what replaced it was an Intifada of assymetrical class war that involves slacking, cigarette breaks, and Facebook. I’ve read some estimates where close to 25% to 30% of the work week (or white collar workers) is spent doing non-work things (chatting, smoking, web surfing, etc). On the other hand, blue collar workers at the lowest end are expected to wear diapers to work so as to keep the line moving. It is really a messed up work culture.

A Long Term View

As I will be writing over this week, we need to take a long-term view. We need to keep in mind that Mondragon was not created overnight. It started with the creation of a poorly funded school. Arizmendiaretta spent a dozen years educating students who then went to University. They then took jobs with the large employers and finally returned to Mondragon to establish their own company based on the values that they learned at their Priest’s school. Arizmendiaretta famously argued that theirs was an educational movement with an economic structure, not the other way around.

If we want to create something that looks like Mondragon and makes us feel good, we need to do more that simply try to model Mondragon. We need to first develop a legitamate belief in the value of humans and the value of work—not the false Work Ethic along the lines of Ragged Dick and the myth perpetrated by Horatio Alger that lures people into supporting capital with false promises of becoming rich themselves. We need a humanist ethic—one that has already been written down by the International Co-operative Alliance and Mondragon. We might even need to create a different pathway to a Distributist society. While the Spanish (and even the Maritimes) had their common religion and inspired priests to guide the people, we don’t. To create a culture that honors work, we need to create a means of honoring the human doing the work. Fortunately, there is already a model for that as well: syndicalism.

April 5, 2010

Comments About Union Cab’s Bonus Segment in Michael Moore’s Movie

Filed under: Society — Tags: , , , , — Fred Schepartz @ 6:23 pm

In Michael Moore’s latest film, “Capitalism: A Love Story,” his basic point is that Capitalism is inherently evil. He cites various examples of antidotes to Capitalism, including worker cooperatives. Union Cab, where I’ve worked for 22 years, was one of three worker cooperatives Moore’s film crew spent time with last spring. We didn’t make it into the theatrical cut, but we are included in the bonus features on the DVD that came out last week.

It was gratifying to see my workplace portrayed as a force was positive change in our society. Basically, Moore is saying that Union Cab is everything that is good and wholesome, a workplace that puts people before profits, that is democratic, that sees the community as something to serve, not something to exploit and mine for profit.

More importantly, Moore accurately portrays Union Cab as one of many entities seeking to change society through economic means. There is a zeitgeist regarding worker cooperatives right now, and Moore is out there on the forefront. Amazingly, a great deal has happened in the worker cooperative movement since he started filming last year. In Cleveland, the first of the Evergreen Cooperative‘s opened for business. They are just beginning, but this burgeoning network of cooperatives has been highly touted as “The Cleveland Model.” (http://www.thenation.com/doc/20100301/alperowitz_et_al)

And then last fall, it was announced that United Steelworkers had formed a collaboration with Spanish super cooperative Mondragon to create manufacturing worker cooperatives here in the United States based on the Mondragon model in Spain. (http://www.usw.org/media_center/releases_advisories?id=0234)

One thing I particularly liked is that the bonus features includes an interview with Tom Webb. Webb is on faculty at St. Mary’s University in Canada. St. Mary’s offers a masters program in cooperative studies. In fact, my best friend and fellow Union Cabbie, John McNamara, is graduating from the program this spring. (John set up the interview and the whole visit with Union Cab, but when the time came for the visit, John was out of town visiting family.) The interview is quite useful in terms of putting these various syndicalist elements into perspective and realizing it is all part of a movement, albeit a movement that may or may not realize that it actually exists as a movement.

As far as how Union Cab is portrayed, for the most part I was pleased. There was a great deal of trepidation and anxiety in anticipation of the release of the DVD. I had heard that a couple of our members who were interviewed felt like they were being treated in a bit of a confrontational manner. Our General Manager, Karl Schulte, was a bit upset. He was asked about how much he was paid compared to the lowest paid employee—the ratio is about three or four to one compared to 300 to one for the average corporate CEO. In response to Karl’s answer, the interviewer barked, “What are you, a commie, a hippie?Rebecca Kemble, the other Union Cab member who drove them around, also said she felt they got a bit confrontational with her as well, hence her being a bit defensive when she says on camera, “I don’t think we have any Communists working here,” when she talks about the diversity of our membership, with some Democrats, some Republicans, as well as socialists and anarchists.

