EDUSolidarity Day After, Part 3: Why would a teacher like me hang with a union?

March 23, 2011

I mean, really.  I have two degrees after attending three colleges.  I’ve taught at three different universities.  My parents were (nominally) Republicans.  I worked the Republican side of the U.S. Senate, for Orrin Anti-Labor-Law-Reform Hatch, for heaven’s sake.  I sat  through the hearings on the graft in the Operating Engineers local, the graft in the welders union in Pennsylvania that provided workers to the nuclear reactors, and the graft in the Central States Teamsters Pension Fund.  Two of my staff colleagues went on to chair the National Labor Relations Board, one is a well-known anti-labor lobbyist, and I’ve sat through the “no union here, ever” courses at three different corporations as a member of management.

What gives?

Why do I and other teachers stick with the union?

Diagram of a Liberty Ship

Diagram of a Liberty Ship

My father did carry a union card, though he was a Republican.  He had lots of stories about the difficulty of working with unions from his days with the United Cigar Stores in Los Angeles, and he probably had plenty of reason  to dislike them — but he got a job as a pipefitter building Liberty Ships.  He had to join the pipefitters union, and so he did.

Deep at heart, my father wanted to be a successful businessman.  After the war, he went back to sales.  He wound up in Burley, Idaho, managing a Western Auto store, when he struck out on his own.  Well, he and a partner.  Sedam and Darrell Furniture.  They had a disagreement, and it ended up as Sedam’s on one side of town, and Paul Darrell Hotpoint on the other.

Liberty Ships under construction during World War II

Liberty Ships under construction during World War II

It was about that time that he got a lung x-ray for something, and they found the spot.  He’d given up smoking in the 1930s, but as a pipefitter, he put a lot of asbestos on pipes to shield merchant marines from heat, to insulate the pipes, to prevent shipboard fires.  That was before the dangers of asbestos were well understood.  On the x-ray, it looked like cancer.

But it didn’t grow.  The spot just stayed there, for years.

The store in Burley fell victim to a bad economy when the union at J. R. Simplot Potatoes struck one year, in November.  The strikers weren’t buying Christmas gifts.  There were about 16 furniture and appliance stores in a county with about 16,000 people total.  Several of them didn’t survive the strike and my father’s was one of them.  A lot of people in town cursed the union for causing the strike.  On one of our trips moving to Utah, I rode with Dad and asked him about it, and why the union went on strike.  As a victim of the strike, he could have unloaded.  But he didn’t.

He explained how workers organized to get power to negotiate with big businesses.  Jack Simplot was a man we knew, a good man and a customer from all we knew — but the workers were good people, too, my father explained.  Sometimes workers and employers can’t agree.  My father explained that a strike was one of the few tools workers could use to get an employer to change his position against his will.  I told him I thought it was unfair that workers could strike and force other businesses out.  My father explained that it was tougher on the workers who didn’t buy from us — they needed the stuff they didn’t buy.

Over the next few years I watched as my father got screwed over by good people running good companies, people who were anti-union, but more, anti-employee.  He lost guaranteed bonuses.  He lost promised promotions.  He didn’t get promised raises.  My father never again owned his own business.  Instead he was an employee, unprotected by unions in a string of positions where union protection would have been a good deal for him.  He could not strike, as the workers at J. R. Simplot had.

One of the investigators for the Senate Labor Committee was a character of great proportion — no central casting bureau could have thought up a character like Frank Silbey.  Silbey headed Orrin Hatch’s investigations into unions, and he was a marvel to watch.  Soon after Hatch took over as chair of Labor, Silbey and I had a long lunch to work out just how we would work together.  I expressed to him my concern that any investigation of a union might hurt unions, and hurt workers.

Silbey thought for a minute, and took in a deep breath.  He started to put his finger in my face, but he stopped, and used it to doodle on the table cloth at the old Monocle, near his office in an odd building the Senate owned.

“Listen,” he said.  “You need to know that I am not anti-union.  I can’t be.”  And he told me about his own father.

I don’t remember the business.  I remember that Frank talked about how his family was not rich by any stretch, and his father worked hard at a union job.  The old man had not a lot of time for friends off the job, not after spending the time he wanted to with his wife and kids.  And so it was that, when he died unexpectedly, too young, Frank’s mother knew that it would be a sad funeral, with very few people attending.

When they got to the synagogue for the funeral, though, there was a huge crowd.  The place was literally overflowing with people.  The union had closed the business in honor of Mr. Silbey, and the union turned out for the funeral.  Each of the workers spent time meeting the widow, and telling her what a great man and good friend her husband had been.

“And that’s why I can’t ever be anti-union,” Frank said.  “When all is said and done, the union will stick by you when nobody else does.”

Over the next five years we found a few unions where that was not exactly true, but in most of those cases, those people who made that not true, went to jail.

The health care side of the Senate Labor Committee had a hearing into lung diseases, including black lung, brown lung, and the mesothelioma, the disease pipefitters got from asbestos.  One of the witnesses came from a pipefitters union.  Among other things, he testified to the astonishing rates of illness and untimely deaths among the pipefitters on the World War II Liberty Ships.

On the way out of the hearing I mentioned to the guy that my father had worked on the Liberty Ships, as a pipefitter.  He looked stricken, and paled.  He pulled me off to the side of the hallway, and said, “I am so sorry for you.  Your father did heroic work and the nation owes him a deep debt.”  No one had ever spoken about my father like that to me before, and I teared up.

“How long has he been gone,” the guy asked.

“Well, he’s got a spot on his lung, but it hasn’t changed.  He’s still alive,” I said (my father would die within the decade).

The pipefitters representative smiled, then laughed.  “He’s one of a very small band of survivors.  He’s still a hero, though.”

Throughout his life, my father was a very good man.  Think of the character Jimmy Stewart played in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  That was my father.  He organized across party lines for local elections.  He organized blood drives.  During the Korean War he headed the local program to take care of soldiers passing through town who ran out of money, or got sick, or got thrown in jail.  My father served on more Troop Committees for the various Boy Scout units my brothers and I joined than anyone had a right to expect.

For all his good work, he didn’t get anything but his own satisfaction out of it.

It was a staffer who never met him, for a union he hadn’t worked in for 40 years who called him the hero he was.

“When all is said and done, the union will stick by you when no one else does,” Frank Silbey said.

It’s still true.  In America, we still need that kind of loyalty to working people, especially to teachers.  We need it now more than ever.

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