Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Long, Sad Story of Teamsters Local 657

It's 8:30 in the morning and I'm driving through the King William's District of San Antonio. I'm on my way to a meeting of the minds, by which I mean I'm bringing my mind to teach at the local high school. The radio is playing its normal medley of trash rock and rap, but in my sublime morning state, fresh from waking up, it might as well be the summit of musical genius. It's one of those early days when the sun is still peaking over the edges of clouds piled high in inviting layers of blue and white. In short, it is a beautiful way to start off, one only spoiled by the row of somber looking individuals standing alongside the long road leading past Pioneer Flour Mill. Hands clutched about signs saying "Teamsters Local 657", they form a motley band of men and women on whom this beautiful morning is most certainly lost.

The King William's District is among the oldest and most renowned areas in San Antonio. As a consequence, it is also inhabited by some of the wealthier individuals in the city. Houses here go for more money than many people will make in a few years, and no wonder. Some of these buildings have histories so long they predate my own grandmother. Picturesque homes stolen from the frames of portraits sit alongside the lazy San Antonio River, its calm waters drifting away toward downtown San Antonio, whose towers scrape like fingertips at the blue sky above.

The whirring of bicycles is not uncommon, as the healthy and active whiz by on their daily routines. All through the air, a sweet fragrance pricks at one's nostrils, a memorable aroma ignited by the endless flower bushes that line the streets. This truly is one of the most memorable sections of the city, a place created by a confluence of history and modern efforts to restore the old place's glory. Mixtures of guitars, saxophones and pianos can often be heard swimming by as musicians gather at the local Blustar Art Complex, one of the centers of modern San Antonio's artistic community.
And rising above it all, the lord of the land, the great tower of Pioneer Flour Mill. For more than a century, this place has churned out the flour that has enriched its owners and created a name for the Guenther family. From its infancy as a small flour mill on the banks of the nearby river to its modern standing as a flour producing powerhouse, Pioneer Flour has outlasted many of its contemporaries. An old man of the city, its two hundred year birthday just over a coming thirty year horizon, it has seen employees come and go and its own business inflate. Far from creating mere flour, the hands of Pioneer stretch to other parts of the globe. From its bakeries in the UK, Belgium and the U.S. it has served to produce dozens of food products people consume each day.

It's a strange thing. Week to week, people pass by the place. They wander about, touring, enjoying the sights of the old houses. They meander along, off to look at the art and listen to the music touted at the Bluestar. Or, they head to Pioneer itself, to the Guenther House that rests cozily in its shadow. There, they enjoy the fine dining experience. If you're of the mind to, you can even enjoy the food and company there while celebrating on New Year's Eve.

With so much success, and in such a beloved area of the city, everything might seem perfect in the King William's District. Still, there is an outcry. Small, almost feeble, it still shouts. It breaks the serenity of the area, often unheard, but never ceasing. It is the voice of Teamsters Local 657.

When I drive by, occupied by thoughts of what my students might be like that day, wondering if they'll be able to snap from their high school dramatics long enough to listen to a history lesson, I barely catch a glimpse of them. To my mind, they may as well be a line for the local bus stop, or a group of day laborers hoping for employment. The uneven streets beneath my car rattle my cup of coffee, sending me into a desperate attempt to still it before it stains the nearby passenger seat.
I'm successful, my vehicle rolling on, but I have just enough time to see that line from the corner of my eye. Innocuous enough, certainly unremarkable, the group passes from my mind. After all, there's no time to wonder about strangers on the sidewalk when a small platoon of high school students, armed with rap lyrics, love interests and foul language are readying themselves to attack.

If they had only been there a day, I might not have thought about it again. However, another day rolls along, and on yet another day I fail to take any real notice of them. Still new to this area, I'm too busy simply trying to navigate my way through the streets of the old city to really invest in the sights. Perhaps they're simply waiting to get into the nearby factory, I muse, my eyes glancing just slightly upwards at the looming Pioneer tower. This ritual repeats, day to day, and I almost never really take the time to see them. In fact, it would not be my eyes that finally snapped me into paying intention.

