An Inside Look at Sweat
This In-Depth Guide was prepared by Dramaturgs Kimberly King and Shelley Orr, edited by Literary Manager Danielle Ward.
In this edition:
We Are Excited About
10 Provocative Items Related to This Play:
A Brief History of Bar Culture
Get to Know Reading, PA
The Human Cost of the Opioid Crisis
Judge Me by the Color of My Collar
Profile of a Steelworker
Blue Collar Workers: Our Backbone
Reading, PA and Immigration
An Interview with the Playwright
Sweat: A Pathbreaking Play
Timeline of the History of Unions
Food For Thought Questions
San Diego Repertory Theatre would like to thank and acknowledge the following for their generous ongoing support: City of San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture, San Diego County and The National Endowment for the Arts.
WE ARE EXCITED ABOUT...
Showcasing the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Sweat on our stage.
Playwright Lynn Nottage—who also wrote Ruined, Intimate Apparel and By the Way, Meet Vera Stark—is a two-time recipient of the Pulitzer Prize and also received the prestigious MacArthur "Genius Grant." The Pulitzer Board called Sweat “a nuanced yet powerful drama that reminds audiences of the stacked deck still facing workers searching for the American dream." And The New York Times hailed the play as “SUPERB!” noting “Nottage is writing at the peak of her powers.”
Set in 2000 and 2008, Sweat follows a group of close-knit friends who work together on the line at an industrial factory. They share drinks, secrets and laughs each night at the bar. But everything starts to unravel as two of the friends—Tracey and Cynthia—apply for the same management promotion, their company decides to send jobs to Mexico, the trade union goes on strike and factory workers are locked-out for months. The neighborhood bar turns into a battleground where race, class, family and friendship clash. Still, they struggle to reclaim what’s lost, find redemption and redefine themselves in a new century.
Our Artistic Team unanimously recommended this play for San Diego REP because we felt that, in Sweat, Nottage perfectly captures the voices of the working-class who feel betrayed after investing everything in the American dream, only to have the rug pulled out from under them. Race, class, gender and economics are all at play here. And San Diego REP is a theatre that seeks to engage our community in these critical issues of today.
When asked what inspired her to write Sweat, Nottage said: “I wanted to understand what was happening to friends of mine around 2011, who suddenly found themselves struggling to make ends meet.” So she went to Reading, Pennsylvania—the poorest city in America—to understand first-hand, the impact of our country’s economic decline.
Interestingly, Sweat opened Off-Broadway at the Public Theater just a few days before the 2016 presidential election.
Though the play is set two decades ago, it could not be more relevant to the state of our union today.
We hope you enjoy this revealing play that is sure to become a modern classic.
1: "OH BARKEEP!" A BRIEF HISTORY OF BAR CULTURE
It’s an instinct to draw together for safety; a pub is as good a place as any—actually better: there’s booze there. Our inclination to consume alcohol seems like human nature, and it is revealed in our history of drinking.
Chemical analysis of 9,000-year-old Chinese ceramic jars from the Neolithic village of Jiahu, in the Henan province of northern China, revealed traces of alcohol that were absorbed and preserved. According to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, chemical analysis of the residue confirmed that a fermented drink made of grapes, hawthorn berries, honey and rice was being produced.
This is a kylix (pictured at right). It’s main use was for drinking diluted wine at symposium, which was an ancient Greek, all-male drinking party—not quite the academic experience most of us have had at symposium! Or maybe I’ve been attending the wrong ones…?
It seems our species has always loved alcohol, and we will make it from anything. “All over the world, in fact, evidence for alcohol production from all kinds of crops is showing up, dating to near the dawn of civilization. University of Pennsylvania bio-molecular archaeologist Patrick McGovern believes that’s not an accident. From the rituals of the Stone Age on, he argues, the mind-altering properties of booze have fired our creativity and fostered the development of language, the arts, and religion. Look closely at great transitions in human history, from the origin of farming to the origin of writing, and you’ll find a possible link to alcohol. ‘There’s good evidence from all over the world that alcoholic beverages are important to human culture,’ McGovern says. ‘Thirty years ago, that fact wasn’t as recognized as it is now.’ Drinking is such an integral part of our humanity, according to McGovern, that he only half-jokingly suggests our species be called Homo imbibens” (nationalgeographic.com).
Regardless of the ingredients, alcoholic beverages have provided the liquid lubricant to loosen the tongues of rebels, upstarts and revolutionaries from The Sons of Liberty who made the decision to throw out tea (instead of rum) in staging the Boston Tea Party in Boston’s Green Dragon Tavern, to the LGBTQ community who, in 1969, fed up with institutionalized hostility and unchecked police brutality, rose up and spilled out of the then Mafia-owned Stonewall Inn— one of the only places gay people could openly congregate—to riot, and catalyze the gay liberation movement.
Whatever your reason, when you do visit a bar, make sure you talk (and listen) to a stranger in between rounds. As a matter of fact, share a couple of rounds. You may decide to spearhead a movement, or mobilize an army of citizens for change! Or not. But there will be one fewer stranger in your world.
