Union (Dis)Organizing, Sex, Death and LA

I would like to recall and re-enact a particular scene in my life. Recently, someone reminded me of my US American privilege, by noting that I had lived in Los Angeles. Glamorous, I suppose. No doubt about the privileges that come with US citizenship, yet the very suggestion reminded me of the specificity of my arrival. Ending up, literally, in LA, nearly 10 years ago this March, after traveling and sleeping in a car with my boyfriend at the time, Julio, I found myself in a bizarre scene. The scene is thus: I am counting change inside a hotel room at the Sheraton in downtown LA. I have a suitcase, one of those hard-shelled, grey-colored plastic things, full of all my earthly belongings. Counting quarters, dimes and nickels, I am making sure I have enough to get from downtown to North Hollywood on, what was then, one of the only subway lines in the city.

Los Angeles, California / Griffith Observatory in foreground / Courtesy: http://www.lacity.org


Quitting my well-paid gig at the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 503 in Portland, Oregon, I hit the road with Julio. Interestingly, he was working for SEIU – but for the International, not a local union branch – and his job required we move to LA. Neither of us, despite bringing in nearly an annual income of $100,000 combined (before taxes), had a penny. Such is the bizarre mirror world of union organizing. Always paid, always broke, and always moving. Union organizers exist almost in an extra-dimension, outside normal rhythms of space, location and time. They drift from place to place, yet have the most intense conversations with people. I can’t count the amount of times I sat at a worker’s kitchen table, listening to their life story, watching them weep, as though the entire history of oppression was allowed to speak its name in front of cheap ceramic cups and decorative, floral plastic table-coverings. And then I moved on. And I moved on again. From Tucson to Bakersfield, from Washington D.C. to Portland, from Salt Lake City to Boston, from Los Angeles to San Diego, and little places, like from Lakeview to Roseburg (Oregon); between and betwixt these places, the US felt like a giant repository of stories. I always enjoyed the stories, they kept me going, but what I liked more, even more, was the detachment. I could engage and move on.

I especially liked fighting employers, bosses; from the barons of capital to the petty shop-floor managers, I liked to rile them up. I think I actually liked fighting them more than I liked organizing the workers. I would later become a Boycott Coordinator for Unite Here, where I had almost no interaction with workers, except for a cadre of well-organized union members. My job? Disrupt employers who won’t negotiate, who won’t bend to certain necessary agreements. I liked that position. I liked it very much. Anyways, that wouldn’t happen until July of 2008. And alas, we are still in that room inside the Sheraton in March of 2008. Eerily, the windows opened down to the street, almost beckoning the guests to jump. Julio had agreed to do the bidding of SEIU; I respected his decision, although I had left because Andy Stern, then leader of SEIU, was (is) a neoliberal, corporate shill. He even made a deal with Wal-Mart, while also fighting the union’s own internal union of organizers (life, for organizers, is already difficult)!  Corrupt corporate-union partnerships came to light; personally, I witnessed this in the bargaining of contracts for nursing home workers in Oregon. “Templates” that had already been agreed upon were passed by administrative fiat; some of the more militant workers, literally locked out of the process (and the bargaining rooms), protested. I sided with them. The last straw came near the end of 2007. I was told to report to Roseburg, Oregon. A small, poor and rural town near where I had grown up; the place depressed me. The mission: stop another union from organizing a nursing home because of a partnership between SEIU and the company. We, SEIU, had exclusive access to their employees, as long as we only organized one nursing home a year. At the company’s beckoning, SEIU directed me to lead a union-busting campaign. I was to sow disunity, confusion and attempt to organize this “bargaining unit” under the aegis of SEIU Local 503. The other union, made up of local people, some of them very tough construction and lumber men, certainly didn’t like my urbane faggotry running around creating chaos with a spreadsheet of workers provided by the company. I had the advantage. I knew the addresses. They threatened me. I carried on.

