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FROM INJURY TO ACTION: A LABOR DAY REMEMBRANCE (PART III)

Jason Pramas, summer 2018
Jason Pramas, summer 2018

 

October 10, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

In parts one (DigBoston, Vol. 20, Iss. 36, p. 6) and two (DigBoston, Vol. 20, Iss. 40, p. 6), I discussed how working a temp factory job at Belden Electronics on assignment for Manpower for several weeks in early 1989 in Vermont led to my sustaining a sudden and permanent spinal injury while walking to my car just after my last shift. And how I drove myself one-handed through a snowstorm on country roads in the middle of the night to an emergency room—only to receive substandard care as a poor person. Leading me to make the mistake of letting cheaper chiropractors hurt me more over the next six years. In this final installment, I review my turn to labor activism on behalf of myself… and workers in bad jobs everywhere.

 

I recovered from my spinal injury within a few months. To the point where I wasn’t hurting all of the time. Just some of the time. Yet, as with other life-changing experiences before and since, I wasn’t the same afterward. Physically or psychologically. I was left with the sense that anything could happen to me at any time. Something I had known intellectually before getting hurt, but literally knew in my bones going forward.

 

Regardless, once it was clear I wasn’t going to be entirely disabled, I resolved to move ahead with my life. Which took some time. But by the summer of 1990, I had returned to Boston from Vermont, I was dating the woman who later became my wife, and I had founded New Liberation News Service (NLNS)—the international wire I would run for the next couple of years.

 

Journalism had gone from being an occasional thing for me to a regular thing. Unfortunately, NLNS was a small nonprofit serving the left-wing campus press, the remnant of the ’60s underground press, and some larger community media outlets. Most of which were too broke to pay much for the news packets my service was producing for them. Thus, I wasn’t able to make ends meet doing it for very long. And by 1991, I was temping again on the side.

 

No more manual labor for me, though. That was over, given my damaged vertebrae. This time any temp assignments I took had to make use of my writing, editing, and research skills—which I had developed over the previous few years, despite not having a college degree… and not getting one until 2006.

 

After a number of short assignments, I found a long-term editing gig via a jobs bulletin board at MIT that anyone in the know could just walk up to and use. Faxon Research Services, a now-defunct database company, contracted me through a temp agency. It was March 1992.

 

Over the months, I did well enough at the assignment that I was granted my own office and more responsibilities. I also helped the other NLNS staffer of the time to get a similar gig at Faxon. He, too, started getting more responsibility at the office. Soon, I was being groomed for a full-time job by one vice president. He was being groomed by another vice president. The two vice presidents were at odds with each other. My vice president lost the inter-departmental war. And my temp contract was ended in December 1992. Just like that.

 

Because that’s how temp jobs, and indeed most forms of contingent employment function. Employers want the freedom to use workers’ labor when they need it and to get rid of them the moment they don’t. While paying the lowest wages possible. Saving labor costs and increasing profits in the process.

 

Faxon assumed that, like every other temp, I was just going to take the injustice of losing my shot at a long-term full-time job lying down.

 

But not that time. And I would never accept injustice at any gig ever again. I had learned one key lesson from getting badly injured from the Manpower temp job at Belden Electronics three years previous: If I was treated unfairly in the workplace, I was going to fight. And keep fighting until I won some kind of redress.

 

So, I did something that temps aren’t supposed to do: I applied for unemployment. Because temp agencies and the employers that contract them use such arrangements in part to play the same “neither company is your employer” game that Manpower and Belden played when I got a spinal injury on Belden property.

 

However, I realized that I had been at this temp gig full-time for nine months and figured I had a chance of convincing the Mass unemployment department of the period that I was a Faxon employee in fact even if I was officially a temp at an agency that played so small a role in the gig in question that I can’t even remember its name.

 

My initial unemployment filing was rejected. And I appealed it. And testified to an unemployment department official. And won my unemployment. A small victory, true. But an important one for me, and possibly for other temps in similar situations in the years after me. Faxon didn’t fight the ruling. I got my money.

 

Fortunately, I didn’t need the unemployment payments for long. Back in February 1992, writing as I did not just for NLNS, but also for other publications, I had a chance to join a labor union in my trade. Not the traditional union I had dreamt of helping organize at Belden Electronics prior to—and certainly after—my injury. It was called the National Writers Union/United Auto Workers Local 1981. A small but trailblazing formation experimenting with organizing any of several types of contingent writers—with a constituency of freelance journalists, book authors, and technical writers.

 

I immediately got active in the Boston “unit” of the local. Was elected as a delegate to the national convention in the summer of 1992. Was the youngest candidate for a open vice president’s seat. Lost, but not too badly. And won enough notoriety in the Boston branch that they hired me as their half-time director in December.