2: GET TO KNOW READING, PENNSYLVANIA
BY SHELLEY ORR
Reading (pronounced “RED-ding”), Pennsylvania, was founded in 1748 at the direction of William Penn’s sons Thomas and Richard William Penn. Before his death in 1718, Penn recognized the claim of the Minsi Band of Indians (part of the nation of Lenni Lenape Indians) to the land in the area. In the words of a comprehensive report that was compiled in 1898 on the occasion of Reading’s sesquicentennial celebration, Penn contacted members of the Minsi Band and “obtained their release.” The town was laid out about forty years before Pennsylvania became a state, but nearly seventy after the establishment of Pennsylvania colony in 1681. The town’s location was advantageous because it was the point where two valleys intersected: the Schuylkill River Valley and the Penn-Lebanon Valley. The location is also mid-way between the port of Philadelphia and Harrisburg, which would become the state capital. It was also approximately mid-way between the growing towns of Allentown and Lancaster.
The name Reading was taken from the county seat in William Penn’s former home of Berkshire, England. The iron industry in the area was well established by the middle of the eighteenth century. By the time of the start of the Revolutionary War in 1776, the output of the iron works in Reading and its environs exceeded that of all of England. The ironworkers helped supply weapons to General Washington and his troops.
In the nineteenth century, Reading grew into an important site of industry and trade. In 1825 and 1828, a pair of canals was completed to transport goods, especially the highly valued anthracite coal from fields about sixty miles north of Reading, to cities like the port of Philadelphia and the state capital of Harrisburg. When railroads replaced the canals, Reading was again a central node in the system. The famous Reading Railroad in Parker Brothers’ Monopoly game was inspired by the important role Reading played in rail.
INDUSTRY AND JOB OPPORTUNITIES
Reading has long been a city of industry. In the Preface to the 1898 report compiled for the Sesquicentennial of Reading, the author highlighted “over five hundred shops, factories, foundries, and works at Reading which produce over two hundred kinds of articles.” Manufacturing continued to be a staple of the city’s pool of jobs well into the twenty-first century. While manufacturing jobs have decreased overall, many people in Reading were able to earn living wages for much of the twentieth century. Increased automation and globalization have both contributed to the loss of high-paying manufacturing jobs. For some families, working at a particular mill or factory for your entire working life was expected. Some families had three generations of workers spend their adult lives at one workplace, often working their way up the line.
Few can count on such job security today. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, in their 2018 Report on Employee Tenure, found that the median tenure for U.S. workers was just over four years. And younger workers had significantly shorter tenure. For those 25-34 years of age, the median tenure was just 2.8 years. In many factories, seniority was the way to move up the ladder, but if you are changing jobs every two or three years, you can’t carry your seniority with you. Your past experience might get you a new job, but it won’t always be a better position with better pay. In Reading, many of the highly skilled, high-paying manufacturing jobs have been replaced by lower-skilled work, such as packing boxes.
While manufacturing is still an important sector in the Reading area (especially the battery maker, East Penn), government offices, schools and healthcare now employ more people than manufacturers.
As of the 2010 census, Reading had 88,082 people. The highest population count was in the 1930 census, when Reading had more than 111,000 people. In 2010, the city was 48.4% White, 13.2% Black or African American, 0.9% Native American, 1.2% Asian, 0.1% Native Hawaiian, and 6.1% were two or more races. 58.2% of the population were of Hispanic or Latino ancestry. The majority of those with Latino ancestry are of Puerto Rican background.
As of the census of 2000, there were 30,113 households, out of which 33.7% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 34.4% were married couples living together, 20.2% had a female householder with no husband present and 38.8% were non-families. 31.7% of all households were made up of individuals, and 12.4% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.63 and the average family size was 3.33.
In the city, the population was spread out in terms of age range, with 29.9% under the age of 18, 11.7% from 18 to 24, 28.9% from 25 to 44, 17.0% from 45 to 64 and 12.4% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 31 years. For every 100 females, there were 93.3 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 88.5 males.
The median income for a household in the city was $26,698, and the median income for a family was $31,067. Males had a median income of $28,114 versus $21,993 for females. The per capita income for the city was $13,086. 26.1% of the population and 22.3% of families were below the poverty line. 36.5% of those under the age of 18 and 15.6% of those 65 and older were living below the poverty line.
According to the 2010 census, Reading has the highest proportion of its citizens living in poverty in the U.S. In 2011, The New York Times declared Reading to be America’s poorest city. The city has been working to reverse the trend, but progress is slow.
To read more about Reading, Pennsylvania, see:
3: OPIOID AMERICA
BY KIMBERLY KING
Last November, I had my second full knee replacement surgery. It’s considered a major surgery, and truthfully is pretty major to visualize. Even in hindsight, thinking about being sliced open, violently disassembled, then reassembled with hammer-like tools and synthetic parts gives me the willies! But what gave me an even greater feeling of foreboding was the possibility of becoming hooked on whatever opioid the doctor planned to prescribe for the subsequent healing pain of recovery. I feel like I know myself. I like to believe I would know if I were becoming addicted to anything. One likes to think one is in control of oneself, but after all, we are but a mass of flesh and bone powered by electrical impulses and chemical reactions—lots of chemical reactions. What was going to prevent my chemical constitution from yielding to the seduction of artificial endorphins? These drugs are purposefully strong!