While I felt like I was treated with the utmost respect by Basel Hamden and his crew, my nose was certainly bent out of joint by a comment Moore made during a couple interviews when the theatrical cut was released. He said he liked Isthmus Engineering because they all “look like a bunch of Republicans.” He said that kind of cooperative interested him more than some “hippie-dippy food coop.”

But now that many of us have seen our segment on the DVD, I can say that our fears were unfounded. For the most part, it’s just us, speaking for ourselves, and I have to say we do a good job. The segment comes off in a very positive manner.

After a nearly perfect imitation of the opening shots of “Taxi Driver” with me channeling Travis Bickle (actually, it’s not Bickle but former Union Cab driver Steve Fleischman who used the line to shut up some drunk Young Republicans the night Tommy Thompson was elected governor in 1986. John McNamara told me this story.), I talk about seniority pay increases. Rebecca talks about earning roughly $18-27 an hour on a good Saturday night. She also has a nice line about how Union Cab counts among its ranks many of the “walking wounded from corporate America.” Karl, when asked about how much he’s paid, comments that he doesn’t understand how somebody would want more. He’s able to put food on the table. Isn’t that enough?

Now if I were to quibble, I would have to say that I wish there was more in the way of nuts and bolts details to the specifics about what makes Union Cab a special place to work. I get into that some with my description of our institutionalized system of seniority pay increases, a percentage point for every 2500 hours one works. That’s nice, but I wish Moore would have included the other things I said about our structure, that we have a board of directors elected from the membership by the membership, that we do have a management structure, but it is counter-balanced to protect our members from abuse. We give managers the authority to do their jobs, but they are supervised by the board, so they work for us. We have the Worker’s Council where any member can appeal discipline. We have committees that anyone can join that write policy, which may be eventually approved by the board.

I believe all of this is very important. Touchy-feel words don’t make us what we are. It is the structure of our organization and the various entities without our organization along with the energy of our members that makes us special. That is exactly how we are able to provide jobs at a living wage in a democratic and humane work environment.

In our segment, I’m shown for 30 seconds talking about Union Cab. I wish I had been given more time because there’s so much more I said that I wanted people to hear. Also, and forgive me for sounding self-centered and self-serving, I was rather disappointed that Moore didn’t allow me to plug my novel, “Vampire Cabbie.” Frankly, I was surprised that Moore didn’t include any mention of my book. The idea of a cab driver who drives at night who has published a book about a vampire cab driver, that struck me as the sort of thing that would attract Moore like a moth to a flame. If anything, I was worried that Moore might make me look some kind of kook. But, nooooo! No plug! No love!

All kidding aside, what particularly disappointed me about that omission was that while talking about my book, I also talked about how Union Cab attracts and nurtures various artistic types. Within a year of the publication of “Vampire Cabbie,” two of my fellow drivers published books. Last year we had a successful Union Cab art show. There’s always several musicians driving at Union at any given time. In fact, earlier this year, a second Union Cab music CD was released.

As I said to the camera (and to local reporters Doug Moe and Rob Thomas in interviews this week, neither of whom felt the need to quote me on this point), Union Cab does a great job of nurturing artistic types because, first of all, we pay a living wage, which means you don’t have to work a ton of hours to get by, so you have time to devote to your art. Second, Union Cab is not the kind of workplace that sucks out your soul, so that when you’re not working, you still have enough gas in the tank to pursue your artistic endeavors.

Still, all that said, it was an honor to be in a Michael Moore film, even if it was just the bonus features on the DVD. While I felt a bit disappointed by some aspects of the segment, it was a strong, positive portrayal of a worker cooperative that is, in it’s own way, an important part of a bigger movement.

