Reclaiming worker culture

Labor artist & activist Elise Bryant

Interview by Jeff Ditz

Photos by Rebecca Cook

The SEMCOSH Advocate caught up with our old friend Elise Bryant who is in town to direct rehearsals for the opening of a 'labor jazz opera' called Forgotten: The Murder at the Ford Rouge Plant at Marygrove College in March.

If you don't know Elise from the challenging union conferences she put on through the University of Michigan for ten years, you'd recognize her as the emcee of Detroit Labor Fest, March on Motown, and many other local labor events.

A native Detroiter, Elise lived for many years in Ann Arbor where she was active with the civil rights and womenís movements, developed her talents as a stage performer, and, while working at the University Cellar bookstore, joined her first union. She was program associate for the Union Minorities/Women Leadership Training Program at the University of Michiganís Labor Studies Center for ten years, and Artistic Director for both Common Ground Theatre Ensemble and Workersí Lives/Workersí Stories. For the past six years Elise has been teaching at the AFLís George Meany Center in Silver Springs, Maryland.

Raised in a union family, Bryant is a longtime member of the Industrial Workers of the World, a member of the National Writers Union (UAW 1981) and of Newspaper Guild 35 (CWA).

Pete Seeger has said of Bryant, "You are doing some of the most exciting things in the whole labor movement these days! I hope you donít mind the reins of leadership being put in your hands." Retired Solidarity editor Dave Elsila calls Elise "Detroitís gift to the labor movement."

How did you get involved with this play?

In 1985 I went to the Great Labor Arts Exchange where I met Steve and Peter Jones. Steveís a pianist and Peter is the singer-songwriter in the family. When I moved to Silver Spring six years ago, they asked me to join them on a gig for the Machinists. We did a project together on child labor that was okay but it didnít really take off. So we were looking for a show to do together.

Late at night our friend Charlie McAuliffe, who is from Detroit, would ask Peter to "do the song about Lewis Bradford". Bradford is a relative by marriage of Peter and Steve. He had died at the Rouge Plant in í37 and it was officially labeled an accident, but there were always rumors in the family that there was something else to the story.

So Steve got into this idea that the show we should do is Lewis Bradfordís story. He did research at the Reuther Archives. He talked to Vic Reuther and Joyce Kornbluh and other historians. Steve wrote the Ford Motor Company and the Wayne County Medical Examiners office. They laughed at first at the Medical Examiners office, "1937, yeah sure." But he sent copies of the song and a woman there got interested. She dug out the records and called Steve back. Sheíd found the record of Lewis Bradfordís death and it showed that his injuries were not an accident. They werenít consistent with a fall.

This inspired Steve and he wrote thirty-three songs. In 2002 we put it on at the Great Labor Arts Exchange, in a shortened version. Steve is a musician, not a playwright. We had to work through different artistic visions. He wanted jazz singers. I said thatís fine, itís basically jazz. But I thought we needed to find people who could act and sing and they could make it theatrical.

We thought DC would be a good place to open. Sue Sherman, the Meany Center director, was totally supportive. She said, "If you think itís going to work, go for it." She promised to personally do the fundraising. This is professionally done, everybody gets paid Equity rate. The musicians are all members of the American Federation of Musicians.

We did the preview at the Meany Center with almost no publicity. All we did was send out a thousand postcards and it was sold out two weeks before the show. At the end we were scrambling for tickets for some International Union Presidents who wanted to come. I had to raid the stash Steve was holding for his family.

Why the odd title: "Forgotten"?

Yeah, I know, people ask "what are you working on?" and I have to answer "Forgotten", sounds like I forgot.

Itís called "Forgotten" because of a lot of things. Lewis Bradford did a radio show called "The Forgotten Manís Struggle" on WXYZ in the thirties. But the name is also for our history thatís been forgotten. The history of struggle is not just about leaders like Walter Reuther and George Meany.

Our history is about common people too. So itís named for the forgotten average Joes and Josephines who struggled for social justice in the past and are out there today. Itís for my father who worked thirty years at the Rouge. My first image of him is standing by a burn barrel with Local 600 emblazoned on a coffee cup. Itís for all of the people who official history would ignore. Itís for that Ďforgotten" but wonderful past to which we as workers need to renew our commitment.

What is your job as director of a play?

If Steve is the birth mother, then Iím the nanny. He created this thing and my job is to train it, dress it up, get it fully developed.

Theater is a communal process. I read the script and I have ideas. I see a hospital room scene, a factory scene, a scene in a homeless shelter. Mostly I spend a lot of time talking to actors, what do they think they should do. A director can just tell the actors what she thinks they should do but the actors are the ones who inform the character. So we spend a lot of time talking and Steve brought information on the real people the characters are based on.

I think of my job as giving undivided attention and unconditional support, but with a critical eye. Iím the first audience. The actors and I are working to fulfill the vision of the playís creator. Then thereís the set designer Ė what does this environment look like, how are we going to have different levels and still have enough room for the actors to move around. The costumer has to help tell the story and fix it in time. Thereís the props person and the producer and the publicist. Theater is a very collective activity.

Theater isnít the movies where everything looks real. Theater relies on the imaginary potential of the audience.

Who is the play about?

Itís a story of us. Of Ďusí in the collective sense. Thereís something there for men and women, African-Americans and European-Americans, all of us.