As fortune would have it, I didn’t need to complete the OxyContin prescription. When the intense part of the pain subsided, I was able to decide to stop the pills: that was that. However, this is not always the case for everyone. In fact, in certain demographics, it is becoming less the case, and we should not be comfortable with the troubling trajectory of the problem.
Opioids are a class of drug prescribed for the treatment of pain. The medical community’s original intention was to ease the intense suffering of those enduring chronic pain such as in the treatment of cancer.
Somewhere along the way (in most allegorical reports, this appears to occur in the mid to late 1990s) doctors—assured by Big Pharma that these drugs did not have the capacity to become habit forming—found their way to prescribing strong pain medicine like oxycodone (OxyContin), hydrocodone (Vicodin), morphine and methadone, for chronic, non-cancer pain, for instance back pain, pain caused by injury or osteoarthritis. When this practice took hold and became commonplace, without knowing it, we were suddenly teetering on the crumbling precipice of one of the most significantly destructive epidemics of our own making: the American opioid crisis.
With the 2017 national average hovering at 130 opioid overdose deaths per day, equating to a little over 47,000 annual overdose deaths, the losses are already staggering. And unfortunately, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), many indicators point to a continuing increase:
• Roughly 21 to 29 percent of patients prescribed opioids for chronic pain misuse them.
• Between 8 and 12 percent develop an opioid use disorder.
• An estimated 4 to 6 percent who misuse prescription opioids transition to heroin.
• About 80 percent of people who use heroin first misused prescription opioids.
• Opioid overdoses increased 30 percent from July 2016 through September 2017 in 52 areas in 45 states.
• The Midwestern region saw opioid overdoses increase 70 percent from July 2016 through September 2017.
• Opioid overdoses in large cities increased by 54 percent in 16 states.
In the 1990s, when doctors began prescribing opioids to help control pain when someone incurred an injury, perhaps on-the-job, they did not yet have the research to warn them that someone experiencing stressful events such as financial hardship or job loss (often compounding issues accompanying on-the-job injuries), has an exponentially increased likelihood of misusing the opioid and becoming subsequently addicted. What started out as a means to alleviate pain, gave rise to collateral conditions like depression, loss of self-worth, fatigue, lethargy and isolation which greatly contribute to creating a perfect environment for addiction to take hold.
Unfortunately, many of the symptoms and precipitating factors of opioid addiction are being discovered as the medical community works backwards to figure out how we ended up in a health crisis of such deadly proportion.
But even as health professionals search for solutions in the backstory of opioid abuse, illicit drug manufacturers are moving forward, enticing their clientele with the promise of a more intense high by lacing their heroin with fentanyl, a synthetic surgical anesthetic 100 times more powerful than morphine.
According to the Washington Post, “America’s opioid epidemic has changed. And what changed it was fentanyl.
But by 2014, fentanyl was being manufactured in China and imported to Mexico, where it was mixed into the powder heroin distributed east of the Mississippi River. Inexpensive and easy to produce compared with the opium poppy, fentanyl arrived at the right moment for drug distributors seeking to stretch their inventory for the U.S. market. But it came with a drawback: Its extreme potency makes even slight miscalculations deadly when it is added to heroin.”
Adding fuel to the fire is the growing number of people addicted to prescription opioids who turn to heroin, as it is cheaper and easier to acquire on the street.
With the exceptions of Alaska, Utah and New Mexico, this heart-breaking health crisis is predominantly affecting populations in the eastern United States. West Virginia, New Hampshire, and Ohio top the NIH chart of opioid-related overdose deaths. Coming in a close fourth is Maryland. Citing Baltimore’s long-standing, infamous reputation as the “Heroin capital of the United States,” critics of the recent declaration of an opioid “epidemic” chide handwringers and charge policymakers with racism and classism. Had stakeholders been proactive in identifying social factors contributing to addiction, had they been concerned with the medical community’s complicity in the excessive prescription of pain killers in the African-American community, and focused more intensively on prevention and rehabilitation within the economically depressed and predominantly Black populations of Baltimore stricken with heroin addiction, we may have gotten in front of this crisis instead of running behind it, tripping over bodies trying to catch up.
4: THE HUMAN COST OF THE OPIOID CRISIS
BY SHELLEY ORR
Through the Eyes of a Seven Year Old
When thinking of the opioid crisis in the United States, my mind fixates on a news story from a couple of years ago in which a seven-year-old girl living in McKeesport, Pennsylvania (outside Pittsburgh) got herself up and ready for school, went out to the bus stop on her own, and went to school for the day. On the way home, she told the bus driver that she could not wake her parents that morning. The bus driver contacted the authorities and the police found the girls’ parents had both overdosed and died overnight. The couple’s other three children, aged 5, 3, and 9 months were in the home at the time. In the article, it was noted that the authorities took the children, described as being “unharmed” to the hospital. Still, the story haunts me.
