The Man Upstairs
I worked for a labor union after I gave up freelance writing
. The man who interviewed me for the job thought that there was some mistake when he reviewed the proof reading test he had given me but hired me anyway. He realized that I was good at research and he wanted me for that. My "job" was producing "Leadership News
," a monthly publication for labor leaders.
This assignment was a rare opportunity for me. I did the complete process of writing, proofing, and even taking Leadership News through the printing process
. I learned a lot. There was one problem, however. The job took about one week of my time and I had to be on the floor from nine to five all the time.
Needless to say, I got into mischief
. The research did not work out. The president of the union did not want me to bother the union leaders with needless paper work. Instead, I involved myself with other projects on my floor. (The president and all the other project leaders worked upstairs).
The international organizer was on my floor and he was involved in an interesting project. He was trying to usurp the president. He was dynamic and knew all the labor leaders across the country. He came close to making it but got fired instead.
We had three editors on the floor, each with a different project. So we had a supervisor on the floor in addition to the upstairs supervision. None of us had much respect for the on-floor supervisor. He was not needed, and we gave him a hard time in subtle ways. The union seemed to specialize in excess personnel. One person could have done all three of our publications and the man upstairs who reviewed our publications did all the editing we needed.
The labor union was also very circumspect about its rules. If you needed to be away for some reason, you always called in sick. I lived by a quotation from Shakespeare. "To thine own self be true. Thou canst not then be false to any man." So when I needed to be away I insisted on telling the truth, and taking a cut in my paycheck.
The day came when I wanted to attend a demonstration against the Vietnam war. It was on a week day during working hours, so I told them why I would be away. Our president was a strong supporter of President Lyndon Johnson and therefore a strong supporter of the war. He was livid.
I did not know this until I returned to work the next day. Of course, I was not surprised. What did surprise me was the order I got from him. I was supposed to go upstairs to see him. I will admit that I was not particularly happy about that. None of us on the lower floor ever went upstairs except our "boss" and, of course, the international organizer. I thought I might get fired.
Much to my surprise my "boss" went with me. That was the biggest surprise of all. Did he think they might hit me? He did not explain. He just went along. I was touched. After all the underhand tricks I had played on him I did not deserve his support. But we went together.
The President was prepared to redress me. He asked me why I wanted to do such a thing. I explained to him that I thought the war was wrong and that I needed to say so. He cooled down very fast. I realized as we talked that he did have a supportive understanding of democracy and that I had a right to my point of view. I did not change his, but he allowed me to go scot free.
The years I spent at the labor union enabled me to understand what unions are all about. The waste was incredible. The struggle for power within the union was a constant underpinning. What they are about, however, is a fundamental expression of democracy, and that is a constant. Our democracy would not be as it is without them.
My next job was curriculum writing. I was working for The Institute for Behavioral Research. The Institute had a grant to produce a curriculum for junior high school students to help them deal constructively with violence. It was entitled "Teenagers Rights and Responsibilities."
We had a team to develop this project. This included a supervisor, a lawyer, and a writer. A lawyer on the staff worked with us to develop the legalese. I was the writer. The boss's wife was the supervisor. She was a peach. I liked her and felt sorry for her most of the time. She could have given us a hard time by having ideas of her own and insisting on them. She did not. She just busy-bodied around chain smoking constantly.
Our real problem with having her on the project arose when the Institute completed the project for publication. The Director got into an argument over his wife's role in its development with the organization considering it. The curriculum was never published.
Although we worked hard and developed an enormous amount of material, I was never emotionally involved with the program. I had little belief in what we were doing. The objective of the program was to use conditioned response learning to teach teenagers how to solve their problems without using violence. I felt that the students had been conditioned to use violence and turning it around was not that simple. I earned my pay check and enjoyed as much of the side benefits as I could.
One of these was the night school that the Institute conducted. The courses were all related to conditioned response learning, of course, but they provided graduate credit. I was able to enroll free as a staff member. I took one course that impacted my thinking for years to come.
One of the requirements for that course was to write a term paper describing an educational system for the future. I got so carried away with it that I wrote over fifty pages. I literally leaped into the twenty first century with an educational system that provided neighborhood centers open around the clock and serving all members of the community, building rich communities in the process. It is still a good idea, but no one has come near it thirty years later.
Though I left teaching I never left my concerns for public education behind. At age eighty I had a spinal operation that was so serious that I expected to die. When I came to after the operation, I said, "Shucks!" Then I decided that I was here for a reason. Searching for the reason has been an important quest for me. All the reasons I have found have related to my continuing concern about the plight of public education in our society.
