Posts Tagged ‘Labour and Unions’

I am a union staffer. I work for an organization, recognized under a legal code as a representative of workers’ interests. I am a negotiator, bargaining with management to write joint agreements. I am an advocate, campaigning for improved working conditions and higher wages. I am a politician, brokering deals, managing political support, selling policy. I am a counselor, offering advice and support, drying tears, referring to specialists. And I am a unionist, arguing with bosses, fighting discipline, seeking more money for less work against managers who seek more work for less money. I work in an environment of contradictions. But make no mistake about it – I work; I have a boss; and my job depends on my ability to serve the interests of that boss. (more…)


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People from at least 30 countries (including Egypt) have sent pizzas to help feed the folks occupying the Capitol building in Madison, WI.  It’s a small gesture of support, but concrete & immediate.
Here’s the info:  Ian’s Pizza, 608-257-9248. $20 gets a 20″ pie with drinks which will feed 8 people. Oh, and don’t forget something for a tip.
For background, here’s a New York Times piece on the pizza solidarity thing.

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Some days the realities of work appear in all their nakedness.

Far as jobs go, mine ain’t all that bad. I mean, I generally get treated relatively well, I make a good wage, I get benefits and lots of vacation time, and I have the flexibility in scheduling to facilitate the demands of parenting. On top of that, I work for a union, so much of what I do is stuff I believe is important, and never do I have the concern that my labour is lining the pockets of some vicious corporate entity.


Working for unions involves its own collection of compromises. Some are general – y’know, unions are part of the labout relations regime, they are organizations that ultimately serve organizational interest rather than class interest, they are full of all the contradictions of any formal leftist group, and more than their share of compromise and sell-out. Not the union I work for, in particular – but all unions, by their nature, by virtue of what they are and the history of struggle and conflict and sell-out on which “the union” is based.

But all of that I deal with on an ongoing basis. All of that is par for the course, and common among union staffers the world over – and among union members and elected reps, too. Sometimes, however, the conflict between supporting worker struggle and representing workers in a legal process just smacks you right in the face.

Here’s today:

a group of part-time, non-tenured faculty who have collectively organized to push the university to fund more stable, more permanent positions. They did this on their own, because the union has no collective agreement language to help them. They organized, they fought, they won.

but in winning? Aha, there’s the rub. The employer gives them some of what they want. Comes up with some money and some proposals to address the concern, but not enough to fix matters for everyone. You part-timers want full-time stable work? OK. But there’s X numbers of you, and we’ll make Y numbers of positions. Solidarity put to the test, as is always the case in these scenarios.

so here’s where I come in. Workers come to me, cause they want to stand together as a group, tell the employer to piss off until the matter is resolved for everyone. They want to go bigger, involve more people, cause some disruption, move to more colourful protest.

me personally? I love it. They are fired up, they are ready to fight, they have shown that a litle collective action can get movement from the most instransigent employer, and I am encouraged by this fire and want to see it build and spread.

me as union rep? I know it’s taken years to get to this point. I know that at some point they will push too hard and the employer will push back. I know that if the boss gets fed up and simply pulls the money, or gives it to someone else, I don’t have a damn thing in the union stable I can do about it.

Caution restraint, and take the little gain you’ve made, hoping to build on it later. That’s my job, and in practical terms it really is the most reasonable and safest response. To do otherwise would be at best risky, at worst irresponsible. But to send that message, I simultaneously must dissuade the group from its collective, autonomous action. And that is a hard thing for me to do.

The workers want to fight on, risk the loss just to build the movement for another day. I need to manage the risk, find the compromise, somehow keep them just engaged enough that the spark doesn’t die but with enough of a damper that we can control it, pull back into retreat as need be, make sure we hold onto the little gains that have been achieved.

So I sit here now, after they’ve left. I managed to find a few places to suggest they can still push while warning them about what’s to be lost if they move too fast or push too hard. And I think:

if those folks never came to ask my advice, we might just see a major confrontation here that could inspire others.

if those folks talked to me like a stranger on the street, I would’ve been a whole lot more encouraging, and may well have wanted to be a part of whatever action ensued  myself.

if I didn’t spend my days on the minituae of collective agreements and labour relations, I would speak far differently to a situation like this.