There is one last point I do need to make. I have to take exception with Rebecca’s comment that “we don’t have any Communists working here.” Actually, we do. I know for a fact that we have at least one, and he’d be a bit pissed to hear that comment. Rebecca seems a bit defensive when she makes that remark. I want to be clear that we’ve always had Communists working at Union Cab, and they have, at various times, played an important role and taken leadership positions, but not for power, not because the Central Committee told them to, but because they chose to sacrifice their time for the common good.

Look for us on page two of the bonus features. Our segment is titled, “You Talkin’ To Me? Commie Taxi Drivers in Wisconsin.”

February 13, 2010

Another View of the Undercover Boss

Filed under: Society — Tags: , , , — John McNamara @ 10:37 am

The really great people at Labor Notes also noticed this show. Definitely read their take on it.

The Labor Notes essay reminded me of one of the real problems of the show (and the co-operative difference).

The narrative follows a fairly old plot device: The King is bored and feeling insecure about his subject’s love for him so he dons the clothes of a peasant and heads out to the realm to see how life really is. Along the way, he finds corrupt Sheriffs acting in his name, a damsel in distress, and other failures that he never dreamed existed because his royal court kept him sheltered from it all. In the end, he returns to the castle, uplifts the noble peasants who were kind to him, throws down the corrupt, marries the damsel and nestles back into the world of comfort, wealth and power.

That is essentially the plot of this show. Like the ancient narrative that it follows, it ignores reality serving instead to instruct the peasants that it is “hard work” being the decider!

Shakespeare had the most honest version of it in Henry V. Never one to trust the mob, Shakespeare allows his disguised Henry to defend the power of the King and to exonerate the King from the blood of war:

So, if a son that is by his father sent about
merchandise do sinfully miscarry upon the sea, the
imputation of his wickedness by your rule, should be
imposed upon his father that sent him: or if a
servant, under his master’s command transporting a
sum of money, be assailed by robbers and die in
many irreconciled iniquities, you may call the
business of the master the author of the servant’s
damnation: but this is not so: the king is not
bound to answer the particular endings of his
soldiers, the father of his son, nor the master of
his servant; for they purpose not their death, when
they purpose their services. Besides, there is no
king, be his cause never so spotless, if it come to
the arbitrement of swords, can try it out with all
unspotted soldiers: some peradventure have on them
the guilt of premeditated and contrived murder;
some, of beguiling virgins with the broken seals of
perjury; some, making the wars their bulwark, that
have before gored the gentle bosom of peace with
pillage and robbery. Now, if these men have
defeated the law and outrun native punishment,
though they can outstrip men, they have no wings to
fly from God: war is his beadle, war is vengeance;
so that here men are punished for before-breach of
the king’s laws in now the king’s quarrel: where
they feared the death, they have borne life away;
and where they would be safe, they perish: then if
they die unprovided, no more is the king guilty of
their damnation than he was before guilty of those
impieties for the which they are now visited. Every
subject’s duty is the king’s; but every subject’s
soul is his own. Therefore should every soldier in
the wars do as every sick man in his bed, wash every
mote out of his conscience: and dying so, death
is to him advantage; or not dying, the time was
blessedly lost wherein such preparation was gained:
and in him that escapes, it were not sin to think
that, making God so free an offer, He let him
outlive that day to see His greatness and to teach
others how they should prepare.”

So it is with the CEO of modern commerce. They are the Dukes and Kings of our era and act much in the same manner. There decisions are just by the fact that they made them. Any consequences on the people cannot be laid at their feet. People are responsible for themselves, after all. Larry O’Donnell professes safety, but cuts hours without any realization that speed-ups affect safety. His company, according to Labor Notes, is a “safe” workplace where “Waste Management workers are three times more likely to get killed on the job than firemen, and 60 percent more likely than police officers.”

Of course, taking a week off work to see how the plebes survive isn’t the same as being one. At least the kings in the old stories actually risked their lives, but the CEO can jump safely back to the corporate office at any time. Undercover Boss is the modern grim fairy tale of corporatized America. Worker Co-operation is the reality anti-dote.

