Friday, February 18, 2011

A Snarky, Passionate Defense of Unions

What's happening in Wisconsin right now makes me want to applaud the Democrats and kick the Republican governor. But despite that, I don't actually want to talk about unions from the basis of either party.

Look, I know unions are characterized in America as fat cats who are taking the taxpayers' hard-earned dollars and hurting all the "average" Americans. I call bullshit on that.

I also call bullshit on the fact that most Americans don't care about unions and have never benefited from unions in their lives.

I'm sorry, perhaps you'd like a little, fairly simplistic history lesson? A short one?

Welcome to America, average Americans, the land that is reputably built upon immigrants. None of us, with the exception of the Native Americans, were supposed to be here originally. All of us--no matter what part of the world we came from--got here by ship and plane and train. Our ancestors--those same immigrants--were mostly not wealthy people. If they were wealthy, chances are good that they would have stayed in their original country, as long as that country wasn't involved in a brutal war at home.

So these non-wealthy immigrants come to America, and they need a job. And who is willing to hire immigrants who don't speak English? Who is willing to give our poor ancestors a job? Why did I hear you give the answer just now? Could you possibly be thinking of what I'm thinking? Does it start with the letter "F"?

Yes, yes it is factories! Factories, those wonderful bastions of industrialization that didn't really care if you could communicate well in English, as long as you could get your job done. And those people who worked in the factories, who mostly didn't speak English, they had shitty wages. They couldn't complain about the terrible working conditions or working hours or the fact that they weren't earning enough to support their families.

But some of those workers had been there longer than others. Maybe they were here for five, ten, fifteen more years than the recent immigrants. So they formed unions. They could speak decent English. They had the immigrants join those unions. And together, with the power of numbers and determination and pure will, these unions got better working conditions, better wages, and better lives for our ancestors.

They made sure our ancestors could have our parents. Or our grandparents. That they could raise our families to aspire to better things. That they could put food on the table and make sure there were clothes on their backs. They could scrimp and save and pay for doctors when they needed them. They could even be buried with the help of the union, when they eventually passed away.

Without the unions that formed in this country, most of our ancestors would have been far, far worse off. They worked their asses off to ensure a better life for their families, and that, my dear average Americans, is why you have a middle-class lifestyle nowadays. Without the advantages that our ancestors had, our grandparents and our parents would have had radically different lives, and thus, we would have had radically different lives.

My great-grandfather spied upon the managers for the garment workers union in NYC almost 100 years ago. My grandfather helped found a chapter of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Brooklyn; he was an electrician and the union damn well made his life better. My father is a member of a union today, and even though it's a vastly different sort of union than my other relatives belonged to, the AFL-CIO gave me a scholarship to college that helped me pay my way.

Unions have been good to my family. And they've been good to yours. Try to remember this from time to time.

(This brief blog essay brought to you by snark and passion combined with a good helping of common sense thrown in.)


Jathi said...

Thank you.

I am a Wisconsin union member, and a state government employee. I've been right in the middle of this for the last week, and it's a horrifying, stressful thing to face. Being vilified when you just want to do the job you are paid to do, and be able to make some sort of living off of it.

You hear all the history of what the unions did, and the steps that were necessary to achieve it, and you try to believe that if you were called to do so, you would do the same thing.

Coming face to face with the actuality, the overwhelming necessity to ACT, on a situation that belongs more to the 1930s than the 2010s or to the Middle East and not the Midwest, is a humbling experience. Standing up for your principles is never easy.

I know that I for one appreciate the support we are seeing from the community, not just here in Wisconsin, but from around the country. Thank you.

hillary said...

Great post.

My family history is surprisingly devoid of union membership. One side is mostly farmers and the other is a lot of preachers and military men. However, my first real job out of college was a union job at a public school, and the union did a lot for the members. They negotiated our pay and benefits, kept crucial jobs from being axed when there were budget cuts, and represented us during grievances against our employer. Union membership also enabled us as a group to step up and take a pay cut in order to fund our colleagues' jobs. We wouldn't have had the power or voice to do those things without the union. Unions are still relevant in many sectors, and there are some unorganized groups (for example, IT workers, or graduate students) that would benefit a lot from unionizing.

Rachel said...

Brava! A few years ago someone asked me if teachers' unions were really necessary. My reply was "unfortunately, yes." I don't always agree with my union, but when I think about what schools would look like without the union pushback, I do not see a pretty picture.
I imagine that it is much the same in other unionized areas. All one needs to do is look at right-to-work states to see how employers (including in the public arena) treat their employees when the unions haven't got the power to stand up to them.