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“Bring a Little Hope and a Little Help” A Conversation with Lydia Glaize

The Alliance Theatre got together with Lydia Glaize over Facetime to talk about Sweat, work, and the local labor movement. In her role as Labor Liaison for United Way of Greater Atlanta, Glaize supports union members and their families through programming, fundraising, and advocacy work. She also manages the United Way’s Labor Emergency Relief Fund, which supports the families of the labor community in their time of critical need. Glaize is a former educator and served as city councilwoman in Fairburn, Georgia. Read on for some highlights from our conversation.

Alliance Theatre (AT): Hi, Lydia! I’d love to start with your first reaction to Sweat

Lydia Glaize (LG): Good to see you! So many things are happening simultaneously right now, we are in a global crisis, but I certainly wanted to take some time out and say how important I think this play is for the labor community, the Alliance Theatre, United Way, and the arts community in Atlanta. 

Sweat gives us a close-up view of the intricacies of global and local crisis in our cities and for our people. I thought it was just done so well. I was wondering how one scene, a bar scene, was really going to hold the depth of all that was going in Reading, Pennsylvania, at that time…It was brilliant! 

AT: Based on your background and perspective, what about Sweat stood out for you?

LG: Reading, Pennsylvania, was probably less than an hour and half away from where I grew up. That’s the area where my Dad and his brothers came up when they left sharecropping in Georgia.  He was one of those “scabs” that crossed the line in the Pennsylvania steel mill industry in the late 1950s. There were not a lot of jobs for African Americans other than farming in the South, and it was difficult for them get hired at those manufacturing and steel plants in the Northeast and Midwest. Sweat really helped me see what I heard growing up about my dad and his brothers finding work in the factories. It gave me a real picture of the divides inside a community when people are just trying to eke out an existence and feed their families.  

Also, I was not fully aware of the devastating emotional toll on people when manufacturing jobs leave America’s towns. As a former municipal elected official, I was heartbroken. When I was in office, I was always searching for ways to bring members of our city into a better quality of life, through higher education, better jobs, and supporting manufacturing companies in my city. To live through the disappearance of your local economy is, no doubt, horrific. However, just reading through the play—it pulled my heartstrings. I wanted to cry. Then, I wanted to clap when I saw the camaraderie when everyone was working together, the fears were not there, people’s guards were down and there was room for this unity and care—one to another. It broke down barriers. As soon as the local economy was relocated out of the city and hard times came in Sweat, all the other divisions came back along with emotional pain, isolation, and lack of resources and alternatives.

AT: What were some of the big takeaways for you, reading Sweat? 

LG: I think a lesson learned is that we keep repeating these cycles during crisis. This play reminds us that we have to rise above crisis intact, because humanity is one brotherhood. If one part is not doing well and is hungry, then certainly those who are not hungry and doing well should care in some way. I hope that this play will continue to give us a better sense of our responsibilities to humanity, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. There is a local union in which 80% of their workers are without work. I think we’ve got to be ready to mobilize and assist these working families—we don't want to continue to repeat the past. How can we learn and get better and do better? We’re here again, in critical times with the worst economic downturn globally in this century, or maybe ever. And how will we come out of this? This is play so timely for its Atlanta audience. 

Sweat gives us a picture of our humanity during critical times. It mirrors our fears and gives our heart time to process it all. Hopefully, we’ll do better, one for another, and get through this pandemic together without all the fears and the fatal outcomes when we’re divided. 

AT: Were there particular characters that stood out to you?

LG: Stan was the character who I really kind of rode in his shoes throughout the play, until I got to the end. I was not prepared for what happened to him; that was very surprising. However, throughout the play, he was the level-headed guy. He was the one who was wiser, had experienced three generations at the plant, had remained in the town after retiring due to a workplace injury. He attempted to bring different generations, different racial and ethnic groups, together. He was their encourager. I thought if ever there was a person that you want be, it’s Stan. He was a peacemaker. The one who finds good and points to the things that overall are right to do or not to do. His character for me was refreshing; he gave hope to a lot of the folks who were working at the plant and coming into the bar. 

The relationship between Cynthia and Tracey was interesting to me, as well. Not only did they have a relationship; it began when they were young. It's so much easier to become friends and nurture a solid relationship when you are eighteen or nineteen years old, and they basically started life together, worked together, travelled together, had husbands or significant others, and had their sons play together. They were really a close-knit group. To see their friendship get torn apart was difficult to read, and I felt sad. But I thought they were brave women. They were supportive women. They were the life of the party, the life of the town, the life of the plant. They didn’t let life get them down, when they were together. The fact that they went head-to-head for the supervisor's job and they welcomed it, saying, “Ok, fine. You’re applying? I’m applying”—that was difficult to wrap my head around.

AT: It’s so devastating to see that relationship fracture during the play.  

