Labor Day, My Father, and Unions

This week began with Labor Day which always puts my mind on my father. Dad earned the nickname “Brain” because, had he not been born into a poor family just at the edge of the Great Depression, his intelligence might have led to a very different life than the one he lived. He had to drop out of school after eighth grade to go to work in order to help support his mother and father. He found a job at the Easy Washer plant in Syracuse, NY. I know he worked there for at least 15 years, beginning when he was thirteen. Easy Washer made wringer washing machines. I also know that he worked there right through WWII, doing essential war work. 

After the war, my father’s plant was folded into General Electric. He had taught himself all about electrical circuits and even learned higher math skills, algebra and calculus, through home correspondence courses. For the rest of his life, until he retired, he worked in the TVR section of GE where assembly lines turned out the first televisions, whose guts consisted of an array of cathode tubes. Televisions were small and heavy and changed over time from black and white to color sets. He knew how each tube functioned in the TV and he purchased tubes which he kept in his basement workshop where he fixed our neighbors’ televisions and radios. 

General Electric had a very active union, AFL-CIO, and my father became a union steward. Management was never fond of unions. Unions turned workers into a powerful bargaining unit. Often unions fought to force management to stop encroaching on rights that workers had already won. It was common to force workers to work hours of overtime after a full shift by threatening to replace workers who said “no” to extra hours. Whenever a worker had a grievance, they could ask the union to put the power of numbers behind the rather puny efforts of one worker in order to right a wrong. Of course, sometimes unions overstepped also, and used their power to force the company to keep workers who were slackers, or who stirred up disagreements with fellow workers. Unions often stood up for workers in cases of discrimination, but not always as often as they should have. 

A pattern was set up in the minds of workers, that anyone hired into a factory like GE would work there for his or her entire life and would retire from there one day in their old age. There were no health care plans, no retirement plans, no unemployment insurance, no social security, but there supposedly was the sense that you had joined a family and if you ‘pulled your weight’ you would keep your job for a lifetime. Gradually the federal government began to offer programs to help workers with retirement and unemployment. 

My father and the union workers at GE went on strike many times to win higher wages as the American economy began to grow and inflation kicked in. Often, they were offered benefits in place of higher wages. Probably half of our family’s eight children had left home before the company offered health care and retirement savings programs. Workers did not get paid while they were out on strike, and some strikes were lengthy. The union gave striking families stipends which kept them from starvation but caused wage earners much anxiety about other costs like mortgage payments, clothing for their children for school, other school costs, and the costs of keeping a car on the road. Our family seemed to live in waves of feast and famine. 

Capitalism is an economic system which encourages private ownership of a business paired with the sale of items in a marketplace to consumers who keep the owner in business. Since businesses are run by people and people have flaws like greed, or a single-minded drive to succeed at the cost of employees, corporations are as corrupt as their owners. Businesses must please stockholders and boards of directors when they become large corporations. When money seems pinched or the market wobbly, workers without unions could face unreasonable work demands from these large corporation, where the work force was basically faceless to the owners. Unions filled an essential role.

But, a fact of our lives is that life moves on, sometimes at a fast pace, sometimes slowly. Promises made for a lifetime may not be kept if conditions change and the world after WWII saw many changes. In 1960 SONY introduced the first solid state television sets. These sets did not use tubes. The technology was new, and my father was unprepared for it. But he did not make televisions by that time. He worked in the “Master Oscillator” room checking instruments and keeping records. 

By the time he was thinking about retirement he still had four children at home who were in high school. He could not retire yet. GE encouraged him to leave by putting him back on the main assembly line. He was anxious all the time and the assembly line pressures disturbed his sleep at night. Soon television production was no longer profitable for GE in Syracuse, and the company decided to move their TV operations to another city. 

Southeast Asia was producing more and more televisions and they were less expensive for consumers to buy. The marketplace was changing, and unions were also caught off guard. They did not understand that they were competing against a foreign labor force that could be paid far less than American workers were being paid. Unions kept asking for higher wages. Corporations like to say that the unions pushed them to go overseas. However, corporations go where their bottom line is best served, where their profit margins are best, where consumers are hungry for the goods they produce. 

Once the USSR came apart in 1981 and businesses in China began to take off in the 1980’s, corporations rushed to fill a factory vacuum in countries that offered a seemingly endless supply of cheap labor. The unions may not have seen the handwriting on the wall, but the corporations did, and they leaped across oceans to seize the opportunities presented. American companies declared bankruptcy, leaving their employees without their pensions. Finally, the federal government had to step in and offer some recompense to workers left high and dry after years of labor. The labor market in America changed drastically causing the grievances that right-wing talk show hosts inflamed. 

Now we have people who must work two or three low-wage jobs and still cannot pay for all their needs. We have something called ‘gig workers’ whatever that is. We have more entrepreneurs which is not necessarily a bad thing, but our small businesses are less stable than those large corporations once were. And we have a pandemic which has led to interruptions in supply chains. The American economy seems poised to recover but is being held back by partisan fights over commonsense health initiatives.