At first, I quickly set upon my duties. Why? I thought that the partnership needed to be maintained, that going through the National Labor Relations Board for a union certification election put too much strain on workers, when card-check, whereby the company will recognize a union without an election if X amount of workers sign up, seemed less devastating. And I was the lead organizer, on my way up that great ladder of corporate unionism. Simultaneously I knew what I was doing was wrong. Quickly the entirety of the situation became apparent to me in January 2008. My boss, Andrew Barnes, actually said that “they will be better off without a union, in fact, if they don’t chose us, they will not have a union.” I refused to organize. I sent out organizers and stayed in my hotel room, charts outlining where each worker stood in relation to the campaign, marking them via a number system, blanketing the wall. Eventually, I resigned. Julio had just rejoined the union several months earlier; he was stationed in snowy Bend, Oregon. Between December and February, I would visit him many times, driving through the Cascades Mountains in blizzard conditions.

“American Dreamers” on Mack Sennett Studios in Silverlake, Los Angeles (The last neighborhood I would live in LA, leaving Summer 2010) / By Vhils and Shepard / Courtesy: https://obeygiant.com/american-dreamers-mural-silver-lake-los-angeles/

Coming apart at the seams, the union’s own moral and actual disintegration reflected my own personal turmoil. I had started to drink, and drink and drink. After my resignation, we left Oregon in early March, meandering with little money down the long state of California. I would end up nearly dying from hummus-induced salmonella poisoning in San Francisco. We sought refuge with an old friend of mine from college. He lived with his elderly aunt and uncle in some northern suburbs outside of San Francisco. Racists, they said horrible things about immigrants in their Lynchian ranch-style, multi-level house. Vomiting, stomach wrenching, I wanted a warm place to sleep. The friend from college wanted me. He tried to kiss me. I felt disgusted. He made racist remarks about Latino immigrants, and, laying me on his bed, with Julio in the corner of the room, played a comedy sketch by Bill Cosby, which I now see as highly appropriate considering the situation. Eventually, between my vomit and Julio’s skin color (it is hard to tell what repulsed them more), they kicked us out; disgustingly, the “friend” still wanted a parting kiss, despite the smell emanating from my tongue. Desperation is desperation. Of course this kiss of death didn’t happen. Julio and I drove up Highway 101 and found a place to park the car. Julio opened the back seats to the trunk of the car, allowing us to lie down and sleep. Irrationally, I screamed at him, “You are always doing things like this!” Delirious from fever, this statement made no sense, and we laughed about it the next day. Throughout the night, I would open the door and vomit onto the ground.

The union finally gave Julio a check, $300, to get to LA. We had no place to stay in LA, and the meeting of organizers wasn’t set to take place for several more days. We went to San Diego and stayed with a friend, Joseph. Superficially viable as an organizer, Joseph rose through the ranks of the union, despite his near inability to organize anyone. He was gay, Black and very sweet, yet a union organizer he was not. His father, a prominent figure in the movement, had secured this position for him. Luxury car, luxury clothes; he played Janet Jackson and drove us to some gay clubs in Hillcrest. I can remember his crocodile shoes to this day. Afterwards, they wanted a threesome. I wanted liberation. No one got what they wanted. They slept brotherly next to each other and I stayed – still without liberation – on the couch. The next day we drove to LA. The city, despite being there many times before, always excites me. I love LA. It was my moniker in prison, some 9 years later. “Hey, LA!”

Arriving at the Sheraton, where the union officials and their organizers were stationed, we were penniless in this five-star hotel. The hotel didn’t expect people from our (low) class, and therefore didn’t have a laundry room. Either you paid $30 for them to wash it, or you wore what you had on, over and over. Well, I took out the shampoo, filled the tub, washed, beat, rinsed and generally harangued the clothing until it seemed clean. I hung it up. Julio returned, “What are you doing?” I. Am. Cleaning. The. Damn. Clothes. The life was slowly being sucked out of my lover. He had been brought to LA to fight off both the California Nurses Association (CNA) and the almost ousted SEIU-UHW president, Sal Rosselli, who had been running a campaign against Andy Stern’s corporate fellatio fest. SEIU United Health Care Workers West (SEIU-UHW), represents one of the biggest money makers for SEIU, so they would later send in all sorts of hired security forces to take over that local union. Actions preceding the physical takeover sparked a battle with the CNA, as Stern’s pro-corporate partnerships were undermining their general ability to secure better wages and working conditions. CNA sided with Sal. All hell broke loose. Meanwhile, I was washing my clothes in the bathtub on the 14th floor of the Sheraton. Julio returned, trying to justify his work to me. I couldn’t countenance it. Neither could he. I told him I had been spotted by our former mentor, his director, Flannery Hauck. She, of course, knowing I had left the union because of my dissent, erroneously thought I was working for Sal, and that I had somehow tracked down their meeting location. Grilling me for an uncomfortable 10 minutes, which felt like 10 years, I nervously left; Julio was outraged and demanded I stay in our room. His job was on the line. His libido, normally high, had been drained. I shaved, moistened and washed, preparing myself for a sexual encounter, hoping to elicit a spark of passion. He turned to his side and said “I have to work early in the morning.” And so he did. He later quit the union, studied theater at Arizona State University and became an insurance salesman. Still in the labor movement, at AFSCME, I’d give him and his new partner exactly $300 in 2009 for rent, as he struggled through college.

