Unsure about freedom
This week’s offering, The Last Days of Paramount Wire & Harness, is a true story – or more truthfully, a pastiche of real events of the winter of 1983. I was a 20-something organizer for the Service Employees International Union, Local 531, in New Haven, Connecticut. It was one of my first solo organizing campaigns and remains the favorite of my career. Boss harassing women workers? They leafletted his neighbors. Labor Relations Board slow in scheduling an election? They held their own, with diaper pail as ballot box. They talked me into spray painting the building one midnight with a big neon union. They partied hard when the place closed down, sadder to lose each other than any job.
How did I get to witness the last days of Paramount Wire? My entire childhood was spent hearing about the stinky nature of the world of work and the bosses who ruled it. Unions: necessary. Money: hard to come by. The little guy: screwed. I grew up, got a master’s degree in social work, and promptly went to work as a union organizer for 14 years despite my parents’ wishes that I keep out of trouble. So you can imagine how much I adore a story line where the enslaved break free of their chains (after giving a smack-down to the boss) and run off into the sunset to build a new future. I’ve always been bummed that I was born too late to live through the sit-down strikes of the 1930s.
Romance aside (would I really want to live in an unheated factory for weeks with armed goons outside the gate?), the simple story of liberation doesn’t work that way in real life. How it’s more likely to work is like this: delivery from hardship appears on the horizon, delivery that will put an end to the familiar slavery — and some sizable percentage of people balk. They dig in their heels. Freak out. Remember that time that the boss smiled at them. How good the cafeteria food was. They gripe at the union organizer because s/he isn’t the one whose job is on the line or because after s/he tries to talk sense into the boss, things get worse (they always do before – and if – they get better). Most people are afraid of their power. Afraid of endless possibilities and the risk inherent in change. I plead guilty to this behavior myself, having always found it easier to fight for other people than for myself.
In this week’s portion, Va’era, God tells Moses that S/He is a new kind of deity, one that is not only El Shaddai — the fertile, breasty name for the God of the patriarchal age — but also YHWH, the unseeable and unknowable God whose name embodies perfectly the future coming up fast on the Israelites. What a rocky beginning to this enterprise of getting hundreds of thousands of workers out from under bricks and mortar and into the wilderness: blood, frogs, lice, swarming insects, cattle disease,, boils, and hail. These are serious negotiations taking place between this New God and Pharaoh, with Moses as chief spokesperson and a whole array of very nervous slaves looking on.
Va’era reminds us that liberation is a messy and complicated thing. It’s never as bad as we think (to be “free”) and also never as good. To be wholly responsible for your actions and predicaments? No wonder we run off screaming into the night.