When looking at a photo of the young parents or watching an interview with the sister of the mother of four who died, it becomes clear that the opioid crisis affects whole families, whole communities. And it disproportionately affects those in less affluent areas. It is related to an epidemic of overprescribing these medications that the drug makers and doctors must answer for, but it also accompanies a lack of opportunity for a generation of workers that are trying to earn a living wage. The high paying jobs in manufacturing have declined in Pennsylvania over the past two decades. Indeed, it could be an injury from one of those manufacturing jobs that introduced the couple to opioids in the first place. The lack of economic opportunity leaves a whole generation unable to buy a home, send their own children to college or save for retirement.
It seems that many are not even making it to those milestones, because their addiction, fueled by despair, leads them to abuse opioids as a respite from their situation. This is a serious health crisis that affects many twenty and thirty-somethings. In Allegheny County, PA, where McKeesport and Pittsburgh are located, there were 422 opioid overdose deaths in 2015, which was the highest death toll in county history. In 2016, Cincinnati recorded 174 heroin overdoses in six days. As the previous article notes, this crisis is affecting wide swaths of the United States.
I think of that seven-year-old girl and her siblings. This situation seriously sets them back as well, and they contributed in no way to this; they merely were born into this family. How we attempt to address both the lack of economic opportunity for lower-skilled workers and the serious problems that come with addiction will make a significant impact on many communities across the country.
And whatever your personal perspective on drug addiction, you must see that the children of parents affected by addiction are completely innocent parties who deserve consideration. These children must be at the top of the priority list when considering how to address this situation. Picture that seven-year-old girl—a precocious second grader, mind you—picking out her clothes, putting on her socks and shoes, finding some sort of breakfast, getting her backpack and heading out to the bus stop. Does she even know how to tell time to know when her bus comes? Did she make some breakfast for her siblings? What did she think when she could not wake her mom and dad? Was this not the first time? Think of her, and the urgency of the opioid crisis becomes very clear.
5: JUDGE ME BY THE COLOR OF MY COLLAR
BY KIMBERLY KING
A reflection on Struggles in Steel—A Story of African-American Steelworkers, a documentary by Raymond Henderson and Tony Buba.
The pride, accomplishment and independence for the worker who, with their hands and hard labor, earns a living and supports a family, has no quality of race attached to it and yet the opportunity to work was not an equally offered one.
In the 1996 documentary, Struggles in Steel—A Story of African-American Steelworkers, Ray Henderson and Tony Buba (at right) interview over 70 retired Black steelworkers from Pennsylvania to Alabama who tell a story of racism, swallowing your pride and fighting “for the right to work hard.”
Henderson recalls how the motivation for making Struggles in Steel hit him after viewing a documentary about all the economic and personal turmoil caused by the closing of steel mills: “We were 10% of the workforce…and not one Black person was in it [the documentary]. For them to say we played no significant role in the steel industry angered me. It hurt my heart, because Black people helped build this country.”
The history of African-Americans’ relationship to the steel industry is no love story. Rather, it is akin to a contentious, illicit affair with a fiery and unyielding mistress who would prefer an infatuated lover remain in an unhappy marriage in order to tease and torment them with passion and satisfaction on long, torrid weekends disguised as business trips.
White workers, immigrants and American-born alike, had realized their power in unity with the formation of the Sons of Vulcan labor union (1858), and later, the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers (1876), so when the skilled workers of the Pittsburgh Bolt Company were met with reluctance and dismissal by management authority as they demanded higher wages, better working conditions and general economic equity, workers simply mounted a strike and walked off the job. They had learned that the mill could not survive without them.
But, as workers were becoming savvier, so too were employers. Company owners were burned by the ¨Railroad War¨ of 1877, the Homestead Strike of 1892 and other strikes that had crippled production for weeks at a time. They also had discovered a way to fight back, the Black strikebreaker.
Using slaves in skilled and unskilled positions alike had become a norm for many
Southern industries, including iron and steel. Southern factories like Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, Virginia, had close to 1,000 enslaved Blacks working in skilled labor positions; by the time U.S. Steel took over the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company in 1907, 25-30 percent of that workforce was African-American. Companies like Pittsburgh Steel had been sending recruiters to the south and what they found was a substantial pool of capable, knowledgeable workers who were tired of being Black in the South and were more than willing to relocate north for work. But hard-scrabble work was all they would find.
Blacks in the North who had tried to break into the respectable world of the unionized blue-collar worker through the front door, found themselves turned away with hat in hand:
Seasoned, skilled black men could not obtain union cards and young black workers could not gain access to apprenticeship and training programs. According to one white steel unionist, compelling whites to work with black men “was itself cause sufficient to drive . . . [white workers] into open rebellion.” (War, Politics and the Creation of the Black Community, University of Pittsburgh Press 2010)
As strikebreakers, the African-American worker gained access to a place at the blue-collar table. Once seated, they asserted their own economic power. Inside the factories, Blacks showed that they were not anti-union, and either joined the predominantly white unions, or started offshoot organizations of their own with tendrils reaching back to the southern lands from which they hailed, and this worked in favor of all workers. When the newly integrated workforce would strike or threaten to strike, bosses seeking fresh strikebreakers from southern Black communities found themselves blocked by the connections forged between northern and southern African-American forces.
