Union for life

I graduated high school in 1970.  I grew up in a blue collar factory town where unions were a way of life.  My dad was a union brick/stone mason.  He was quite the artisan with a trowel, he did beautiful work, and my brothers and I often “carried hod” for him.  I can still see him in khaki shirt, dark blue ball hat with “mud” smeared all over him, cigarette dangling from his mouth.  My God he worked hard, also drank hard too.

I’ve been working at something since I was twelve years old.  I was stocking shelves when I graduated from high school.  My life plans were to get married, find a job in one of the many factories in town, make union scale, buy a home, raise a family, retire when I got to 65 and so on…all of this at age 17, I had my entire life all figured out.  I had been paying into Social Security since I was sixteen.

After graduation, I quit my job at the grocery store and was hired on as an apprentice iron worker at one of two local foundries (both vacant lots now) and at union scale, I believe $5.25 an hour.  It was during the Viet Nam War and I really thought I was going to be drafted….but my number was so high that I wasn’t called to serve after all.  I had several friends who did, two whose names adorn the memorial wall in DC.  Instead, I went into a different man’s world.  I was photographed, given a security card with my photo on it along with my employee number.  A guard would check our card upon entry at the gate every day.  I was also issued a steel hard hat.

I was pretty scrawny and going into work with all of these older, hardened “hard hats” was an experience I still remember.  I was assigned to an older vet named Tyrone who was to teach me the intricacies of standing on a moving conveyor belt while pouring molten steel into hardened sand molds.  The molds were fashioned into crank shafts for army vehicles.  We also made the casings for 60 mm mortar shells that were then sent to the Rock Island Arsenal to be loaded with high explosives and then sent to the grunts on the front lines in Viet Nam.

It was hard, tedious, hot and sometime dangerous work.  The building was cavernous, big fans blowing in hot air to a building that was already hot.  Decatur, Illinois boasted 100+ degrees in the summer with 98% humidity.  In August, you ate salt tablets and drank great draughts of ice cold water.  You were surrounded by hot sweating men in an atmosphere that Dante would cringe at.  I was a strong, young, innocent man who was determined that against all odds, I would become a union iron worker.

I stood on that conveyor belt, large ladle in canvas sheathed gloves pouring molten steel into mold after black mold.  When I ran out of liquid steel, I jumped off the belt, ran my bucket down the line to the fork lift driver bringing more of the fluid, war making stuff to pour into my “bucket.”  Once in a while, my relief man would be too drunk to come in and I would pull a double shift.  When I was finally off work I was hungry enough to eat a cow and thirsty enough to consume a Niagara.

I would head to the showers to try and wash off the black foundry sand that clogged my pores.  My eyes and forehead were white from my protective goggles and hard hat, but the black sand always managed too make it through my khaki work clothing.  Scrub as I might, I could never get it all off.  I think my sand encrusted clothing helped to destroy my mother’s washing machine.

After my shower, the older guys would take me across the street to an open field dominated by a shack with a large horse trough out in front.  The trough was filled with ice water and dozens of bottles of Miller High Life and Budweiser.  This was long before the advent of the microbrew.  I wasn’t old enough to legally drink yet, but no one carded me, and I swear, in that hot stiffening air, I could feel as though I was drinking the nectar of the gods.  I can’t stand those liquids now, much preferring the micro beers that are now so much in abundance.  My Lord it was almost surreal!

The older men would make snide, good natured comments about my lack of sexual prowess (yes it was a man’s world)  Most of them bragging about conquests that at the time seemed too good to be true and as I now know, were.  I attended the monthly union meetings where the talk of strikes and getting even with “Johnnie Wagner” the millionaire owner of Warner Castings seemed to be raking in even more dough at the expense of his workers.  One man was actually fried to death when he lost control of his fork lift and his tub of hot steel sloshed on him.  Trying to hurry but lost his life in doing so.  I heard his death scream and smelled his burning flesh.

I paid my dues, paid into Social Security and still get pissed when I hear someone say that the unions ruined this country.  We worked like dogs and were paid decent wages only because we forced the companies to pay them.  Those days are now long gone.  Now they want us to back off of Social security too?  I’m not sure I understand why there is not more of an outcry about the rich bastards in Washington wanting to take it away.