The play is really the story of Lewis Bradford but Steve has lived and worked in multi-cultural environments his whole life. He wrote fuller African-American characters than youíd normally see in a play about a white man. Itís a rebalancing of whatís been out of balance too long that makes sense in the context of the play.

Steve gave at least two of the pivotal songs to African-American characters. He deals with the struggle against racism in the labor movement, not in great depth, itís a play, but deep enough for me as an African-American artist and activist to feel the real voice there.

Did you put on plays when you were a little girl?

Yes. "Murder in the Dark" was my first play, so itís kind of strange that the first play Iíve done since moving to Maryland is "Forgotten: The Murder at the Ford Rouge Plant". We did "Murder in the Dark" on Frank and Sheilaís front porch on Annabelle in Southwest Detroit and charged 2 cents admission.

We were always throwing a blanket over the clothesline and doing plays in the back yard. I wasnít the oldest or the youngest, I was in the middle, but I was always the emcee. I donít know why that was.

Tell us about your job at the Meany Center.

I am on the teaching faculty in the labor studies program. Itís like graduate level work of what I was doing in Ann Arbor, putting together intensive educational conferences from Sunday to Friday. I teach teaching techniques, leadership training, communication skills and labor relations in the public sector.

I was brought up in collective settings and the union movement so I rarely teach solo. I learned participant-oriented, learner-centered teaching from Joyce and Hy Kornbluh. They taught me Iím not the most important person in the room. Iím not some warehouse of knowledge standing up there in the front of the room, so thatís not what I do. The person who is going to gain something from the class is the most important.

I like doing the weeklong classes. You have to take people out of their everyday life and provide a retreat environment. They understand this in Sweden. You need somewhere closer to nature, with trees, maybe deer. Workers need to be in an environment where they can take time to reflect and analyze and come up with their own solutions. Go in a classroom and exchange ideas freely in dialogue, not debate.

But the real work is outside the classroom. People have to go back and do this work in the real world, in their locals.

At the University of Michigan we did conferences with some experienced unionists, but with a lot of people who didnít really know what their union was about too, and that was good.

At the Meany Center itís deeper. The people that come there know the trouble weíre in as a labor movement. They also know that thereís things we do right and some principles we have that are very right. The question is Ďhow do we get back to that?í That has to happen, we canít just complain, we canít compromise with corporate dominance. We have to go back and figure out from this long, and too often forgotten, history what our strengths are.

To do that people need to have space to feel confident saying what they want to say and a chance to be exposed to new information. Working people know a lot. The whole point is to share knowledge in order to be able to collectively make change.

What would you do if you were appointed tomorrow to be the assistant director of organizing for a union?

I would bring every organizer we had on staff into some place like the Meany Center. Iíd take all the conferences out of hotels, we donít need to give Marriot our money and we donít need to be in that environment.

Iíd put all the organizers through teaching techniques training and then have them do a train-the-trainer and go back to their local unions and identify people who should also get the training. At every organizing target Iíd do the same thing. Have the organizing staff identify the potential leaders and organizers and give them training in facilitation, listening, the history of racism, value and culture, the history of the social justice movement and the history of the labor movement. And keep thinking about how to break these things down to the smallest unit.

Lead organizers should not be heroes who come into town and Ďsave the workersí. Lead organizers need to be facilitators.

The Latin root of the word Ďcultivateí is Ďcultusí which means Ďcareí. When you cultivate the ground you do the things you need to do so growing can happen. You use different tools at different times. If we see ourselves as cultivators Ė not just creating dues machines, but helping people see themselves as part of a collective process for social change Ė then the work we do will be different and more powerful.

How do we bring people together when society divides us?

We cannot allow ourselves to be divided. In our country thatís about the color line and we know this comes from the legacy of slavery, but thereís something older than that. I go to Croatia and the people there are talking about Serbs and Croats and Bosnians and what I see is "well itís all white people". So they, the few who are rich and powerful, are always trying to divide us.

The biggest hurdle is this dominance of corporately produced culture that is all about the individual. We need to know that itís not about an individual rising higher in the union hierarchy or being able to afford one of those four-car-garage beginner-castles. It is about, has always been about, making it possible for all of us to rise together.

The rich know this. The Bushes and the Kennedys they all stick together. Corporations stick together, they create ways for people to come together.

The labor movement is missing soul and spirit. We didnít maintain the culture. Itís just shirts and mugs and caps now. The power of the people raising their voices together has been left at the side of the road. Now itís just chants.

People say, "We have tv, we donít need theater" but how are you going to help people losing their jobs facing that reign of terror and fear coming down in their lives with a pamphlet or a book or a video. You put real people in front of real people and itís different.

It can be a homegrown talent show in a local. Okay, so itís not great theater but thatís what people do: sing, dance, put on plays. Itís in our basic nature.

Iím not going to say to anyone "you have to throw away the vcr, tv, cd and dvd player" but sometimes you need to turn them off and just sing, play, converse. Until we reclaim that, our culture, they will control us because itís a drug.

Weíre hungry for our own culture, for our own community.

People say itís the worst of times, but itís not the worst of times. Weíve been through worse times, but the history is forgotten. We need to reclaim our history and culture and community.

The labor movement should be the tip of the spear, organizing workers into their own collective movement for social change and social justice.

What else?

You know, I want to thank David Elsila, heís done so much to make this play happen in Detroit. And Fred Chase for organizing me into my first union.