Taking a stand, walking the line

I’ve heard it said any number of times that our lives are defined by the choices we make. The first time I heard that I was fairly young and, like most fairly young kids, I didn’t pay much attention to advice, even good advice offered by those who were actually qualified to give it. Besides, choices were limited by what my parents would allow — and by what I knew would happen if they found out I had crossed that line. The great thing about being a kid when you have parents who love you is that there is always somebody there to catch you when you fall. I never fully appreciated that as a youngster, but God knows I appreciate it as an adult. I take every opportunity to silently thank my father, who died 30 years ago next month, and my mother, who is still very much alive and who still considers it her responsibility to look out for me even though I’m closing in on 50 years old.

When the Detroit newspaper strike started 10 years ago this month, I had only been at the Free Press for two years. Things were good. I was making good money writing editorials, and I was right where I wanted to be at that point in my career. Matter of fact, I was actually running a bit ahead of my personal schedule. I even had a nationally syndicated column with Universal Press Syndicate, which was something I had dreamed about ever since deciding I wanted to be a journalist 11 years earlier. I loved Detroit, I respected the people I worked with, and I respected the paper. I had a great apartment. I had my own band.

Things were good.

When the word started circulating that there might be a strike, I didn’t believe it would happen. It had to be just an uninformed gut feeling because I had never been involved in the Newspaper Guild except through the dues that came out of my check. I never attended a Guild meeting. I wasn’t pro-union, nor was I anti-union, although I was familiar with Detroit’s labor history and understood the importance of what unions had accomplished. But truth be told, I wasn’t looking to pick any more fights with management. I had just about specialized in that at my previous jobs as a sort of freelance rabble-rouser, and I was tired of it.

I took a three-month leave of absence to work on a book, and during that period the strike began. I got a call from a colleague to join the picket line, but I declined. I was on leave, I said. I was working on a book. In a bitter tone, my colleague suggested that perhaps my leave didn’t matter much anymore. “This is a strike, man, don’t you understand that? Do you know what this is about?”

“I’m on leave,” I said, feeling my stomach starting to twist up in knots. “Fine,” he said. So what was I going to do when my precious leave was over? Was I going to join them? I didn’t know. I was actually praying that the strike would be over and settled before my leave ended so I wouldn’t have to make that decision and I could blissfully go back to the way things had been. No harm, no foul. So leave me the hell alone. Life is good and, damn it, I want it to stay that way.

But the strike wouldn’t cooperate with my wishes, and as my leave of absence faded away I could feel the knots in my stomach tying knots of their own as I began to realize that this strike wasn’t going away anytime soon and that I was going to have to make a choice that could radically change my life forever — and possibly ruin it. After having finally arrived, I could lose everything.

I remember reading somewhere that the glue that holds soldiers together in wartime, sometimes more than the supposed cause for which they fight, is the responsibility they feel toward one another. They don’t want to let one another down. While I would never compare the strike to a war, I will say that it was ultimately my love and respect for my colleagues that made my decision for me. With very few exceptions, everyone at both the News and Free Press that I had come to respect and admire was out there on that picket line every day. I had decided early on as I watched the strike unfold that the papers were wrong. But then, I knew that if I made the decision to work only for kind and benevolent corporations who treated all their employees like family then I could count on a fruitful career as a homeless man. You work for companies long enough and you learn to accept an incredible amount of bullshit as normalcy in the everyday work environment.

So going on strike simply to slay the dragon of corporate greed and corruption, to try and make things right, was certainly a motivating force to join the troops on the picket line. But what clinched it was allowing myself to understand that this issue affected not only me, but my friends and the community in which I lived. I’ve never been able to turn my back on a friend.

Ten years later, I, like many of my colleagues, am still paying the price for that decision. There’s no need for details because the details don’t really matter to anyone but me and my family. Besides, there are definitely those who have paid a much higher price, not only for the strike but for much larger battles. And, finally, I believe that a huge part of growing up is learning to accept the consequences of your decisions — and understanding what the consequences may be when you make decisions. Sure, I would have loved it if we had won the strike and could have marched back through the doors victorious. For a long time I actually thought we really would win. I was certain we had right on our side and that the facts of the case would carry us through.

I was wrong. We got stomped. The Free Press I had known, if only briefly, had disappeared, which largely explains why I didn’t return when called back for my old job after the strike. I honestly thought I could do it and initially said I would. But deep down I knew I didn’t fit there anymore. Square pegs and round holes.

And that’s the way life is sometimes. Some of my colleagues are bitter to this day and still won’t speak to formerly close friends who chose to cross the line. I damn sure understand that bitterness, but after a while I chose to let it go. I prefer healing to nursing an open wound that never closes, plus I know that I won’t be much good for the next fight if I’m still bleeding and battered from the last one. And one thing I’ve learned is that there will always be another fight.

But for now, I’m just taking it one day at a time. If the sun sets and nothing got too screwed up, then that’s great. On the other hand, if things do get screwed up, then I can at least go to sleep knowing there’s always tomorrow. Like a friend of mine said not that long ago, “Keep your head up. It don’t rain all the time.”

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit writer, editor and musician. Send comments to [email protected]