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Adventures in Government - A Labor of Love

This week I attended an event hosted by the Pima Area Labor Federation; a collective of local labor unions. The event featured a panel of local labor leaders, as well as Congressman Raul Grijalva of CD-03 (which covers a massive section of southern Arizona, from west Tucson to Yuma).

I'm a big fan of Raul Grijalva, so I was particularly excited to meet him. He's kind of a political celebrity to me, so the prospect made me a little nervous. I kind of imagined the meeting going something like this.

Before I get into my account of the meeting, though, let's talk about labor unions.

What We Owe Unions

I'll be the first to admit to a general ignorance of labor issues. I've lived my entire life in "right to work" states, which is generally recognized as code for "anti-union." Given the culture of these areas, people often grow up without learning about what unions do, what they mean, and how they benefit society. They simply don't exist where I'm from, and even here in Tucson I don't hear about them often.

That said, despite growing up outside of a culture that values labor unions, I believe I have at least a surface understanding of what labor unions have done for me, personally.

You see, I'm a business owner. I, along with my administration team, manage a staff of a couple dozen employees. To us, it's only natural that we offer vacation time to our employees, as well as sick time, parental leave, and health insurance. We encourage a 40-hour work week so that our employees have time to spend with their families, friends, and personal projects. (Running for office, for instance!) We're generally transparent to our employees about our financial situation, and all of our employees are aware of our CEO's salary (which is actually not much higher than our lowest-paid employee).

Our company is capable of much of this because labor unions have changed the culture of this country over the past century or two, as our understanding of labor changed in the wake of the industrial revolution. The only reason the terrible, dangerous working conditions of early factories came to an end was because employees organized and demanded something better--including fighting for the right to organize in the first place.

And labor unions have been fighting for worker's right ever since. And their struggles did more than just lead to worker-friendly legislation; they changed the CULTURE. They changed the fundamental way we think about what it means to have a job and work. 

And they continue to do so. We don't have nearly as many factory workers these days (thanks automation!), but there are still many other professions that require the ability to organize and fight for better working conditions. Teachers in particular come to mind. You don't have to talk to many teachers to realize that they're working in poor conditions and not getting paid enough for what they do. (I'm not generally an angry person, but the way we treat educators in this country infuriates me.)

All of that said, I was excited to attend this event and start getting to know the local labor unions.

The Event

The host was Fred Yamashita, chairman of the Pima Area Labor Federation. And although Congressman Grijalva was the primary speaker for the event, we also heard from a panel of local leaders in the labor movement: Steve Valencia, chairman of Tucson Jobs With Justice; Connie Sadler-Nelson, president of Tucson's American Postal Workers Union; and Margret Chaney, VP-elect of the Tucson Education Association.

Each panelist gave a speech, discussing the issues facing their specific area of concern as well as the state/country at large. Margret Chaney discussed the state of schools in Arizona and the state's recent policies that will hurt public education. Connie Sadler-Nelson discussed several national issues that impact the labor movement. Steve Valencia spent his time recounting the recent victories won by labor organizations across the country, and actually ended up being cut short in the interest of time.

Then, Congressman Grijalva came out and gave his speech, discussing the value of labor unions, the importance of staying active and united during this time of Republican control of the legislative and executive branches, and of, course, the opportunity we have to connect with workers and voters and take back Congress in 2018.

That last part stirred me, of course. After all, that's what I'm working toward. "That's me!" I thought. "He's talking about me!" Not directly, of course; there's no reason to expect that Raul Grijalva has ever even heard of me. Still, he's getting people thinking about the 2018 election, and that has everything to do with me.

After the speech there was a Q&A session, with Congressman Grijalva fielding most of the questions while the panelists mostly sat up there, silently nodding in agreement. Grijalva is a man who commands attention, and that's exactly what he did.

Most of the answers to the audience's questions amounted to, "yes, we're working on that," or, "get organized and start demanding change." Grijalva's answers were more involved and personalized than that, of course, but that's what they amounted to. And, really, that's all he could say, given his position.

Meeting a Hero

When the event ended, people began to either file out toward the parking lot or crowd around the speakers. Naturally, the most popular speaker was Congressman Grijalva, so I needed to wait my turn to introduce myself.

There's a certain awkwardness to waiting to speak to someone, whether it's an author you like, a musician, or just the local popular person. You don't want to be pushy, but you also don't want to lose your chance. So, you stand there awkwardly, trying not to look too eager. (Remember, I'm hoping to be this guy's peer someday--it simply wouldn't do to geek out here.) Worse, he was greeting several other people who were clearly his friends and acquaintances, so butting into that conversation could only be an interruption. And, worst, time was of the essence, since Congressman Grijalva was clearly making his way toward the door.

When I saw my opening, I took it. I tapped him on the shoulder and, when he turned to me, I launched into an introduction I only half-worked out in my head beforehand:

"Hi! I'm Charlie Verdin, and I'm running for Congress in District 2 against Martha McSally--hopefully, I mean. Hopefully against McSally. I just wanted to let you know I'm a big fan of what you do."

Congressman Grijalva shook my hand, gave me a look, and said, "Thank you," before turning to greet someone else.

The look he gave me was... about what I expected. It's a look I expect I'll see a lot over the course of this campaign; a look that says, "good luck with that," in a way that suggests I should prepare for disappointment.

I've got a lot of work to do before I can expect anybody to take me seriously as a candidate. That's just the way it is when you run as a political outsider. And, naturally, I don't expect much support from the political establishment; if I'm going to win this race, it's going to be because I connect with individuals, so that should always be my focus.

Still, I shook Congressman Grijalva's hand and introduced myself. Now, perhaps, he knows my name and my face. Maybe he'll remember me as the campaign continues. And with any luck, someday we'll end up working together. I look forward to that possibility, as I'm still a fan.