Enduring discrimination and institutionalized racism, Blacks were constantly passed over for promotions and paid significantly less than their White counterparts for the same work. Yet, the steel mill offered opportunity for financial advancement and a new way of urban life over the agricultural subsistence many migrating Blacks experienced down south. They perceived the chance to show how well they could assimilate and prosper, but it was not a sweet or fulfilling victory. Even after serving in Europe during World War II, Black men returning from active duty were still relegated to what even steel mill supervisors referred to as “back-breaking, man-killing work” in the mills.
In Struggles in Steel, the interviewed retirees talk of the hurt still resonating in their souls as they reminisce on how they trained younger White workers who would soon become their new supervisors. Denied promotions, any type of improvement in their work conditions, and sometimes even denied recognition and support from unions, the men and women interviewed in Struggles in Steel recount the injustice of discrimination, humiliation and maltreatment in the steel mills of the 1930s up to 1974 when Civil Rights legislation negotiated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the U.S. Justice Department, nine steel companies and the Steelworkers union mandated “equal opportunity” with the passing of a consent decree. On paper the decree promised to be the cure for what ailed people of color and women previously relegated to the more hazardous, low-paying “Negro jobs,” seemingly random demotions among the Blacks and equally random promotions among Whites.
But it was to be a short-lived and empty victory. According to many of the Black steelworkers interviewed for the documentary, as they rejoiced, bosses on the mill floor found ways to subvert the decree. And in the 1980s, as steel manufacturing began to move overseas instigating the beginning of the industry's American decline, it seemed to African-American workers that the companies would rather close up shop and punish everyone rather than see them succeed.
6: PROFILE OF A STEELWORKER: ALICE PEURALA
BY BOB SIMPSON
Steelworker Alice Peurala was the daughter of Armenian immigrants. Born in 1928 in St. Louis, she grew up in a family that was pro-union and politically involved in trying to recover Armenian lands from Turkey, as had been promised by President Wilson after World War I. Like the children of most immigrant families, Peurala was well acquainted with hard work, taking her first job at 14. Later she moved to Chicago where she took a number of jobs and worked as a union organizer. A socialist, she had to contend with the red-baiting of the McCarthy period, and there were periods of unemployment when she was fired for union organizing.
When Peurala entered Chicago's South Works steel mill in 1953, there were few women employed there. Most of the women who had steel jobs during WWII had returned home when the men came back from the war. The women who remained faced gender discrimination in hiring and promotion. Still, Peurala found that most of the male steelworkers were pretty decent guys who taught her the tricks of the steelmaking trade.
Active in the civil rights movement, Alice knew that the 1964 Civil Rights Act covered gender as well as race. So in 1967, when she was denied a promotion from her job in the Metallurgical Division to a better position in a product testing lab, she decided to fight. The promotion would mean that Peurala, a single mom, could be with her daughter in the evenings. She was told that since the job required overtime and heavy lifting, she was ineligible as a woman. The union would not take her case so she went to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC determined that the company had lied about the heavy lifting, the onerous overtime and the education requirements. They recommended that she sue.
Cases like those of Alice Peurala helped make the 1974 Consent Decree to end discrimination in the steel industry a reality. The Decree was signed by nine major steel companies, the steelworkers union and the EEOC.
Despite the 1974 Consent Decree, women were being forced to take sick leave for pregnancy and made ineligible for unemployment or medical insurance. There were reports of women feeling compelled to have abortions to survive economically. Women steelworkers suspected that the companies were using pregnancy to rid themselves of women they never wanted to hire in the first place. There were also problems with promotions. After she was elected as a grievance handler, Peurala came to believe that the company was hiring inexperienced women to do jobs they couldn't handle as a way to dismiss these new hires, instead of promoting experienced women from inside the plant. The new hires were being set up to fail. Alice's response: “We can't allow men to decide what women’s rights are. They aren’t the ones who will get hurt, we are. If those bastards try that trick again, tell them where to shove it. The men never put up with this shit.”
Peurala helped organize the Local 65 Women’s Caucus. Steelworker women activists plunged into a wide variety of campaigns from fighting for stronger affirmative action enforcement to improving the decrepit state of the women’s washrooms. They formed alliances with feminist groups across the region, refuting the right-wing smear that feminism was only a movement for privileged white women. They became active in the newly formed Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW). District 31 made a major push for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), sending hundreds of steelworkers, both men and women, to state legislatures to lobby for equal rights. While some local media tried to make a joke out of “burly male steelworkers” campaigning for women’s rights, steelworker women and men didn’t think that was funny at all. They understood the importance of working-class solidarity against social injustice.
Once dubbed “Alice in Wonderland” by men who thought a woman could never lead a largely male steelworker local, Alice Peurala won the presidency of Local 65 in 1979 because of her solid record of achievement. She said, “I did not win because I’m a woman. I campaigned as a candidate who would do something about conditions in the plant that affect 7500 people—men and women. ... People in the plant looked on me as a fighter. I think it demonstrates that the men in the plant will vote for someone who is going to work for them, make the union work for them.”
