On our first day of marching, I was given a blow horn and a double-sided sheet of chants.
“I’m nervous,” I told Terry. “I don’t have a very loud voice.”
“These women are here every day in the cold,” she said. “This isn’t about us. This is about the entire system: The patients. The doctors. The whole staff. You’re here to get our energy up.”
My stage fright made me feel like a child. But I wanted to grow. How many times had I used fear as an excuse to count myself out, to do nothing? I picked up the horn and shouted, “Are you ready to fight?” For a split second, I thought everyone might ignore me. My heart was beating like mad. Then I heard a couple of voices shout, “Damn right!”
I screamed into the horn, “Are you ready to fight?”
“And what do we want?”
“When do we want it?”
I looked around and saw that we were all wearing matching United Healthcare Workers West T-shirts. This was our uniform. When the trucks that rolled up daily with scab workers—basically temp workers who fill in for people on strike—we all ran over to them and chanted: “Union bust-ing is disgust-ing! Union bust-ing is disgust-ing!” Our voices swelled in unison, and I was part of that swell. I was wearing my team’s uniform and shouting at the other team.
I had always thought of myself as a coward. I never dared to defend my friends when they were catcalled on the street; I could barely even stand up to a bunch of elementary school bullies nine years younger than me when one of them punched my brother in the stomach at a McDonald’s. But being part of this team made me feel like I could actually fight someone, or at least take a punch without running away screaming.
During week four of the strike, one of the picketers from my line had gotten into some kind of altercation with a burly security guard. Fists were raised, and the next thing I knew, I had stepped between the two of them and gotten up in the guard’s face.
“You’re not touching him,” I said.
“You don’t tell me what to do,” the security guard said.
“I’m telling you’re not touching him.”
“You don’t tell me what to do, and, frankly, if you step over this line, I have full authority to use force on you.”
“You’re not touching any of my members. I’m going to get you fired for threatening a peaceful picketer. You’re a thug and a coward for intimidating someone half your size, and now you’re trying to threaten a 21-year-old woman?”
Maybe it didn’t have to be so life-or-death. Or maybe that feeling that it was life-or-death was precisely the appeal of being part of a group. Having lived my life on the outside, I never knew how much bursting, beaming love was to be found on the inside. I honestly felt like I would lie my body down in the street for my team—and I did. By weeks six and seven, morale was low, and negotiations were at a standstill. A few of the organizers and striking workers decided that we were going to take a stand, so a couple of us lay down in the street to stop the bus full of scabs from entering the hospital grounds. I heard the beeping sound of the bus backing up toward us, and then silence. It was a symbolic gesture in the form on a literal one: We would be run over before we would give up.
We were family, thick as thieves, united in our struggle. Every morning, we huddled in a circle and prayed together. And even though I was (and still am) an atheist who for more than a decade wouldn’t even say “bless you” when someone sneezed because it smacked of “God,” I didn’t mouth the prayers—I said them out loud with everybody else. We had gone through too much together for me to opt out of this ritual. We had formed a human barricade to block the scab trucks from entering. We’d wiped eggshell off each other’s faces after being pelted by angry neighbors. We held one another up, physically and emotionally, during the long, hopeless stretches when negotiations were breaking down and money was running out. We ended up scraping together funds so Bong could make his mortgage payment.
We had so little in common. I knew nothing of what it was like to be a Filipino woman in America. They often wondered why I was there. They didn’t understand why I wasn’t sure about marriage and kids. We listened to different music and watched different TV shows and read different books. But we were on the same team.
We’re building a movement. I heard those words and over and over. And I believed them. I finally saw how pigheaded and judgy my old attitude had been. I was so quick to equate solidarity with intolerant jingoism, I assumed all loyalty was blind. I didn’t see, until those people were kind enough to take me in, that being part of a group could be enlightening or beautiful or good.
Today, I still don’t feel moved to cheer at sports games. When my friends watch sports, I sit there with my arms crossed, never moved to cheer when one teams scores or moan when another misses. I don’t feel any sort of nationalistic pride for U.S. teams when the Olympics roll around. And I never did become even a remotely adequate union organizer. I quit my job a month after the strike ended and went back to obsessing about myself and my writing and my love life and my family life and all things me me mememememe. Maybe, in the end, I didn’t learn anything.
But when I see news reports of people demonstrating in cities and rural towns all over Tunisia; when I saw tens of thousands gathered at Tahrir Square last year, calling for the government to step down; when the Arab Spring was happening and I saw its leaders on TV, talking about what they were fighting for—freedom, liberty, dignity, a better life—and supporting their Arab brothers and sisters in other parts of the world, I felt such love and pride swelling inside, and I couldn’t stop myself from thinking about the first time I lost my voice screaming:
WILL NEVER BE
WILL NEVER BE