I am a union man. Like my Dad, I've always believed in unions. My Dad worked for the Post Office for 46 years. He was a member of the Railway Mail Employees Union, and he helped smooth the way for the first African-American member of that union, Brother Scott.
I was a member of the Teamsters & Hotel Workers, Local 5, in Honolulu, as a dishwasher for a hotel. Later, as an air courier, I organized my brothers into the Teamsters Union twice, and the courier service bosses fired me twice.
For the last 20 years, I've worked for a city government and been an active member of SEIU. I was very involved for years in contract campaigns and organizing; in helping my fellow members with problems with their bosses. Then the Local stopped being interested in empowering the members. I got discouraged and I dropped out of active participation.
Years later, I got involved again, only to see the Local leadership come to discourage member involvement -- not just me but any member. Then a friend decided to organize a campaign to replace union’s the unresponsive leadership. We launched an almost-impossible effort to unseat the president and her administration. I wasn’t running for office, but I worked hard campaigning for our candidates. And against all odds, we won!! Then the outgoing president used her hand-picked election committee to throw out the results of the election. Good grief!! Well, we've organized a phoning. e-mailing and petitioning campaign to get the international to reverse the local election committee's decision.
I had collected a lot of signatures. My friend, the president-elect, said, "We could really use someone like you at the Local. Would you consider coming to work as an organizer? It would pay more than you're making now. Think about it."
Now, Joe, it would be my life's dream to work as an organizer. I've been an unpaid one for years, anyway. But I'm so close to retirement I can't jeopardize my pension. Also, I'm 59, and with its stress, long hours and almost continuous work, organizer is really a job for a younger man. So I'm afraid I'm going to have to say no, and that just kills me.
Hell, life is short and I've already done what I could the best I could. And I continue to do volunteer work for the Local.
Keep on keepin' on,
I’m back here in the States for a while, back in the Southland, Old Virginny. So I’ll answer you from a Southerner’s viewpoint and life experience in a violently anti-union state.
In the mornings while making coffee I listen to NPR. And in the evenings before this besotted old carcass craps out for the night, I watch the our Public Broadcasting systems’ history specials and retrospectives, or the History Channel (Native Virginians are obsessive about history). And I hear narrators and commentators feed the same thin witted stuff to the nation. Things like, “Race has always been the primary historical and cultural issue of American history, especially in the South.”
It’s always been about cheap labor down here, just like everywhere else in America. Free slave labor may connect Southern history, but cheap labor connects all of American history. True, preserving free slave labor was the reason southern Congressman Preston Brooks clubbed the living hell out of Massachusetts anti-slavery Senator Charles Sumner right there on the Senate Chamber floor in 1856. But the main theme has always been about powerful men and more recently, faceless, bloodless corporations more powerful than any of the oligarchs of earlier times, aggregating wealth from the toil of the masses. That’s why there were hundreds of thousands of white indentured servants in America before the slave economy arose to the levels it did. And that’s why today the U.S. has such strong union busting laws as the Taft-Hartley Act and the misleadingly named The Right to Work Act
Cheap labor is why we still see unabashed incarnations of Senator Brooks in today's U.S. Senate. And cheap labor is why we still see unabashed incarnations of Brooks, Neo-Confederates such as Tennessee's Bob Corker, Alabama's Richard Shelby and other anti-union hit men in today's U.S. Senate. Cheap labor is the reason Democratic Party refuses to stand up publicly against Right to Work Laws. They are bought and paid for by oligarchs large and not so large to assure that working class people earn as little as possible and have about as much job security as a gypsy tinker. (even in the current economic wreckage, workers in Right to Work States earn almost $6000 less per year than in states where unions still exist).
In some respects the oligarchs have it better than they did before the Civil War when about half their wealth consisted of human bondage. Slaves were expensive as hell, a couple thousand dollars each, a hundred thousand in today’s money. They needed lots of slaves to work their large tracts, dozens in some cases, hundreds in others, and were directly responsible for the feeding, upkeep, health and productivity of their investment.