But Peurala’s victory came when the American steel industry was about to collapse in an atmosphere of fear caused by mass layoffs. She was narrowly defeated for re-election in 1982, but was re-elected in 1985. But by 1985, the local was down to 800 members and Alice Peurala faced a new enemy—cancer. On June 21, 1986, her steelworker's heart went silent and the working class lost one of its finest and most steadfast leaders.
CONSENT DECREE OF 1974
In 1974, the EEOC, the Department of Labor and the Department of Justice filed suit against the nation’s nine largest steel producers for discriminatory hiring, promotion, assignment and wage policies directed against women and minorities. These nine companies employed a total of 350,000 workers and produced 73 percent of the country’s steel. The government’s suit also named the major steelworkers’ union, the United Steelworkers of America, as a defendant. After five and a half months of negotiations, the government and the defendants resolved the dispute through a consent decree providing for approximately $31 million in back pay to be distributed to about 40,000 minority and women employees. The companies and the union also agreed to a set of goals which included hiring women and minority persons for half the openings in trade and craft jobs and for 25 percent of the vacancies in supervisory jobs. The decree also provided seniority would be determined on the basis of plant (rather than departmental) seniority permitting women and minority access to the better paying and more desirable jobs.
7: BLUE COLLAR WORKERS: AMERICA'S BACKBONE
BY KIMBERLY KING
She works hard for the money, So hard for it, honey!
She works hard for the money, so you better treat her right!
All right! —Donna Summer
German immigrant Levi Strauss began to make denim in the 1870s and the fabric quickly became popular with coal miners and other physical laborers, especially out West. Who knew that the color of a worker’s clothes would come to be a defining characteristic of his social class in the world of work?
When the term “blue collar” came into use in the early 20th century, it was used to identify work that earned an hourly wage and was manual in nature. Though the wearing of a turned down collar of any color was not ubiquitously mandatory for the laborer, the use of the term “blue collar” to refer to the “working class” is suggested by etymologist Barry Popik to have been coined to contrast with the clean, starched, white collars of professionals and holders of office positions.
Blue collar workers were laborers, tradesmen and factory workers who required the durability of Mr. Strauss’ denim, as well as the dark blue, dirt-hiding hue. But working hard for the money in a blue-collar job doesn’t necessarily mean your actual clothes are blue anymore.
Plumber, trucker, pipefitter, bricklayer, pilot, inspector, construction worker, machinist, repair technician, blacksmith, foreman, boilermaker are but a few of the occupations our American society labels “blue collar” jobs requiring skilled or unskilled labor, but manual labor nonetheless. Workers in this category most likely wear a uniform, and the jobs they do are the vertebrae in the backbone of American economics. (And I mean that metaphor to be so literal.)
Let’s consider what a backbone does. One of its major functions is to protect the spinal cord, the network of nerves that carries messages from your brain to the rest of your body. Blue collar workers are the builders of bridges, roads and highways as well as the tubing, wiring and hardware components of the digital highways; physically connecting us to our food, clothing, shelter, means of livelihood and to one another. In creating these formalized, concretized pathways, blue-collar workers insure that goods, services and ideas (our “messages”) get safely from point A to point Z, protecting business and family alike. Think about traveling to Los Angeles on a dirt road on foot to see a show! Not happening! Think about missing the births and deaths of family because the best communication you have is a tin can attached to a string! Consider the fact that a lack of proper roads and communication centers kept thousands of enslaved Americans in the dark about the end of slavery in 1863 by Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation until 1865!
The backbone is also responsible for providing structural support to keep us upright. As a nation, we stand upright when our economy can support its citizens at home while being competitive abroad, and it has been the blue-collar worker literally shoveling the coal into the furnace to keep the economic ship sailing, sometimes chugging, sometimes pulling, but rarely stopping. When engineers carve out the roads for truckers, or build planes and ships for pilots and captains to load up and transport the goods we make, our economy is being uplifted so that we may stand on our own as a sovereign nation.
8: READING AND IMMIGRATION
BY SHELLEY ORR
Each year since 1949, the National Civic League bestows ten communities with the All-America City Award. To earn the award, cities must apply and demonstrate the ways that their community is meeting its challenges. On its website, the National Civic League notes that, “The All-America City Award recognizes communities that leverage civic engagement, collaboration, inclusiveness and innovation to successfully address local issues.” The words collaboration and inclusiveness stand out when thinking about questions of how communities address immigration.
Over the past seventy years, fourteen cities in Pennsylvania have won the award, some more than once. Reading was awarded the prize in 1955 and Hazleton was a recipient in 1964. This may surprise you, especially if you recognize the name of the town of Hazleton. In 2006, the small city came to the nation’s attention because of a series of laws enacted by the then-mayor Lou Barletta and its city council that included mandating an official language of the city (English) and a $1,000 fine for landlords who rented to undocumented immigrants. The laws were struck down as unconstitutional and the city was forced to pay a fine, but questions about how to address immigration remain. How did Hazleton go from being an inclusive, All-America City to the face of hardline anti-immigration?