But I am a union rep. I do know the system well. I do find myself thinking in terms of written agreements and potential risks, and what the law would do with this case should it somehow get there. And I do speak to them from that place – indeed, that’s exactly why they sought me out.

Yeah. It’s  a union. The union thing is what I do. And that means compromise. That means providing the answers the union needs to give, not the answers I am inclined to give myself.

But if it came natural, and if I didnt have to face these issues, they wouldn’t have to pay me to do it.  That is the nature of work, after all.

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As we near the end of November, Meg is returning from the bargaining table, and I am about to take off for union meetings in Ottawa, with a fresh tattoo on my arm of the IWW sabocat – symbol of the wildcat strike and industrial sabotage.

I won’t write much myself today, but instead want to take a moment to remember our martyrs of the struggle – those few names we know, and those countless others in un-marked graves or left by the side of the road. They are in all times, in all countries, in all struggles, so what is here is only the smallest remembrance.

The IWW has long marked Red November, Black November – an occassion to recall all of those killed by state and capital – because that month, particularly, is the anniversary of some of the most notable murders, among them:

Nov. 22, 1886 – Thibodaux Massacre. Dozens of striking Louisiana sugar workers massacred. Newspapers of the day note, “Lame men and blind women shot. Children and hoary-headed grandsires ruthlessly swept down! The Negros offered no resistance, they could not as the killing was unexpected.”

Nov. 11, 1887 – The Haymarket Executions. Four leaders of the campaign for the 8-hour day in Chicago, Illinois, are executed by the state.  Albert Parsons, August Spies, George Engle, and Adolph Fischer, whose struggles and murders are commemorated in the mural that is reproduced as the banner of this blog.

Nov. 19, 1915 – Murder of Joe Hill.  IWW organizer and author of countless labour songs and poems, Joe Hill is executed by the State of Utah on a trumped-up murder charge that even the US president of the day, Woodrow Wilson, didn’t swallow.

Nov. 5, 1916 – The Everett Massacre. Cops and deputies kill 11 Wobblies when they open fire on a peaceful crowd of 200 attempting to dock at Everett, Washington, for a free speech fight.

Nov. 11, 1919 – IWW organizer Wesley Everest, arrested after a confrontation between Wobs and Legionnaires,  is taken from his cell, castrated, and hung beneath a railway bridge. After his death, his body is riddled with bullets and returned to the jail to be laid on display as a warning to the other Wobs in custody.

November. A time to remember struggle and resistance, and captured by another Wobbly songwriter and poet, Ralph Chaplin:

Red November, black November,
Bleak November, black and red.
Hallowed month of labor’s martyrs,
Labor’s heroes, labor’s dead.

Labor’s wrath and hope and sorrow,
Red the promise, black the threat,
Who are we not to remember?
Who are we to dare forget?

Black and red the colors blended,
Black and red the pledge we made,
Red until the fight is ended,
Black until the debt is paid.

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Some months ago I got all hot for a project on professional wrestling as work, and attempts at unionization of wrestlers. I wrote a blog post about it here, and was all fired up to do a couple of different pieces – something for a popular sports magazine, to get the issue some light, something academic, and something concrete around the how-tos that could potentially help to re-kindle an organizing drive. As so often happens, however, the writing never really materialized, and the whole project sat hibernating in the back of my brain for some future date.

Well, a couple of days ago I decided it was time. I pulled up the blog post, saved it as a word document and started thinking on how I’d expand and re-write for the various audiences. And the very next day, out of the blue, my friend Colin phoned from Toronto. Colin’s doing labour law at U of T, and soon will be heading out to BC to article with the firm that represents the union I work for and a host of other faculty unions around the province. Colin, however, was calling with a whole other piece of news. He’s taking a course in sports law, and the prof has worked as counsel to that all-time fave wrestler of mine, Bret Hart. So, Colin’s planning a paper on the whole unionization of wrestlers thing that I had told him about, and wanted to let me know he’d get that to me in a few months so I’d have some legal work to use in my articles, or so we could put something together ourselves. He’s also particularly keen on doing something practical on the issue and trying to push this into some kind of unionization drive.

Funny how that works, how minds can just re-connect on a topic from so far away at exactly the same moment.