 

My fight for justice for myself and millions of other people in temp, part-time, day labor, contract, independent contractor, migrant, and many other kinds of bad unstable contingent jobs besides took off from there. In 1993, I joined the New Directions Movement democracy caucus within the rapidly shrinking but still super-bureaucratic and timid United Auto Workers union, and learned a great deal about how all those purposely precarious employment arrangements were being used by employers to crush labor.

 

In 1994, I started the small national publication As We Are: The Magazine for Working Young People. In 1995, I wrote an article in its third number about the attempt by the radical union Industrial Workers of the World to start a Temp Workers Union, and began actively looking for a way to start a general labor organization for contingent workers. In 1996—just after I published the fourth As We Are, folded the magazine for lack of funds, and took a long-term temp assignment with 3M’s advertising division as a front desk person—I helped launch the Organizing Committee for a Massachusetts Employees Association (OCMEA) with Citizens for Participation in Political Action. A group that straddled the line between the left wing of the Democratic Party and socialists just to their left in the Commonwealth. In January 1997, I quit the 3M assignment a few days before being serendipitously hired by Tim Costello of Northeast Action as the half-time assistant organizer of his Project on Contingent Work there. We rolled the OCMEA effort into our new project and also helped start a nationwide network of similar contingent worker organizing projects called the National Alliance for Fair Employment later that year.

 

In June 1998, I left the National Writers Union gig—having helped build the Boston branch’s membership from just over 200 members to over 700 members in my six-year tenure—and took one final long-term half-time temp editor assignment through Editorial Services of New England at Lycos, a competitor of Yahoo and other early commercial search engines on the World Wide Web. I organized a shadow union of over 25 fellow temp editors— which won pay parity for men and women on the assignment—before leaving to help Costello break away from Northeast Action and begin raising money to form our own independent contingent workers’ organization in September 1998.

 

Finally, in January 1999, we had the funding to found the Campaign on Contingent Work (CCW), the extremely innovative labor organizing network that did much to help workers in bad jobs in Massachusetts over the six years of its existence.

 

That year we also expanded the national contingent organizing group into Canada to form the North American Alliance for Fair Employment (NAFFE)—which was also based in Boston. Ultimately, Costello was the coordinator of that group and I was coordinator of CCW. And in 2003, during conversations with the CEO of Manpower about a temp industry code of conduct that NAFFE had drafted, Costello started telling him the story of my injury on a Manpower assignment. The CEO cut him off a few sentences in and said, “Forklift?” And Costello said, “Yes.” And the CEO apparently said that years after my injury, so many workers had been hurt driving forklifts in Manpower temp jobs that there had been some kind of settlement with them and the company had instituted reforms. I never bothered to verify the tale. But I don’t doubt its veracity.

 

Because employers can only push workers so far before we start to push back. And I’ve written this series for one reason: to encourage readers in bad jobs in the (now rather old) “new economy” to push back. To fight where you stand. To stop accepting unstable gigs with no benefits for low pay. To start demanding a better deal. Together with your fellow workers. And to keep demanding it. Until we live in a world where no one will ever have to work a bad job. Or get permanently injured the way I did.

 

Check out part one of “From Injury to Action” here and part two here.

 

Apparent Horizon—winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

FROM INJURY TO ACTION: A LABOR DAY REMEMBRANCE (PART II)

Photo by ekamelev. CC0 Public Domain.
Photo by ekamelev. CC0 Public Domain.

 

October 3, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

In part one (DigBoston, Vol. 20, Iss. 36, p. 6), I related how working a temp factory job at Belden Electronics on assignment for Manpower for several weeks in early 1989 in Vermont led to my sustaining a sudden and permanent spinal injury while walking to my car just after my last shift. At the conclusion of that narrative, I was standing in agony in an empty parking lot outside an empty factory in the middle of the woods in the middle of the night in a snowstorm. My left arm was essentially paralyzed. I was completely alone.

 

I staggered the remaining distance to my car. Struggled to get the keys out of my left pants pocket with my good right arm. Unlocked the door. Opened it. Tumbled into the driver’s seat. Pulled the shoulder belt over my numb left arm. Waves of pain coursed through my body. Got the car started.

 

“Can’t pass out,” I told myself, “Don’t have much gas left, and once it’s gone, the heat goes. I can get hypothermia before anyone notices me in here. Could die.”

 

It was hard to hold my head upright enough to drive, but I managed it. Harder still was getting the car in gear and then driving stick with only my right arm. In a snowstorm. In the middle of the night. Drifting each time my hand was on the stick. Nearly braking into a spin each time I approached top speed in a gear while my hand was on the steering wheel. Nearly stalling whenever I downshifted. And, yeah, that busted second gear I mentioned in part one? That was a real problem. It was tricky enough jumping from first to third gear and back when I wasn’t injured. Doing it while badly hurt and trying to drive one-handed on dangerously icy roads for the roughly half hour I figured it would take me to get from Essex Junction to the emergency room at the big Medical Center Hospital of Vermont in Burlington? That was just asking to get put out of my misery the hard way.

