Helen plastered the fliers at corner taverns around Hegewisch denouncing the incumbent union official who was running again despite having been suspended earlier that year after having been named in another sexual harassment class action suit, the second major one in eight years. He was accused of such horrible things though he was supposed to have been the one they could turn to. And yet he’d probably get reelected like everyone else, she thought as she rolled up on an Italian beef joint with hand-drawn signs in the windows for gyros, Maxwell Street Polishes, pizza puffs, basically everything you’d expect at a dingy place that “proudly” sold RC Cola.
Once officials got elected the first time, they were almost impossible to remove. It was just like real politics. So many people just automatically cast a ballot for whatever name they recognized. But Helen feared her fellow auto workers didn’t know or didn’t care or even tacitly supported what he had been accused of. The union was supposed to represent everyone, damn it, especially the most vulnerable. That’s the way it used to be, she thought. That’s the way it still was over at the steel mills along the lakefront just across the state line, or so she heard at the bars and in the grocery aisle. When did this union local become an institution, just like management? Why was it protecting the entrenched and not those busting their chops on the line?
Female auto workers had been grabbed, groped and catcalled. Their male colleagues went so far as to leave hand-whittled surprises in their lockers as a “joke.” Real funny joke, acting completely demented and menacing. When they complained, they were told to keep quiet. They were told not to rock the boat, that they might lose shifts or get reassigned. Pulaski told one victim she could forfeit her seniority if it became a whole thing and got dragged out.
Helen didn’t even really like Stan, the UAW candidate she was campaigning for in the election. But change was needed and needed direly.
Only change was nearly impossible to achieve in all likelihood. As with any other election, those in power were nearly impossible to oust. Inertia was the most powerful force in the universe. Even if people didn’t like the current slate of leaders, they recognized the names and knew who they were.
“Hey, hey, you no put that here,” the restaurateur said in a thick accent.
“What? What are you saying?”
“You no put that here. We back Pulaski. It’s Pulaski here.”
Then if on cue two of his supporters showed up and stapled a poster supporting his ticket in the entrance.
“Get behind the winning slate,” the smaller man said. “We got that $10K profit sharing, gotta keep the train rolling. Vote Pulaski.”
Helen was furious. Her rage was so white-hot it stymied her from coming up with any decent counter, any adequate riposte. That is, until they were they past the stick-on tattoo and plastic toy machines and almost out the door.
“They might close the plant, you know,” she hissed.
The men turned. They eyed her, stolidly.
“The company doesn’t need this embarrassment. It’s bad for business. It makes them look bad. This factory’s been here for 100 years, it’s old and weathered, and you know they’re already moving production down to Mexico.”
This was her greatest fear, that it would lead to the closure of the Assembly Plant. It was part of the screed she had been stapling everywhere an auto worker might turn up in Chicago’s southernmost neighborhood.
At the factory, she had been pestered herself, one time nearly fondled. She had felt the leering, and occasionally a hot malty breath on the back of her neck. She had felt threatened, demeaned, even scared on the shop floor over the years. She knew exactly where those women were coming from. But her greatest concern was still that some suits in Detroit wouldn’t want to pay out to settle another sexual harassment suit and just shut the whole thing down. Her daughters were nearly college-age. Where would she go work, a dollar store? A gyro joint like this? If she lost this job, she’d never be able to earn two-thirds as much anywhere else.
“South Works shut down,” she told the blank-faced men. “South Works built this whole city, and it’s all gone. Thousands around here were there clocking in every day to make steel, and now it’s a field. A blank field. An ugly nothing field that’s nothing but weeds and gravel. Is that what you want?”
“Look, lady,” the larger man said, “Pulaski helped get investment in the plant. Some people have said some things and they’ve had some self-interested reasons for saying them. But Pulaski is fighting for our interests. All of our interests. Yeah, some have said some things that aren’t true… ”
“Aren’t true!? Aren’t true?” she bellowed.
She was now wild-eyed, clutching her fist around her stapler. After the company had settled the last lawsuit, it set up a hotline to report sexual harassment. A hotline that was disconnected within a few months.
“Aren’t true? How dare you? How dare…”
The smaller man sidled up to her and tapped her gently on the shoulder.
“An election’s an election. Everybody gets their voice, right? We’ll see you at the union hall.”
Joseph S. Pete is an award-winning journalist, an Iraq War veteran, an Indiana University graduate, a book reviewer, and a frequent guest on Lakeshore Public Radio. He was named the poet laureate of Chicago BaconFest 2016, a feat that Chaucer chump never accomplished. His literary work and photography have appeared in New Pop Lit, The Grief Diaries, Gravel, Perch Magazine, Dogzplot, Bull Men’s Fiction, shufPoetry, Prairie Winds, Blue Collar Review, The Tipton Poetry Journal, Euphemism, and elsewhere. He once wrote an author bio that would have put James Boswell to shame, but accidentally deleted it and attached this rubbish instead.