Anyway, from all of this, I’ve been thinking again on the wrestlers’ union thing, and finding myself thinking in particular about ‘The Wildman’ Marc Mero.

Marc Mero was never my favourite wrestler. He was skilled, no question. He was interesting to watch work in the ring, no question. But on the other side of the business – the character-development, story-line, entertainment side, Mero never really grabbed me. Hockey player, football player. and boxer, Mero moved into wrestling in the early 1990s, his major characters over the years being Johnny B Badd – a Little Richard knock-off; ‘Wildman’ Marc Mero – standard wrestler plus a little manic insanity; and ‘Marvelous’ Marc Mero – a hyper-jealous, hyper-arrogant a boxer-turned wrestler whose greatest triumph involved winning a match against his wife, whose increasing popularity shadowed his own, driving him insanely jealous. Yeah. that was indeed the storyline.

Marc Mero walked away from pro-wrestling in around 2005, mainly due to various injuries that could not heal properly while he continued to work. He opened a body-building and fitness studio in Florida, and has been there since.

But that’s all just background. What really matters is what else Marc Mero is doing.

When I was talking to Bret Hart, one of the last questions I asked him was who else I should speak to about working conditions in the industry and the whole question of unionization. He gave me a few names, but one comment stuck out in particular. “Talk to Marc Mero. The WWE [virtually monopolistic-wrestling corporation] still tolerates the rest of us, and we’re on decent terms despite our critcisms. But they hate Marc Mero, and have gone after him hard.”

Huh? marc Mero – really? Hadn’t heard his name come up at all before now. So what was the deal here? A visit to his training institute’s website, an email, and fifteen minutes later Marc is writing back keen to talk.

Apparently, after leaving the wrestling business, Marc Mero started getting real vocal about the industry’s rising death toll. And he pinned the blame squarely on the owners. The working conditions, the pressure for bigger bodies, the soul- and body-eating schedule of life on the road, the requirement to work through injuries. Wrestling, Mero said, was killing people left and right. Wrestling owners and promoters, he said, actively encouraged behaviour they knew to be life-threatening. Wrestling, he said, destroyed people, leaving them hurt, psychologically-damaged, and vicious. He pointed in particular to the murder-suicide of Chris Benoit – by all accounts just about the most professional and non-aggressive of wrestlers until years of steroid abuse fucked his brain so bad he murdered his wife and child before killing himself in a psychotic episode. Lots of wrestlers spoke about it, lamenting the tragedy, many indeed taking about ‘roid rage and the impact of abuse of performance-enhancing drugs. But Mero pointed more directly to the industry and the owners, and placed the blame squarely on their shoulders.

And loud. He started getting on every TV show and radio program he could. He talked about the kind of masculinity wrestling encouraged. He talked about the culture of violence. He talked about the drugs as a job requirement. And not content to make his case to newscasters and policy-makers, Mero went straight to the heart of the wrestling industry’s market. Mero went to kids.

Entirely on his own dime, Marc Mero put out the call that he would visit any school that would have him to talk about body image, drugs, masculinity, violence, and wrestling. Now, officially, it’s all billed as a positive-choice, anti-steroid message. But talk to Marc for a few minutes, and it’s pretty damn clear that there’s alot more going on here, and that it’s this work with kids that is precisely what has the wrestling business so pissed off. Because as far as he’s concerned, ‘making positive choices’ is about rejecting the cultural values wrestling promotes. Because talking about steroids means talking about masculinity, violence, working conditions.

Marc Mero was the first wrestler in the WWE to get a guaranteed annual contract rather than getting paid on the basis of a share of the door. Since he managed that, others pushed for the same, and a significant part of the industry has now shifted as a result. Marc Mero isn’t on a union drive, but when I asked him about unions he’s enthusiastic, and eager to do what he can. So there’s some politics here, and some experience in tackling working conditions.

