Alex Gallo-Brown is a poet, writer, and union organizer. His dedication to the labor movement is much needed leadership during our unstable times. In May 2021, Mr. Gallo-Brown published the article Why Are We Expected to Love Our Jobs? in Yes! Magazine, and his writing reminds readers not what matters most, but who: people.
In late 2019, Alex Gallo-Brown published a collection of stories and poems called Variations of Labor (Chin Music Press). Writer and Vietnam veteran Si Dunn praised Variations of Labor by saying, "Seem[s] startlingly timed to speak to the loss, confusion, and desperation now felt by untold millions of people thrown out of work by the coronavirus pandemic... I second the nomination of Alex Gallo-Brown to 'Poet of the Service Economy.'"
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
D.A. Navoti: What's the origin story of Variations of Labor?
Alex Gallo-Brown: Early on in my life, when I was probably in my early twenties, I had this idea that I wanted to write stories set in Seattle, where I grew up. The book is modeled after a Richard Yates book of stories set in New York. So I wanted to do that. And I was writing these short stories about Seattle. I’d written a lot of poems that ended up having a lot of labor themes. Ultimately, I put those two projects into one book about labor.
DAN: What is your earliest experience when you knew language had power?
AGB: That's a great question. When I was like five years old my dad gave me books. I started reading Nancy Drew books. And I loved them. Then I started writing my own stuff.
When I was maybe 12, I wrote a story about my dog dying and I remember it almost made my parents cry. Writing was a good place to put my feelings somewhere.
DAN: How did publishing your first book change your writing process?
AGB: I haven't been writing as much, and I think part of that has to do with the pandemic. And I'm in a different place. I’m a father and a person who goes to work. I'm in the process of trying to understand what my next project might look like. And I'm not sure exactly what that is yet.
DAN: It's a bit ironic that your book is about labor and you're doing your best to figure out your next project while having the work.
AGB: Yeah. And I've gotten deeper into the labor movement. A lot of my life is labor organizing and participating in various union activities. I do love that work. But it takes a lot of my emotional and intellectual bandwidth.
DAN: Can you speak more about intellectual bandwidth?
AGB: Have a clear mind when you can. I want to get up and wander around and look at the sky and think. It’s hard to do that, though, when you have a lot of other responsibilities.
DAN: Your book reminded me of a recent conversation with my business students. I teach young adults 18 to 24 years of age. I tell them don’t work for free. Be paid for your labor. The other thing I tell them is to be cautious of the five-days-a-week-of-work mentality. This is the first time in 20 years that I've been able to work part-time. And I have this feeling like I'm not doing enough. Why do I feel that way? It's like, what has groomed me to feel like I need to work full time all the time?
AGB: I think there's an expectation with productivity. You go to work and you're at work most of your life.
And if you're not working, there's a problem with you. Your job is your identity, too. In 2009, during the Great Recession, I was unemployed just out of college. I couldn't find a job. When I'd meet someone, they'd be like, “Oh, what do you do for work?” I'd reply, “I don't have a job right now.” And oh God, that's unacceptable. People don't know how to make sense of that. Identity is so wrapped up in what we do for work.
DAN: I have a bad habit when I meet people. I ask what they do for work. Because that tells me what value to society they have. Therefore, and on a subconscious level, I decide what type of respect I can give them. It's a terrible habit that I've been recognizing more and more during the pandemic. Just there's so much reflection time now. What can people do to be more conscious of labor rights?
AGB: Don’t feel pressured to work all the time. It can be a good thing to sit around, look out the window, restore yourself, and prioritize your relationships. Be attentive to people you love and listen to others.
Alex Gallo-Brown is a poet and labor organizer in Seattle. He is the author of Variations of Labor (Chin Music Press, 2019), a collection of poems and stories. Learn more at www.alexgallobrown.com