 

But that was what I set out to do. Why? Not sure. I was fairly lucid, but I wasn’t exactly thinking clearly. Still, not much was open after 9 pm in the rural suburbs of Burlington in the late 1980s. Especially with the snow falling harder with each passing minute. My recollection is that, given the route I was taking, the first gas station that was likely to be open was close enough to the hospital that I might as well drive the full distance myself and skip an ambulance ride I couldn’t afford. And I hadn’t lived in the area long enough to know if there were any emergency rooms closer to my location.

 

The other problem I faced was the the hypnotizing effect of my headlights reflecting off snowflakes as I drove down unlit back roads. To avoid accidentally getting confused, losing the road, and slamming into something solid, I stayed mostly in first gear. So it took longer to get to my destination. Maybe 45 minutes. Fortunately, I encountered little traffic on the way. And made it to the emergency room.

 

There I got treated the way people without insurance get treated all the time in America. Like dirt. I sat in the waiting room for over an hour. The bored resident that eventually saw me gave me a cursory examination and sent me for an X-ray. More accurate MRIs weren’t yet common and certainly wouldn’t have been given to patients without coverage at that time. I spent the next couple of hours in an emergency room bay. There was a heroin epidemic in Vermont in that period, so I was offered no pain killers in case I was just another junkie “drug seeker” trying to pull a fast one on the staff for a quick opiate fix.

 

Finally, the resident returned, and told me that I had dislocated two vertebrae. He gave me a few Tylenol, told me to put heat on my injury, rest for a few days, and see a general practitioner if my arm function didn’t fully return. I was not admitted for more tests or observation. I was not offered stronger pain meds. I was incredulous, but could do nothing. Naturally, I didn’t pay the medical bill when it arrived.

 

I shuffled back to my car and drove the mile to my apartment. Down the quite steep and icy hill from the University of Vermont campus where the hospital was located to the Old North End. Still one-handed, although I was getting some feeling back in my left arm by that time. At least the snow had let up.

 

It was 5 am. I got the front door open. Closed it. Got a glass of water. Took some Tylenol. Went to my room. Shut that door. Collapsed onto my futon on the floor of my dingy place that was cheap even by the standards of Burlington in that era. Slept fitfully.

 

Woke a few hours later to the first day of my new life as a bona fide member of the walking wounded.

 

It should go without saying that in the days to come both Belden Electronics and the temp service they used to hire me, Manpower, refused to accept responsibility for my injury. Neither company even informed me of my workers’ compensation rights. And I was too young and inexperienced to know much about labor law on my own. So, I proceeded with no money for medical treatment.

 

Surrounded, as I was, by wide-eyed hippies of the type that Vermont is justifiably infamous for producing, I was strongly encouraged to drop the idea of seeking help from “Western medicine” and seek assistance from one or more of the profusion of “holistic healers” that littered the hills and valleys of my temporarily adopted state like so many locusts. I went with the modality that most closely mimicked actual scientific medicine: chiropractic. Because, you know, its practitioners like to wear white coats and pretend they’re doctors. Regardless of whether they’re in the small minority of their colleagues that restrict their practice to scientifically proven treatments, or the majority that does not.

 

Unaware that a) with rest and some physical therapy my injury would probably heal to a tolerable baseline on its own within a few weeks, and b) that the neck twisting employed by less scrupulous chiropractors when “treating” injuries like mine carried a very real risk of inducing a life-ending stroke, I gamely allowed to a succession of chiropractors to twist my neck really fast until its vertebrae cracked. In addition to a fairly random grab bag of similar “treatments.” First once a week and later once a month for the next six years. At $30 a visit to start—up to about $60 a visit by the time I realized my trust in chiropractors was misplaced and stopped letting such charlatans violate my person—the price was significantly cheaper than any medical care I thought I could get without insurance.

 

So, despite feeling worse after every session than I felt when I walked in, I kept it up for far too long. Which was the goal of too many chiropractors. Whatever brings you in their door, they aim to keep you coming back regularly for the rest of your life. Assuming they don’t inadvertently end it. Or merely hurt you badly. As happened when my last chiropractor decided to try electro-muscular stimulation near my head and my vision exploded into whiteness, which faded for an unknown amount of time until I awoke with my face on the quack’s chest. Weak. Somewhat confused. And very angry. I walked out and never came back.

 

But five years later—over 11 years after the initial injury—I discovered that more damage had been done to my spine. No doubt in part from such ungentle and unschooled ministrations. A story for another day.

 

Check out part one of “From Injury to Action” here and part three here… and for more information on why chiropractic is best avoided, check out the Science-Based Medicine blog (sciencebasedmedicine.org/category/chiropractic/) and the older Chirobase (chirobase.org).

 

Apparent Horizon—winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.