But mostly, Marc Mero is just spending his time and money talking to kids, one by one doing his thing to counter the industry that he was part of so long and that has taken so many of his friends in the last few years. Mostly Marc Mero is just talking loud – to adults about drug-induced psychosis, corporate responsibility for deaths in the ring and out, and the need for regulation and oversight of an industry that is shaping culture in profoundly dangerous ways. And talking, too, to kids – about steroids and self-worth and the difference between healthy and unhealthy competition and bodies and masculinity and the ability to make choices. And though those are words that on first blush appear the most motherhood-and-apple-pie, though those are messages that initially appear indistinguishable from every self-help book on the shelves, they are also the words that have the wrestling industry most on the ropes. And that’s pretty fucking interesting to me.

Cause it’s part of the same struggle waged by the Jesse Venturas, the Konnans, the Bret Harts, to collectivize, to transform working conditions, to go union. But it’s waged on a whole other terrain – hitting hearts and minds of the kids who are the market today, and the cannon-fodder tomorrow. And it’s the one thing the owners can’t turn into a gimmick, can’t package and re-sell.

Reminds me, funny enough, of Pete Seeger. Black-listed for his socialist politics during the McCarthy era, Seeger decided if he couldn’t sing to adults about strikes and struggles, he’d sing to kids about seemingly-innucuous things – all flowers and peace and love. But when you look back on his career, it was that work – that going out to kids with pretty simple messages – that had the greatest political impact. He didn’t know that when he started. It wasn’t apparent in the words he sang. But it mattered, and lasted.

Now, I don’t expect Mero knows that. In fact, Mero may not even have any fucking idea who Pete Seeger is. But seems the owners know that kids count. Alot. Cause while kids don’t make policy, they sure as hell make culture.

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It’s been a union-centred life of late, even more than normally. Meg spent last week in Ottawa bargaining and rallying to express offense at the flat-out shitty offer the government has made to its workers, so I was thinking about her and her frustrations alot. And here in Vancouver I was getting settled into my first week back as grievance rep from Executive Director and working on drafting a first collective agreement for our staff union (part of CEP Local 467, which brings together union staffers from a number of union-employers).

I work with collective agreements all the time, but it’s been a long while since I’ve worked with one that applies to me, and never before have I been involved in writing an agreement from scratch. So it’s an exciting thing to be doing, and taking the edge off any lingering resentment I have about being forced out of my old position – well, perhaps not taking the edge off, but providing me a productive outlet for my anger at the kind of shit positions my employer has taken with regard to its own staff.

Collective agreements are strange things. They are peace treaties, really, promises by a union to do what it can to control workers in exchange for some commitments from the boss and legal recourse for the union should the boss renege on those commitments. Agreements, then, really are the union. Though it wasn’t always that way. Radical unions like the IWW originally refused to sign collective agreements – the attitude being, “No, the boss signs an agreement. The boss makes concessions because otherwise we don’t work and his business is fucked. We don’t make any promises to be satisfied or pretend we’re satisfied, because we’re not after a bigger piece of the pie but the whole damn bakery. And we don’t make any promises to control workers’ anger because workers’ anger is exactly what we’re all about.”

Unions haven’t been about that for a real long time, however. And so I am finding that the whole process of organizing my workplace, setting my “will-do” / “won’t-do” boundaries and writing a first agreement is leading me to think alot about the relationship between all the shit I hate most about unions and the day to day work that I do.

Unions as managers; unions as employers; unions as bosses.

In 1951 eighteen workers employed by the US Air Line Pilots’ Association (ALPA) embarked upon an organizing drive, and for the first time in North America, staff working for a trade union sought to unionize themselves. And the employing union challenged their right to doso, presenting to the US Labor Relations Board two central arguments:

all union staff should be seen as managers, as they deal with confidential membership information;

a union by definition cannot be an employer as that term is defined legally, and so the right to organize does not extend to employees of unions.

ALPA lost. The Board ruled that the union was indeed an employer, whatever its self-defined “class position” might be. And the significance of all this wasn’t lost on unions or union staff – or the public for that matter. On January 15, 1952, the New York Times printed a story on “Union as Employer”, suggesting – quite rightly – that something had dramatically changed in the way unions should be understood politically, economically, and socially:

The increase in number, variety and complexity of

issues has subordinated the local union and has

compelled the national unions to engage experts,

technicians and professional employees, and the

union structures have tended to fit their new functions.

