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Thursday, February 17, 2011

How I Learned to Love the Unions

What would the 50's and 60's have been like without the unions?

Found at IAM's site
"Love" is probably a strong word as I do have some complaints about unions.  However, I have developed a newly-found appreciation for them as I watch the attempts to strip them of authority and power.

My Dad, Union Man

My Dad was a bright guy, but he came from a dirt poor family and never finished high school. The house he lived in as a kid was still standing when we were little, and we couldn't believe that Dad had lived in a ...shack.  

Dad struggled as an adolescent in the late 30's, taking odd jobs, and trying to get enough cash together to take a few courses in car or truck repair. He went into WWII, married my Mom, got out of the service, worked this job and that, and eventually got a solid job, a union job, in the mid 50's. 

He stayed there for 33 years. He got a few patents while he worked for his telephone manufacturer employer; he was bright and worked closely with the engineers and earned their respect over and over again even though he lacked formal education.

During those 33 years, he and my mom raised two kids, bought a house, paid it off, bought an apartment building for rental income and paid that off. They helped to put their two kids through college, though state universities were not very expensive back then. (Working class kids could actually go through the state university system and not graduate owing tens of thousands of dollars.)  My parents accumulated capital, helped their kids out, enjoyed their grandkids, lived a comfortable, though not ostentatious, life, and enjoyed a dignified retirement..

Now, my dad was bright. The anti-union people would say that he didn't need the union, and maybe the union held him back. I don't think that was true. He was not educated, though degrees weren't as important back then as they are now, and he was kind of a quiet guy. I don't think he would have come across well in interviews. He worked his tail off for those 33 years, rarely took a day off. Because he was in a union, nobody laid him off from his company when he was in his 50's or 60's, which is what companies without unions can easily do these days.  (Ask my husband about that.)

His company eventually shut down the plant that he worked in, as they shipped their functions to cheaper labor places in the south and booming southwest. The company needed to be "competitive" of course, and all of those highly-paid union guys, you know the ones who actually made enough money to feed their families, buy homes, and send their kids off to school, were not making the company "competitive" enough.  But my Dad had retired by that time.

For all of those people, mostly men, who were able to provide a much better life for their families in the 50's, 60's, and 70's than their parents could have ever imagined, the unions were a very good thing.

The problem isn't the unions; it is that there aren't enough of them.. all over the world.

Yes, there are some corrupt union officials who just take money from the union members. But aren't the people who are really taking money from the working people these days the CEO's who get more in bonuses  every time a person is let go or every time a job is off-shored? And the hedge fund managers and banksters who have turned our financial system into a casino often on the backs of the middle and working classes?

Organized labor wouldn't be a necessity if corporations treated their employees as valued participants in the products they are producing... instead of as buckets on a spreadsheet somewhere. Too many people have forgotten why unions started and gained strength.  It's not that the pie isn't big enough; it's that some people are getting really, really big pieces.... and others are getting crumbs.

Perhaps the unions can re-invigorate themselves by helping people fight for a bigger piece of pie.


  1. Great read! Unions are beneficial to America. they represent more than just their members. They have set labor laws for all of us, not just members. People dont realize how important they really are. My husband is a 3rd generation member of the IBEW and proud of it!! We need MORE unions, not less.

  2. Thanks, anonymous. I've been reading so much lately about "union thugs" and "union workers stealing money from taxpayers". There are some legitimate complaints about unions, but where would any of us be without them? And all we need to do is to look at what anti-worker state legislatures all over the country are trying to do now that they have a bit more power. It isn't pretty.

  3. I love your post! Unions built modern America, and without them we would have a much worse country.

    I am on the Board of Directors of an organization that has union employees. We have an excellent relationship with them, and we want them to continue to work with us. (Our relationship with the union is so good that even though the union representative is a voting board member, they never attend a single meeting, because they know we as a company cannot survive without them, and they know we know it!) On the whole, the union CBA saves us time and money, and we do much better than our competition which suffers strikes, etc. because they don't want to treat their employees fairly.

  4. I support union rights, as well. To be told you are not even allowed to sit at the table and negotiate is unAmerican, to me. Unfortunately, unions have become weaker over the years. They have lost the strength to defend workers the way they should be defended. My son, while in college (full-time), worked part time at UPS. He worked in the package handling area. As was typical of my of these workers, he hurt his back lifting boxes. He ended up with a couple of hernia's and ended up having surgery. After surgery there were complications and he needed another operation. But his back never got better. He was told by UPS that because he could not prove that the injury happened at work, he wouldn't get workers comp, which is in the contract even for part timers. He spoke with the union officials and they said there was nothing they could do to help him, because in years of negotiations the ability to claim injury because of back problems incurred at UPS was taken away. He ended up having to leave school, because he couldn't sit in a chair long enough to get through a class. He still can't sit for long periods of time, has physical therapy once a week, and takes courses either online or at the local jr college now. His life just hasn't been the same since. Unions need to be reformed for any kind of corruption, but they also need to become stronger again.

  5. Dandl, thanks for your comment, and I'm very sorry about your son's situation. I know that workman's comp is hard to prove in many situations.. especially if the person doesn't get hurt right then and there on the job. I wish you and he all of the best; and, you are right, unions need to be stronger and more effective advocates for workers.. even part-time workers.

  6. Judie from Oneida County, Central NYSeptember 14, 2011 at 11:14 PM

    Thanks for the Labor Day comment about the Unions and your Father. My father was the same generation and very good at building & fixing things. He worked forty-one years in the same mill, except for WWII. His Union didn't do well until just before he retired but he got a few good final years and a decent pension to go with his Social Security. So I'm also for Unions because of minimum wage, 40 hour week & then overtime, and Union wages bringing non-Union wages up and the pensions. Also health and safety in the workplace. I think everyone should be able to join a Union, even the unemployed, disabled and stay-at-home mothers or fathers. How aabount a worldwide people's Union... I know, too simplistic. Thanks again.


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