It is not that Pennsylvania has not seen significant immigration in past eras. Indeed, the area has a long history of immigrants coming to find work and build their lives. In the mid- to late-19th and early 20th centuries, Hazleton and Reading were home to many new arrivals coming from Germany, Ireland, Italy and Poland. Indeed, many neighborhoods were set up along lines of former nationality, usually arranged around a home church.
But after more than a century of living side by side, there is more in common among these earlier immigrants from Europe and their descendants than there are differences. While family heritage is still referenced in surnames and holiday customs, relatively little separates people like Lou Barletta (the former Mayor of Hazleton and now a Congressman) and his wife Mary Grace. Although when Barletta, the son of Italian immigrants, married Mary Grace, a young Irish woman, more than forty years ago, Barletta’s mother considered it a “mixed marriage,” according to the profile of Barletta in the recent book, The Forgotten by Ben Bradlee, Jr.
The subtitle of Bradlee’s 2018 book is “How the People of One Pennsylvania County Elected Donald Trump and Changed America.” The book provides a contextual introduction on the area and then shares a series of profiles and interviews with ten citizens of Luzerne County, where Hazleton is located.
So what has changed? In cities like Reading and Hazleton, the population of people hailing from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic has increased dramatically in the past twenty years. In Hazleton, according to the 2000 census, those who identified as Hispanic made up just 4.9% of the population, by 2010 it was 37%, and this year it has passed into the majority. In Reading in 2018, the estimate of population numbers broke down this way: 56.3% of the population identified as Hispanic, 48.8% white, 14% African-American, 1.4% Asian, with 4.5% noting that they were from more than one racial background. Notably, 33.5% of people identified as being of Puerto Rican descent.
These demographic changes, in and of themselves, are not necessarily a problem. But the relatively rapid changes in the demographic of the area have presented challenges for some longtime residents. For some in families who have lived for generations in this same area, the influx of people from a cultural background that differs from their own, speaking a language that they don’t understand, has been disorienting.
From the perspective of those who have recently moved into Reading (often not directly from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, but from more costly places to live like New York City), the driving reason was that Reading offered jobs, relative safety and the chance to own a home.
There are also some longtime Hazleton residents who are looking to help. Another native son, Joe Maddon, who is the manager of the Chicago Cubs, has used his celebrity and wealth to co-found the Hazleton Integration Project, a community center on the west side that provides classes and services to adults and children in need. Maddon and others like him recognize that all people deserve community and an opportunity to build a life.
9: AN INTERVIEW WITH PLAYWRIGHT LYNN NOTTAGE
BY QUENTIN FOTTRELL
Excerpt from MarketWatch.com, 4 May 2017
The interviewer spoke with playwright Lynn Nottage about her play, Sweat, after being awarded the 2017 Pulitzer Prize and a Broadway production.
MarketWatch: Given the 2016 election, and how the result was driven by many white, blue-collar Americans, this play arrives on Broadway at a particularly prescient moment in time, even though it starts in 2000.
Lynn Nottage: There was a seismic shift then. A lot of jobs left. What we are feeling now is what began in the late 1990s and 2000s. At the end of the show a man came up and said thank you for humanizing some of these stories and he wanted to hold my hand for five minutes.
MW: How did that make you feel?
LN: It was an emotional moment, but it made me feel good that the story is resonating today in ways that I hadn’t even anticipated when I wrote it.
MW: Why Reading?
LN: It was an industrial powerhouse of textile and steel and agriculture and candy factories, and for many years it thrived and then it hit hard times. They embraced the notion of being middle class and how they were faring and the industrial base was removed.
MW: You’ve been back to Reading and even had a showing of Sweat there. How did they react to this play?
LN: It’s really, really hard for them. Things have gotten harder in the last month. They don’t feel as optimistic as they felt three or four weeks ago. The vast majority of the people I spoke to leaned very union and were either supporters of Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump. If Bernie had won the primary, they probably would have leaned toward Bernie, at least in this city. Bernie was very in touch with what was happening on the ground. Trump is probably less in touch, but gave the illusion of being in touch. Bernie held rallies in Reading. People respond to candidates that come to them and have their eyes open to what’s happening and that’s why he’s still popular in that section of the country.
MW: People who work in factories are more prone to injury and likely to take pain medication. You address the epidemic of prescription medication addiction among working class Americans in the play.
LN: Reading is one of the heroin capitals of the country. When people can no longer afford pain killers they go to cheaper solutions. People who are working physically have more kinds of pain. I do believe that pharmaceutical companies recognize it. You can almost track new markets and addiction. This is one reason heroin moved from being an urban phenomenon to a rural phenomenon. [Editor’s note: The American Pharmacists Association and American Medical Association did not immediately respond to request for comment.]
MW: I’m conscious that New Yorkers are probably seeing how a community was devastated by globalization up close for the first time in a play that’s set in 2000. And how one character in your play says she doesn’t read newspapers, suggesting perhaps she doesn’t trust the news media. These two Americas seem a world apart.