  8 comments for “Union for life

  1. November 25, 2010 at 11:41 am

    My grandfather died on the steps of the Vandergrift, PA United States Steel plant after a sunday shift during the Depression. I can relate to this story completely. Union laborers made this country what it is. Anytime I hear attacks levelled at unions, I think of the shiny-suited shitheels that have had their foot on the throat of America’s working class for over a century. You can’t scare me, I’m stickin to the Union!

    November 27, 2010 at 9:45 pm

    One has to account for the perceived “need” for huge money to have more. Remember “W” acknowledging the “have’s” and the “have more’s?” Playing to one’s base is very politic. You see, huge money doesn’t have to expend much to “maintain” itself. But it does want to accumulate enough so that the grandchildren don’t have to worry — so that they can reserve liquidity to pounce on every “opportunity” (something Obama didn’t allow, hence one reason for the hatred today) and still have enough for lavish expenses and contingencies. Remember that Henry Ford had his striking workers fired on once. And think of the Ludlow Massacre, where the National Guard was used as a tool of huge money. All is expendable to insure not just the survival but the vibrancy of uncountable wealth. All in, to use Alan Greenspan’s words, steadier hands. You see, the average guy (and Union cogs) doesn’t know what to do with money. He just spends it, as he is told to do. Don’t look now, but had it not been for the housing crash we might well be seeing the revival of the “company town” by now. Maybe we live in one now; I’m unsure.

    Oh, by the way: unions are and never have been an undistilled good thing in all cases and places. Just look at the Post Office. There, Houston, is a problem. And throwing money at it does not and will not solve it!

  3. November 27, 2010 at 9:49 pm

    Good points Fred. The bottom line – power and money. Too much of either (or both) corrupts. The union bosses that got into bed with the Mafia were just following the lead of their business-owner counterparts. Meanwhile, the working man just tried to get along. It takes participation and asking questions. Just doing as you’re told is never the right answer – and what led to the abuses of the union system.

  4. Don Coulson
    November 27, 2010 at 10:27 pm

    I was once a partner in a company with 87 employees and five unions. The job description lines were almost engraved in the concrete floor and God help anyone who crossed one, regardless of how it might have helped a fellow employee or possibly the various union’s arch-enemy- the guys who signed their pay checks.

    Despite offering a higher wage, better benefits and a much stronger pension plan, the union held its stranglehold on its membership. I was long gone when the company went into bankruptcy, for it was impossible to operate under the conditions imposed by the various unions. One need look no further than the US Postal Service to see a parallel universe; in both cases the benefits to the customer and the long-term health of the employer became secondary to the well-being of the union. The short-term gain led inexorably to increasing loss of clients and inevitably the bankruptcy of my company just as it will in time lead to the death of the US Postal Service.

    I have long held that a company deserves the union it gets; that a fair, competitive wage, job security, safe and humane working conditions and respect for an employee’s skills should trump any need for a union, but alas, corporate greed has long overwhelmed these tenets of decency. The result has been greater union militancy and a vast expansion in the ratio of management-worker wage disparity.

    Neither side are paragons of virtue, especially today in this global economy dominated by third world factories churning out goods at wage levels a fraction of America’s. There may yet come a time when management looks at the diminishing middle class and understands the quiet suicide it’s engaged in. There may yet be a tacit agreement that executive pay should not exceed perhaps 40 times the lowest wage as seen in the ’80’s, simply because no executive is worth more. A time where unions disappear because the guiding and definitive motivation on the part of every employee is to grow the company for mutual benefit.

    But I’ll not hold my breath. If I’ve learned anything in 78 years it is unfortunately that Utopia is a long way off and the greater the tension the less objective intelligence is applied to the solution.

    Don Coulson

  5. November 28, 2010 at 1:14 pm

    Could you perhaps offer the name of this company? I notice that in many tales of ‘union-caused’ woe the companies are anonymous (fictitious?). Could it be that the ‘five unions’ you refer to are teamsters, masons, electrical, steelworkers and plumbers? Some of the oldest and most well-run unions in the country, who fought hard for their rights after decades of abuse by their ‘arch enemies’ – who were, provably, the enemies of America as well.