Within a few years, many of the largest international unions were confronted with staff organizing drives – the Teamsters, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, the International Association of Machinists and more, so that by 1961, the AFL-CIO leadership was actively and publicly engaged in the battle to halt unionization of labour staffers. Staff who sought certification were vilified for promoting factionalism, seeking to undermine the growing strength of the workers’ movement, and for promoting –  yes, get ready for it…communism! The message was simple – staff either submit their interests to the good of the union, or they actively undermine the union and so serve instead the interests of corporate America or Bolshevism or both. Here’s then-ILGWU President, David Dubinsky:

We have always had a concept of the union leader as a

leader of masses and not as a paid mercenary or as one

engaged in a business for self-aggrandizement.

I spent time in a Czarist jail because I was part of a struggle

to free people, not because I was paid to agitate. The founders

of the ILGWU starved themselves into sickness and death,

faced beatings and crippling, gangsters and prisons because

they felt that this was their responsibility to their consciences

and to their fellow workers…We chose to stay with the labor

movement not because it paid better, not because it offered

more security, not because it offered greater leisure, but

because it was our dedication, our struggle, our belief – our

very lives. What a bitter joke that we are now characterized as


Dubinsky went on to lament the ‘materialism’ of union staff, intimating that it was in fact their unionization that caused the bureaucratization of labour. Staff insistence on higher wages and benefits created a “class of super-citizens” within the union, and by organizing they made the union a business rather than a ‘movement’.

I’ve heard variations of this line a whole many times – every time, in fact, staff at a union take issue with the crappy behaviour of their employers. The Telecommunications Workers’ Union staff strike in 1999; numerous job actions by BC Teachers Federation staff; pickets by employees of the Canadian Labour Congress and the BC Government and Services Employees Union – in each case, the debate arose again, and in each case a significant part of the left leapt up to defend the “real” working class from these pretenders.

At the TWU, for example – where I was an elected local rep at the time – the Executive went through various responses – initially declaring at a local meeting, “We’re the employer in this situation and we intend to behave like an employer”, later recanting and hiring an Executive Director precisely because “we don’t want to be bosses” – as though establishing an intermediary could make the conflict disappear. The BCTF, for its part, wrapped itself in the professional association flag, lamenting staff’s “old-style trade unionism”. And the CLC and BCGEU strikes each generated considerable debate among the left generally, the former on a left-wing electronic bulletin board, the latter causing such a schism within BC’s Solidarity Notes labour choir that performances and practices were cancelled after a number of its members suggested a trip to the picket line to sing in solidarity with the strikers.

So, yeah, it’s an old story, but a current one, too.

“Union staff shouldn’t be allowed to organize – they work for the working class.”

“Staff unions just divide workers – how dare these people undermine the credibility of unions when labour is in so much trouble.”

“Union staff have no loyalty – we all volunteer our time, why shouldn’t they?”

It goes on and on.

Really though, the power dynamics at play in union staff/ union executive relationships are variations of general tensions at play within the union as an organization. Whatever is happening with staff at a union is probably happening with members as well.

Now, I’m not whinging about how bad I got it. Union staffers aren’t victims any more than union members are. Professional staffers like me have significant power – we are the drivers of the machine, even though we often find ourselves crushed beneath its wheels and even though we spend every day convincing workers to give the machine their trust. We are often the most critical of the labour movement, but we’re also the most responsible for its continued operation as partner in the industrial relations regime. Staff like me, in short, embody all the contradictions of the labour movement. We are uniquely positioned to reveal that the emperor has no clothes and yet our jobs depend on loyalty – whether genuine or phony – to that emperor. So going to work is alot like walking a maze, and though many of us understand that the only way out is through or beneath the walls, we continue to walk, searching for a door marked exit.

I am a union staffer. I work for an organization recognized under a legal code as a representative of workers’ interests. I am a negotiator, bargaining with management to write joint agreements.  I am an advocate, campaigning for improved working conditions and higher wages. I am a politician, brokering deals, managing political support, selling policy. I am a counselor, offering advice and support, drying tears, referring to specialists. And I am a unionist, arguing with bosses, fighting discipline, seeking more money for less work against managers who seek more work for less money. I work in an environment of contradictions. But make no mistake about it – I work; I have a boss; and my job depends on my ability to serve the interests of that boss.