LG: Yes. I do think that management was crafty on who they selected for the position. Because they knew where it was going to lead and who they needed to put on the front lines—to lock out their friends who had been employed there for years. They never considered the human toll on relationships. 

AT: I’d love to know more about your current work at United Way and your role as Labor Liaison. How did you find yourself in that role?

LG: I do want to set the stage and say that United Way has partnered with the largest federation of unions in the United States—the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO)—for over eighty years. There has been long-standing relationship between the largest nonprofit in the United States and the labor community. They have the same priorities in the areas of health, education, welfare, workplace safety, and community outreach.

When I came to this work as Atlanta’s Labor Liaison, it was the perfect job after being an educator, a former auditor with the IRS, and, most recently, an elected official. I worked closely with the new pension laws in the early 1980s. Labor sounded the alarm on corporations using retirement funds in the course of everyday business. There were no federal laws and guidelines to keep them from dipping into retirement accounts and using them in their everyday business model. The federal government responded with the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act (TEFRA) of 1982. I was one of hundreds of auditors around the nation hired to approve existing and new retirement plans under the new guidelines. Labor was on the forefront of that monumental win.

When I accepted the Labor Liaison position at United Way of Greater Atlanta in 2018, I saw an opportunity to support working class folks who stand on the front lines of the American economy, yet at times will need support of various kinds. This Labor Liaison position was created to be there in times of need for union employees. 

AT: What are some ways that you support labor and their families in your work? 

LG:  I work in five areas: community engagement, relationship building, union support, labor emergency relief, and advocacy for issues that relate to working people. I manage the Labor Emergency Relief Fund, in which union members can receive financial assistance during an emergency. United Way–AFL-CIO also forms partnerships in the nonprofit community, in the faith-based community, in the health industry, and many other areas to assure that we’ve built safety nets for our labor union members and community members when they enter into a crisis or experience need. We also work on long-term sustainable solutions to societal ills of poverty, health disparities, education disparities, and food and housing insecurities.

The labor community also offers apprenticeship programs which are approved by the US Department of Labor. In the Atlanta area, we have 13 apprenticeships: they are “earn while you learn” programs. So, if you want to be a brick mason, an electrical worker, a sheet metal worker, or a MARTA bus driver, those programs are available. You go to work immediately with one of the union employers, and you take classes in the evenings or on the weekends, and eventually you can become a certified journeyman.

AT: What are the most important issues guiding your advocacy work?

LG: Sustainable or livable wage is extremely important to begin to eradicate abject poverty in Georgia. You would not believe it, but it is still under $7. This is inhumane when we consider the soaring cost to reside in metro areas of Georgia, particularly the Atlanta metro area. Affordable housing stock is virtually impossible to find for those living between the 10% to 60% average medium household income, and workforce development is challenged to keep apace with the new job markets. These a just a few areas of our advocacy work that affect the general population in Georgia.

AT: What are some of the connections you see between your work and Sweat? 

LG:  I saw labor union executives fighting on the front lines to keep jobs on American soil and to ensure livable wages and safe working conditions—this is the same fight in the labor community in 2020. My role allows for collective work with the labor community toward our shared missions of providing support and sustainable programming to address societal ills.

AT: What are some ways that Sweat play club participants can support the labor union community, especially this time of global crisis? 

LG: Remember those employees on the front lines and thank them. I think we’re doing it. We’re coming and we’re saying, “Thank you for putting your life on the line and being on the front by coming to work every day to make sure there’s food on the shelf, that we have a way of going through the line to pay you, that we can bring back home what is sustenance for us.” Remember them. If they’re in your community, don’t forget to write them a note to say, “Thank you, is there anything we can do since you’re working an average of twelve- to sixteen-hour days? Can we bring your family something?” Somewhere in life, we’re running across them, whether it's the grocery store, the airport, on your block, at your child's school, at your synagogue or church or place of worship. There are union members all around us, and they may need our help. Ask around and find out what you can do to bring a little hope and a little help. 

United Way of Greater Atlanta and the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta have partnered to create the Greater Atlanta COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund to support individuals, families, and communities impacted by the pandemic. You can help by donating online. We would be very excited and grateful for the financial support. 

AT: Thank you, Lydia, for talking with us and sharing more about your background, your work, and your reaction to Sweat. Be well!

LG: It was just amazing. I have a son who is a thespian, and I usually go and see the end product, but now I’m going to take a deeper interest and start reading more plays! Thank you. 

To learn more about how United Way of Greater Atlanta and the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta are supporting working families during the COVID-19 pandemic, visit the United Way’s website. Click here donate to the relief fund. United Way has also set up a Digital Listening Tool for organizations to assess the greatest needs of the greater Atlanta community and develop a community-informed plan for pandemic assistance. 

Note: this interview has been shortened and edited from the original conversation on April 16.

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