    “Despite offering a higher wage, better benefits and a much stronger pension plan, the union held its stranglehold on its membership.” – not sure but it sounds to me like the ‘arch enemies’ tried to either weaken or break these unions – an old tactic I’ve seen before. Promise them higher wages, break the union then lower wages back to their original level AND less to ‘teach them a lesson.’ The unions exist because those same ‘arch enemies’ dealt in bad faith with malice aforethought and the union, serving as a collective memory, refused to allow them to use ignorance or forgetfullness as a tool. You were ‘long gone’ when the company went into bankruptcy? So you took your money and ran? There’s dedication. The workers don’t have that option, they can’t just sit back on six-figure savings and eat cake until the next opportunity comes along from their ivy-league pals. Also, you carefully avoid any mention of WHY the company went bankrupt – could it have been yet another ‘buggywhip and girdlebrace’ manufacturer who ignored the times and was hamstrung by its own hidebound decisions? Using the Post Office is a standard tactic of the union-busters and simply carries no water. I will not waste energy attacking a strawman. Suffice to say it is was a needful monopoly that is being supplanted by e-mail and private package shipping companies. By your logic the ‘arch enemies’ of the workers are the government, ‘we the people’. Schizophrenia never makes a good argument. The Post Office will undoubtedly change but the change will come from above as bloated management salaries are brought into line, not by taking away workers benefits or lowering wages.

    “A company deserves the union it gets” – ? I notice you carefully sidestep the issue of worker’s rights. Were it not for unions, children would still be working fourteen-hour shifts in terrible conditions. Higher wages, etc, are simply NOT a substitute for worker’s rights or safety – as proven by Massey Coal, Ludlow and others. The ‘free market’ has never been just to workers and the workers realize it. The demonization of unions started when workers demanded humane treatment – that they be treated with the same considerations as the shiny-suited ‘owners’ who considered them nothing more than expendable parts. The entire Ludlow incident was centered on the ‘owners’ refusing to even give the workers a VOICE – about as un-American as you can get.

    Using the ‘everybody’s bad’ argument simply ignores over a century of heavy-handed and cold-blooded abuse by the mega-wealthy that were dead-set on creating an aristocracy. No union ever amassed anywhere near the amount of lucre heaped up by the ‘owners’ – sorry, the ‘owners’ will never suddenly wake up and realize they’re the ones killing the magic goose, even as they gulp down their golden omlets. The wealthy know only their greed and rapacity, the only thing that will ever rein them in is the power of the collective workers – and they know it, thus the nonstop battle to destroy their rights and limit their power. The hope that ‘unions will disappear’ is a wet dream nursed by wannabe kings and queens hoping for a return to ‘the good ole days’ when ‘the boss’ could do as he pleased without regard to safety, decency or morality. As long as people think a Mercedes is more important than their worker’s health or comfort we’ll need unions.

    As for holding your breath, you should try it – America’s workers have been doing it to survive for the past decade. ‘Utopia’ is another way of saying ‘perfection’ and of course it’s unattainable – but ‘decency’ is another way of saying ‘just’ and without unions the ‘bosses’ would have no need or desire to do what’s right.

  6. Jonathan Singer
    November 28, 2010 at 4:21 pm

    I am glad to see some “Range” on Free Range Longmont as opposed to the “Rage” on the Times Call often on the Comment sections. I think everyone here has described a situation many of us have been in. Dangerous jobs, unfair bosses, or a generally uncomfortable work environment.

    Personally, I have never been intimidated by a Union. I have been intimidated by a supervisor more than once at several jobs. Sometimes just working in a low-wage workplace during a recession is intimidating. If your boss asks you to stay an extra half-hour at your fast food job, do you tell them “forget it” when there are plenty of people looking for work?

    I am fortunate that with my education and experience, I have been able to leave jobs that weren’t meeting my needs. I worked at a daycare as a supervisor for $9.00 an hour. I couldn’t make ends meet. I received a job offer paying twice as much with healthcare benefits. My boss went to bat for me asking for healthcare and or a modest raise. The administration said they couldn’t do it. I left notice and was on my way. Maybe that’s just a good argument for universal healthcare.

