Culture Diary: AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Takes Life Advice From Bossypants, Love DC Food Trucks, And Mourns Amy Winehouse

On Mondays, progressive leaders from all parts of the movement, from the blogosphere to the Hill, take a break out of their schedules to tell us what they’re watching, reading, and listening to. Suggestions or requests? Email AlyssaObserves (at) gmail (dot) com.

As AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer, Liz Shuler’s the second-highest ranking person in the American labor movement — and she’s just 40. She helped lead the coalition that blocked an Enron-lead push to deregulate the electricity industry in 1997, trained election observers during the 2000 presidential election recount, and was elected secretary-treasurer in 2009. Last week, Shuler took lessons in assertiveness away from Tina Fey’s memoir Bossypants, saw analogies to state-level fights over collective bargaining in a performance of Wicked at the Kennedy Center, and considered the plight of freelance artists, most of whom don’t have benefits, as she met with members of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.

Monday, July 18

I started my week by finding advice from a somewhat unlikely source: Tina Fey. Little did I know that when I was looking for some “escape” reading on my Monday flight to Albany, New York, I would end up finding some truly insightful guidance from a woman who made it in the cut-throat business of stand-up comedy.

I laughed all the way through the first chapter of Bossypants. And as I read through Ms. Fey’s early years, and how she got her start in Chicago with Second City, I stumbled upon what was a rather profound insight for me: The rules of improv can help you in life. She talks about the importance of “respecting what your partner has created, and to start from an open-minded place;” saying “yes, and…” so no one is afraid to contribute; and sharing in the responsibility to find solutions by “making statements instead of just asking questions,” especially for women.

Sticky situation in the workplace? Draw on the rules of improv to lighten the tension. Forget your membership card at the gym? Don’t hesitate at the front desk — make a proactive, and perhaps offbeat statement, and move on to the kickboxing! Co-worker making some risky suggestions for the annual conference? Say, “yes, and… let’s talk about how that will double attendance,” and stay in that open-minded place (at least until you get burned). Great perspective to start the week.

Tuesday, July 19

I continued to look at real life through an artistic lens by taking in the musical Wicked at the Kennedy Center Tuesday night. For those of you who’ve been living under a rock for the last decade, the story explains how the Wicked Witch of the West and the Good Witch of the North from the Wizard of Oz met and were friends and college roommates before going their separate ways. Elphaba, the wicked witch, was actually a do-gooder in her younger days, and was trying to counter the wizard’s plot to suppress any opposition and take away the voices of the animals.

As I watched, I could not help but compare what was going on in Munchkinland to the actions I’m seeing every day in the real world — the wizard (Republicans in states) was taking rights away from the munchkins (public sector workers) and trying to silence the voices of those who threatened his power (working people). The wizard scapegoats Elphaba for all the problems in Oz and ends up hurting people and walking away scott free (sound familiar?).

The music was outstanding and the performances were fantastic. I love seeing productions at the Kennedy Center. It’s hard to believe that productions like these are considering a move toward recorded music to cut costs instead of using a live orchestra! I can’t imagine audiences putting up with that — and it doesn’t ever translate to lower ticket prices (i.e., Nutcracker’s last two seasons with recorded music).

Wednesday, July 20

After a crazed morning in the office, I wandered over to the food truck extravaganza that is Farragut Square at lunchtime – found my favorite cart Sauca and reveled in Mumbai Butter Chicken goodness. I have been slow to really notice or care about those crazy square symbols I see popping up all over magazines, signs, and ads of every kind—and, lo and behold—there it was on the side of a new food truck. The QR code is an interesting phenomenon, and so of course, curiosity forced me to download Red Laser on my iPhone so I could start learning more details about things that don’t really matter.

Thursday, July 21

On my flight to San Francisco en route to the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA) convention, I finally had the opportunity to watch Inside Job — a movie I knew was going to be incredibly impactful and also infuriating — and I was right. It was frustrating to watch it on a plane, because I got so worked up at the injustice of it all, and then there was no one to discuss it with afterward. I might have unloaded on the gentleman sitting next to me in the middle seat, but after he’d consumed two vodka tonics and a snack box, he was snoring up a storm.

I landed at SFO in early evening, and took the BART to my downtown Oakland hotel. I strongly believe that supporting public transportation, for both environmental and economic reasons, does a body good.

I made it to my hotel in time to meet a documentary filmmaker friend for dinner. My friend had just screened her film, Better This World, in DC, and I happened to be out of town that day, so tonight I finally had the chance to watch this incredible movie. It combines politics, the war on terrorism, and civil liberties through the story of two boyhood friends from Midland, Texas that protested at the Republican National Convention in 2008. Very provocative…a must see!

Friday, July 22

A beautiful day in the East Bay, after leaving 100+ degree temps in DC. I got up early to speak to 700 activists and members of APALA. Their theme was “Generations United” and over 200 young students and activists were in the audience. Reaching out to young workers is a passion of mine, and we are trying to show them that the labor movement is alive and well and has something unique to offer.

We marched from the convention to Oakland City Hall where we rallied for jobs and economic equality. I met a DREAM Act student named Ju Hong who’s speaking out on the issue of immigration reform. Earlier that week, Ju and his fellow DREAMers led an act of civil disobedience in front of San Bernardino College in protest of the school’s immigration policies.

All in all, it was an incredibly uplifting day. I boarded the plane from Oakland to Seattle that afternoon with my iPod volume turned way up…Death Cab for Cutie and White Stripes got me through the first hour, until I got sleepy and shifted over to Pink Martini’s Splendor in the Grass album. Zzzzzzzzzzz.

Saturday, July 23

I have such an appreciation for the talented musicians, dancers, actors and performers of all kinds. As I traveled up the west coast to the national convention of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), I was thinking about the lifestyles of those in the entertainment industry. Many are freelancers, unable to access benefits, and in some cases, cobbling together part-time “gigs” to make ends meet.

This was the topic of much discussion at AFTRA’s convention. I gave the morning keynote speech to a room full of performers (no intimidation there…). There was heavy debate going on about changes in the industry and how sticking together in one common, powerful voice (the union) was the only way to have a shot at making a decent living in their industry.

I also had the opportunity to meet several celebrity actors, including Gabrielle Carteris (the original Beverly Hills 90210), Robert Newman (Guiding Light), and most exciting for me, one of my idols, Bob Edwards (Bob Edwards Weekend on SiriusXM), who are all activists outside of their jobs. I am always impressed with celebrities who use their fame for a good cause.

As I rode the light rail from the hotel to the airport to leave the beautiful Northwest, I saw the news about Amy Winehouse on Twitter and thought back to when I saw her perform at the Virgin Festival in Baltimore a few years ago. I always loved her bluesy, retro sound, so I pulled up Back to Black on my iPod as an ode to Ms. Winehouse on the way home.