So I am not, in my work-life, part of a working class movement. I am not, in my work-life, charged with organizing workers against capital. I work as one small part of a regime designed to maintain, if not increase, productivity, to satisfy workers’ immediate and specific demands, and to dampen their long-term and general aspirations. I serve labour peace, industrial calm, and good citizenship. My office is a workplace like any other, in which we as employees give up our skills, our experience, and our labour to an employer who directs that labour in its interest. In return, I get a salary, a pension, benefits.

It’s not a bad job, as jobs go. But make no mistake – it’s a job.

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I was 15 years old, and a friend of my folks’ made a few tapes of political music for me to take along for our year in Zimbabwe. That’s where I discovered Billy Bragg, Little Steven and a whole host of others. And it’s where I found Bruce “Utah” Phillips – storyteller, songwriter, keeper of the oral history of American workers.

Utah’s a wobbly – a member of the Industrial Workers of the World – and he’s the reason I became a wobbly, too. That first bit of music came off his We Have Fed You All for A Thousand Years, an album recorded during a tour he did of the Pactific Northwest in the 80s, exclusively of songs and stories out of the early radical union movement.

I listened to it intently, over and over, learning every one of those songs. I raced out and found whatever I could on the history of lahour generally, and the IWW in particular. I spoke to my grandfather and other elders who’d been active in their own unions, gathering their recollections and myths and songs. And then at some rally or other I got handed a copy of the Industrial Worker and saw for the first time that this old IWW was still kicking around. Not only that, it was being rejuvenated.

After a lengthy decline after being identified as the greatest domestic threat to US capital and state – a status that resulted in the imprisonment, exile and murder of countless organizers – the Wobs were for a long time a relic, more a historical society than anything else. But now, around 1990, this was union that was growing. Judi Bari and other EarthFirst!ers had come in, and were actively organizing around the northern California redwoods. Strippers at San Francisco’s “Lusty Lady” were talking union, and work was being done to organize collectives among sex workers. And it kept growing, particularly in those places of work disproportionately populated by over-educated and under-employed twenty-somethings – Starbucks, bike couriers, student newspapers including Langara College’s Gleaner right here in Vancouver.

Well I signed myself up, of course, getting my first red card in early 1991 and heading down to San Fran for that year’s IWW Convention, crashing with Clif Ross, a writer and radical who lived just outside of town. I watched and learned and marvelled. Utah sang and story-told. Judi and Darryl Cherney brought new music from the redwood struggle, and talked about the FBI campaign against them. (She’d been hurt in a car bombing a year earlier – then promptly accused of knowingly-carrying those explosives and plotting terror. I’ll try to blog on it in the future, but for now you can get the basics of her story here.)

Since that time I’ve only kept up my wob membership very intermittently. I was around for a while, engaging in the debates, doing some writing for the newspaper and so on. But it lapsed as I travelled and studied. I never stopped thinking of myself as a wob, though, whether dues-paying or not.

Anyway, back to Utah.

After a stint in the Army he worked a variety of jobs and wrote some songs, eventually falling in with Ammon Hennacy and the Catholic Workers – rooted in an earlier and more anarchist version of the radical Catholicism I’d find around the Central American revolutionary movement in the 1980s. Utah lived and worked in Hennacy’s Joe Hill house in Salt Lake City – Catholic Workers fairly regularly set up collective homes on the skids in various places, offering open doors, food, and so on for whoever needs them, and trouble-making as much as possible while they’re at it.

And then, when that house closed its doors in the late 1960s, it was mostly music for Utah, so he’s spent the last several decades writing, recording, performing, seeking out old stories, making up new ones, and generally trying to keep alive the tradition of political organization and education through song and humour and oral history.

Utah had his birthday the other day, but he’s not doing as much singing anymore. Heart trouble has plagued him for the last number of years, and he’s had to undergo some pretty extensive medical treatment. As you can imagine, singing on picket lines and telling radical stories ain’t much as a get-rich-quick scheme, no matter how much Ani DiFranco talks about ya.  So – and only now do we get to the real reason for posting this at all – Utah’s friends are in support mode, with benefit concerts being held across the States, and folks raising money to make sure this elder gets the care he needs.

To give some love and solidarity in the only form capitalism knows, visit here.

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