Thursday, February 17, 2011

Hard sacrifices

I grew up in a union house.

My mother, once upon a time, was a union steward at Ma Bell (yes, back before they broke up into the Baby Bells we all know today). My father has been a proud member of the IAM union for well over 30 years, and even though he's now retired, he still pays his dues to the union.

Papa went on strike five times during his time at "the flying-B ranch," if I remember correctly. As a child, I didn't really understand the significance of it. It just meant that every four years my Daddy would vote on a contract, and sometimes that contract was bad and my father would be home a lot more than usual.

As I grew older, going on strike in my head meant financial worries and stress for my parents--would we be able to pay our bills, have food, etc. The food, of course, was supplemented by the union. Cereal, beans, rice, peanut butter, flour, sugar, canned corn, canned green beans--anything that had a shelf life and was cheap. But the rest of it... I knew families that lost houses, or cars, or got way behind on bills because they were on strike.

My parents lost their first house due to a strike. It's why I grew up in my home town.

But, for all of that, I never remember either of my parents expressing regret for "going on strike." They also instilled in me the idea that it was The Right Thing To Do when necessary.

I remember how angry my parents would get when the local media would try to present the strike as an argument over wages. My father told me more than once that it wasn't about wage increases, but what was happening with the benefits. In the sixties, seventies, and eighties, the company (in exchange for not raising wages at the time) agreed to pay for their employees' insurance, to provide pensions, and to ensure that a worker could not be arbitrarily laid off because they were making too much money in comparison to younger workers. Later on, as health costs started rising and pensions became rarer and rarer in industry at large, they would try to take those away from the workers. And the union, because they could negotiate their contract for the group as a whole, could go on strike and force the company to honor previous agreements and ideas.

Because these people were willing to put their homes and families' well being on the line, they would walk away with a better contract than what they started off with (or, at least, one that wasn't worse than the previous). And because the big manufacturers in the city would provide benefits or increase wages for their workers, the smaller industries in the are would follow suit to a certain extent, and everyone benefited.

Too often, people who go on strike are presented in the media as these lazy, greedy people who are trying to screw businesses out of profits. In reality, these are often people who work in dirty, dangerous, and/or tedious jobs, and oftentimes would work more than 40 hours a week at it. And they'd put everything on the line to help their fellow workers out.

I started thinking about all of this, because I've been keeping an eye on the situation in Wisconsin, where the governor there is trying to push a bill through the legislature to remove the right for public employees to do collective bargaining, a.k.a. have unions. I've also been reading about the thousands of protesters who've been storming the capitol, even to the extent where the governor has been forced to do government business at a nearby corporation because he could not get into the capitol building.

I confess, I did a bit of cheering in my living room this afternoon when I read about various members of the state senate who have gone out of state to prevent there being a quorum so that the legislation does not pass.

Basically, I wanted to let my little part of the world know that I support the workers in Wisconsin. Because I do understand what it's about, and I'm proud of them for making hard choices.

After all, I grew up in a union house.

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