No, instead it was a honk. Two beeps, as a dilapidated pickup truck bounces along the street, heading my way. I look over in annoyance, wondering exactly what it is he's honking at. Is he warning me of a cop? Perhaps one of my lights is out. Or, perhaps, he's simply one of the many terrible drivers that inhabit this city. Maybe he's simply an aggressive driver. However, as his vehicle passes out of sight, rolling alongside me and off into parts unknown, my eyes stay glued to the gates just beyond. Those people, those same people, are there again. They're nudging each other, talking. Some are laughing. Some are waving at the cars passing by. Then, finally, I see it.

The signs. Held high, on poles, or simply between firmly locked hands, they wave them. White signs, emblazoned with the words "Teamsters Local 657".

The majority of tourists don't come to the King William's District during the week, or even during the day. No, they come mostly toward sunset, or the evenings. Certainly they come more during the weekends. At the beginning of each month, San Antonio celebrates an artistic festival called First Friday. Artists, dancers, and musicians all gather. They don't simply flock to the Blustar, even if most people begin the night there. Instead, they stretch themselves out for blocks, along streets, filling them up like water filling up newly carved canals. Lights ignite the night, and revelers begin to stroll along. A new smell fills the air, as cuts of meat are cooked on steel framed grills, the scent of smoke and barbeque passing along.

Few people have reason to walk by the front gates of Pioneer even if they drive by it daily. Regardless, it's the weekend. If there are protestors standing at the front gates, nobody will see them on this day, at this hour. They're hidden as much by virtue of their location as much as the time of day and week Yet, there is one man, one figure, that sears itself into my memory.

I'm fresh from the university, where I spend time as part of a research team. It's only hours before the beginning of the festivities, and I have a late assignment to gather a few photographs of the district at sunset. In hopes of making the history of San Antonio more palatable to the undiscerning tastes of college undergraduates, I've gone out to gather the sort of photos that could add life to a lecture. Feet pounding along now cooling concrete, the rapid shutters of my camera the only sound filling the still empty streets, I catch sight of him.

In San Antonio, it's not an unusual sight to see vagrants, signs held up in hopes of rustling a few dollars. At first, I take this to be what I'm seeing. He's a man, thin, his thick mustache decorating a line worn face. Not much meat on him, and a ballpark cap pulled tightly down over his eyes, he is stationed at the rear of the facility. Not on the street facing traffic, but instead facing the interior of the district itself, toward the view of the many elegant houses that have stood for a better part of the century.

Protestors never stand there. There are, simply put, not enough vehicles passing by to make it worth the time. Vagrants avoid the street for the same reason. It sits closer to the Guenther House Restaurant than it does to the entry of Pioneer Flour Mill, even if the two are intimately entwined. Still, he's there, not standing, but instead sitting. The sun pours over him, reddened skin tucked behind a white t-shirt, sign in hand.

It's the beginning of Friday evening. The sun is quickly disappearing, and yet he still sits there. The sign reads "Teamsters Local 657".

Flour, biscuit mixes, cereals, tortillas. Products people consume daily. Pioneer's bakeries even produce the buns that are shipped to fast food titans such as McDonald's and Burger King. The average citizen of San Antonio might not be able to recognize it for what it is, but Pioneer is a powerhouse in its own right, a producer and supplier of a variety of goods. Its own website says that its current owners now zip about on "jet planes to distant subsidiaries and talk of product development, brand recognition and strategic plans". Pioneer is no small player.
Which is why it was strange when, in the spring of 2011, the whispers started to become shouts. Not all was right in the halls of Pioneer Flour. Dissatisfaction, discontent and disharmony ruled the workers of Pioneer. A wage raise was quickly coming, and so it was strange that there should be dissatisfaction. At almost any time, in almost any economy, a raise would be welcomed. Not here, not in the heart of the King William's District.

A manager sits down the leaders of the local workers. The wage is coming, he assures them. However, it's coming at a price. Health care costs will also be going up. The culprit? Obamacare. Because of the heavy burdens being placed on them by the president, Pioneer will have to raise the contributions of the workers from 11$ for medical to 35$. A net pay loss of four dollars per week, when it's all said and done.