My writing years climaxed when I worked for Morris Associates, a government affairs consulting agency. At that time all federal grants were processed through various offices located in the Washington, D.C. area. No matter how carefully one followed legislation providing these grants, applying for them when they were activated was a complex process.
This was true in our office only, however, until Deborah James stepped in. We had a telephone book that contained the phone numbers for all the federal offices, but no one could use it. Hearing one of the office workers complain about it, I asked if I could look at it. Obviously, it was coded. When I was teaching psychology, I used cracking codes to illustrate the five steps of the scientific method. It did not take me long to crack that code and we could then use the telephone book to reach any federal agency.
The next step was just as important and also just as simple. I called an agency that would be operating one of the new programs to find out how we could learn when it was activated. They explained to me that all such programs were announced in the Federal Register, a weekly publication of the federal government, when they were activated. We, of course, subscribed to that as well as the mysterious telephone book but no one ever read it either. Sure enough, when I looked, I found that complete information appeared regularly in the back pages of the Federal Register.
That was all I needed to create the Federal Funding File for Health and Rehabilitation Programs. It was actually a file box filled with about 300 index cards each containing all the information anyone needed to apply for a federal grant. We provided each subscriber with the box and updated it monthly for an annual fee.
A third step made a significant difference in how practical the program was. We had the in-house print shop. I arranged the cards on large cardboard sheets so that after it was printed all we had to do was to put the packs of cards in order as we cut them and we did not have to collate them.
The program was immediately successful. By the time I left, it provided by far the majority of the company's income. The file was not my only accomplishment. I also held laboratories where participants came to Washington for a week, met daily at our office where we discussed possible grants, and made contact with the agents developing the program. They visited those offices and some of them even came back with grants accomplished.
I also did workshops in the field. The participants were a little confused when they learned how simple the approach could be to finding grants. Accustomed to bureaucratic bluster as they were, the simple path seemed strange.
I also developed a file for education programs (I could never really get away from my concern over public education). When I left, I took the education program with me and ran it out, not taking renewals.
Though I enjoyed my work at Morris Associates, I was not
particularly proud of it. Looking at this from a thirty years later perspective, I am amazed at my modesty. I am now aware of the fact that I carried with me the idea that when something went wrong I was responsible. Likewise it seems that when something went right I did not deserve the credit.
Jonas Morris, owner and director of Morris Associates, saw himself as a creative leader who used his business to help his employees realize their potential. For some reason, that benevolence did not include me. Perhaps it was because the staff never embraced me.
Chris may have started it. I was hired to write newsletters because she was promoted to do consultant work for community mental health centers. The business was founded on the need for a Washington presence in the early development of the centers. Now Chris did not have time to do the newsletters. She was very critical of what I wrote.
Perhaps it was because I chose to work in the office down the hall from the main office. Jonas, who was busy building his personnel, believed we did not have adequate space for all his staff. When he rented the extra office, he asked for those who were willing to volunteer to move. When I realized all the volunteers were black, I volunteered to join them. I did not want us to have black and white offices. I was not welcome in the otherwise segregated office. The black people did everything they could to make me uncomfortable, but I was stubborn and stuck it out.
Needless to say, they never loved me. Tension decreased after time, though, and eventually they relaxed enough to interact naturally among themselves.
Eventually, Jonas moved his establishment from Georgetown to Dupont Circle use it. By then I had started the Federal Funding File so we had lots to print. My office had more space than privacy because it opened into the reception area.
We had not been there long when Jonas, considering himself an up-to-date innovator, purchased one of the early computers. It looked like something to me that was really appropriate for producing the file. I took a training course on how to use it along with one of the secretaries. When I asked to have it in my office, the secretary insisted on keeping it in her office and that it was for her to use. Jonas said nothing.
Neither did I. I was, however, determined to put my file on it. I had a key to the office and set up a night schedule. I worked from ten o'clock at night until six o'clock the next morning. I kept to the schedule long enough to put my file on the machine. Eventually the machine was moved into my office. When I left the company some years later, I paid Jonas $3,000 to take it with me so that I could do the education file on it.
The only time Jonas ever gave me a complement was when he wrote something that was very long. He gave a copy to me and one to Chris and asked us to edit it. It was one unholy mess! I was a little dubious about doing it because my corrections would certainly reveal what a poor writer he was. Facing that might bash his ego. He had asked me to do it, however, so I edited it carefully. He thanked me for it.
In the world beyond those walls I was admired and respected. I enjoyed facing the challenges involved in my work, not the least of which was the atmospheric pressure in the office.