I always said a lineman was nothing but a grunt that lost his good sense, and now you gone and done it. - Slim (1934)
I’m the third member of my family to work with lineman. My grandfather—also a Coastie—was a lineman after getting run out of Arizona during prohibition, but before he designed the original Seattle City Light trolley system and others like it around the country. (My grandmother eventually became the head of human resources for City Light herself —a rare thing in an age when there were still few women outside the home.) My father was a lineman out in eastern Washington for awhile and ended his formal career as the head of the Northeast Public Power Association. A hundred years after my grandfather started in the utility industry, I represent lineman, underground workers, inside electrical contractors, and many other union members as a labor lawyer.
Unions and “sparkies” are linked in my mind because of my father’s gold International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers card. At one point, Papa Shocks and his best friend were working as drafting engineers for Seattle City Light. Concerned about their working conditions, the two friends slowly organized an IBEW local in the face of management obstruction. According to family legend, my grandmother warned my father of dirt his opponents might find: a distant ancestor convicted of embezzling millions from a railroad —go big, kehds. The gold card is what he left with when he moved to a new job, certification that he was a founding member in good standing in the event he went back.
Papa Shocks explained unions to me as a way for people who work to get together to talk to their boss, fix problems in the workplace, and act with one voice. This was the first societal concept that resonated with me. It seemed self-evident that common people would want to unify and work together to achieve a better world, that they would want to push back against the power of their bosses. From that point forward, labor organizing formed the basis for my political consciousness —whether attending my first leftist conference during middle school; writing a pamphlet commemorating George McNeil, local founder of the eight-hour day; or earning a college scholarship through a statewide test about labor history. Then the economy collapsed—along with my life—and I ended up in the Coast Guard.
Just under eight weeks and four years later, I was standing weekend radio watch in Gloucester and trying to decide on my post-enlistment career. During the intervening period, one of my best friends had grown into a successful organizer with SEIU. In my mind, that was the way to go and I was concentrating on applying to the UMass Labor Studies graduate program (side note: if you want to go this way, apply there because they’re the only program built for activism instead of management). The person who changed my mind was a reservist: a BM3 and former Army SNCO who had joined back up to finish out his thirty-year retirement. Also a general contractor, he told me I should be a lawyer because “disputes that start with an organizer always end on the desk of a lawyer, anyway.” I thought about it for a week, couldn’t find fault, and registered for the last possible LSAT. Four years later, I walked into my office at the law firm that hired me, opened up an email, and got the news that I’d passed the bar exam.
Now I spend 50-60 hours a week trying to defend the rights of working people. As many of you have heard from me, both labor and employment laws are deeply dysfunctional. All too often, common people are left with protections that are too weak, processes that are too long, and remedies that are inadequate (when they’re not lacking altogether). The company lawyers across the table from me are often paid several times my salary and can draw on much more substantial resources. Indeed, the chance that our system will regress back to a time when labor organizing was considered an illegal trust is very real, as any grand bargain between management in labor that remains from the 1930’s is swiftly being dismantled by management intent on destroying unions altogether.
Thus, through the next two years, I urge you to consider your workplace when you consider your vote. While I’ll keep trying to save all workers as I once saved sailors, I wouldn’t hate it if you made my job a little bit easier.