Sense from Seattle

Common sense thoughts on life and current affairs by a Seattle area sexagenarian, drawing on personal experience, years of learning as a counselor to thousands of families and an innate passion for informed knowledge, to uniquely express sensible, thoughtful, honest and independent views.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Choices - Part 4 (Work)

For most of human history, and still today in many parts of the world, people have had little choice about the work they do to earn a living. Socio-economic level and the prevailing economy made the choices extremely limited. Those born to the silver spoon could choose not to work, or to pretend to be working at whatever strikes their fancy - the most egregious example being the man currently pretending to be the US President.

Women traditionally had little choice but to work as homemakers, or be more adventurous and become a teacher, nurse or nun. Domestic service, sewing, and later, cooking and waitress jobs in restaurants opened up new choices. My mother had to quit school to help her mom do laundry and ironing my grandmother took in for extra household income. Mom graduated into restaurant work and got interested in the union that was bargaining for the contract that affected her job. She entered union politics and was elected to the executive board of the Cooks and Assistants local in Seattle, where she participated in numerous grievance hearings involving employer mistreatment of workers. She often told me about the grievances, which introduced me to the first principle of labor-management relations, a principle that my subsequent experiences, personally and as an attorney, has strongly confirmed - “start with the strong presumption that the employer, however nice as a person, is an a__hole as a boss”.

Mom got active in unionism at a most interesting time, the 1950s, when American unions were at the peak of their political power and when unions were recognizing the importance of women’s rights, though like the rest of America, they were slow to champion racial justice. Volunteer political work through the union led Mom into a job as office manager in charge of the women’s branch of organized labor’s Committee on Political Education (COPE), the lobbying and campaigning arm of the union movement. Through that position Mom became friends with many local politicians, mostly Democrats like Senator Henry Jackson. Democrats overwhelmingly supported the goals of workers, whereas Republicans considered the desires of business more important than those of employees.

COPE published many excellent educational materials on the labor laws in America, for distribution to workers, who were encouraged to register, inform themselves and vote. I devoured these easy to read publications and followed along with Mom on the political developments of the day. All was well here in Washington State, with Democrats as Governor (Rosellini) and US Senator (Jackson and Magnuson), but at the Presidential level our Adlai Stevenson lost twice to Eisenhower. [“non-political” Generals like Ike and Colin Powell almost always reveal themselves as Republicans when they retire their military uniforms - Wes Clark being an interesting exception].

My early exposure to work was to help Mom do housework (I had no sisters), and to slave at endless yard chores for our step-dad [I often wish I could have time traveled and brought a weed whacker back to the 1950s ]. Those two experiences led to my first jobs away from home, yard work for neighbors and then dishwashing jobs in a couple restaurants where Mom worked , in the Pike Place Market and in Pioneer Square. With two friends, I organized a yard work business one summer, and liked the experience of being my own boss, or at least one of three self bosses. I got along fine with my partners, but they had friction with each other, which probably helps explain why I ended up practicing law solo rather than in partnership.

To earn more serious money for school, I worked at the post office terminal annex as a mail handler during Christmas vacations and then for a six month stint right before law school. Because the post office did not discriminate racially, it was one of the better jobs available to racial minorities, so I worked with a diverse group of people. I remember working with two older men who were bosom buddies on the job, one white and one black. One day, out of earshot of the black, the white man launched into a racial diatribe typical of that era, denouncing black people. When a white woman asked him if that applied to his black friend, the white man stopped and looked stunned as he realized that he seemed to have forgotten the man’s skin color and that the diatribe could not possibly apply to him. The people I worked with in the post office were some of the hardest working people I have known. To this day, the US Postal Service does a fantastic job and does not deserve the negative comments too often heard about the postal work ethic. I think some of those comments come from latent racial discrimination.

I can’t resist telling another post office story, about the time I had the most cash I have ever had in my life. As mail handler for the small air mail section, I was once entrusted with a large handcart piled high with neatly stacked postal sacks. I was to sign for the cart and then deliver it to the loading dock, where a truck driver would sign it away from me and drive it to the airport. Two police cars were waiting to escort the truck, because I had just temporarily been in possession of the entire monthly payroll for Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska, all of which was paid in cash back in those days.

Between the second and third (final) year of law school, many students were taking jobs in the legal field. They seemed to have connections I did not have, since many had fathers who were lawyers. I did not say mothers, because the overwhelming majority of lawyers back then were white and male. My first year law class had almost 200 students, including about 6 or 7 women, and 2 minority men, one black [I am using “black” in this article for brevity -the common term back then was “Negro” or “colored”; today I usually use “African-American”]and one Asian. The two men dropped out after the first year, but 3 or 4of the women went the full three years. Lacking connections, I opted to knock on the door of the only lawyer in the Central Area, Archie M. Greenlee, whose office was right around the corner from my bus stop for the UW. I was pleasantly surprised to find the legal secretary was a friendly and very professional black woman, and even more pleased to find the attorney was not white, as I at least slightly assumed he would be, but also black. Most pleasing of all was that he gave me a job and mentored me on the practice of law and the running of a law office and opened himself to me on what life was like for him.

I stayed at the law office for my final year of school and returned after my time away for military training. I was too young and too intimidated by a legal field where all the authority figures, except for my employer, were old white males. Being one of only a small hand full of black attorneys in Seattle, Mr. Greenlee correctly surmised that the quality of his work would be especially scrutinized by white lawyers and judges, so he was very perfectionist in what his office produced. He and his secretary were up to the task, but I was becoming frustrated by the need for perfectionism when the laws and rules we worked with were so imperfectly drawn. At 23, I lacked the poise and self-confidence an attorney needs. I struggled with my concerns and analyzed them and then decided to talk to Mr. G. About my feelings. He seemed impressed by the thoroughness of my analysis and presentation and then gave me a simple solution I had not expected. If it bothered me that much, I should quit right then, and that is what I did.

By the time I quit working at the law office, I was living on my own for the first time in my life, except for boot camp. What had I just done? I guess I had just edged myself into quitting. I did feel relieved about leaving my frustrations behind, and I enjoyed the extra time I had to think and read. I decided I should get a job with the State and did the paperwork, took the tests and had the interviews, but before anything came through, I was broke and my rent was due. So I turned to the State Employment office to see what they had in private sector job postings. The older lady who helped me was quite experienced and turned immediately to her contact file. I had done some personal injury work at the law office, so she figured I could work as an insurance adjuster, and she called her contact at Safeco. Ouch, I might have to take a job for “the enemy” - but the rent was due. The contact was not hiring, but said Safeco had just purchased some kind of “title insurance” company and the nice lady set me up with an interview.

[to be continued in part 5]


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