At a time when the union movement is facing declining membership and a measure of public skepticism, union rep Karen McAninch has a hard job. In an era when "big" seems the word of the day, being the business agent for a small, independent union makes her job even more challenging.
But McAninch, 52, has been doing this kind of work since 1982, when she was first elected to the Service Employees International Union, Local 134, after having been an SEIU member while working the circulation desk at the Brown University libraries. McAninch had come to Providence to attend Brown from her hometown of Plymouth, Michigan, outside Detroit. As a child, she’d spent time with her family in Venezuela, because of her father’s executive position with Ford, and thought she wanted to major in linguistics.
But she "didn’t have a sense of where it was all headed," and after three years of course work, she went to work at the library full time, staying there for six years until she ran unopposed to become the SEIU’s business agent. It was unusual for a woman to represent a predominantly male union in which many of the members are janitorial and trade workers at local colleges. "It’s always been an issue and it’s still an issue," McAninch says. "There’s a level at which people wouldn’t vote for me because I’m a female. It’s sometimes been difficult to communicate, but I just keep plugging away."
McAninch had to draw on such perseverance when the international SEIU wanted to shift groups of Rhode Island workers into the Boston local in 2002. Then, when SEIU took over the Rhode Island local in July 2003, McAninch and her members decided to form an independent union, and they named it the United Service and Allied Workers (USAW) of Rhode Island. Within the next year, two-thirds of the original 750 members joined the independent, and McAninch was elected business agent once again.
"I definitely got discouraged over this switching of unions," she recalls, "because it could very well have ended up badly. Brown facilities, we only won by 12 votes. Since then, we’ve pulled it together, but it was a very divisive process."
Contract negotiations, which came up right after the first major election for the United Service and Allied Workers, are essentially the meat of McAninch’s job. They get trickier every year, with employers asking employees to shoulder an ever-increasing share of health insurance costs. And although she’s lived through many strikes over the years, including five in 10 years at Bryant, and a six-week strike at the Brown library in 1990, McAninch is adamant: "We try to avoid long-term strikes," she says. "We can often make the same point by making the same kind of noise without a strike. But there’s always a time and a place for it, too."
In the most recent contract she negotiated for the Brown library workers, a reorganization by management could have meant changing workers’ hours, and McAninch emphasized her charge to "preserve the conditions under which they were hired," such as proper compensation for additional hours. She says unions are vital for maintaining job security and a grievance process.
Outside her job, McAninch has often volunteered in political campaigns (including all three of Myrth York’s bids for governor, and Rhoda Perry’s recent state Senate race) and for grassroots advocacy organizations, such as Rhode Island Working Women, and more recently, Ocean State Action. McAninch’s interest in politics comes from her mom, who was once statewide chair of the League of Women Voters, then mayor of Plymouth, and a marcher in the civil rights movement. Her father was also active in fighting housing discrimination. McAninch and her husband, Steve Markovitz, have raised two daughters (now at Grinnell and Cornell) in Providence, and they’ve both been Girl Scout troupe leaders for the past15 years, harking back to McAninch’s own Girl Scout days.
As for the ongoing role of unions, McAninch stresses: "We always have to be responsible about what we’re asking for and what is fair, as opposed to just being greedy. The people I represent don’t make that much money, but there will always be legitimate issues that need to be dealt with."
— Johnette Rodriguez
Mark Taber is a lifelong Rhode Islander who grew up in East Providence. He started piano lessons (as he recalls) at about the age of five. "I took lessons for seven years from Mrs. Frackleton," he recalls. "I was the weirdo who actually took to it immediately. I always preferred to stay in and practice Bach to being out playing ball or something. I still love Bach and Thelonious Monk."
When he was a teenager, Taber had a friend whose older brother had "a bunch of old 78s [of Joe Turner, Count Basie], just a whole bunch of blues and jazz. And that was it for me." In high school, he started haunting the famous Providence independent record stores Muffett’s and Carl’s Diggins, and began bunking school to play in the bars where they had pianos. "I would be in high school and just go into Bovi’s and start playing," he recalls. "The people there seemed to like it."
Taber, 60, has been a working musician for nearly 40 years. He was a founding member of what was arguably Rhode Island’s most influential musical unit, Ken Lyon’s Tombstone Band, starting in the mid-1960s. It was the band where a young Michael "Duke" Robillard cut his teeth before going on to form the original Roomful of Blues. In the early ’70s, Tombstone was one of, if not the first, homegrown Rhode Island bands to score a major record contract with Columbia (they were also the third band on a notorious nationwide tour with Mott the Hoople and Queen).
As a result of all this, hundreds of thousands of people have heard Taber play. He also had a longtime musical residency playing solo piano at the legendary Leo’s back in the late ’70s when the fabled Jewelry District joint was more of a bar than a restaurant. He still plays a regular solo gig at Providence’s Hi-Hat club on Mondays.
When I mentioned writing about Taber as a Local Hero to veteran guitarist Rob Nelson, he said, "You know, Mark has played more benefit performances than anyone." This is undoubtedly true. He has performed at no charge hundreds and hundreds of times. The causes have ranged from other musicians facing hospital bills to a very well-attended fundraiser for the John Kerry campaign that Taber organized in September at the Hi-Hat.
His annual "Souper Bowl" parties for Amos House are also justly famed.
Taber says the weirdest benefit he ever played was in Rehoboth, Massachusetts, "to pay the vet’s bills for a three-legged dog." It is legend among local musicians that Taber, unless he had a scheduling contract, has never declined to play a benefit or charity event.
Taber’s creations, assembled with found objects, have been featured in a Smithsonian publication, and one was acquired for display at B.B. King’s nightclub in New York City. Machines, automobiles, and musical instruments are the obvious inspiration for many of these extraordinary pieces. They combine incredible detail with a sense of child-like wonder. Asked to explain, he says, "When I was a kid, I didn’t play with my toys, I’d arrange them, according to color or shape or material. I’ve never been able to walk past a Dumpster without looking in."
All this only tells you a little bit about Mark Taber. To me, he is a hero because of his decades of dedication to art — art that brings delight and happiness to so many. He is the purest artist I know. His generosity of spirit is remarkable. He freely and willingly shares his gifts with everyone. And he has been a true inspiration to all those who have had the pleasure to know him or had the opportunity to experience his art.
— Rudy Cheekspage 1 page 2 page 3
Issue Date: November 19 - 25, 2004
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