A Labor Reporter’s Prayer on Being a Witness

Nurses hold a demonstration outside Jacobi Medical Center to protest a new policy by the hospital requiring a doctor's note for paid sick leave, Friday, April 17, 2020, in the Bronx borough of New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

When I get scared as a labor reporter in the midst of covering trauma, I often say this prayer to center myself. 

“Dear Lord, 

Give me the strength of my ancestors.

Give me the strength to be a witness.

Give me the strength to make truth a sword of justice.” 

It’s a prayer I developed as a labor reporter while struggling with PTSD issues that I suffered after covering the Drug War in Brasil and too many preventable workplace deaths. In times when I struggled to focus, I would say this prayer. 

As a Jew, who grew up in three generations of the United Electric Workers (UE), faith in my family’s heritage of fighting oppression as Jews and in the UE, has always pushed me. In times of doubt, the stories of my family’s fight against McCarthyism, the blacklist, and red-baiting have always pushed me to believe that we can preserve no matter who we are fighting.  

I said this prayer on October 27, 2018 before I left to go to the scene of an active shooter situation at Tree of Life Synagogue. I arrived on a cold, rainy morning and watched the massacre unfold as SWAT teams retook the synagogue that stood in front of my childhood bus stop. And in those moments of horror, the role of being a witness focused me. 

I have also found myself saying this prayer many times in the last few months. During the pandemic, we have seen an enormous number of people unnecessarily die. It’s been a wound in the lives of so many.

I still find myself in tears when I think about how so many of us labor reporters predicted what would happen in the meatpacking industry and then saw over 20,000 meatpackers, largely immigrants, come down with COVID.

But I find myself beaming with pride when I think about all the Black garbage workers here in Pittsburgh, who decided to shut it down and go on a wildcat strike in the early days of what would be the biggest strike wave in more than a generation. 

I find myself beaming with pride to have witnessed the massive, unprecedented strike wave that the Black Lives Matter movement propelled this summer. 

Since March 1, there have been over 1,000 strikes, which we’ve been proud to track here as a map of how people are moving forward in this time of pain. 

Being a witness brings its own pain, but if you hold long enough, you’re almost certain to witness a hell of a fightback. 

In pain, we ask ourselves questions that we wouldn’t if we weren’t in such pain. And in the moments, we grow like we are growing now.

In the coming months and years, may whatever legacies we look to for hope in times of peril, give us the strength to be a witness, give us the strength to make truth a sword of justice in our own lives. And may we in this moment witness a legacy of fighting back to could inspire future generations in times of doubt like the stories of my ancestors have inspired mine. 

In this moment, give us all the strength to be a witness. 

Happy Labor Day. 

Love & Solidarity, 

Melk 

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About the Author

Mike Elk
Mike Elk is a yinzer labor reporter who covered the drug war in Brasil and spent years covering union organizing in the South for The Guardian. In 2016, he used his $70,000 NLRB settlement from being fired in the union drive at Politico to start the crowd-funded Payday Report. The son of United Electrical Workers (UE) Director of Organization Gene Elk, he lives in his hometown of Pittsburgh. Email: Melk@PaydayReport.com

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