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Up the Alley, Down the Street

By Frank Gruber

Last Sunday evening, the night before Labor Day, the coolest place in Santa Monica was the alley that runs behind the bungalows and apartment buildings on Marine Street from Seventh to Goldsmith, the little dead end street that bisects the block.

This alley is not normally notable. It has the same cracked concrete, garage doors, back fences and trash bins of other alleys.

That Sunday evening was this alley's Cinderella night.

Decked out with Chinese lanterns and Christmas lights, with gates open to backyards, with the grilling and barbecuing might of a neighborhood massed in one backyard, and with a bar in another, with lawn furniture escaped, or rather, released, from lawns, to join other lawn furniture to flank an asphalt dance floor in front of the alley's version of a band shell: an open garage, in which boogeyed and bluesed a neighborhood band playing for a band of neighbors.

With a moon bounce at the Longfellow end and an arching paper sign at the Seventh Street end announcing "2nd Annual Marine Street Block Party," this alley achieved destination status.

We -- wife, child and I -- used to live on Marine, a few blocks away, up the hill near Fourth Street. Now we live elsewhere in Ocean Park, and we eagerly accepted an invitation to return for the block party. We come back for Halloween, too, as there are more lighted porches and open doors there than on our new block.

There is something about the little neighborhood wedged between the Fourth Street hill and Lincoln Boulevard. A palpable sense of community. Maybe it's the topography. Maybe it's the Mini-Mart at Seventh and Marine. Maybe it's the fact that there is a neighbor there, John Grant, who bothers to organize something as ephemeral as a block party.

* * *

"Community" is one of those words that we all use, but we don't know always know what we mean, or we mean different things, or maybe, even most of the time, we disagree on how to get it, and in this case the "how to" can be more important than the "what is."

This past weekend was the Jewish New Year, the time of year when I participate most fully, and with pleasure and edification, in my synagogue community. But that's not my sole community.

Like most people, I don't have one community. In days gone by community came as a package, a function of your locality: the parish church or the synagogue in the shtetl, the local school, the family trade or the local job. Your choices were made.

Today we choose communities. I chose to live in Santa Monica, I chose my synagogue. I happen to work in Santa Monica, but I didn't use to. My wife works 15 miles away, across a landscape of many other communities, yet only one-fourth the way across the metropolis.

We even have electronic communities.

Then along comes an event like September 11, and you realize that, even as it's important to know your neighbors, and to dance with them on the asphalt, or to participate in the other communities you choose, the community that no one chooses, the community of people of goodwill that unites the nation, that unites even the world, is the most important community.

* * *

That's one reason I don't expect that the arguments against the City's living wage ordinance that say that the living wage mostly benefits workers who don't live in Santa Monica will be persuasive. People understand that we're all in this together.

The day after the block party was Labor Day.

The argument against the living wage that I don't understand is that the law is bad because it's promoted by the union that wants to organize the hotel and restaurant workers. Is this supposed to surprise me?

Three weeks ago the L.A. Times ran a story about how organized labor had 27 bills they wanted Gray Davis to sign. [http://www.latimes.com/news/politics/la-me-labor20aug20.story]

It's no secret that for several decades unions have had a hard time organizing, especially since Ronald Reagan was President. There are a lot of reasons, but one is that Republican presidents since 1969 have made consistently anti-union appointments to the National Labor Relations Board, which has permitted employers to get away with more and more aggressive tactics to interfere with employees' rights to unionize.

Twenty-seven bills on Davis's desk and the Santa Monica living wage law are evidence that if workers cannot negotiate effectively with business through collective bargaining, workers are going to look to government to solve problems of the work place that historically have in America been left to negotiation.

They will succeed. Americans do not want workers here to live like workers in the Third World.

About the same time as the 27 bills article, the Times ran an obituary for the former head of the Auto Workers Union. [http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/wire/sns-ap-obit yokich0817aug17.story]

This is what the chairman of General Motors had to say about his former adversary, who had led the union in strikes against the auto industry: "We have lost a respected business partner, a passionate leader in community and union relations, and most importantly, a good and honorable man."

There are many successful businesses with adversarial but nonetheless productive management/union relations. The UAW, for instance, worked with the auto makers to improve quality and productivity, to revitalize what had been an industry in decline.

The hotels and the hotel workers union should be allies, not antagonists, most of the time.

If businesses make it hard for workers to organize, workers will turn to government for relief. And why not? Don't businesses look to government to solve their problems?

Business has to ask itself -- would it rather negotiate with unions, or deal with government bureaucracies? If you think unions are tough, try to fire a worker in Europe.

I consider myself pro-business as well as pro-labor. And pro-environment, and pro-housing, and pro-education, and pro-parks. Sometimes my own desires conflict. But I know enough that in this country, if you want to achieve anything, you have to leave something on the table for the other guy.

The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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