Outrage. Anger. The teamsters claim almost seventy percent of their people will not accept. Management claims otherwise. The practical result either way, however, is a strike. It's why, if you're passing through on a weekday morning, you might hear the word "Scabs" being shouted by the local picketers. There are people who are ready to criticize the protest, obviously. The pay decrease isn't much, and the health care coverage is better. Picketers respond that, in reality, many of them already have their own coverage. It's a net loss for them regardless.

Here's the real crux of it, though. Tell any hard working man that he's being rewarded with a pay cut, and tell me what the result is. This point is especially sharp when his company's website talks about owners that crisscross the country, forging economic partnerships via the luxury of jet planes. It's not just a matter of wage decrease, either. Take a look at any modern assessment of wealth. The gaps are getting wider, between the richest and everyone else. MSNBC's Ed Schultz loves to tout his graphs, one of the most consistent being the growing wealth disparity.

Yet more to the point is not the disparity, but the rate of wage growth for the average worker versus that of the wealthiest. While the earnings of the wealthiest have continued to climb, that of everyone else has stagnated. That's what has created the disparity, and that's why it's difficult to take a working man aside, look him in the eye and tell him that his work has earned him a paycut. Not with jet flying owners, and not in this economy. Because of inflation and other factors, the buying power of the average American worker no longer has the strength it did even just ten years ago. So, a pay cut of even four dollars a week makes no sense. If their dollars already buy less, then a pay decrease means they can contribute even less to the economy. It doesn't add up.
Not for the members of Teamsters Local 657.

April 2012, the beginning of a new year of protests. In the past six months, Occupy Wall Street, despite its stumbles and the criticisms against it, has at least managed to begin a narrative about the growing inequalities in America. Major uprisings in places like Wisconsin and Chicago are the marks of organized, somewhat powerful labor groups. Public workers and teachers are no longer willing to take the abuse of government. In the months following April, they'll win major concessions in the legislature, in places like Ohio, as well as win victories in the courts.

That doesn't mean much to the people standing, every day, in the heart of the King William's District though. You never hear their story. It's not carried on MSNBC, and nobody from CNN is listening. Even the local news only carries occasional coverage. San Antonio, despite its growing reputation as a more liberal, tolerant city that is distinct from the Republic of Rick Perry's Texas, casts only an occasional eye toward them.

Hell, I was barely able to cast an eye toward them, as my car jumped along on the street as I passed on to work. It's year two now, for them, and they're still standing out there. The damn shame is, nobody's telling their story. They're just a motley group, all wanting to be treated like human beings, treated with compassion and fairness. Their jobs have all been replaced, now. Pioneer boasts that they're back to 100% employment and efficiency, having trained new employees and filled all the gaps.

They're not giving up though, not these people. I'm no longer passing by every morning, as my life has drawn me elsewhere. I can leave. My future, still being written, is for the moment secure. These people are living on the edge, though. It's hard to go so long without a fair shot at the job you enjoyed. In six months, they'll be staring at year three. They're still shouting, still crying, but there are no ears to hear. Nobody is paying attention, and that protest that began with a shout has dimmed to a whimper. Not for lack of passion on the part of the workers, but for lack of care from anyone else. In a world where labor movement after movement is being covered in the media, there are still groups like this going unheard.

Still, for my money, and it's not much, there's just one memory I'll never be able to let go of. It's that old man, white t-shirt on, his ballcap pulled down tight. Seated in a collapsible chair, brown skin sizzling beneath the sunset, he's not off to join the festivities. He's sitting on the unattended side of Pioneer Flour Mill, alone on an evening when groups of people will soon be passing by, their minds more on alcohol than on fair wages. Perhaps rightfully so.

This man, though, was something else. He was anyone and everyone you've ever met but never given a fair shot. I hope he hasn't given up, and that he's still fighting for the job he believed in, even if he was standing alone while all the world was trying to ignore him. Holding that sign.
Teamsters Local 657.

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