I Started a Union When I Was Four

Recalling my first job

Photo by No Revisions on Unsplash

If you asked her, she’d probably tell you some crap about being influenced by the great organizers of the past and wanting to further their legacy. She’d probably relate it back to our family’s humble beginnings and not wanting to see people get taken advantage of. She’d say that she became a labor organizer because she wanted to be the woman at the front of the march, calling out oppressors for oppressing. And she would be full of shit if she told you any of that. The truth is that my cousin, Gabby, became an organizer because of me and I have proof.

“Grandma, you have a deal!”

Imagine those words coming out of a precocious little four-year-old’s mouth and imagine his near-to-free labor wanting grandmother shaking his minuscule hand and smiling like she won the lottery. That little boy was me and those asinine words came spewing out of my mouth when my grandmother offered the job of cleaning her room for one dollar. I want to be as respectful, so when I tell you that my grandmother was a slob, may she rest in filth, trust that I am being as nice as possible. However, her bedroom looked like there was a garage sale at a convenience store. The windowsills were littered with kitschy porcelain figurines of white people that belonged on prairies, while the floor was an indiscriminately daunting maze of mail stacks, calypso CDs, and photos that never found frames. Then there was the closet. The closet was a whole new world filled with wonders and danger from above. Deep enough to house a boutique clothing store’s shipping for the week with shelves that tickled God’s feet; a glance up was like staring down an aisle at Payless. There were heels and pumps, and flats, and boots, all haphazardly thrown in boxes or dangling from their perch. I loved watching her go in there because I enjoyed seeing shoes rain from above. In the boxes that didn’t hold shoes were years and years worth of receipts. In hindsight, I wonder if my grandmother was ever audited, but that’s a story for another day.

“I’ll start tomorrow,” I continued. I was excited about my new job and immediately went to our downstairs apartment, turned on the TV, and told my mom all about it.

“A dollar, huh? For the entire room?” I recall her asking in the way only moms can.

“Yeah! It’s a big room, but I’ll start tomorrow and take my time.” I was a patient kid. Patient, but a terrible negotiator. I didn’t think that one dollar was enough for such a messy room, but what was I going to do? Ask for more money?

The evening news was all about a local strike of which I can’t recall the details. Stick with me, I was only four. But, I do remember that a union of workers demanded more money before returning to their jobs. They could do that? They could demand more?

“What’s a union?” I asked.

Mom’s explanation was simple and easily digestible. By the end of it, my company was certain that we needed a union. Having only one employee didn’t seem to matter. I returned to the office the following day a changed man.

“Grandma, I have a union now and we demand more money.”

“A union,” she scoffed. “Just you?”

“Yes, and that means that you have to do what I say. Kaity Tong said it on the news.”

I was in love with Kaity Tong and her words were like the gospel. She got me through a lot of tough times, especially when I fell out of love with Janet Jackson at the tender age of five. I suddenly noticed how similar Janet looked to Michael and things were never the same. I knew that they were siblings, but when I finally saw the resemblance, I couldn’t unsee it. It‘s a scar that never healed.

“Fine, what do you want?” she continued. 

I caught her at a good time. She was doing her crossword puzzle while leaning over the dining room table to release gas from her front and her rear. The result was a room filled with the subtle odor of depression and utter despair. Thankfully, hot air rises, and I was quite small for my age.

“Instead of one dollar, our union is demanding three dollars!” 

Again, terrible negotiator. She looked up from the good book of puzzles long enough for our eyes to meet. She could see that I meant business and there was no sense in arguing. I’m sure that she could also see that I was one year away from discovering child labor laws and this was her chance.

“Fine, Jay. But you need to do a good job,” she relented. 

And, that was all I needed. I drew up the contracts with my favorite crayons and had us both sign or scribble at the dotted lines. We were in business and there was no stopping me.

Remember the cousin that I mentioned? The one that’s a labor organizer? Okay, here she comes:

“Wait, you’re making three dollars? That’s not fair!”

Gabby is two years older and won’t ever let me forget it. Blessed that her parents had relations before mine, she had the leg up in the family. She met my mom first, cast her spell, and they’ve been close ever since. Our competitions centered on who got to sit next to my mom on the bus, who sat in the stroller and who walked, and who got to sleep next to my mom on the bed. Mom eventually sat in the middle to allow us both prime access to her hugs and affection, and despite being younger, I enjoyed walking and quickly ditched the stroller. Gabby was more than happy to be pushed around town. Now, she wanted in on my business.

“I want the job! I’m going to Grandma,” she continued.

“No, Gabby. You can’t. I already have a contract and a union but I can hire you.”

“Okay, how much?” Let’s make this clear, we were best friends but when angry, Gabby was menacing. Her cold and unforgiving children of the corn eyes brought fear to the adults in our family, which is why I was proud that I held my ground.

“Fifty cents,” I offered.

“That’s it? No, that’s not enough. I want more.”

With my negotiating skills put to the test, I looked right into those frightening and surprisingly dark brown eyes — like very dark, damn near black — and replied, “One dollar. Final offer.”

She didn’t like it but accepted the terms and then I had a company of two. We were rolling.

This is probably where I should mention that I didn’t fully grasp how unions worked. In my mind, I was part of a union and I could negotiate for higher wages, but I wasn’t united with anyone. Despite hiring my first employee, Gabby was not part of the union and did not receive any of the benefits. That was an important distinction because of what I knew would happen next.

“Jay, I want more money,” she complained. “Why do you get three dollars and I only get one?”

I should also mention that we hadn’t even started cleaning before she requested a meeting with management. I was kind enough to entertain her request; to hear her side of the story. She talked about needing to work long hours to get the job done and sacrificing her doll and TV time. She talked about needing an extra snack and breaks whenever she asked. And I must admit, she drove a hard bargain. Her points were compelling and I too wanted more breaks. I felt her words twisting around in my little mind and it was as if I finally understood what needed to be done. I had a company, a union, and the power to right this wrong.

Once again, I looked into her terrifying eyes, cleared my throat to make sure that she heard what I was about to say, and did what needed to be done.

“Gabby, you’re fired.”

If we cursed at that age, I’m sure that a few four-letter words would have been tossed my way, amongst all the yelling that she did. But, I couldn’t care less. That’s the day that I became a capitalist and learned that my money needed to stay my money. Besides, I had a union and the union leader was not keen on dissension. Gabby eventually walked away and we were back to a company of one. Today, she organizes nurses, fast food workers, airport staff, and maintenance people, among others. She organizes walkouts and protests. She negotiates on behalf of people who are screwed over by companies that only see them as assets and I think that I played a major part in her career. So Gabby, if you’re reading this, you’re welcome. It was for your own good. 

And, if it makes you feel any better, I never cleaned Grandma’s room. My vacation request was denied and I walked off the job.

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