By contrast, today’s white, Hispanic and black workers are a dime a dozen. You can dump them at will if they get sick or business is slow. And you can be sure plenty more will line up for work when and if you again need bodies to fulfill your newest state highway building contract or drive your fleet of trucks.
Bear with me, it you will, in a little story from my youth: As a teenager here in my hometown, I used to mow the lawn of one of Winchester’s apple plantation oligarchs who lived in a mansion up behind Handley High School. I remember him talking boozily to a guest over “fortified iced tea” and angel food cake at a linen covered wrought iron table on his high pillared front portico, as his elderly black man-servant, Toliver (or gentleman’s gentleman, as they were then called, men who laid out the man’s attire each morning, etc), his black cook, Lula, and I ate peanut butter and bacon sandwiches under a nearby tree. (I’m telling you, life around historic Winchester’s old line families can look like a scene from Gone with the Wind.) Like other big growers, the genteel orchard owner imported Jamaicans, which he pretty much considered rented slaves, to pick his crop. But pruning, spraying and maintaining the orchards and equipment required experienced local orchard employees. Mostly white and rural.
“I don’t know which is the biggest pain in the ass,” the orchard king declared, “hiring the dumb hillbilly sonsabitches, or owning niggers outright like they used to do. The hillbillies are a world of trouble, always pissed off about something, or so hung over they cain’t sees straight. Always needing an advance on their paycheck, which they damned sure drink up.”
Old Toliver, who I would later learn had been secretly active in civil rights work as a younger man, said to Lula, “Someday these rich people’s ways are going to come back to bite them in the ass.” But apparently nothing is that hungry -- his family is ten-fold richer now.
I was so young and stupid and socially indoctrinated that I was shocked at Toliver’s remarks. I even felt sympathy for the apple baron’s position. A man of property and community standing should not have to put up with such stuff. And inside I felt shame; some of my relatives were uneducated white orchard workers. All of my daddy’s people, Pap, Maw, Daddy, Uncle Nelson and Uncle Toad, used to camp in this rich man’s orchards in the fall and pick fruit for 10 cents a bushel. By the time I was a teenager, it was up to 17 cents a bushel, then the orchard man imported even cheaper labor from the Bahamas. These days he uses use Jamaicans.
From the orchard baron’s elite standpoint, I’m sure poor white employees were indeed a world of trouble for upstanding capitalists like himself. So many of us still are, what with our rebel flag tattoos, drinking ourselves to death, kicking the shit out of each other in bars… angry ignorant, uneducated animals in a Darwinian labor economy’s fight for survival.
Often we fuck ourselves out of good opportunities through anger and class self-hate, blowing ourselves right out of the water even when things are going fairly well. I saw this a while back when a kind-hearted idealistic friend of mine, John D---, a small time masonry contractor and by no means an oligarch, had to fire a trusted employee who got strung out on Oxycontin -- “hillbilly heroin.” Which made the employee a hazard and a liability to both John and his clients as he dozed and stumbled around on the scaffolding. One incident, one lawsuit and John would lose his small farmstead, his business, everything. He felt like hell about having to fire the guy. Still does. To John, who was raised in a suburban middle class family in Maryland, this was so inexplicable. After a decade of dependability, why such a crash?
Personally, I’ve seen it happen so often it seems normal Certainly not inexplicable. It is a generational trauma caused by the ancestral work force experience of exploited and oppressed labor. Blacks have suffered the same generational trauma. The aloneness of the struggle is so deeply internalized that you cannot beat it in one generation or by getting one good break in your working life. A working man or woman is more than his or her own individual experience. They are part and product of a chain of historical experience. Yours has been as a union worker. One that allows for dignity in work, though it may not feel so at the tired end of a shift. But if one’s experience has been under the boot of the oligarchy, has been as cheap, purposefully uneducated throwaway bodies, then there can be no dignity at all in one’s labor. And a man knows that inside. And the frustration grows like an ulcer upon the man’s soul, a little each day for a lifetime. And a man drinks and busts up a few things now and them. Or just says fuck it some mornings and doesn’t show up. Or tries some oxy. Or maybe joins a Holy Roller church to gain the cold comfort of the preacher’s message that “Jesus loves even an utterly impotent piece shit like you.”
