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  • Reverend James Squire

What We Can Learn From Strippers

I had several jobs as a young person attempting to help the family finances when my father was ill and to cobble together enough for a college education. I may be one of the other high school valedictorians then who had to base his or her next step to the next academic level based on money. That would be less likely to happen now.

I didn’t even know what I didn’t know in the application process, grants, and scholarships living in a blue-collar town. One of my classmates reminded me that our college admissions office was non-existent. A beloved teacher gave him a brochure on careers in chemistry. He became a chemical engineer. I don’t remember the cost of Penn back then. I would have fainted if I saw the current tuition of Penn in its earlier equivalent. By the way, I am thrilled by what Penn has been doing for first generation college students thanks to Amy Gutman.

My first job was as a cashier in an earlier version of what is now Walmart. There wasn’t computer scanning then. I moved on to being a janitor, and then to being a lathe operator at Nice Ball Bearing Plant on Henry Avenue in Philly and still had not heard that word, union. I knew that my father belonged to one and quite frankly at 60% of his regular pay when he was on disability for a year, it was a life saver. That is all I knew. In college I worked at the Post Office delivering mail during Winter break because of the high volume of Christmas mail that had to be delivered. You know that saying, “We deliver the mail in rain, sleet, snow or hail!” It’s true!!! I delivered it in a blizzard when I thought I would be inside just sorting mail. No unions there either.

My life took a turn when I applied for a summer job at the Alan Wood Steel Mill. I worked in conditions that would be outlawed today, but all I saw was the big money. I could have all my financial needs met with one job. You can do anything for 3 months. I did kiss the floor of my dorm room when I got back to school. What a motivator doing time in a steel mill is as one of the lowest level workers.

I remember the application process that I thought it strange that I had a quick meeting with a person from the mill, had a physical, and then I met with the union chief. I have forgotten a lot of interviews that I have had over the years, but not that one.

“Welcome to the union! You’re going to make a lot of money.” I shook my head yes.

“Here is the statement of your union dues.”

“No, you don’t understand. I’m here just for the summer.” (I actually forget the cost of joining the union, but suffice it to say that the amount got my attention.)

“Thanks, but I don’t think I need the Steelworkers Union.”

“Yes, you do.” (Even then I didn’t do things that I didn’t understand why I was doing it.)

“Why? What do I get?”

“Let me put it in words you can understand. You don’t join, then you don’t work here. Do you get that?

Then the stare down. I just thought about the amount of money I would make which is what a person would make in a trade union today.

“You will work a 10-hour shift 5 days week! No overtime!”

I said, “OK!”

We always ask others to say what they would say now that they are older to their younger self. My younger self is pictured on my Facebook page that captures the stare down. The union badge sits in my top bureau drawer to always remind me where I started. I knew exactly what that statement to my younger self would be. “Younger self, some day you are going to be at a fancy dinner sitting next to the owner of this steel mill. It will be on the North Shore of Massachusetts. He is going to tell you how the union’s demands shut the plant down. You are going to tell him about the deplorable conditions in which you had to work. Remember the book you read the first summer by Sinclair Lewis, The Jungle about the deplorable conditions of working in a meat packing plant. You are going to understand exactly what it was like to be the owner and he will understand what it was like to be the the worker. It won’t make it better for you now. But you will understand it later. Go to work! Go to college! Don’t look back!” One title that was suggested for my memoir, The Times of My Life, was From Janitor to Jarvis Fellow. I thought it was too hokey so I used The Times…

What prompted this blog? Today I read that the strippers in LA have formed their first union. Penn is the biggest union in Philadelphia. Pay attention to what is happening throughout our nation. Wherever there is a group of people, you will find a union and an employer who is fighting it. I have seen why unions are needed! I have also seen how they have abused their power.

Leona Helmsley, a New York businesswoman, referred to her workers as the “little people.”

Why unions? People in every walk of life are seeing the huge gap between what the owners and executives are getting paid compared to the worker. It is something hospital residents and other employees at Penn have in common with a stripper. To use an expression, “Times Up!”

Never forget, as I told my students in ethics class, whenever you have money, you have ethics. Remember the character in Jerry Maquire who was a sports agent whose player constantly interrupts the agent played by Tom Cruise in the middle of any of Maguire’s pitches of what Cruise is going to do for him? Cuba Gooding, the player, yells louder and louder, “Show me the money! Show me the money!” Gooding wasn’t even in my ethics class.

The answer is to stop treating the wealth disparity as an economic issue. Treat it as a moral issue! When the strippers have a union, you know it is time to “wake up and smell the coffee.”

The conversation that I had with the owner of the steel mill needs to happen throughout our land between owner and worker.

Justice is one of the two basic pillars that hold up the table of ethics. The other is love which in Situation Ethics means that love and justice should be intertwined. That is because you can’t have one without the other.

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