Pearl River I was offended at first when I saw the headline: “Picketing with More than a Contract on Their Minds.” Was this a typical New York Times play and an effort to trivialize strikes, in this case the existential fight by the Writers Guild of America (WGA) confronting streaming and emerging technologies. Was this part of the new Times’ stylebook in the same way that they now regularly brand reports, people, and inanimate objects as “left-leaning” or “right-leaning?” The headline on the web version of the story was even more questionable: “What Do We Want? Love! When Do We Want It? Now!” Reading this “Third Wheel” column most closely, I had more mixed feelings. Was there a level of creepiness to all of this? Was the columnist inadvertently making the picket line feel predatory and diluting the pressure that strikers were trying to exert?
Certainly, that wasn’t her intention. She has a job writing, just like the strikers she was covering in Los Angeles. She also has a weird, Style section, job to write about relationships, sex, and love. Maybe that sounds like an interesting job, but I bet she has to rack her brain sometimes for ideas about what with fit in the pages of the paper, still revered as the “gray lady.” Furthermore, this is a young people’s job that is hopefully mostly read by young people, so maybe my knee-jerk reaction isn’t the right response? Maybe this is a backhanded effort to make striking seem cool, even sexy? Certainly, that’s not the way traditional unions have advertised the struggle and sacrifices of hitting the bricks.
In the columnist’s eyes, the strikers are young people in their late 20s and 30s trying to improve their lives on the job and, like young people everywhere, trying to improve their lives off the job as well. They are walking in a loop for a mandatory four-hour shift on the picket line, so they end up chatting with the people around them, and sometimes that chatting, chanting, and singing slides into flirting. Sometimes out of boredom as much as anything else, their eyes wander, and they think about meeting someone later and seeing what might happen. From that perspective, it all seems kind of natural, even if the fact that this is on a picket line seemed odd at first.
Writers, techies, baristas, grad students, adjuncts, gamers, nonprofit workers, and maybe even teachers that are organizing now and taking what used to be called “industrial action,” are not your father or grandfather’s union. Some argue that they are the “new unionists.” They aren’t a bunch of burly guys with signs huddled around a fire in an old oil can. They are younger. They might be single. They are as likely to be women as men and women and men, not just the stereotypical “union man.” Just like the fact that most people find jobs through people they know, most people find partners at work and social settings, no matter how many dating apps are fighting for pride of place, so maybe in the union meeting and on the picket line is where they should be looking for love. It would sure beat Facebook!
Maybe what we need to revive the labor movement is a new slogan and identity: Find Love, Join the Union Now! What the heck? What do we have to lose? We can’t do much worse than we’re doing now.