    I also have worked at a job represented by several unions. I had good pay, GREAT healthcare and retirement. Literally the hardest working people I have ever met worked there. Consistently, every day, I was proud of my co-worker’s and it made me a better worker. You had the option to join a union or not. No one ever pressured me. I never joined in part because I was confused by the fact that I could choose 3-4 different unions that all covered the same thing for all I could tell. However, there were some “less efficient” workers there too that were essentially “running out the clock” until retirement. The bosses knew it would be easier to limp along with them for a couple years rather than undergo a complicated termination procedure that would probably take a year or so.

    Unions mess up, businesses mess up too. That’s why we have things like the National Labor Relations Act and the National Labor Relations Board. No one wants to go bankrupt. No one wants to lose their job. Sometimes it’s hard to see the forest through trees though. Unfair international trade has put American Business and Unions at further odds. As such, I think that Don and Doug are both largely right.

    When Northwest Airlines threatened to cut benefits to mechanics a couple years ago (you know, the people that make sure tubes of metal thousands of feet in the air with passengers in them don’t crash) the union went on strike. I chose to respect their strike in part due to the fact I didn’t want to fly with a company that had unhappy mechanics. It just seemed dangerous. I was disappointed to see the Union members then posted online pictures of people that crossed picket lines. This was back in 2005, so I don’t have the website anymore.

    Both sides can get carried away and that is why it makes sense to have an NRLB that can see who is being unfair. Is it the boss that is making billions, while their employees have poor or no healthcare? Is it the union that is over-protecting unproductive workers or practices? The NLRB is a very political board. Bush could not get his appointees through. Obama put in three people. Craig Becker (Associate General Counsel of the Service Employees International Union), Mark Gaston Pearce (a member on the Industrial Board of Appeals, an agency of the New York State Department of Labor), and Brian Hayes (Republican Labor Policy Director for the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions). Republicans tried to filibuster, but later approved of the appointments.

    People say Unions have already done their job. We have weekends and a 40 hour work week. Well, who is this “we.” Many people have these, but not every one. According to the US Census Bureau, 19 million people are living with working families below the poverty line. I think there still might be a reason get keep Unions around for a few more years.

  7. November 28, 2010 at 4:26 pm

    Thanks Jon, your comments always elevate the discussion.

  8. November 28, 2010 at 5:27 pm

    My own conundrum, I am a supervisor and I have made it hot for an employee or two over the years, not because I wanted to, who needs that kind of stress, but because the person was dishonest or not doing what they were paid to do. It is hard being a supervisor. For the most part I have a great group of people and let them do their job without my interference.

    All institutions are run by fallible human beings. I have belonged to several unions over the years. I felt the unions I belonged to counseled us wisely..”do you really want to go on strike over .25 cents an hour.”

    Had we gone out, after our meager strike pay ran out, we would have been out on the street, banner in hand standing around a fifty gallon oil drum throwing in pieces of wood to stoke the fire to keep warm. We accepted the companies counter offer of .15. Good common sense and we got a raise.

    The postal service seems to come up as an example allot. My own observations are this; the PS keeps a tight line on their employees, so much so that some do go “Postal.” One of the major factors affecting the postal service is the internet. If anything is going to bring down this age old service it will be technology, not those who handle the long lines of angry patrons at the windows with a straw boss hanging over them, or who deliver in all kinds of weather.

    The unions have created problems, but if the companies had treated their employees fairly, there would be no need of this check and balance. The employees union scale compares little with the golden parachutes the execs get when they fail or screw over millions of people.

    When labor day rolls around, I remember the railroad workers, coal miners, steel workers, auto workers, farm laborers….on and on who paid the price to bring about fair play….well, most of that is gone now and unions are seen as an anathema while little is said about the Bush tax cuts.

    What we have are professional jobs, service workers, the self employed and the unbelievable wealthy. I have read where more and more people are dropping their credit cards because they finally figured out that the unbelievable interest rates were not in their own “interest.” Sure, the government acted but not before many people had their pockets emptied and a very few people got rich/richer….and so it goes.

    My question through all is this….when do we (the little guys) get a New Deal? When do we get to play on an even playing field? How does that happen?

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