February 9, 2010

Undercover Boss–A lesson in the Co-operative Difference

Filed under: Human Relations,Society — John McNamara @ 7:04 pm

After the Superbowl, CBS presented its new non-scripted show, Undercover Boss. The premise is timely. CEO’s of major corporations lose the suits and go to work on the front-line without revealing their true identity. Can these bosses work under the corporate policy that they wrote?

The first episode featured President of Waste Management, Larry O’Donnell. Larry gets to see first hand the effects of cost cutting measures designed to improve profitability and reward shareholders. Probably the most incredible moment occurs when Larry realizes that his policies essentially force staff to urinate in coffee cans that they carry with them as opposed to wasting precious minutes using a lavatory. In the end, Larry promises sweeping changes to honor the men and women who remove quite a bit of material and human waste from our communities.

I thought how this show would be even better if they could juxtapose the profiled business with a worker co-operative. Or instead of revealing Larry’s epiphany, they could have created a panel of front-line workers from Waste Management to watch the show and develop a list of ways for the company to change.

Other little things that I noticed was the fear on the face of the middle-managers when they had to respond to Larry’s request. I wonder if that fear even registers with him? Maybe he doesn’t even see it because it is the normal reaction. I certainly know what would happen in a worker co-op if the GM or anyone presented demands disguised as  requests. The person would probably unpack the request–how are we going to pay for it? is this really going to accomplish what the GM wants? does this fit in with the goals and values of the organization?

I don’t know if the schtick of the show will keep my interest but it certainly was enjoyable to see the structural failure of profit-based policy get its comeuppance.

December 19, 2009

The Night I Was A Movie Star—Almost

Filed under: Society — Tags: , , — Fred Schepartz @ 6:30 pm

Okay, I admit it. By the beginning of last summer, I was starting to suffer from delusions of grandeur regarding my role in Michael Moore’s new film. The image of me, sitting behind the wheel of my taxicab, would be on the film’s marquee. Something I said on camera would be the movie’s tagline. And suddenly, not only would I be a movie star, but my novel, Vampire Cabbie, would shoot to the top of the New York Times bestseller list.

More about all of this later.

But yes, it is absolutely true. I almost co-starred in Michael Moore’s latest film, Capitalism: A Love Story. Moore wanted to feature worker cooperatives as an antidote to Capitalism. Apparently, Moore had read about Union Cab in Jim Hightower’s recent book, Swim Against The Current, which included a chapter about the worker-owned-and-operated cooperative cab company where I have worked for the past twenty-one years.

There was a lot of talk back and forth between my people and Moore’s people, but finally it was decided that an independent film production crew would come to Madison in early April and would shoot footage and conduct interviews at Union Cab and Isthmus Engineering.

About two weeks before the shoot, I was running a fare when my cell phone rang. I fished the phone out of my hip pocket. My cell phone seldom rings, so when it does, I answer it promptly, assuming that either someone died or that a tsunami has just engulfed most of California.

The call was from John McNamara. John’s my best friend. He’s also our Marketing Manager. Part of his job is handling customer complaints. When I heard his voice on the other end, I immediately thought, “What did I do?”

But no, that was not why John called. Instead, he called to ask me if I would be interesting in driving the film crew around town.

“Would I actually be on camera?” I asked.

“Absolutely,” John replied.

I almost drove the cab off the road. (Well, not really, but that sounds good.)

I was shocked and so, so excited. I immediately shared the news with my passenger, a hip, thirty-something woman who was getting her black-and-white former police car worked on. She thought it was way cool. So did I.

But poor John. He had been the one who had been contacted by Basel Hamdan, the film crew’s producer. He and Basel had been discussing the possibility of Union Cab being included in the movie for a few months. Finally, he got the green light from Basel, but the two days when they would be in town, John would be out of town, visiting his mother in Toledo. John was none too pleased.

But I was excited beyond belief. I told everybody I knew. I’d stop strangers on the street and tell them as well. I was going to be in a Michael Moore movie! I’d be one of the good guys in a Michael Moore movie!

