Workers participating in the project attended workshops organized through SU’s Writing Program and the Syracuse Workforce Development Center. The workers themselves selected and edited the pieces that would ultimately form the volume. The project is inspired by the work of New York City-based poet and writer Esther Cohen and the Bread and Roses project she runs for Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union. Bread and Roses initiated the “unseenamerica” project which gave cameras to workers and asked them to document their lives.
The first volume of such work was published under the title Unseen America: Photos and Stories by Workers (Regan; 2006). Working is a local version of the same concept, a snapshot of the lives of those often forgotten workers. Some of the stories contained in the book speak of life on the job; others talk about life’s hardships. Helen Hudson of the United Auto Workers penned an especially poignant essay entitled “A Community in Mourning” about the day in April 2005, when her family gathered to bury a relative, a young man shot down on the streets. It is accompanied by a haunting photo of six young pallbearers carrying their friend to his final rest in Oakwood Cemetery.
“It is another dreary day in the City of Syracuse. . . a day that we will bury another of our young. This is a scene that has been playing out in our communities for too long. . . It’s up to us, the Sojourner Truths and Frederick Douglass’s (sic) of the world: our children are dying, and it is our duty, as it was for our spirits of the past, to stand fast and come to the rescue of our children.”
Sharon Connor, a secretary at Hutchings Psychiatric Center, writes the story of her father, Anthony Grosso, who fought fires with the Syracuse Fire Department for 36 years beginning in 1947. When he started, the workweek was 72 hours, the pay was $2,200 a year, and he had to buy his own gloves and boots. Grosso retired as a district chief, the first Italian-American to rise to that rank.
Erica Harding, an apprentice electrician, writes in praise of the women who went before her in opening up the construction trades to females. She includes along with her essay, “Erica’s Story,” a black-and-white photograph of her construction boots covered with Sheetrock dust. In April 1978, she notes, “Jimmy Carter set goals for women on federally funded construction projects. (He) believed that by the start of the millennium women would occupy 25 percent of the workforce. . . . That is not what happened. . . . Twenty-seven years have passed. . .and the density of women in construction is stagnant at less than 2 percent.”
When you take on the task of letting working people describe their own lives, you are following in big footsteps. When you title the result of your efforts Working, you are inviting comparison to Studs Terkel’s oral history, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do (Random House; 1972), which became a best seller. The book was later adapted as a musical by Steven Schwartz; it opened on Broadway in 1978 featuring music by, among others, James Taylor, and performances by period stars like Patti LaBelle.
The current local version of Working is no match for the brilliant work of the now 96-year-old Terkel, but it is a valiant effort made all the more necessary when we consider that the wages of many in the jobs it describes have not risen, in real terms, since Terkel first published his Working.
Anne Marie Taliercio tells the story of Georgina, a laundry worker who is continually fighting her employer’s attempts to fire her because of the difficulty she has finding child care for her infant son. In doing so she both shows the power and the impotence of unions today. Taliercio, president of Unite Here Local 150, was among the leaders of the fight to unionize the Hotel Syracuse a generation ago. In the vignette entitled “What Can The Union Do For You?” she successfully coaches Georgina through the grievance process that allows her to keep her job. Since the story was told, however, the hotel has closed, changed hands, reopened, and most if not all the union jobs there are history.
In the preface to her story, Taliercio gives an insight into the future of the union movement. “I often tell people,” she writes, “that joining a union is like joining a health club. If all you do is pay your dues every month, will you have a leaner, stronger body?”
Near the end of the volume there is a gem written by a bus driver named Roxanne Bocyck, who is also a member of Local 200 United, SEIU. She expresses a sentiment any wage laborers can relate to on any given day. Her poem is titled “Monday”: Two days ago/ I seemed happy/ Two days ago/ The world was right/ But now/ It’s Monday.
Working can be obtained by contacting www.syracuseuniversitypress.syr.edu or through the Rosamond Gifford Charitable Foundation at 474-2489.