raise your voice

In my mid-twenties, I worked as a freelance political consultant in California. I had all manner of bizarre work-related experiences doing that gig, but I also met one of my most important mentors, who I’ll call Matt. Matt was in his late 30s, and worked for a very progressive union. He hired me as a team leader on a field campaign that he was running that was in its very late stages–it was probably four weeks before the election the day I walked through the door. We lost, but not embarrassingly so, and he promptly arranged for me to be hired to do another short ballot initiative campaign on the same issue.

That job required that I relocate to Southern California for a few months. For complicated legal reasons, I wasn’t being employed by the union to work on this campaign, but I was working with about thirty union members who had taken leaves of absence from their job to work for the campaign. While the union wasn’t directly involved in the campaign, it was very much in their interest to make sure of two things–one, that the ballot initiative passed, and two, that their members had a good experience doing the work.

In the world of the grassroots field campaign, there’s lots of chaos. The most prominent field consultants are generally men, and men of a certain type. The kind of men that think that if they push enough people around and demonstrate to everyone that they have a high level of testosterone, that they’ll be important. To many of these guys, the most important thing on a campaign isn’t winning–it’s having plausible deniability if they lose. Their first priority is to develop a scapegoat.

The campaign manager for that campaign (I’ll call him Geoff) was a somewhat worse breed of animal. To make matters worse, the funders of the campaign brought him in after I was already on the ground (having fired the previous campaign manager), and he just hated the fact that I wasn’t his guy.

But I was doing good work, and had a rapport with the data vendor, in addition to my own mad computer skills (this was way back in 1994, when people were still easily impressed by Excel spreadsheets). I also worked like a demon, since I was basically living in an empty apartment, in a city where I didn’t know anyone. I saw a bunch of movies and got a fair amount of reading done, but other than that, I really didn’t have anything else to do but work.

Out of whatever psychological issues that he had, Geoff decided to make my life hell. He abused and belittled me in front of the staff I was supervising. He hired an ‘assistant’ for me, and paid her twice as much as I was making (happily, though, she was a lovely woman who really was very helpful). He tried to undermine my relationship with the data vendor, and with Matt and the other folks from the union. He made me cry on more than one occasion, mostly out of frustration and anger.

After a few weeks of this, I was ready to go home. I took Matt aside, and told him that I was planning to leave the campaign. He took me out to lunch, and told me that he understood perfectly. He also told me that if I decided to leave, that the union would pull their support, including all their members, from the campaign. But he told me that I couldn’t leave without confronting Geoff, and sticking up for myself one last time. He offered to go into the meeting with me, but he made it clear that I would have to do the talking. I thought about it for a day, and I decided that it was something that I needed to do alone.

I went into Geoff’s office the next day. I brought a box of tissues with me, because I knew that I was so angry at him, that I would not be able to stop myself from crying, and I didn’t want to have to wipe snot all over my sleeve. I told him that we needed to talk, and he got off the phone, and I told him that he couldn’t treat me the way he had been doing, and that if he kept it up, I would leave. I did cry, but I stayed in the room, and talked through my tears, and he was poleaxed by them.

I ended up staying on the campaign, and Matt made it clear to Geoff that he knew what was going on, and that I had his full support. It didn’t make the situation perfect by any means. Geoff would still start to make jokes at my expense, and then stop himself, saying “Oh, I guess I can’t say that!” in a kind of jokey (albeit moronic) way. Somehow, it never bothered me quite as much again. Perhaps that’s because Geoff also ended up having to give me a raise, so that I had parity with my assistant.

The lesson that Matt taught me about unionism is one that I carry with me to this day. The fact of having a union doesn’t mean that you never have problems on your job again. In fact, it doesn’t even mean that you never have to have hard conversations, or make hard choices, or do things that you really don’t want to do. But if you are lucky enough to have a leader like Matt, he or she will help you make those choices, and have those conversations, and do those things, because you know that you are not alone.

It wasn’t Matt’s offer to have the union pull out of the campaign that helped me go in that room by myself. It was his certainty that I could have that hard conversation, to win my self-respect.

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September 3, 2006. work.

5 Comments

  1. chichimama replied:

    Good for you. I;ve neve been able to handle those really hard conversations at work. Which is probably why I couldn’t negotiate a good enough package to keep working…

  2. chip replied:

    As I’m sure you know, that kind of guy is all too common in all kinds of industries, not just campaigning. It’s great you talked to him. Like with many bullies, calling him out on his bullying seems to have worked. And of course knowing that you’re not alone in the fight, which is why unions are so crucial but also why they are so demonized in our society: they give working people an actual chance to fight for their rights.

  3. Blog for Workers’ Rights « Bumblebee Sweet Potato replied:

    […] My own post, about what unionism means to me, is below. […]

  4. RegularCinderella replied:

    It takes a lot of courage to stand up for yourself, even if someone else is pressuring you to do so. Good for you! (And for Matt.)

    ~RC~
    Good luck B4B 🙂

  5. Blogging for Books September 2006: The List - from The Zero Boss by Jay Andrew Allen replied:

    […] Semantically driven Maternally Challenged Bumblebee Sweet Potato Cynical Dragonfly Liprap’s Lament – The Line Shooter’s Station Lauri’s Reflections AliBlog Spin Me I Pulsate Random outpourings from my mixed up mind Curious Goldie’s Suburban Adventures ImPerceptibility Mine Alone Kellyology Kellyology’s Penis Quo Vado? […]

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