Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Post-Labor-Day thoughts

Yesterday was Labor Day in the United States (the equivalent of May Day in the rest of the world), when workers, especially union workers, get their moment in the sun by refraining from a day of work.

We have lots of unions in America.

Jeannelle of Iowa, a dairy farmer’s wife, revealed in her blog yesterday that she was once a member of a labor union when she worked at the John Deere Tractor Works in Waterloo, Iowa, many years ago. She said her union was the UAW, which I thought meant the United Auto Workers, but Jeannelle said it is now known as The International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America nowadays. And they say politics makes strange bedfellows.

My father was a a turret lathe and milling machine operator in an aircraft factory for many years, and as such he was required to be a member of that subdivision of the AFL-CIO (the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations) known in those days as the IAM, the International Association of Machinists. I believe it is still called that today.

[Update, 9/8/2009: I forgot to say that my daughter, being a schoolteacher, has a choice of two unions to belong to, the NEA (National Education Association) and the AFT (American Federation of Teachers).]

Like Jeannelle, I was once briefly a member of a union, too. Between leaving college and joining the Air Force I worked for a few months as a stenographer-typist for the Gulf Coast & Santa Fe Railroad in their Fort Worth and Dallas offices. The union in which membership was required was The Brotherhood of Steamship and Railway Clerks. Later, it became known as The Brotherhood of Steamship, Railway, and Airline Clerks. I don’t know what it is called today, probably something like The Brotherhood, Sisterhood, and GLBT-hood of Railway, Airline, Space Shuttle, and International Space Station Clerks.

Later, I worked for two of the largest corporations in the entire world. One was non-union and one was union. My job in the latter was considered a management position (although it was designated as “non-supervisory” and no one reported to me), so I was not a member of the CWA (Communications Workers of America), the IBEW (the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers), or the IEEE (the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers), the three largest organizations there.

One year, however, sometime back in the eighties, when negotiations over a new contract broke down, we management types from all over the country were sent to work for what turned out to be four weeks in various huge warehouses during a month-long strike/lockout (take your pick). Just so the company could send out its products and continue receiving revenue, you understand. It was all about the money. Their money. My assignment was in Montgomery, Alabama. That was an eye-opening experience that made me appreciate my father in a new way. If I had been an ordinary strike-breaker, someone hired to replace the striking union workers, I suppose I could have been referred to as a “scab.” But since we were low-level managers in the company and given assignments from on high, I never thought of myself in that way. We had just become temporarily expendable and robotic in the same way -- it pains me to say it -- that upper management thought of all the blue-collar workers as expendable and robotic. Perhaps I am being unnecessarily harsh. But I don’t think so. Growing up in a union worker’s home is something one doesn’t outgrow easily. Actually, most of the improvements in benefits that were granted to management in that company over the years were first painstakingly achieved by union negotiators for the non-management employees at the expiration of their previous contract.

Years and years ago, when I was young and stupid -- and all of you who are thinking “and now he’s old and stupid” can just hush your mouths -- I remember having a conversation one day with our departmental secretary in the Big Non-Union Corporation. I casually referred to the janitorial crew who came in each night to clean up after us daytime folks as “the menial people.” I have never forgotten the look on Marlene’s face or what she said next. With a look of complete shock and dismay on her face and with a shocked tone in her voice she said, “There may be menial jobs, but there are no menial people.”

I learned a lesson that day, and I have never forgotten it.

I hope all of you had a very happy Labor Day.

If you were ever a member of a labor union, please tell us which one and include a memory or two.


  1. "There are menial jobs but no menial people"

    What an awesome quote.

    An Arkies Musings

  2. post partum depression labor day thoughts...geez i don't have any

  3. "United we stand, divided we fall, come on now people get your backs to the wall, let's work together come on come on!" at least that's how I remember The Canned Heat song going. I think it's great that in a country where capitalism sometimes seems to be king, you recognise the workers with your Labor Day though I guess that many low paid workers were still grafting away during the holiday weekend.

  4. i also do not think there are no menial jobs as well as no menial people

  5. I belonged to the CIO , I think. I was a deck hand on an ore boat. We went on strike before the summer ended.

  6. I was never in a union, but I worked as a "temp" at a power plant back in the 70s. They had a hard time filling the position because union required the employee to have shorthand skills but they were never used, so those who had it didn't want to lose their skills by never using them and wouldn't accept the job. I was perfect because I could do shorthand if you talked really, really slowly. What was supposed to be 2 weeks ended up being 5 months. Most "menial" jobs paid around $2.30 or so an hour, and so I thought my salary of $4.50 was superb. But the position, when filled by a union person, actually paid $7.50 plus phenomenal benefits - and that was bottom of the totem pole, these people were well taken care of, but all they did was complain. Once I tried to screw in a loose bolt with my fingers and got a huge lecture because I was depriving some union guy of his overtime. Say what? Anyway, I wasn't too impressed. My step-dad however, who worked for the telephone company his whole life, was union all the way, and wouldn't accept promotions that would have put him in management. There are always two sides, I guess.

  7. I love the "menial" quote too. It is a good reminder, and I am sure was a good lesson.

    I have never had a union job, nor has my husband, and my father was in the service. I am not too familiar with unions, obviously.

    Serious topics aside...I am so messed up this week on the day of the week. I keep thinking this is Tuesday. A few moments ago I had my planner opened to Thursday! It is one of those weeks (from a Monday holiday) where another weekend is the ONLY thing that is going to straighten me out. :)