There once was a Union Maid

Labor Day blew away too quickly. We didn’t honor labor as we should have — nor do we ever, in my estimation. Summer, especially in a teacher’s life, is a parenthetical expression between two holidays that fail to honor the designated honorees, Memorial Day and Labor Day. Perhaps that is fitting and proper, but of what, I do not know.

Nor do I wish to live where such dishonoring is proper, or fits.

The United Auto Workers called a strike against General Motors, but a contract agreement arrived in just a couple of days. Today UAW announced a strike deadline for Chrysler, in their “pattern” bargaining, whereby the union strikes a deal with one of the Big 3, then takes that as the starting point for negotiations with the others, who usually have to keep up with the Sloans, Fords, Chryslers and Ketterings (used to be a Romney in there, remember, not to mention Kaiser and Packard and Willys).

NPR’s interviews at the GM strike featured one autoworker who remembered the last GM strike, when 400,000 workers left the assembly lines to man the picket lines. This time? He said he realized the stakes when they announced 74,000 workers would strike. What happened to the other 326,000 people? Gone to competition, mechanization, globalization, and general political wind changes.

Mrs. Cornelius wrote at A Shrewdness of Apes about the labor dream, the union dream, that some of us still remember (not enough of us). I won’t say the dream is shattered. It is not a dream shared by as many people any more.

When you read her essay, note a key part of it, a piece of almost every story about a working, union family in the U.S.: Mrs. Cornelius was the first in her family to graduate from college. Once upon a time a good, basic union job offered the opportunity to raise a family, buy a house to make a home, and send the kids to school and to college, in the hope and expectation that the children would have a better life than the parents as a result of those educational opportunities.

That shared belief is gone. America suffers for its loss.

I wonder whether there is a correlation between the loss of those two shared value planks that once formed the platform of our national morality, the respect for unions and the hope that hard work would help the next generation, and the understanding that educational opportunities would and should be available.

When did we lose those dreams? I first became aware when I left the Senate Labor Committee; while we generally had a few sourpusses complaining about education as a monolithic institution at every education policy hearing, they were vastly in the minority, and their views were not views that generally pushed discussion. Touring the nation with the President‘s Commission on Americans Outdoors (PCAO), we kept running into people who, though not rich by any standards, had adopted the turtle-with-head-in-shell stance of the hereditary rich and other nobles, resisting change in an effort to cling to what property and privilege they had. It was in Lamar Alexander’s Tennessee that fellow driving a decade-old car phrased it succinctly: “I didn’t graduate high school, and I get along pretty well. I don’t want my kids learning stuff they don’t need.” (Lamar was chairman of PCAO.)

Then a few months later, after I moved to the U.S. Department of Education, at a speech talking about changing the ERIC Library System to increase accessibility especially for parents, the usually-angry-at-ED cluster of teachers afterward had a guy who said, “You just don’t get it — the parents don’t care. The parents don’t want their kids to get a good education if it means they can read books and see movies the parents don’t approve of.”

Pete Seeger segués Woody Guthrie’s story of the “Union Maid” into the chorus, “You can’t scare me: I’m stickin’ to the union/I’m stickin’ to the union . . . ’til the day I die.”

When did that become, “I’ve got mine, get your own?” When did the hope of Woody Guthrie give way to the experienced, cynical blues of Billie Holiday?

When did we move from communities that made schools a first priority, as in the Northwest Ordinances of 1785-1789, as in the first things pioneers did once they settled west of the Mississippi, as in the creation of the Land Grant Colleges, to communities where plucking out the bricks of the foundation of education is acceptable government policy? Utah’s pioneers prided themselves on establishing schools as a first order of business once they got to the Salt Lake Valley, in 1847. This year the Utah legislature, no longer dominated by the kids of those pioneers, voted to start unraveling that system despite it’s being a model in many ways, and successful by almost any measure, by using vouchers to take money from public schools.

And how do we make those not sticking to the union, nor sticking to any communities of shared values that emphasize building for the future, get back to the hope that we can make a better future, if we work together?

Announcements for Nobel winners started today (it’s October, after all). I’ll wager, again, that most Nobel winners will be American, and that most of the winners will be products of America’s public schools. How long can we keep that up, if we don’t dream it any more?

Mrs. Cornelius said:

There is no such thing as a job Americans won’t do. There is such a thing as a job Americans can’t afford to do on the salary offered.

God bless the working man and woman. They deserve much more than a day off from work. They deserve our respect. They are the backbone of our country.

People are so scared they won’t stick to the union, to any union. That’s not because the unions are too powerful, certainly, or it would be the other way around.

Now, excuse me, but I have to go listen to Taylor Mali again.

8 Responses to There once was a Union Maid

  1. […] “There once was a Union Maid” […]


  2. Städ says:

    i agree with Ms. Cornelius



  3. I am so deeply humbled that I am in any way associated with this post. Your words resonate with me in every fiber.

    Yes, I DO think it is that important.



  4. […] There once was a Union Maid , excuse me, but I have to go listen to Taylor Mali again […]


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