LN: People aren’t as aware of international news as people are in urban centers where there is much more multiculturalism. I have two mottos: Replace judgment with curiosity and sustain the complexity. Why are these people feeling pain? Why are they so angry? It works both ways. We often retreat into our individual silos without asking the complicated questions. We have to take better care of each other. And in order to thrive we have to acknowledge each other. If we don’t participate in that social contract, our nation is going to fail.
MW: There’s a character, Oscar, who works in the local bar who breaks the picket line. He had long wanted to work at the factory, but was effectively told by Tracey that the jobs were for people who grew up in Reading. And the power dynamic shifts when Tracey’s African-American friend Cynthia is promoted to management.
LN: There’s a certain population of the white working class that become threatened by certain aspirational people of color. Oscar is on the stage almost the entire play, but invisible. The working class Latino is part of the bedrock of this culture that goes under-acknowledged. There’s a great deal of resentment directed at him. I think it is misplaced anger. Some of that was played out when we had an African American president who, by and large, did a very decent job, and represented himself beautifully and left the White House scandal free. A person of color finally has an opportunity to move upstairs, and step across an invisible line that you are not supposed to cross.
MW: Was that your experience in Reading?
LN: By and large, all my encounters in Reading were very good. Even people I found myself in opposition with politically and intellectually, there was a still a willingness to engage with me and share their stories. They just want to go on record regardless of who is asking.
MW: Cynthia’s son has aspirations of going to college and getting away, and he comes so close.
LN: There are people who want to leave, but don’t have the financial means to leave. Their poverty becomes a prison. They can’t find work, but can’t get enough money to move to a city where they can. That’s one of the true tragedies. Everyone I spoke to while I was in Reading, without exception, wanted to be working. Being poor is one of the hardest jobs in the world anyone can have. To survive from day to day is an epic struggle to find a way to feed yourself, clothe yourself, put a roof over your head. It is the most Herculean path when you have nothing. They’re seen by some people as lazy. But it’s the opposite. It’s an epic struggle to survive.
10: SWEAT, A PATH-BREAKING PLAY; "IT'S ABOUT DAMN TIME"
BY SHELLEY ORR
Playwright Lynn Nottage began doing research for Sweat in 2011. Her research involved visiting the city and seeing first-hand what struggles the city’s residents were facing. She met people from all backgrounds, asking about their experiences. Reading had just been named the city with the highest proportion of its citizens living below the poverty line. This fact drew Nottage to dig deeper.
After a few months of visits that were supported by a co-commission from D.C.’s Arena stage and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s American Revolutions initiative, Nottage brought along her longtime collaborator/director Kate Whoriskey. The two had worked together previously on Nottage’s award-winning plays Ruined and Intimate Apparel. In Reading, they interviewed people in settings as varied as factories, local government offices and even homeless shelters.
Work on the play continued, culminating in a first production at OSF in 2015, which was followed by a run at Arena Stage. Then, in 2016, New York’s Public Theater produced Sweat. Only after years of such significant vetting was it deemed ready for Broadway. It opened on March 26, 2017 and closed on June 25, after 105 performances.
The play won an Obie Award in 2017 for the run at the Public Theater. It won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in Drama and, with that honor, Lynn Nottage became the first woman to win more than one Pulitzer in Drama. (She also won a Pulitzer in 2009 for her play Ruined.) Sweat was also nominated for three Tony Awards (including Best Play). Sweat played in London at the Donmar Warehouse earlier this year and is transferring to the West End where it will soon open on June 7, 2019.
When Sweat opened on Broadway, a play by Paula Vogel, Indecent (also nominated for the 2017 Tony for Best Play) was also on Broadway. The fact that two plays by women were on Broadway at the same time was a milestone. The article in the New York Times reporting on the phenomenon bore the title “Two Female Playwrights Arrive on Broadway. What Took So Long?” As reporter Michael Paulson observed, Indecent and Sweat are the only new plays by women this Broadway season; by contrast, there are eight new plays by men (none of whom has credentials comparable to those of Ms. Vogel and Ms. Nottage). The disparity is sometimes worse; in 2013-14 there were no new plays by women. Such imbalance remains a striking incongruity for Broadway, where an estimated 67 percent of the audience is women.
In the words of Marsha Norman, who was quoted in that same Times piece about the milestone of more than one play by a woman running on Broadway, “It’s about damn time.” Indeed, it is.
HISTORY OF UNIONS TIMELINE
FOOD FOR THOUGHT QUESTIONS
1. As globalization has increased and companies prize being “nimble,” should employees expect longevity? How important is loyalty in employer/employee relationships in the 21st century?
2. An anonymous saying goes, “Be inspired to work and fulfilled by the work that you do.” On a scale of 1-10, how inspired are you? And how fulfilled are you with your work?
3. Is your identity intertwined with the work that you do? Or do you see yourself and your career as separate?
4. How do you view San Diego from 2000 to now? What changes did you notice since the economic downturn?
5. Steve Jobs once asked: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” How would you answer the question?