“Low pay, LOW LOW PAY!”
“Fair pay, AMERICAN WAY!”
“Kick the rat OUUT!”
Many D.C. office workers, particularly those who work in the vicinity of 13th and G streets, 14th and F streets or Connecticut and L streets NW, have passed an unkempt yet tightly organized assemblage of men and women marching in an oval while repeating singsong chants such as these.
Often, this “information line,” as the Mid-Atlantic Regional Carpenters’ Union called it, moved deliberately beneath the shadow of a huge, inflatable rodent with unlovely teeth and belly sores painted onto its bulk.
The loud, shuffling display, designed to alert the public to the unsavory practices of this or that subcontracting company, popped up — always with a valid permit, of course — across downtown D.C for the past decade. This month, however, the union announced that it was ending the motley parades. “Accordingly, your services will no longer be needed at this time,” the letter from the union said.
Did you ever go by and wonder what it’s like on that line? In January 2012, after bumping into a musician friend walking the circle one day, I became one of those for-hire demonstrators. I marveled as I walked at the fierce loyalties, familial affection and plain old solidarity that spilled from the ranks. Regulars like “Mamma,” “Lady L” and “Romeo” walked the walk and hollered the chants for years: “(Company name here), they pay real skimpy; that’s the reason my pockets are empty!” In the time-honored tradition of union picketing, we would echo this and many other original “hollers.”
On the line, the pay was more than $10 an hour and the hours reasonable. We were doing it for the paycheck, though that doesn’t mean we didn’t agree with the cause. When pressed, my fellow marchers clearly sympathized with the union; they understood what a union wage could mean to a worker.
The savvy ones arrived early with coffee and collapsible folding chairs, or at least a crate that could be used from time to time to take the weight off tired legs and feet. The more seasoned the marcher, the more substantial the footwear. One part-timer — a former lawyer, we were told — walked in tight oxfords, not a good choice. In the winter, when I started, it was an intimidating blur of headscarfs, furry Cossack hats, wool caps and down coats, with a few Dallas Cowboys or Chicago Bears warm-up jackets thrown in. Redskins gear was surprisingly rare.
When I arrived, many of the ensemble beat cowbells and plastic buckets. Eventually, we dropped that “go-go”-inspired racket — one of the union guys said it was fallout from a court case — but our lusty bellowing continued until the turn of this year.
After many stabs at fitting in, I found my niche. The strident cries of “You’re off rhythm” died away, and I got used to the friendly heckling and occasional disparaging stares of passersby. Now the whole enterprise has marched into history. The District’s downtown streets will be quieter. They’ll be less interesting, too.