And I could talk about my novel, Vampire Cabbie, on camera. If the final cut included footage of me, talking about my novel, Vampire Cabbie, I would sell lots and lots of books.

The only problem was the anticipation. That may have been the longest week and a half of my life, but I was excited. Frankly, I was not particularly nervous about being filmed, let alone being filmed by Moore’s film crew. The fact that Moore is well known for his in-your-face style of interviewing did not worry me in the least. After all, I was one of the good guys.

Mainly, I wanted to be in the movie, so I wanted to do a good job. It occurred to me that teaching myself to speak in sound bites would maximize my chances of making the final cut. No, I did not sit down and write scripts for myself, but I did put a great deal of thought into what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it.

Of course, I wanted to talk about my novel, Vampire Cabbie, but I wanted to discuss it in the greater context of how Union Cab, being the special workplace that it is, helped make it possible for me to write the book and is a haven for artists of all kinds. I wanted to talk about the importance of Union Cab providing jobs at a living wage in a humane work environment. And I wanted to talk about how Union Cab is a shining example of what I like to call Neo-Syndicalism.

I thought a great deal about what I actually wanted to say, and I actually practiced my “lines,” struggling to be as concise as possible.

I was ready, but then they threw me a curveball. The day before the shoot, Basel sent me an e-mail:

Hi Fred,

Thanks for the info – very helpful. We’re looking forward to tomorrow night’s shoot.

There are a few things we are looking to accomplish—first, we’d like buildings, restaurants or sights that are unique to Madison. Any landmarks or anything …

Also, and there are some things that we’d like to accomplish cinematically—certain visuals and looks that we’d like to capture that we have been thinking about. We can get into more detail about this tomorrow as this is for our Director of Photography to coordinate, but if you know of any places that have smoke—sewers or building that have smoke coming out of them, it would be helpful to what we are trying to do.

We’ll be in touch tomorrow …

All the best,
Basel

As Basel later explained, they were looking for a Taxi Driver visual motif. Okay, I was willing to do what I could, but understand: Travis Bickle is a bit of a sore subject with any self-respecting taxi driver. Surely, Michael Moore wasn’t going to all this trouble just to make fun of us?

Still, I wanted to be helpful. I got up early that morning and perused the Internet, looking for smoke or steam. I know that the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus has a vast network of steam tunnels, but where might the steam be released? I could not find any answers, but I did find a website largely dedicated to Tunnel Bob, a local character well known for traveling the campus steam tunnels.

Anybody who has lived in Madison for a long time knows who Tunnel Bob is. His appearance is quite distinctive. He is extremely tall and lanky, with long arms, legs and a rather long neck. He is also chronically mentally ill.

Maybe Tunnel Bob could tell me where to find smoke or steam. But how could I find Tunnel Bob?

I did make a few phone calls to places like the UW Physical Plant, but no luck. Well, I tried.

Still, I was excited. I went into work early and selected the newest cab I could find then took it to the carwash. I couldn’t pick up the film crew in a dirty cab.

Ah, but the waiting, the waiting. Basel had told me they’d need me to pick them up around seven PM, but when the appointed time arrived, I did not hear from them. Minutes hung like hours, but still no word, which presented a problem in terms of doing my job and making money. The phone call could come any second! I had to be nearby and not engaged in a long call when they were ready for me.

Finally, Basel called. They were still at Isthmus Engineering. They were running a bit late.

Finally, at around ten Basel called to tell me they were just about ready for me and that I should meet them at their hotel, the venerable Inn on the Park, in about a half hour.

Perfect. I was dropping off on the near Westside, just ten minutes from the Capitol Square. That gave me plenty of time to finish my call and more importantly, go to the bathroom. I was not sure when I would get another chance to relieve myself.

The Open Pantry near the west end of the campus was a mere half-mile from where I dropped off my last passenger. When I emerged from the bathroom, I had a big surprise. Not just a surprise, but Kismet!

Sitting on a stool in the small dining area in the Open Pantry was none other than Tunnel Bob! I could not believe my good fortune.

