Editor’s note: Investigative reporter Thomas Peele once believed that supporting union efforts posed a conflict of interest to reporters. In this moving essay comparing his hardworking father’s life to his own, Peele reexamines that view.
By THOMAS PEELE
My father drove a rusted 1963 International Scout, the floor boards rotted away, the muffler growling like a garbage disposal with a butter knife wedged in it. He worked a low-paying, filthy job cleaning the bowels of furnaces, his hands forever blackened. The stink of fuel oil clung to him no matter how hard he scrubbed. My mother cleaned houses, took in ironing, and sometimes she worked the counter at a newsstand. What made the subsistence living they eked out in my childhood even more painful is that we lived in one of the most affluent places on earth, the South Fork of Eastern Long Island New York, the so-called fabulous Hamptons.
When I was 11, a bright red bumper sticker appeared on the Scout’s tailgate: NIXON. “We’re Republicans,” my father said, and he was quite proud to support the president’s 1972 re-election. Party affiliation was not something I’d contemplated. But the men who came to the house briefly in October campaigning for local office handed out pencils and potholders adorned with flags and elephants. Sometimes they gave my mother typing jobs in exchange for the fealty. Those men — insurance brokers, land-use lawyers, the president of a trash hauling company — were petty oligarchs who profited nicely from their control of the local service economy. They, in turn, were kept on tethers by the Manhattan bankers, and industry titans whose mansions lined the ocean dunes. No one called them the one percent in the 1970s, but they still had us by the scruff of the neck.
The 1972 election would mark the fifth time my father would vote for Richard Nixon (if you count vice president). Republicans were the party of order, he said, and order came first. Not law and order, the Nixon mantra, but the order of his life, the way things were, things that were indelible as the oil that stained his hands and could never be challenged. There was little difference to him between the top of the ticket and the men at the bottom, the local bosses who could make his life even worse if they suspected a hint of disloyalty. My father believed he was acting in his financial interests. He wasn’t.
He worked in a non-union shop for a Cadillac-driving owner whose ideas of benevolence were frozen Thanksgiving turkeys and one afternoon each summer with an open tab at a beer joint. Basic safety equipment like breathing masks and gloves weren’t in the budget. Neither were pensions — not that many of his employees would live to eligibility, thanks not just to the work, but to a lack of health insurance. But organizing, asking a trade union for help, was out of the question, dismissed with the wave of a gnarled, blackened hand. The union reps who sometime approached my father and his co-workers were “rabble rousers,” “fucking commies.” Even, I overheard him once, “white-trash agitators.” To my father, someone else was white trash, not him.
He retired a few months before his death. The petroleum products that seeped through his skin for decades brought the cancer. His boss’ parting gift was a $100 Home Depot gift card. Goodbye. Good luck.
Yet my father was a brilliant man, a savant with all things mechanical. He could have easily been an engineer, an architect, a master builder. When the Army drafted him in 1950, he was soon on a troop transport bound for Korea. But just before it sailed he was instead secreted off to a guided missile program in the west Texas plains. He’d scored off the charts on a math test and deemed too valuable for combat fodder. But he’d married at 21 and when he was discharged he didn’t take advantage of the GI Bill to go to college, despite brimming with aptitude. His father was in the Coast Guard, his mother a descendent of potato farmers. No one in their families had sought higher education. So he went home, where he took menial jobs and a life of economic distress. By the time I came of age in the late 1970s, prosperity in the Hamptons had become boundless for many, but we lived hand to mouth.
I finished at the bottom of my high school class. There were no books in our home, no meaningful talk, no plan. My father was asleep in an arm chair by 7 most nights. My mother stared blankly at the television, often at soap operas she’d taped during the day, a fantasy escape. Without challenge, I checked out, the string of Ds across my report cards unquestioned. Being from one of those families, the system just moved me along, admittedly dimly, by social promotion. At 16 my destiny was behind a lawnmower or a rake as a member of the work crews we called chain gangs. If anyone had suggested to my teachers or friends that I would one day have a master’s degree, would write a book, rack up dozens of professional awards and teach at a prestigious graduate school of journalism, the howls of laughter would have reached the moon. At home, my father employed this stock answer to anything I asked: “Don’t think, you’ll weaken the team.” While I wasn’t expected to study in school, he demanded I work after it, stocking shelves, weeding flower beds, cleaning leaves out of drains. When I awoke just enough as a senior, thanks to an empathetic young English teacher who turned me on to Bruce Springsteen and George Orwell, and saw college as an escape despite my woeful academic record, my father said higher education would turn me into “a liberal twit.”
Besides, he said, there was no money for it.
