My first job in a Union shop was at the Integrated Metal Technologies plant in Spring Lake Twp., Michigan, building filing cabinets for Herman Miller when I was 18. In 2009, Herman Miller announced they were closing the plant. Three months later, the Sappi paper mill up the road in Muskegon announced that they were shutting down paper machine #5, ending 109 years of operations at a plant that once employer 1,200. In 2005, Brunswick announced that it was moving production of its bowling balls from Muskegon to Reynoso, Mexico. Since 1906, if you rolled a Dutch 200 with a Brunswick, you were throwing a Muskegon stone. If the Regan years kneecapped the Muskegon middle class, the mid-2000s put a bullet in its head.
My family has built cars and car parts almost since cars existed to be built. On New Year’s Eve Eve in 1936, my dad’s family sat down in Flint and started the strike that created the middle class. On April Fools’ Day 1937, my mom’s family working at Pontiac Fisher joined them. For three generations we built cars and felt safe about being able to raise our families. As my cousins and I hit our late teens, it became patently obvious that working the shops wasn’t an option for us. I played music and tended bar, and eventually started working for the Union organizing home care workers who were making $5.15 an hour ($.35 less than Michigan’s minimum wage.) I spent the next 10 years on the road, living in Extended Stays and Comfort Inns, making friends with Applebee’s bartenders, and helping hospital and nursing home workers join the Union. Sometimes we won, like when the home care workers almost doubled their wages in 5 years or when the janitors in Denver shut down the city until they got a $15 minimum wage, and sometimes we lost, but the one thing that’s been shared by almost every worker I’ve talked to across the country is that they want to feel safe, about themselves, about their families, and about their job.
I’ve been to jail a few times, but once was on purpose. In December of 2012, the Michigan State Legislature was about to enact a so called “Right-to-Work” Law. The Senate Chamber where the vote happening was closed to the public, so 7 of my Union brothers and sisters and I rushed the door. No one followed us and we were arrested. 76 years after my great-grandfather and uncles had sat down in an illegal strike in Flint to win the Union at General Motors, the great engine of the middle class had seized; I was in jail in Mason, Michigan, and the Union was busted, its proud red banners torn.
Around 2010, my Catholicism had almost entirely lapsed. I could stomach Easter Mass at the Gaelic League since it was held in a bar, but most of the priests and nuns that shaped my theology growing up had been put to pasture. My good friend, Rita Carey, took me to a mass at St. Leo’s in Detroit. The homily that day was about Luke’s Beatitudes. I realized that the fact that I was a Union organizer rooted in those eight declarative sentences where Christ essentially distills himself to bullet points.
Over the last four years, I’ve spent less time on the road, leaving me more time to write songs. My parents were folk musicians. The songs they sang were just people’s stories, but they resonated like they could have been about my family. A song like “Dirty Old Town” could just as easily be about Flint as Glasgow, but the important thing is that it belongs to the people who inhabit those places, and those who inhabit the places like those places, and those who know those places for what they are under the veneer. Folk music is OUR music, the people’s music, and, no matter how many reverbed-up kick drums you add to it, it still really only works when it’s about real people, places, and struggles.
That homily about the Sermon on the Plain came back to me sitting in the Ingham County jail that night. I wrote this song lying on a concrete bench out of equal parts hope and despondence, thinking about factory ghosts, Charles Stewart Mott, Rita Carey, and tired, tired priests. We recorded this track with Jim Roll at Willis Sound outside of Detroit in a 130 year old church. Bunky Hunt (Whistle Pig Records) produced it and put together a Motor City wreckin’ crew of musicians, featuring Tamara Finlay, Matt Balcer, Chuck Bartels, Bob Mervak, and Stuart Tucker, that I was lucky enough to play with.
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Steve Cousins is a labor organizer for the Service Employees International Union. He has worked on behalf of homecare and fast food workers in Denver and Detroit and was a key player in the 2016 minimum wage hike in Colorado. He is also the accordion player and one of the chief songwriters in the Detroit-based Americana band, The Codgers.