January 31, 2016
By Steven Wishnia
New York, NY – A couple years ago, a friend’s teenage daughter who was writing a paper on socialism for a high-school class asked me if it would be possible to have a society where people didn’t have to work. No, I said, because we have to eat. City dwellers like us would starve without the labor of farmers, truckers, warehouse and wholesale workers, and supermarket and bodega shelf-stackers and cashiers.
Even if I’m sitting around playing guitar, I told her, somebody had to build the instrument, and before that, somebody had to cut the wood, mine the metal, machine the tuning gears, and wind the strings.The problem, I said, is not work in itself. It’s about fairly distributing labor and its fruits.
Last weekend’s snowstorm reminded me of this. In my other life outside journalism, I’m a semi-pro musician, and one of my bands had a recording session scheduled for Sunday, Jan. 25—the day after a blizzard dumped more than two feet of snow on the city. I had stayed with my girlfriend in Brooklyn on Friday night, and as I trudged through the foot-deep drifts covering the sidewalks on Bushwick Avenue Saturday afternoon, making it to the L train a couple hours before service on its eastern part was shut down, I wondered if we’d be able to make the session. I would be playing electric guitar on four songs, acoustic guitar on the fifth, upright bass on the sixth, and possibly electric bass—a hefty load to schlep even in clear weather.
I stayed in Saturday night, watching the snow descend upon Manhattan and completely bury the cars on my block. But when I went out early Sunday afternoon, the streets and sidewalks were mostly clear enough to walk on—thanks to the workers of the New York City Department of Sanitation (Teamsters Local 831), the staff of the building complex I live in (SEIU Local 32BJ), and the employees of the small businesses in my neighborhood. I stuffed three guitars and an electric bass into a shopping cart, strapped the upright bass on my back, and set off for the studio. (The strings on all five instruments were wound by members of International Association of Machinists District Lodge 15, at the D’Addario factory in Farmingdale, Long Island.)
The four-block walk to the studio wasn’t bad, except for one short unshoveled stretch where a passer-by helped me get my cart out of the ruts. Thanks to the members of Transport Workers Union Local 100, our bass player rode the 1 train down from the Upper West Side, and thanks to a cabbie (Taxi Workers Alliance) navigating the slushy streets, our lead singer and drummer made it up from the Lower East Side. We cut all six songs in four hours, including guitar and percussion overdubs.
We depend on the work of others for our survival and pleasure—and that’s never more apparent than in a crisis. The political problem is about fairly distributing that labor and its fruits—and that’s the reason why organized labor exists.