Tony Shaw would look like a typical 12-yearold - freckles, black Adidas sneakers and a ‘49ers jacket - except that he’s hanging out with middle-aged Steelworkers and waving a picket sign at Kaiser Aluminum Corp.
“It’s just kinda scary,” said Tony, whose dad is on strike at Mead. “My dad doesn’t have any income or anything and he doesn’t know if he’s going to get his job back.”
Tony’s father, Kim Shaw, said he excused his son from school Wednesday because Tony didn’t sleep the night before. Shaw brought Tony and Tony’s 3-year-old brother to the picket line to show them “how their father stands up for what he believes in.”
“I want my kids to know that in life you have to fight for everything you get,” Shaw said. “This is part of the fight. This will make them stronger.”
Tony Shaw’s involvement in the 6-day-old Kaiser strike is indicative of how labor disputes affect the families of everyone involved on both sides.
In fact, strikes often disturb spouses and children more than employees, experts say.
“Parents may have to sit down at dinner and explain to their kids why they’re getting no allowance this week,” said Daniel Kruger, a professor at the School of Labor and Industrial Relations at Michigan State University.
“There could be a total change in the family’s standard of living because of the strike, and that’s tough on kids. It has a fantastic impact on families,” said Kruger, who specializes in dispute resolution.
The psychological ramifications usually outlive the financial impact, Kruger said. Sometimes, strikes change family bonds and teach lessons about standing up for what’s right; at the same time, strikes may position families in the middle of vicious labor disputes.
“If they’re using the children out there picketing in order to mobilize public opinion, that’s exploitation,” Kruger said.
“Besides, it doesn’t work. The irony is that public opinion won’t help settle the dispute; only arbitration will,” Kruger said in a telephone interview from Troy, Mich. “It’s unfortunate, but (strikes) really do put families in a tough spot.”
Neither strikers nor salaried employees at Kaiser said they were using kids to gain public sympathy. Instead, their families are the unintended victims of power struggles.
“My daughter cries on the phone and misses her mom terribly,” said the husband of a salaried employee who’s been at the Mead plant since Monday. The man wanted to remain anonymous for the sake of his wife’s security.
“I’m there to calm her down, but it’s tough to explain this to an 8-yearold. Her mom hasn’t ever been away from home like this before,” said the father, who works for the U.S. Forest Service.
He’s adjusted his work schedule to help his daughter get ready for school, and the two have had pasta and burritos for dinner all week. When he talked to his wife Thursday, she said the earliest she could come home is Wednesday.
“(My daughter) has been a good little trooper, considering the circumstances,” he said. “She’s starting to get emotional, though. I don’t think she’ll come out of this with any lessons other than how much she misses her mom.”
Back at the picket lines, families fare no better.
A week ago, Mike Pointer was a metal transporter on a rotating shift who ran trucks between the Mead and Trentwood plants. Now he’s a full-time picket at Mead.
Before the strike, Pointer took two weeks off to go to California to visit his sick brother who had diabetes. His brother died Monday morning, 12 hours before Pointer began pacing the picket line.
“My daughter’s upset, my wife fell apart, I don’t know if I’ll get my job back, my brother died. It all broke at once,” Pointer said.
During the first three days of the strike, Pointer and his wife, Delrene, spent a total of six hours away from the picket zone.
The Pointers and their 12-year-old daughter, Kara, spent two nights in sleeping bags in a van parked across the street. The couple left the plant only to drive Kara to school and to check on their house.
While her parents commiserated outside with late-night pickets, Kara tossed and turned in the family van. On Tuesday night, she barely slept at all, so her parents excused her from school.
Kara’s parents said they won’t let her miss another day because of the strike. But her time on the picket line was a valid learning experience - more valuable than an ordinary social studies class, they said.
“In a way, this whole thing has to do with learning because it shows you how cruel life can be sometimes,” said Kara, whose greatgrandfather, grandfather and father all worked for Kaiser. “I’m learning about what I might have to go through when I’m older.”
The union does not condone bringing children - or pets or alcohol - to the picket lines. In fact, union officials have urged strikers to leave children at home so they don’t get hit by trucks, cars or ambulances that zoom down East Hawthorne Street.
Safety isn’t the only issue. Drinking and profanity are common, sometimes to extremes. The union has asked pickets to curb such behavior, but they say the best advice to parents is to leave children at home.
On Thursday, 8-year-old Amanda Patterson, strike sign in hand, darted among the brawny Steelworkers, who snatched her away from incoming and outgoing trucks when she got close.
Amanda’s dad, welder Mike Patterson, said he did not like exposing her to the epithets the strikers shouted at drivers, but added “It’s probably nothing she doesn’t hear in the school grounds. I can’t hide her from reality.”
Some pickets have no choice but to bring their kids to the line, especially those who can’t afford day care now that their Kaiser paychecks have ceased, said Fred Gariepy, information director for Local 329.
Many pickets say that strikerelated stress is solidifying family bonds. Although the strike means money will be tight, most families believe the sacrifices will ultimately make them better people.
“This isn’t stressful,” said Mary Russell, whose been married for 27 years to Dan Russell, Local 329 vice president.
“Having five children and raising them to be good people, now that’s stressful,” she said. The Russells have two sons-in-law who also work for Kaiser, one at Mead and one at Trentwood.
“This strike isn’t anything that’s going to get us upset, but it’s an emotional drain on the family. You don’t know when it’s going to end,” Mary said.
Families may be pulling together because of the strike, but 12-year-old Tony Shaw wants to distance himself from the entire specter of labor disputes.
After some prodding from his dad, Tony admitted what he’s learned from his hours on the picket line.
“I want an education. I don’t want to have to do this again, ever,” Tony said. “I want to own my own casino instead of doing this.”