But there was just one problem. Asking someone who is chronically mentally ill a straight question and getting a straight answer is not as easy as one would think. The question: where might I find smoke or steam? I had to ask him three times before I he told me there just wasn’t any smoke or steam to be had. As I feared, it being April and fairly warm, it just was not likely. January or February, that’s a different story.

Oh, well. I tried. I made every effort.

I arrived at the Inn on the Park shortly after the film crew. Right away, they struck me as very nice. Despite the fact that it already had been a long day for them, they were excited and ready to go, including the intrepid cinematographer who had flown in on a red-eye the night before from Europe. He pretty much was running on little more than adrenalin, having not really slept the night before.

The crew quickly went to work setting up the shoot, while Basel and I chatted. I sadly told him there was no smoke or steam to be had, though I did tell him our head mechanic could make smoke if he wanted. Basel shook his head. “That’s okay,” he said.

He asked me about prominent landmarks and views. I told him about Bascom Hill, State Street, the Capitol Square and a curious optical illusion on the southside of town where, when you pull onto this one street (O’Sheridan off Lakeside), the Capitol looms large at the end on the horizon, but as you move closer, it shrinks.

“Cool,” Basel said.

We talked about the Taxi Driver motif. I remembered a story John McNamara had told me several years ago. We used to have a driver named Steve Fleischman. He was very intelligent, but a bit unbalanced. His nickname was Fleshdog.

As John told me, it was election night 1986, the horrible night when Tommy Thompson, a conservative, small-town Republican, whose nickname from his years in the state assembly was Dr. No, defeated amiable Democrat incumbent Tony Earl.

Apparently, Steve had this cab-load of College Republicans. It was their big night, so they were all drunk and excited about Thompson’s unexpected win.

“Aren’t you excited about our new governor?” one of them asked Steve.

In classic Fleshdog fashion, Steve replied, “You know, I don’t know much about politics. All I know is we need a good hard rain to wash the scum off the streets.”

The passengers started freaking out. Steve quickly reassured them, “It’s just a movie. I was just quoting from a movie.”

Basel liked the story.

“It’s election night, you know,” I said. I repeated Fleshdog’s line.

Basel patted me on the shoulder. “Save it for the filming,” he said.

The crew quickly got to work prepping for the shoot. The sound person slipped a wireless microphone under my black leather biker jacket though the exact placement was a bit delicate. It took a little while to figure out how to set up the mike so it would not pick up took much rustling.

They mounted a camera on the outside of the cab. They put gels on some of the windows to cut down on glare. They did test shots with the hand-held camera inside the cab.

I was quite impressed with the attention to detail. Frankly, I never thought of Michael Moore movies as visually strong. His films don’t look bad, but I’ve never thought they look exceptional. I quickly learned that there’s a great deal of hard work that goes into making the movies look as good and sound as good as they do. It’s not like one can just go out and buy a digital camcorder and shoot a movie like it’s nothing at all. The crew worked hard to make it look easy.

And like I said, the cinematographer was particularly intrepid. At one point, we were driving down State Street, he opened the window and shot footage with his entire torso out the window, Basel hanging on to his belt for dear life, a terrified expression on his face. I thought this only happened in the movies.

Later when we were just about done, I realized I had not shown them the optical illusion of the shrinking Capitol. I told the cinematographer. He was ready to jump back in the cab and grab the shot, but Basel pulled in the reins, claiming the guy needed to finally get some sleep. I’m not sure, but I think Basel had simply had enough.

We were ready. The crew packed into my cab, four of them. The rest followed in a minivan. Normally, four people in my cab is a bit crowded, but with Basel, the sound person, the cinematographer and one other person, it was utterly cramped. Of course, the cinematographer bounced back and forth between my cab and their minivan.

They wanted landmarks. They wanted stunning visuals. Right away, with the minivan following close behind, I nosed the cab up the side of Bascom Hill, the glacial blister that is the epicenter of the UW campus. Atop Bascom Hill sits Bascom Hall, named after John Bascom, the founder of the University. I parked the cab almost right next to the statue of Abraham Lincoln, feeling particularly entitled. As a cab driver, I can drive and park in places where civilians cannot, but with Michael Moore’s film crew in tow, hell, the sky was the limit!

