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‘Dynasty’ And ‘Dallas’ Pale In Comparison As Workers Take Center Stage

December 2, 1987

DETROIT (AP) _ In a union hall in a union town, the mood is ugly. Two thugs pounce on a striking autoworker and pummel him with a wooden stick until he falls to the floor, writhing in agony.

Dozens of union members watch. No one helps. It’s supposed to be this way. This is art imitating life - in this case, a re-enactment of the 1937 Flint sit-down strike, a pivotal moment in autoworker history.

Today’s autoworkers and other unionists are reliving such drama as blue- collar chroniclers, clock-punchers by day, actors by night, and full-time celebrants of the story of America’s workers.

Troubadours and poets have long sung and written of working-class life, but now bands of autoworkers, steelworkers and meatpackers are taking center stage, creating their own brand of theater, writing and performing their own stories.

Life on the line may seem monotonous and mundane, but it’s really packed with drama: strikes, plant closings, suicide and sexual harassment, said Cheryl Buswell-Robinson, director of Workers Concept Theater, a group composed largely of autoworkers.

″If you read labor history, the tremendous struggles against unbelievable odds that workers went through, it’s Shakespearean,″ she said. ‴Dynasty’ and ‘Dallas’ pale in comparison. We prevail. We survive. Sometimes we lose struggles, but we always come back.″

The resilience and dignity of laborers are recurring themes in workers’ theater. And more and more union members are telling their stories, usually in union halls or at labor conferences.

Workers Concept, with about 35 members, performs out of United Auto Workers Local 735. UAW Local 1200 has formed a performing group, and other UAW members have acted in worker plays.

Six out-of-work California steelworkers toured the country last year in ″Lady Beth,″ a play about a Bethlehem Steel plant closing and how it affected them. The tour was sponsored by rock singer Bruce Springsteen, who has championed blue-collar workers with his music.

Meatpackers who lost their jobs in a bitter 13-month strike against Geo. A. Hormel & Co. in Austin, Minn., are working on a play-in-progress, ″Voices From the Killing Floor.″ It has been performed in Minnesota and Indiana and may tour Midwestern cities hit hard by the cutbacks in the meatpacking industry.

The University of Michigan sponsors a small troupe called Workers’ Lives- Workers’ Stories, which has toured from Las Vegas to Philadelphia.

Most workers’ theater preaches union solidarity at a time when membership is declining. It tries to boost the image and confidence of blue-collar workers in a period when both are flagging.

″The public perception of the autoworker or the steelworker is we’re overpaid and lazy,″ said Buswell-Robinson, an unemployed inspector who worked at a General Motors’ plant in Ypsilanti.

″We have to build up our own self-esteem,″ she added. ″When you work in a plant, you’re treated like a child.″

Entertainment also is more effective than speeches, said Rae Sovereign, a painter at the University of Michigan and a member of Workers’ Lives.

″You can communicate a lot better with a song, dance and a skit than standing up at a podium,″ she said.

And communication is the aim of groups such as Workers Concept. The repertoire of its performing assemblers, production workers, machine operators and inspectors ranges from short skits to a two-act play, from spoofs to tragedies, such as the worker who commits suicide after his plant closes and he loses his job.

The group also wrote and performed ″When You Strike Flint .. .,″ a play based on the 44-day Flint sit-down strike 50 years ago that led to the recognition of the UAW as the bargaining agent for GM autoworkers.

They recently performed a sketch from the play in Detroit before the Midwest Labor Heritage and Song Exchange. And earlier this fall, the play was performed in Flint before 2,000 people, including original strikers. Some Local 735 members also performed in a play based on the 1936 sit-down strike of Bendix workers in Indiana.

The Bendix play was directed by Jim Moran, development director of the Performance Network, an experimental theater in Ann Arbor, Mich. Moran believes actors have trouble portraying workers.

″The hardest thing for a professional actor to do is play a simple worker,″ he said. ″It’s a misunderstood group of people.″

Workers agree actors can’t capture their sweat, strain and struggles.

″We know the agony our bodies went through all those years,″ said Richard Carter, who performed in ″Lady Beth″ and worked at the Bethelem plant in California until it closed in 1982.

″It’s hot, dirty and dusty,″ he said. ″ For an actor to ... say, ‘We can identify with what you went through,’ I don’t think so.″

Workers also say their shows instill self-respect among their colleagues.

″Sometimes they forget what’s dignified and important,″ said Jamie Crawford, an autoworker-singer and member of Workers’ Lives. ″People come up and say, ’I never realized how important my job was.‴

These unions are not the first to spread their message through the performing arts. Around the turn of century, the Industrial Workers of the World used its ‘Little Red Songbook’ to rally members, said Tom Dietz, education curator at the Detroit Historical Museum.

The union song ″Solidarity Forever″ was written by an IWW member.

In the New Deal era, federally funded workers’ projects produced plays on union organizing and other social issues.

But Dietz said today’s workers are ″trying to reach a broader audience. They’re trying to dramatize the entire workers’ culture compared to the past, where the programs weren’t designed to stand on their own. They were tools for organizing their workers, to raise funds for an immediate struggle.″

As part of this outreach, Workers Concept is planning a revival of ″Pins and Needles,″ a play performed by New York garment workers in the 1930s.

Although workers say theater has a message, it also provides a creative outlet not found on the job.

″Things don’t have to be nuts and bolts,″ said Tom Williams, a toolmaker who writes much of Workers Concept’s material. ″If you’ve got the chutzpah, you can make a niche for yourself in society better than you would have had without it.″

Workers are ″no longer limited by class, caste or money,″ he said. ″They’re only limited by their imagination.″

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EDITOR’S NOTE - Sharon Cohen is the AP Midwest regional reporter, based in Chicago.

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