Monday, September 29, 2008

The Union: Anecdotal Sociology

As an underemployed college graduate in the service industry, I try to pick up odd jobs here and there to help make ends meet. One thing I have in my bag of tricks is union membership. I only get about 5-10 workdays each fall and winter but they're fairly well-paying, especially if I can milk overtime out of it. Without getting to0 specific, it is in support of a beloved aspect of the entertainment industry and is considered an unskilled position.

The typical job that I'm normally brought in for, demands about 8-12 unskilled 'utilities.' I've been doing this for about four years and have become fairly familiar with the regulars. As a twentysomething with a college degree, I stick out like a sore thumb. Most of the guys are in their forties or fifties and have spent a lifetime working their way to the middle class mostly with their hands. One of the guys owns a lawn care business, others work as electricians or elsewhere within related fields. They're all white and they're all men. They live outside Orleans Parish but in the greater metro area, most of them originated here.

Never one to hide my political views, the other guys know me to be opinionated and informed, but they don't know about WCBF and my various 'recovery-hurting' activities.

One union buddy came up to me when I arrived and said, "My man, I've been waiting to see you since last October. You called it. Look at Barack Obama!"

This particular co-worker, W, is my favorite to chat up about politics because he tends to be most informed about different issues. He's a lifelong Republican that jumped ship after Bush's first term. I don't get how he could have ever been a Republican, he's quite progressive on the economy and was most upset by the GOP's gifts to Halliburton.

We got to talking about the campaign - there's a lot of downtime on these gigs - and soon attracted the rest of the cast. It felt like some sort of weird campaign focus group. Here was a group of about nine blue collar union white men between 35-55 from the South, a collection of "typical" guys from an oft-discussed demographic.

Make no mistake about it, a lot of these guys are pretty racist and sexist. The "jokes" I've heard over the years have at times been haunting, particularly in a work environment with maybe 5% African Americans and maybe 5% women, even when you include the skilled labor and the white-collar professionals from out of town. But at the same time, most of the guys exhibit competing endearing and/or esoteric characteristics that temper the vitriol of some of the b.s. that comes from their mouths. I bite my tongue hard at these moments, trying to balance my objections with the need to remain on friendly terms.

So we were talking about politics at the table and of course that meant bringing up Barack Obama. I had to sit out for awhile.

"He's just going to give everything to the blacks."

"He won't say the pledge."

"He's a Muslim."

"Do you know what CHANGE stands for? Can't Help A N----r Get Elected!"

Ouch, right? So much for an Obama surprise in Louisiana. So much for having any kind of appetite for the union breakfast. Everyone nodded their heads except for me. Most of the guys added some concern about Obama and their perception that he would only govern for black people or some racist joke they'd heard about him.

The polarization of race in the South is a scary thing. Never mind that these guys have been getting absolutely shafted by GOP policies toward unions, blue collar labor, and the middle class in general, nothing was of greater concern than the possibility that African Americans might get help.

Such unfortunate ignorance, I thought. I was so disheartened.

But then there was this incredible shift in the conversation that finally allowed me to swallow some union eggs.

After the guys got through with their racist comments, and trust me they went after Palin's lips too, they really wanted to know what I thought about things. The first thing I said was that it was ridiculous to think that only African Americans would benefit from a more progressive tax code, citing Obama's proposed tax cut for everyone making under $250,000 per year. I went into a few other things about how we would all benefit from eliminating tax cuts and loopholes to millionaires and multinational corporations, universal health-care coverage, and improvements to our national infrastructure. "I mean, we're union guys, how could we not recognize the negative impact the GOP has had on our ability to make money?" The one guy who had made the really disgusting 'what does change really stand for' joke chimed in that he'd lost 20% of the value of his retirement over the last six months or so.

Without so much convincing, the ringleader of the racist joke-making, nodded his head and acknowledged, "Of course I'm voting for Obama, I'm not stupid." My friend W, who I already knew to be a least a tepid Obama supporter, voiced similar sentiment at this point as well, goading the other guys to examine where this country is at compared to eight years ago.

By the end of the breakfast provided to us, each and every one of my union coworkers said within a conversation or came up to me privately to say that indeed they were definitely going to vote for Obama. Even the one guy that had repeatedly pressed his point about "benefits for blacks" said that he agreed with what I was saying and that he had been planning to vote for Barack.

That same guy also said that I should run for Mayor of New Orleans. Who could blame him for that?

Much is made of the Bradley Effect and whether or not the phenomenon might rear its head on Election Day in 2008. But maybe it's not just wishful thinking to wonder if there's a reverse Bradley Effect in especially conservative areas where it might actually be considered more socially acceptable to vote for McCain.


Anonymous said...

The thing that hasn't been talked about much is how motivated a lot of Conservative will be to go out on elections day to vote "against" Obama. I've heard a lot of the same slurs against Obama, but all to often they are followed by a slightly shorter list of slurs against McCain. The "lessor of two evils" argument is not getting the traction it usually does. Bradley effect aside, the stay home or throw your vote away third party (no offense to the third party types out there) could be a significant factor undecrutting the poll results

angelin said...

Anecdotes that are not backed up with systematic and rigorous comparative data are not trusted. Anecdotes are the weakest form of evidence, but they are often the most persuasive. Even scientists can be moved by a telling anecdote that contradicts a mass of statistical evidence. Anecdotes must always be used with care, precisely because we are psychologically susceptible to them.
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E said...

Yes, I was telling a story... jeez.

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