Los Angeles County Museum of Art / Chris Burden’s Urban Light / Courtesy: https://www.pomona.edu/news/2018/02/07-las-iconic-installation-urban-light-chris-burden-69-turns-10


Back to LA, in the Sheraton, in March 2008: my clothing dried, surprisingly, by mid-morning. I like that about LA. It’s the perfect level of humidity, not too wet, not too dry. The desert meets the sea. It’s beautiful. Concrete and the beach, with mountains to the east and north. Freeways act like dendrites connecting each individual through their individuality into a great totality: L. A. 

Julio knew that fighting against other unions for Andy Stern was wrong, but $65,000 a year is hard to say no to. And, later in my own life, I would take about the same amount of money from a union to fight another union. No one is perfect, nor can we be. Union organizers live in a liminal space between reform and revolution, between contracts and combat; I don’t envy them – us – but I know it’s a job. We have to get paid. Yet, the economy within the union is quite queer: they pay for everything, so when you leave, you have nothing. Too tired to cook, organizers eat out together, usually somewhere nice, and this costs money. I had been on campaigns where I literally worked between the office and field organizing from 4:30am until midnight and back again the next morning. I didn’t have time to even get my laundry to someone who would do it. So I bought new clothes, everyday, for weeks.

Leaving that hotel room, getting onto the subway with barely enough change, I went to meet a musician who liked me; we had met through the now defunct MySpace. Tomek Fior, waiter and musician, met me with a sign at the North Hollywood station. My name in glitter in bold black lettering on yellow card-stock paper. His roommate, Leanne, accompanied him. Quickly that night we’d have sex. Slowly we’d become partners. At first I left for DC to do some piecemeal work for the Democratic National Committee (desperate? yes!), then to Denver for a non-profit called Progressive Future, run by a Stalin-like fanatic. The thing would go bust, and they offered me a gig in Colorado Springs, home to a military base and the far-right Focus on the Family organization. I said, no thank you. They ousted me from the hotel, and forbid their staff from housing me. Through a coworker’s mother, who was attending an astrology convention in Denver, I ended up at some posh hotel in downtown, where I happened to meet, while having a cigarette, the famous astrologer Alan Oken. He took me to his room, read my chart, which normally would cost $500; later, I would stay at the same hotel with an older gay man, in his 70s, who wanted to have sex with me; it was an astrology convention, the stars aligned for warm spaces and sexual harassment. I don’t know how any of this happened. And then of course, almost all of them predicated Obama would win (I had attended some of the forums). Oken took me to the Mercury Cafe in Denver. Several days later, Tomek paid for me to return to LA. I couldn’t wait. Arriving home, I fell asleep in his, now our, bed. “What am I going to do with you?” he said. I didn’t know. By July I was working a bi-coastal gig between LA and Boston, as a Boycott Coordinator. I managed to get a $2 million contract rescinded after I found out that the company Unite Here Local 26 was fighting, Aramark, would be catering the meals for the US Green Building Council’s convention. Notably this meant a union-boycotted corporation would be feeding those listening to a keynote address by Desmond Tutu. An overnight letter to his office in South Africa, and a lot of calls later, we won. The tabloid press actually wrote a front page article, “Did the Union Go Tutu Far?” which was quickly quashed from its online version. Later, Unite Here would (ironically) break apart, with SEIU taking most of the Here part. From counting change for the subway to bringing down multinational corporations via millions of dollars in losses, the union, and LA, and the perpetual death and rebirth of that thing we call the self, along with sex and nexuses that hold us in our movements, all bring me back to counting on change.

. . .

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