The crew was quite impressed with the view from atop Bascom Hill. There’s a great view of the Capitol, along with a festively lit State Street.

We drove down State Street to the Capitol Square. We drove around the Square and back down State Street. We pretty much drove the circuit for hours, up and around and around and down, turn around and do it all over again.

The cinematographer attempted to recreate one of the more famous shots from Taxi Driver. “Glance toward the rear view mirror,” he said. “Shift your eyes back and forth.”

I tried, but it was hard. Finally, I think we got it.

As we drove, Basel and I talked. I knew I could direct what I said to a large extent. I was wired, so anything I said, they would have and could use, if they chose to do so. Basel interviewed me as well.

“Is the co-op cab company in your novel like Union Cab?” he asked.

Well, there’s a softball I could launch over the fence. I answered yes and discussed Union Cab’s structure.

He asked if Union Cab offers health insurance. John had warned us that they were likely to ask about that, given Moore’s interest in health-care reform. No problem, Union Cab does have a health plan. It’s a good health plan, but it’s too expensive—but that’s not Union Cab’s fault; that’s the fault of our broken health care system.

That was really the only thing approaching a gotcha question. Overall, I felt like they all treated me with a great deal of respect. They didn’t act like it was weird that a cab driver wrote a book about a blood-sucking cab driver.

Interestingly, I found out later that the interviews done the next day were not quite so respectful. Karl Schulte, our general manager, felt downright harassed. When discussing the fact that Karl’s wage is only about four times as high as the lowest-paid employee, Basel asked, “What are you, some kind of hippie?”

Rebecca Kemble, who drove them around the next day, also said she felt a bit badgered, but again, I did not feel disrespected in the least.

At other times, Basel said nothing other than helping to direct the shooting. At one point, we stopped at the campus end of State Street. The crew vacated the cab and climbed into the minivan. They wanted to shoot the side of the cab. Basel remained in the cab and told me to drive very slowly but at a steady speed. The minivan drove alongside of me.

We painstakingly drove the length of State Street and turned onto the Capitol Square. Just then, a squad car approached. I promptly pulled over. The minivan pulled over behind me. The square car pulled over in front of me.

Oddly, the officer did not turn on the lights. Basel and I waited for what seemed like forever. The officer did not approach our vehicle.

Feeling like the crew was my responsibility, I broke one of the chief rules when dealing with police during a traffic stop, but I figured that because I was driving a taxi, it would be okay.

Making sure my hands were visible, I got out of my cab and carefully approached the squad car. “I’m with Michael Moore’s film crew,” I said. “We’re shooting a movie.”

“Return to your vehicle!” the officer snapped.

Asshole.

I sheepishly got back in the cab and described the exchange to Basel.

“You didn’t say we were Michael Moore’s film crew, did you?” Basel asked me, a bit annoyed.

“Hey, you didn’t tell me not to.” Then I made some snide remark about the cop not having any African Americans to pull over, referencing the shameful fact that Dane County has the worst per capita discrepancy of incarceration of African Americans of any county in the country. The bitter joke around here is that DWB is way worse than DWI.

A moment later, four more squads showed up. An officer approached the cab.

“I’ll do the talking this time,” Basel said.

“What’s going on here?” the officer asked politely, if not pleasantly.

“We’re an independent film crew, working on a movie,” Basel replied.

“Oh, cool,” the officer, said with a smile. “We were just wondering what was going on and why that minivan was driving the wrong way down the street.”

And then just like that, the squad cars left us to return to business.

“Wow, that guy was really nice,” Basel said. “They’re usually not that nice in New York.”

I growled softly.

We quickly got back to work. We were on one of the streets that spokes off the Capitol when I decided it was time. The Capitol glowed brightly directly in front of us.

“It’s election night,” I said. “The good guys won. The Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice will keep her job. I guess the corporatists won’t be able to buy themselves another seat on the state supreme court, at least not this time.