Yes, you poor dumb sonnuva bitch, Jesus loves you. But the elites need you. The need you to pay for their lawn parties, trips to Europe and to ensure the financial perpetuity of their pampered spawn for generations to come. And as for the so-called “American corporations,” they don’t even need you anymore. They’ve got the laboring throngs of China’s Mandarin capitalism (where civil rights are not an issue), they’ve got Vietnamese and Indonesian factories, and Hatian factories, and those places in Bangaladesh where caged workers can be had for $11 to $42 a month, and the floor boss takes home a different teenaged girl every night.
So get used to it, my redneck brethren. Get used to no medical care (remember friends, that the current debate in America is about insurance for all. Which means insurance corporations, and whose billions they take next, not direct free and on demand medical care). Keep on living from payday to payday and sending your kids to shitty schools until they reach the legal dropout age. Which we know you will because we’ve seen to it that you’ve never known anything better.
I have worked in labor all over this country, at a hog farm, a brick kiln, a car wash, in hot tar roofing, at an iron foundry garbage collection, you name it. And I can tell you straight up and without hesitation that the combination of our poorly-educated workforce and ruthless demagogic oligarchy are not only a nationwide problem -- they are a national tragedy. One that’s getting worse and not likely to ever to be fixed. The Empire is collapsing inward upon its working base. The oligarchs and financial elites have skipped town with the national treasury. Many have multiple homes in other countries. The inherent natural resources upon which America was initially built by laboring men and women have been squandered. Surely there will be brief respites and meaningless economic recoveries for political appearance sake. But there’s gonna be a lot more meth labs, or some future equivalent, and more unseen domestic abuse in poor working class households, as even the few aware individuals in the underclass struggle to piece together an equitable worker society that was never a fair go from the outset.
Declining as the Empire may be, and despite that we can never, nor should ever again, enjoy the bounty the empire once provided those willing to fight for it -- the earth being a finite resource -- we may still enjoy human dignity. But only through unity and solidarity, because solitary dignity, inward self-nursed secret personal dignity, is like a diamond set in lead. The non-manifested dignity of a man in jail, or an elderly woman eating cat food, may be spiritually noble, but it also means the bastards have won. Not until dignity is there for all the world to see are other men inspired to it as a universal cause. A human right.
Meanwhile, You there! Yes you, the oxy addict, the drunken redneck, the unemployed holy roller, be assured that you will be allowed to work again. And again. For that is your sole purpose in the system. A replaceable moving part made of flesh. Just remember never to utter these two words --- union and solidarity. But yes, you are a free man in a free country. You will be free to accept another job if and when it is decided you are again needed by the oligarchs or perhaps a presidential “make work” program to give he appearance of change afoot.
And of freedom, dear sweet freedom? Freedom is owning your labor. Period. Negotiating for its cost, not accepting whatever portion is left after the wolves have fully feasted.
You can be proud of the work you have done in your life, and I’m sure you know that. Most of the fixtures of the golden age of middle class life in America can be attributed to unions -- not just fair labor practices and reasonable working hours, but the ability to afford one’s own home, or the ability of working class families to send their kids to college, and countless other things. In many cases today, union leaders today have internalized the system to the degree they can no longer sense the importance of their mission. And the complex machinations of modern corporate capitalism make what remains of the labor movement harder to maintain than ever. But take it from one who grew up in an underclass created by the ruthless suppression of any kind of worker solidarity, which is to say human solidarity. You were and still are a fortunate man.
Union, fraternity and brotherhood forever!