Plight of temporary workers prompts former St. Louis Park council member to write musical comedy

Former St. Louis Park Councilmember Phil Finkelstein interacts with his grandchildren, who he calls his “two toughest critics,” Tova Shamsi, right, and Ora Shamsi. (Submitted photo) A promotional photo for “The New Gig Economy, A Musical Comedy” shows an overturned coffee cup that is mostly empty. The less-than-half-full cup represents a view of the current economic state for temporary workers. (Submitted photo)
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A promotional photo for “The New Gig Economy, A Musical Comedy” shows an overturned coffee cup that is mostly empty. The less-than-half-full cup represents a view of the current economic state for temporary workers. (Submitted photo)

When former St. Louis Park Councilmember Phil Finkelstein thought about the problems a modern worker can face, songs and comedy came to mind.

Finkelstein is retired after more than 30 years as a union attorney but is still working gigs and thinking about others in the same position.

With the help of fellow attorney Jay Juran, Finkelstein wrote a series of acoustic songs and placed them into a script. Finkelstein’s play, “The New Gig Economy, A Musical Comedy,” will premiere at this year’s Minnesota Fringe Festival.

“Rather than write a whiny novel or a depressing poem, why not have some fun and write a musical comedy?” Finkelstein said. “That’s what I did.”

The short songs, which often feature rhyming lyrics, express the plaintive situation of a person seeking to find work.

The song “582 Minutes” includes the line, “I sit and sit and patiently click and hope that someday I’ll get a new schtick.”

“Frayed Collars” focuses on a career Finkelstein knows something about: law. The song, which contrasts the character’s plight with a prominent Minnesota attorney’s career, begins, “Frayed collars, no dollars, but that’s what I got. A law degree that’s worthless to me, economic state of rot. Frayed collars, no dollars. What a silly absurdity. I thought I’d be Ron Meshbesher, but I’m only a worker bee.”

The song “Trying to Benefit” takes a critical view toward companies that do not provide insurance and pensions. The song begins, “Hey mister employer, I’m putting you on trial. You’re holding all the cards while I’m living in denial.”

Finkelstein later clarified that he did not want to be overly harsh on employers, though.

“Things move so much quicker and faster, and they need to be able to change, but we do, too,” he said.

Finkelstein said he began working on the play about a year ago.

“I’ve been real concerned about what’s been going on with the nature of work,” Finkelstein said. “It seems like the old employment contract is dead. What this musical comedy attempts to tell is how employees can respond to that. It takes a look at the day of a life in temporary contingent employees.”

Such employees have no guarantee of pay or hours. A person who anticipates working on a project for six months may learn after six days that the client decided to end the project, Finkelstein said.

The play focuses on how such workers seek to keep their dreams and economic boats above water while responding to challenges, he said.

“They keep talking about how great the new gig economy is, and everybody’s going to sit there and get their job on the web as they’re sitting at the coffee shop,” Finkelstein said. “Well, that’s not how life works. For retirees or part-time workers, this may be a good system, but for other people it’s an issue.”

Finkelstein has worked as a temporary worker since his retirement as well as traveling, hiking and taking photographs.

“Each year I try to do a different creative project,” Finkelstein said. “I want to grow bolder, not just older. This just seemed like a fun way to do it.”

He noted that his life has changed since he spent eight years on the St. Louis Park council.

“I’m working less and thinking and creating more now,” Finkelstein said, adding that he still never stops thinking, though.

He has been in a fortunate position compared to many temporary workers because he receives benefits through his wife’s employer, is collecting a pension and graduated from law school at a time when students did not have to take on as much debt, he said.

“But for people just coming out of school, especially law school, there’s much more of a heavy load on their backs,” Finkelstein said. “I think we Americans are a good, hearty lot and people are creative, but every individual has to respond differently.”

The economy can be viewed as a glass half full or half empty, he added. To promote his musical, Finkelstein took a picture of an overturned, mostly empty cup of coffee by a pair of fliers for the play.

“You have to be able to find humor in every day of your life,” he said. “Otherwise, the climb is too tough.”

Reflections on his council role

Finkelstein seriously reflected upon his own past role as a city council member, though.

“When we do a economic development and we build these fancy palaces, what kind of jobs are we creating? And who’s going to be able to afford to live in them?” Finkelstein asked. “Hindsight is always 20/20. I wish I had pushed more on affordable housing.”

He credited current city leaders for working more to ensure the city focuses on affordable, workforce housing.

“I think the city and the council and the staff have done a great job of shepherding it to where the city has essentially reinvented itself,” Finkelstein said. “I think they’ve had thoughtful development.”

He still stands by a decision the council made while he served to promote additional housing in the city on vacant lots. Some people protested the move to build on what they viewed as open space.

“We took a lot of heat for that, and the council looked forward, and hopefully the present council does that, too,” Finkelstein said.

While he wants to use his latest public work to provoke conversation, he does not want people to take the play too seriously, either.

“I wanted something where people would get some joy and it would promote some thinking,” Finkelstein said. “It’s been fun to create something new.

“As you get older, a lot of times people don’t think they have the mojo to do something different, and we all do. We all have that spark, and we all need to let it out and let it see the sun and grow. That’s what I hope the play does is encourage people to do that.”

The play will be performed five times Aug. 4-13 at the Phoenix Theater, 2605 Hennepin Ave. in Minneapolis. Show times and reservations are available at tinyurl.com/NewGigEconomy.