By my mid-twenties, a BA in journalism secured after struggles, transfers, mid-semester dropouts, and a mountain of student loans, I was at a daily newspaper and found I was good at reporting. Simmering anger over what I escaped proved a great motivator. It didn’t take me long to break stories that led to nearly a dozen New Jersey politicians and bureaucrats going to prison for looting a local government. I was in Washington covering the Senate before turning 30, then was lured to Atlantic City by the prospect of deep digging on casinos and institutionalized corruption. Out in the world, my hands unstained, an apartment filled with books, driving a car replete with floorboards and a muffler, I wasn’t my father.
Or so I thought.
The autonomy of journalism, the lack of being beholden to anyone, suited me. In Atlantic City I sparred with casino owners (including Donald Trump) and raised hell. The paper was owned by a wealthy Pittsburgh family that left the newsroom alone. I didn’t see it then, but my own hands were now stained, at least figuratively, with printer’s ink. I was already a lifer. The pay offered little more than subsistence living, and the editor preferred occasional small bonuses to raises. Like my father, I had nothing in the bank, no security, no plan outside the batch of stories. My dedication to craft left me ripe for exploitation. But when there was loose talk of asking the Newspaper Guild to meet with reporters, I opposed it. That it was part of the labor movement, that it fit somewhere under the AFL-CIO’s umbrella, seemed like a conflict of interest for a journalist. We shouldn’t belong to anything, I argued. Organized labor was for men like my father, even if he rejected it. When a friend tried to recruit me to the AP, I turned it down because of its active union. When I eventually decided to move as far away from Atlantic City as I could, it was to a non-union paper in California.
Working at a Knight-Ridder publication well before the company’s epic collapse was like the proverbial salad days viewed from 2016. But regular raises, 401(k) matches, solid reporting staffs, even subsidized lunches in a company cafeteria proved ephemeral. Even free coffee now seems élite, the impalpable stuff of Google. What has happened the last 10 years not to just the newspaper industry but the gutting of our California papers remains stunning. The questions about why work in a dying industry is asked of me often. Journalism isn’t dying, I retort. It’s more vital than ever, look at the societal divides, the abuses of power. Look at how much honest reporting is needed.
But in the sleepless nights sorting through unpaid bills, staring at bank statements, deciding what to go without so to pay for an after-school program for my kids, I set aside rationalizations and try to grasp just how bad things are. Yes, we need journalism, and, frankly, we need people who know how to practice it with skills that are becoming badly overlooked. Coding? Sure. But what if there is nothing of substance to code? We work for a company that has worn those of us who have endured down to nubs. We’ve become demeaned. Editors who have also stayed want nothing but to practice great journalism. But they are wrapped in chains and have no troops left to deploy.
“Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears / While we all sup sorrow with the poor,” Stephen Foster wrote in “Hard Times Come Again No More.” Now, at the Bay Area News Group, we face layoffs in April, even as our regional economy booms and market rents on two-bedroom apartments streak past $3,000 a month. The number is in flux, pending buyouts. We are told cuts to so-called “boots on the ground” will be minimal, but it seems foolish for anyone to assume their job is safe.
Springsteen adapted Foster in his song “Wrecking Ball,” singing “hard times come and hard times go.” But they don’t go, at least for journalists working under distant masters at Alden Global Capital.
In the last year a reoccurring dream haunts me. My hands are black. I cough soot. I scurry through service entrances. Someone once said that the best thing a parent can give a child is a chance to grow up with problems that are their own. In so many ways, educationally, professionally, I am not my father. But like him, and probably subconsciously modeled on him, I have failed to prioritize my own economic wellbeing, which we all know is difficult enough in journalism, even with effort. But when you are prone to vainglory, as I am, you end up buried. If only we could barter awards for utilities or a tank of gas. In my efforts to be beholden to no one, I’ve managed to not be beholden to myself and my wife and kids, either. There is no pause from “life’s pleasures,” as Foster wrote. One cannot pause from what does not exist.
The last time I got a raise was 2008. A pay cut soon followed it. The first thing I did was stop contributing to my 401K to offset it slightly. (No one, you see, cut the monthly bills). My rough estimate is that, living in the Bay Area, the loss of income balanced against the rocketing cost of living means I — and others — have lost 30 percent or more since the last time even miniscule pay bumps were awarded. The quiet seething that’s occurred for years over this — especially since the economy rebounded — has gone on too long, and many of us across DFM have done too little to push back, especially me. It took me too long, honestly, to set aside — not completely reject — my conflict of interest theories about organized labor in journalism and accept higher priorities. But I have.
No one does this work for the pay and benefits. But we don’t do it for boots on our throats, either. I know first-hand how the rich and powerful look at those they consider to be the help, and how subservience to a trickle-down system eviscerates the good people at the bottom. We are going to fight together?
I’m in. I hope you are, too.
Thomas Peele is an investigative reporter for the Bay Area News Group.