Labor of Love
by Calendar Hacksaw
Not long ago, a good friend loaned me a book containing a quote from Mark Twain.
"Write about what you know about."
Just six simple words; a lot to digest, but not as easy as it seems. I thought long and hard about what I "know about," but really couldnít come up with anything of general interest. I guess thatís just the kind of life olí Calendar leads, and it sure explains these past 5 years of columns.
What with Labor Day coming up and all, I thought this month Iíd dwell a bit on my experiences with the labor movement in America, and how it shaped my life. I donít pretend to be any kind of expert on Taft-Hartley; these are just personal reminisces and opinions, so donít bother sending me any hate mail.
When I was just a kid, about 5 or 6 years old, my dad started taking me along on trips to the union hall. It was down on West 3rd Street, in the worst part of town. We usually went on Saturday mornings, invariably during the winter when the world was gloomy and wet and flat broke. During periods of unemployment, the trips were intended to renew hopes for a job. And the number of other men present served as a good barometer of when that new job might or might not be coming up.
The union hall was a gray concrete building on a dirty gray sidewalk in a gray city that in many ways is worse off now than it was 50 years ago. Today, like then, it remains a town without goals or vision, waiting for the next snake oil salesman to come along with some lousy pipe dream guaranteeing better times.
There was no front door to the union hall; just an opening leading from the sidewalk into a barren anteroom. Being inside was just like being outside, except drier. There, my dad would join a couple of dozen other men, all wearing identical khaki pants and shirts, talking quietly, waiting for something.
Most were sick with colds and the flu, and devoted smokers of anything containing tobacco. Coughing and wheezing, they would blow snot onto the slimy concrete floor, or spit out whatever phlegm they could hack up in the course of a good coughing fit. It seemed right to me.
On the wall opposite the entrance was a window, and behind that was the union office. The jobs, when there were any, came through that window. There was a woman inside, and she handed out the jobs. She would call out a name and a fellow would walk to the window, the woman would hand him a piece of paper, and he would disappear back out onto 3rd Street, avoiding eye contact with anyone. One less man in the room. The lucky one. Thatís the way the system worked.
Just as I came to understand that the woman on the other size of the glass represented all the power in the union, I also learned that my dad and the other men were its strength. They made sacrifices. They wanted better lives for their families, and willingly sacrificed personal health and happiness to make that dream come true. One decade later, that same local union had a bright and shiny new headquarters of its own, and the international union was loaning massive sums of money for construction jobs that in turn kept many more union men employed.
My dad was a charter member of that local; a Brother for almost 40 years and proud of it until the day he died. In many ways he was defined by his membership in the union, and thatís something I didnít fully understand until I spent some time with a cousinís husband who had become a business agent in the same union.
Jim managed to drill into my thick skull what my dad hadnít been able to accomplish. Union membership isnít a casual affair to be taken lightly; not something to be enjoyed in good times and abandoned in bad. No, if youíre in it, youíre in it for the long haul. When the union says, "Walk," you walk. You put in your hours on the picket line and stay the course. Without solidarity, there is no union and there are no gains. Thereís no place for "fair weather" Brothers; on the contrary, they are cancers that must be cut out at the earliest possible time. Everything you have you owe to the union, and thatís the way it should be. To think otherwise is to stink.
One local had possession of a valuable photograph of the chief negotiator from the other side of the bargaining table slipping out of a motel room with someone other than his wife. The union fellows could have easily stooped to blackmail or threats with that photo, but thatís not the way it works. So they just held on to the incriminating evidence; kept it in the office safe. And when that fella double-crossed the union, that telling photo went straight to the local newspaper for publication the next morning, and thereís a lesson to be learned from that. Stick to your word; itís all youíve got.
This was a "real" union, not like some of these wimpy meet-and-confer associations we see today. Iíve belonged to several "unions" in my work life, not to mention a bunch of "employeesí associations" and even one "management bargaining unit." What jokes. All talk and no action because the members refused to take orders from anyone, and were far too afraid of losing their jobs and paychecks to ever consider the greater good.
I read now that union membership is enjoying resurgence. Thatís good news. In the new economy, we have business models that bear no resemblance to their predecessors. I canít picture thousands of Microsoft, Intel or AOL programmers and engineers walking the line, demanding 3% raises and $20 per diem.
To be perfectly honest, I scabbed once, for about three months when I was 18 or 19. I was selfish and would never do it again. But being sorry for my actions doesnít change anything. A criminal is presumed to have paid his debt to society as soon as he walks out of prison, but a scab remains branded for life. Those are the rules. We live by the rules.
Janis Joplin said, "Donít compromise yourself. You are all youíve got."
Poor Janis didnít get it right. She never had a union behind her, and she was always alone.
Calendar Hacksaw hangs out at http://www.calendarhacksaw.com, and he always looks for the union label when buying that coat, dress or blouse. Hey, is Wrangler a union shop?