Friday, May 1, 2015

It's May Day, Time to Celebrate Unions

The closest person I had to a grandmother was a widowed Russian immigrant who, when her husband was alive, took my father in as a boarder shortly after he arrived in New York in early 1939. My father’s parents perished in Poland during World War II. My maternal grandfather passed away when I was around two years old. The only lasting memory I have of my maternal grandmother is visiting her in the hospital. She was resting inside an oxygen tent. She must have died shortly thereafter. I was about five.

Bessie Trachtenberg filled the void. She looked like a Jewish grandmother. She had grey hair pulled back in a bun. She was heavy set, with an equally heavy accent. She was a good cook. Like many mothers-in-law, even a pseudo mother-in-law, she waged culinary combat for the title of better cook. The battle with my mother raged over breaded veal chops. The victor—I, along with my brother and sister. We loved breaded veal chops.

My mother and Bessie would argue about all manner of food preparation, particularly when it involved Eastern European Jewish cuisine. The most vocal arguments, however, transpired between Bessie and my father. You see, Bessie was a card-carrying member of the ILGWU, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (you know, the group that sang “Look for the union label”). She was a staunch union advocate, an organizer. My father, on the other hand, was an entrepreneur, an apparel factory owner who employed dozens of Blacks and Hispanics. To my knowledge, he treated them fairly, thus avoiding any unionization drives.

When Bessie would visit they invariably bickered about the treatment of workers in general. Bessie would justify the need for unions. Dad would call her a Trotskyite. Bessie’s blood would start to boil. She would threaten never to visit again. All the while I could sense my father was merely teasing her.

I am reminded of these mock fights by the celebration today of May Day, the international workers’ day, and the recent bill passed and signed in Wisconsin by the Republican-controlled legislature and the GOP governor and would-be president Scott Walker. Wisconsin, once a bastion of the labor movement, has become a Right to Work state under the new law. Union power will be diminished.

I know some unions and their leadership have stifled corporate growth. Some have abused their powers. Others have been corrupt. Whatever the crime you can probably find a union or a union officer who has perpetrated it.

But the true and honest bottom line is that without unions the lives of most workers and their families would be sorrier, with fewer benefits and lower wages. Moreover, as union member income rose, so did the wealth of non-union workers and exempt employees. Unions helped build the middle class. It can appropriately be argued that the comforts of middle class life, and the number of households that can claim middle income status, have eroded since union power and membership have declined over the last 30-plus years. 

When I worked at The New Haven Register I earned $200 a week in 1974. I was one of six bureau chiefs, one of the better paid on a staff of 100. We voted in a union, the Newspaper Guild. The Register immediately froze our salaries. It took more than two years to negotiate a contract. I left The Register before an agreement was reached. Had I stayed, my salary would have jumped to more than $350 a week. Without the aid of a union The Register would have had to bump my salary 10% a year for six years to reach the Guild-achieved level. Doubtful that would have happened.

Unlike my father’s playful goading of Bessie, the decades-long attack by Republicans to weaken and eliminate unions has profoundly impacted the vitality of the U.S. economy to the point where even some members of the Grand Old Party are recognizing the perils of the resulting income inequality and may be willing to do something about it. 

It might well be too late for unions to be resurrected as a driving force of financial growth for the family unit and the national economy. But let’s not forget to acknowledge the contributions unions have made in our lives, from safer working conditions, to retirement benefits, to limits on child labor and the number of hours individuals may work without receiving overtime, to the election of progressive, mostly Democratic, politicians who have enacted legislation that has expanded the opportunities, freedoms and rights of all, union and non-union members.

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