Striking Distance: writers strikers
Nantucket Essays

Striking Distance

by Robert P. Barsanti

We have had a wonderful July. On a day that a billionaire would have designed for his pleasure, I walked up Pleasant Street and headed to town. This summer, these hydrangea have bloomed, as have the hedges. Somebody loved them. Somebody pruned them by hand, fertilized the dirt with the right acidic mix to get bridal white blooms, and gave them lots of water.

This close to town, the property values have entered into the Platinum Circle, so most of the yards aren’t waiting for Chad to get off the Rhodes 19 at the yacht club and get on the Toro in the backyard. Instead, squads of white-shirted workers descend on the “property” and prepare it for the weekend. In one brick driveway, four women bent over and pulled slight shoots of grass and weeds from between the bricks. Two hours later, the bricks were weed-free and ready for the gleaming summer rides—one a Mini Cooper, the other a silver Yukon.

At one point in the recent past, Nantucket was where millionaires mowed the lawns of billionaires. I remember seeing those millionaires bouncing their lawnmowers in the back of Ford Explorers, with the handles pushed out a precarious back window. That time has mostly passed. The billionaires found a cheaper way to get the lawns they want for the summer: they let their accountants find a contractor who will hire sub-contractors who will find people to “grind the gig work” and pluck the grass out of the brick driveways for cash. The mowing millionaires have moved to Florida, North Carolina, or Mashpee. The billionaires remain and they expect quality service.

Since Ronald Reagan, the economy has been splitting between the “have-a- Yukons” and “the have-a-bikes.” Since 1978, the average wage of a CEO has increased 1480% while the average worker has seen their wages hold steady or fall. As the CEO wages have risen and the workers wages have slipped, unions have faded from America and from Nantucket. Today, less then 10% of all workers are unionized while, at the same time, the top 1% owns 35% of the net worth of the country. And guess where that 1% comes for lobster salad and blueberry lemonade?

So, for most of the well-heeled visitors on Main Street, the only unionized workers they have ever met pulled them over on the Polpis Road. Nantucket has never been a hot bed of worker’s rights. It was never Cripple Creek, Lowell, or Matewan. The last thing Starbuck, Coffin, and Macy would have wanted was an International Brotherhood of Whalers. In 1840, a picket line across Straight Wharf would have put everyone off their breakfasts. The mansions on Main Street, just like the ones on Monomoy, Brant Point, and Sconset, were only built by workers. They never lived there.

When Donick Cary and the other WGA writers walk their picket signs down Main Street, the seas part and wonder rides the waves. Most are confused and back away. For some of our vistors, the strikers might as well have borrowed the “big two wheeler” from Young’s and come pedaling out of the Gilded Age with top hats and bustles. For other visitors, the strikers may well have emerged from the Fox News Screen Crawl, complete with horns and inverted crucifixes. For the rest on the sidewalk, the brief picket walk through the waiting-fora- table-crowd should remind them of the power of organized labor. If writers can strike, so can baristas, cooks, waiters, and landscapers. Teachers, cops, and firemen aren’t far behind.

The concerns of the WGA strike feels fairly far off with a $5 drip coffee in one hand and a $7 Nutella Cruffin in the other. I have fifteen shows I mean to watch, and haven’t. Moreover, the audience for movies, shows, and everything else has slipped. We get distracted by shiny things with sparkles and by squirrels.

But the concerns the writers have are concerns that are relevant to anyone who gets a paycheck instead of a dividend. We often see our jobs as something we accept, not as something we chose. We accept the limitations, the assumptions, and the pain that those jobs demand because we don’t see ourselves as artisans joining a project, but as laborers selected for today’s work and grateful for a ride to the jobsite. We fear the power we hold. It’s easier to pretend we don’t.

Conversely, corporate America has seen the future and it drives an Uber. The future doesn’t have a contract, insurance, or a nameplate on the door. It has a carefully tailored opportunity that will pay off sometime tomorrow, if you meet all your “opportunity goals” and get 200 five-star ratings. With AI bursting on all of our screens, “opportunity goals” await all of the other visitors on Main Street. The vice presidents, middle managers, and marketers all need to be looking down the same steep road the writers are walking with their signs. If Law and Order can be written on ChatGPT, so can the Black Rock quarterly reports.

History flatters us with lies. When we walk up Orange Street or Main Street and we let the centuries slip away, we don’t see ourselves as the upstairs maid or a barrel-maker in Hadwen’s factory. No, we see ourselves as Starbuck, Barney, Coffin, and Roche, with boats in the harbor and oil in the warehouse. Those silks are meant for us. As Americans, we tend to see ourselves as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires” instead of proud craftsmen and artisans. We blind ourselves with wishes and lies: the self-deceptions run out just after the paychecks do.

If we were to see ourselves clearly, we would see that we are more like the women pulling weeds from the brick driveway than like the Masters of Industry and their Blessed Children. We are called to our own work, and that work doesn’t pay enough to afford the initiation fee at Nantucket Golf Club. And that’s fine. If one is called to be a weed-puller, let him pull weeds as Michelangelo painted and as Beethoven composed music. But let him have a fair contract—for his labor, for his family, and for his future.

You might have to strike to get that.

Articles by Date from 2012