Conjunctions now serve as code for one’s position on unions. Those siding with unions often offer this as prologue to their argument: “I come from a union family, and...“ Those on the other side will offer this rebuttal: “I come from a union family, but...“ Curiously, both are grounding the legitimacy of their convictions on union pedigree and lineage, and both directly acknowledge the historicized value of unions, even as the two positions might part ways about whether – and to what degree – that merit extends to the present.
I find myself using both conjunctions, and will no doubt lose friends over the equivocation.
I come from a union family (mostly Detroit autoworkers). Hardly anybody in my family went to college, and when I finished high school I worked in a toy factory (remember Tonka Toys? This is before they pulled up stakes and moved their operations to Mexico). We were paid $2.10 an hour to stand at a furiously monotonous assembly line, riveting wheels onto trucks or boxing toy cars, piece after piece, hour after hour, day after mindless day. In the summer of 1974, the machinists and aerospace workers tried to unionize the plant, and I helped distribute leaflets and exhorted co-workers to vote union. Management countered with a series of meetings: they shut down the lines for an hour at a time (it was a nice break), fed us lunch and hinted that a union might result in layoffs because management couldn’t afford higher wages for everyone; then they distributed free turkeys. Enough people believed the threat, and the union lost. It was a crappy job with crappy pay, and had I stayed on it would have killed my soul. I learned we need the right to organize, and to have some say in work conditions. We are not automatons, and our just inheritance is both bread and roses. And at the end of the day, if you can’t strike, what do you have?
Years later, after attending college and working in the field of HIV/AIDS, I took a job in Minnesota state government coordinating HIV/AIDS policy and clinical practice for social service agencies. I was represented by a professional union, though I never paid much attention to it, because I was not all that invested in a career in government. I worked hard because I cared passionately about AIDS; I was the only one in my building, out of perhaps 1,000 employees, working on the issue. The pay was decent, and I had no complaint about the benefits. However, I found it maddening whenever I learned of an employee who essentially did no work; one who had maintained a steadfast commitment to workplace sloth for years simply because it was impossible to fire them. Some people had figured out how to come in every day at 9:30 am, read the paper, work for an hour, take a long lunch, work for another two hours and go home. The union, in such cases, functioned not as the avenging sidekick who helped stare down the truly mean schoolyard bully of management, but rather enabled incompetence and waste. The lesson learned was unions, conceived in justice, do not always act justly. If you can’t fire someone who is not doing their job, what do you have? Continued on page two...