“Maury, that’s just fucked up.”
Maury smiled at me as we flew down the LBJ in our old Coronet. He knew it was a screwy idea. 10 miles to go and 10 minutes to get there, 90 degree heat, and neither one of us in a good mood.
The idea had been simple. It was 1972. My father’s union, the ILGWU, was trying to organize Scottex, a local textile plant, in Carrollton, Texas. My brother, 17 and living on his own, needed a job. If he worked at the plant, he could help persuade folks to support the union drive, and provide information. I remember Maury said most conversations he had were in the bathroom stalls or out back while people smoked cigarettes, the only place people felt safe to talk about the union.
Problem was my brother was such an effective organizer, he now had the rank and file talking about a wildcat strike – making demands well beyond what the union felt the company would stand. My dad knew a strike would be a disaster. He had said as much at the dinner the night before. Everyone would be fired, there would be no public support, there hadn’t been a successful wildcat strike in 30 years in Dallas.
“Maury, you know it will make Dad’s life difficult if you guys keep talking strike?”
“What are we supposed to do? Those bastard foremen are pushing us harder every day, almost daring us to strike, and the ILG is useless, they’ve dropped all the benefit demands, and settled on a .25 cent raise, and some seniority rights. Half the plant won’t even be affected. How are people supposed to support a union that’s not willing to fight?”
“Dad needs you to help him out.”
“Dad, would want me to act on my convictions.”
More than 40 years ago, this conversation sticks with me. My dad was gone in another 3 years, a heart attack saving him from suffocating from ephysema and lung cancer, his body weak from a series of ulcers and diabetes. My brother was in jail within a year from this conversation, framed by redneck cops and Dallas DA’s who had no use for activist teenagers. He was dead by 45, from broken hearted struggles to beat alcohol, weight and blood pressure.
I was taught that working for justice meant constantly re-calibrating a moral compass, sometimes honoring your family, sometimes risking family for the larger cause.
I am still listening to those voices.