As companies joined the Great Factory Migration, we saw a right-wing push to make unions obsolete by passing laws called ‘right to work’ laws, which is meant to put a positive spin on something that is not positive at all. Unions charged nonunion workers a fee although they were not members because it made the union more powerful and allowed the unions to win more battles with management. Workers resented these fees, but they also received the same hard-won benefits that union members received when the fight was over. Pressure from the right-wing to pass right-to-work laws included the use of strategies that escalated the anger already present in nonunion workers about having to help pay for union negotiations

Unions may seem like archaic vestiges of a former age right now, but I would not give up on all that employee empowerment so quickly. Workers still need to band together to keep from giving management free reign over its worst impulses. There are many rights that workers still need in America, rights that workers have in other nations. Workers still must choose between family and employers when emergencies arise. Workers must choose between childcare and work, and this often affects female workers most, although men actually have children too, and there are few if any choices offered for men who might choose to be a childcare provider.     

My dad was forced into early retirement when his skill set no longer matched what was needed in a company that he thought had become his other family. He was fortunate to work for a company that did not have to declare bankruptcy. GE was able to keep its retirement promises to senior employees. Watching his skills become obsolete was still hard on my father and the strategy of putting senior workers back on the main assembly line where they were often too slow to keep up left him feeling abused, angry, and incompetent. 

Spending a lifetime in the hire of a single corporation or employer is highly unlikely in today’s work climate. But I still pay my union dues, although I am retired. I hope that all union workers will keep paying dues to their unions if they can. We may need our unions again. Even Amazon employees are trying to unionize, so far without much success and some possible cheating on the part of management. Workers may all be replaced by robots, but it looks like that will not happen quite yet. People will still want to be productive and won’t want those Republicans to think of them as deadbeats. AI presents whole new challenges for workers. How soon this transition will happen no one knows. So, for now we need to keep our unions alive and oppose the passage of right-to-work laws. CEO’s don’t run the world, workers do.

Pay Your Dues: Reprise from Labor Day 2015

 

This is how the map looks on Labor Day 2017 (only one addition)

I first published this article in my blog on Labor Day in 2015. Not only is this information still relevant but the need to fight for worker’s rights is more important than ever. The words Republicans use for this particular plan to dismantle unions sound so innocent. They ask unions to conform to “right to work” laws which prey on the angers of workers who like the benefits unions provide but who don’t want to pay dues or belong to a union. In some states you must pay into the union whether you are a member or not. This may sound un-American but unions could not fight for workers with out having powers equal to the moneyed people they are fighting against. Workers have been led to believe by Republican “talk” that unions are to blame for causing manufacturers to leave the United States for other markets. But once manufacturers became aware of the huge untapped markets in the “third world” and the cheap and plentiful laborers, it was inevitable that we would see the “Great Factory Migration.

Here is what I said in 2015:

It is another Labor Day, a day when we celebrate American workers. America is a country that believes in work. Hard work will pay off. Hard work will win you a better life. People who don’t work hard are lazy and un-American. Even Labor Unions are suspect to some, as we know. They are organizations that target employers and try to milk concessions from them that slurp up profits and kill businesses. They are sops for lazy workers who can’t suck it up and do their jobs. They are the mommy that kisses boo boos and tucks possible sources of worker injuries away, ‘nickel and dime-ing’ employers until they have to keep building new bookcases to house the books of regulations and hire new lawyers to protect the wealth of business owners. Many say that Unions drove business out of America by making it too expensive to do business here. It is the fault of the Unions, they say, that Americans now languish in sloth, making impossible demands on the Federal Government and still managing to reduce the profits of serious men of business (who have obviously earned their rich and luxurious lifestyles).

We, the workers of America and the former workers of America, recognize that this is a ridiculously one-sided view of Unions and/or the American worker. The very reason Unions exist is to protect workers from employers whose only interest is their bottom line (which, most likely, is not all employers). We learned about corporate greed the hard way and if we keep an eye on Southeast Asia and on China and other newly industrialized nations we see that they are learning those tough lessons that we learned decades ago. Workers must have a way to protect themselves from businessmen who practice a ruthless form of Capitalism. These new workers are in a far worse state than American workers were. There was pushback against unionizing; it was sometimes a bloody and brutal war, but we lived in a Democratic nation where people who believed in the ideals of the American nation offered support to unionizing and a counterpoint to stubborn business owners. How difficult will it be for people living in dictatorships to ever do anything to protect workers?

People are trying to bust our unions in these divisive days when our economy looks somewhat bleak. They are having some success by using ‘right to work’ laws which say that unions cannot charge dues to non-members. It seems logical that someone who is not a union member should not have to pay a fee to the union, but it robs the union of the power to bargain, and when a union bargains with an employer and succeeds the benefits accrue for all workers, not only union workers. We also have seen how employers can use non-Union employees against Union employees.  ‘Right to Work’ laws only ‘seem’ to benefit workers. The laws are a tool of the owner class used to break up unions.

There is another aspect of Union busting which should concern us. Union busting is being used by Republicans and their wealthy corporate donors to suppress the vote and to rob Democrats of the very powerful support they have received from Labor Unions. With our factories gone we may not need our Unions right now as desperately as we once did, but we should not let them be disemboweled by Big Business and their minions in Congress. Whatever your connection to your union, continue to pay your union dues if you can. We at least need our unions to offset the huge injections of cash into elections by the donor class. We need unions to insure that American workers still have a say in elections.

Here are more of my Labor Day articles:

http://thearmchairobserver.com/a-blue-labor-day/

http://thearmchairobserver.com/labor-day-2013-reflections-on-american/

http://thearmchairobserver.com/labor/