“But you know, I don’t know much about politics. All I know is what we need is a good hard rain to wash the scum off the streets.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Basel smiling. Cut and print, as they say.

Basel finally called it a night around three in the morning. Damn! It was well past bartime.

As we unpacked, everyone complimented me on my efforts. One member of the crew even asked me if I had acting experience.

Yet all I could think of was the things I didn’t do, what I didn’t say. For some stupid reason, I had forgotten to bring a copy of my novel, Vampire Cabbie, so there was no shot of me in the cab, holding the book for the camera.

I forgot to talk about Neo-Syndicalism. I never got around to talking about all the artists who work at Union Cab and what it is about the workplace that makes that possible. And when Basel asked me about what makes Union Cab a humane workplace, I badly fumbled. This is a question I should have knocked out of the ballpark. It’s an aspect of Union Cab I truly believe in and truly love. And I actually practiced how I would answer that specific question.

Instead, I babbled incoherently about how a bunch of us are Star Trek and Star Wars fans.

“If a driver sees another driver whose headlights are off, even during the day, we tell the dispatcher. This isn’t to get anybody in trouble, but just so the dispatcher can give a friendly reminder for safety reasons.

“This one dispatcher is a huge Star Trek, Star Wars, Dr. Who, and Battlestar Galactica fan. One time, I spotted a driver driving without the headlights on. Instead of telling the dispatcher the driver’s headlights were off, I said, cab so-and-so has switched off his targeting computer.

“The dispatcher then says, ‘cab so-and-so, you’ve switched off your targeting computer. Is everything all right?’”

God, I’m such a dork.

Still, I did feel pretty good about the whole thing, but that changed a couple months later when Basel e-mailed the following message:

Hey Fred,

I hope you are doing well.

We are in the middle of editing the film and there is one section where we would like to re-record some audio of you. It relates to the evening that we drove around in the cab with you, and there is a part that we need to make sure that we have crisply and cleanly—it is the Taxi Driver line.

Pearl Lieberman from our crew will happen to be in Madison this weekend, so we thought that it would be a good opportunity to record this bit of audio—it will not take much of your time at all—it is just reciting that line a few times in order for us to make sure we have it.

Let me know what your schedule looks like for Saturday and you and Pearl can arrange a time and place to meet.

Also, I’m having trouble getting through to you by cell phone, so please send me the correct number. Also, I’d like to discuss the line with you, as well.

All the best,
Basel

As Basel would later explain, they loved the “wash the scum off the streets” line, but wanted me to add, the words “Wall Street.”

That weekend, I met Pearl and her boyfriend. It turns out that her boyfriend was none other than Bob Wasserman, a guy I’ve known since the early 1980s. In fact, we worked together in the Rathskeller at Memorial Union, and I represented him in the infamous bagel grievance.

As we sat in my sweltering car with the windows closed, to try to keep out the road sounds, Pearl struggled with the small camera Basel had thrust at her literally as she was getting in her cab on the way to the airport. Fortunately, Bob is one of the best sound people in Madison. The camera’s batteries were dead, and there was a problem with the cord, but Bob was able to jury-rig something.

We recorded several takes as I tried to get the flow right, along with the right inflection of the added words. I knew my motivation. I tried to say the words “Wall Streets” as if they tasted like the nastiest things ever.

And then it was done.

And then my delusions of grandeur began. I would be on the film’s marquee! My words would be the film’s tagline! Michael Moore would show up the Madison opening. There’d be a big party at the Orpheum Theater. We’d all be on stage. I’d be right up there with Michael Moore. I’d step up to the microphone and say a few words about the film’s importance and Union Cab’s importance.

“Say it, say it,” the crowd would yell.

“I don’t know much about politics,” I would say with a wry smile. “All I know is all we need is a good hard rain to wash the scum off the streets—Wall Street.”

And the crowd would go wild.

Alas, it was not to be, but maybe we might be in the bonus footage on the DVD.

And now it’s time for me to go to work at Union Cab, sticking it to the man for thirty years.

Older Posts »

Powered by WordPress