Friday, September 15, 2006

Conversations with a Republican Union Member

Breaking with my usual Thursday night habits--knitting and Grey's Anatomy--I ventured up to Harrisburg to see a blues jam session with friends. We drove in to the local 40 & 8 where everyone who had gotten off work and wanted a few beers, potluck and blues music gathered. I hadn't been out to see the blues for a long time and was grateful I had made the trek once I was inside.

I sat next to a guy named Barry. He was sipping his SoCo and made room for me to sit down at the bar and showed me where I could hang my purse on a hook. My friend Jamie made a silly crack about how Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays should be for the drunks--referring to absurd comment made by a politician on Colbert--and Barry smiled, held up his drink to toast Jamie and then asked: "are you a Republican?" Jamie replied, "no, I'm a Democrat." Barry said, "Shit, I was going to vote for you for President."

Barry is lifelong member of the United Steel Workers. He is in his early 60s, retired due to an awful accident and living on a nice pension. He spends his days reading everything he can get his hands on about the Civil War. He is proud of his time in the Marines and told me to thank both my Dad and Uncle for fighting during Vietnam (for the record: my Dad never left Germany, but my Uncle was a fighter pilot).

When Barry told me he was a Republican I was bewildered. "Wait a minute, you're a union member and you vote Republican?," I asked. He smiled, took a sip, and then explained to me: "I believe that money trickles down . . ." Now, I know its hard for many of the readers here to believe that I didn't immediately get Socrates on his ass to point out the contradiction, but I didn't. Ok, I am lying. Maybe I did, a little. I pressed him to clarify for me how it is that he thought money really trickled down, since he paid dues to a Union to make certain that he got a fair wage and healthcare. He just smiled. [By the way, he has an adorable smile. He covers his mouth when he does, sort of like he is giggling].

"I had to join the Union," Barry explained. He couldn't get work building the Steel factories outside of Harrisburg unless he was union. So, he was a member for 32 years and by the time he retired he made 17 dollars an hour, had a pension and good health care. When he fell through a roof--which sent him into retirement--the union paid for his multiple surgeries and 19 days in Hershey (this was in 1999).

So, bewildered, I asked again. "How can you believe in trickle down, when the very fact that you have money in the bank, you have no debt from your prolonged hospitalization, and you have health care is due to the union fighting for it from those who don't really want to trickle down so much." He cited Henry Ford's philosophy. He also pointed out that he didn't have union health insurance anymore, but Medicare. Ok, I shrugged.

Then, he said what I took to be the real clue into why he voted Republican. People shouldn't be on Welfare. I pointed out to him that he was on welfare--he was on Medicare. He shook his head and said, "No, I haven't signed up for it yet."

Barry worked hard his whole life. He shattered his arm falling through a roof and he saw one guy die a year at the Steel Mills. He is a proud Veteran. And, he can't abide people living off Welfare and not doing their part. That's why he votes Republican.

Barry also loves Playboy and promised to buy me the August, 1970 issue for my next birthday. "It's a time capsule," he said and giggled. "I love the cartoons." I asked him if he was going to vote for Santorum. He asked, "Is he Republican?" "Yes," I replied. "Well, then I will." I pointed out, in vain, that Santorum probably didn't approve of his Playboy reading. He shrugged. Voting Republican is like rooting for the Yankees. You aren't going to convince a Yankees fan to root for another team.

Before I left, he slipped me a matchbook with his number scrawled inside. "If you get lost and need me to pick you up, just call."

On the way home, I analyzed this with Ricardo. From Barry's frame of reference, people who lived off welfare were a drain to the economy. And yet, he couldn't quite make the connection to why there might be more incentive to rely on welfare than get a backbreaking job in this economy. The unions certainly did their part to exclude people of color from joining. If you were a union member, you could earn a living wage, buy a house, support a family and retire with money in the bank. But, without union membership in this working class neighborhood, there are hardly any options for finding employment with a liveable wage. The women bartending at the 40 & 8, might be making a pretty decent wage, but they certainly don't have health insurance and they are inhaling buckets of secondhand smoke every night. You could work at Wal-mart, but you aren't going to be raising a family on that. And, you could be a non-union day laborer, but you'll be working your ass off and getting paid significantly less than union guys with no benefits.

With little options, is it any surprise that some people rely on TANF (if they have children) or Medicare [what Barry means by welfare]? And, let's not forget that under TANF, lifetime benefits are limited and so they have to get a job anyway, a job that requires a lot of time away from home, their children, and still not a liveable wage or health insurance.

The more important lesson to draw here--if there is one at all--is that the conventional wisdom that Republicans are attracting fiscally conservative or moderate Dems because of social issues is wrong. Barry doesn't give a whit about the family values crusades of the Santorums. He votes Republican because it's his team. He doesn't think deeply about the connection between politics and his life. And, he doesn't have to think about it.