I’ve had a lot of thoughts jumping around in my head that have really started boiling since all the action began in Wisconsin. I wrote down what I was feeling and finally posted it today on my Facebook page. My wonderful, supportive MT friends have read it, given me encouragement (and courage), linked it on their pages, and asked me if I’d post it here. I’d like to because I am really interested in all of your experiences, either as union members, or children or spouses of members. How has it affected your lives? Do you still see those effects? What are the benefits, and the downsides? Are unions really beside the point…does the middle class and those who care about it finally need to stand up and say we’re not going back to the Gilded Age?
In April 1975 I was six years old, had just started kindergarten, and my dad, a member of the United Mineworkers of America, was on strike. My little town in west-central North Dakota was still blanketed with snow, which was not uncommon for springtime. Still, the coal miners were out at the tracks, walking a picket line, and one day, my dad took us with him.
My memories of that day are few, but imprinted in my mind 35 years later. We went to the mine, a few miles out of town, and stood on the tracks so the coal cars couldn’t pass. A TV crew from Bismarck was there. They ended their story that night with a shot of my seven-month-old brother, bundled up against the cold, resting in my mom’s arms against her shoulder. We were taken (arrested?) to City Hall, where we crowded into the small building and were eventually just sent home. Not long after, while pretending to write my own newspaper, I interviewed my dad about the strike.
My dad had been a union coal miner for less than five years, and it had completely changed his perspective. His dad was a small business owner, who might’ve been in a union if he wasn’t the only blacksmith in town. So because of his position in town and following in his ethnic group’s path, he was a Republican. I don’t know who (or if) my dad voted for in 1964, a few weeks after turning 18, but in 1968 he voted for Nixon. He told me that was the last Republican he voted for. By 1972, even though he’d only been a union member for a year, he knew who was on the side of the working man, and it wasn’t Republicans.
So you could say I was raised in a union household starting at two years old. I don’t know that this made me any different; it just was. My dad was on strike a few more times, most devastating to me was during my freshman year of college. He wasn’t fanatic, but he participated in local union activities, contributed to funds to help families of other striking miners (particularly in West Virginia), had us boycott products if the company’s union was on strike, and vowed to never have a Japanese car in his driveway.
Watching what is happening in Wisconsin has made me really think about what my dad’s union membership did for me. My maternal grandfather was also a union coal miner, so this was not just a temporary thing for me. I can’t deny that the benefits my father was able to receive and supply to us through his union were great and far-reaching. I have to stand up and say that unions put me where I am today.
My dad’s mine wasn’t the only one around; the county I grew up in is known as Coal Country. It is strip mining, which is considerably less dangerous than underground mining. Still, I believe there hasn’t been a mine death in over 60 years. Because of unions, I didn’t worry too much about my dad’s safety while at work. I could worry about the fact that the mine was out in the country, and that he was often driving home in the middle of the night. I could worry he might hit a deer, or fall asleep, or hit ice in the winter. But on the job, he was pretty safe.
My dad’s generation might have been the last when a man could have a middle-class, blue-collar job, and still be able to purchase a modest new home at age 27, have two cars, three children, and a wife who could stay home. We eventually had a camper so we could indulge in my dad’s favorite vacation relaxation – sitting around doing nothing. But we also took car trips around the country to see relatives and national treasures along the way. We had nothing extravagent, but there was nothing we lacked.
I do not remember my parents worrying about healthcare. Because of my dad’s union benefits, I got an eye exam every year, and new glasses every two years, covered 100%. This was especially important with five people in our family needing glasses, including all three of us kids, who needed them before we were ten years old. I’ve never had eye coverage like that since. The only hospitalization any of us needed was me for a few days when I had a severe kidney infection. But one of my younger brothers had asthma and severe allergies, and the other had juvenile epilepsy. This meant a lot of testing and specialists for a few years. It was not a great financial hardship to my family.
Many years ago, while browsing through a bookstore in North Dakota, I glanced through a book of poems from a local poet. One poem started “There’s a graveyard south of Beulah…” and went on to paint a bleak picture of the evils of coal mines. My stomach tightened, and I’ve never been able to forget that line, although I’ve long forgotten the bitter old poet’s name. That graveyard not only fed my family, but the union that protected my dad’s job launched me into the world. It allowed me to become one of the first members of my family to graduate from college with an advanced degree. It gave me a small scholarship. In only three generations, we went from being a family that barely understood English to one with a person so proficient with the language, she could teach it at a college level.
Besides college (and I didn’t go too far from home for that), the stability of my dad’s union-protected job sent me further than I ever dreamed. I became the first person in my family for 100 hundred years to go back to Russia. I was thousands of miles away from our homeland, in St. Petersburg, a city my ancestors never saw, but I was able to do it…stopping at London and Stockholm on the way. I went to Germany, another place so dear to my ancestors, but one most of them had never seen. I saw St. Lawrence’s Church, the great Lutheran cathedral in Nurnberg, a place my peasant ancestors may not have been welcome.
True, the union didn’t “give” me these things. My father worked hard, and I stood on his shoulders and tried to work as hard as I could. But I don’t forget where I came from. I don’t forget who sacrificed for me. I don’t forget who supported me. I don’t fancy myself so accomplished that I can take credit myself that I, and I alone, should be praised for every good thing I’ve managed to have.
I was a member of a union when I briefly worked for the University of Minnesota. Yes, I was one of those selfish, thuggish public servants so reviled now in Wisconsin. It was uneventful, but I fully supported AFSCME’s goals, and as a taxpayer, I still do. My younger brother has grown rather conservative, but his police union is still there for him if his city decides his services are no longer worth what they’ve been paying, or to give him legal support if his methods are challenged, or to help his family if he should give ultimate sacrifice in the line of duty.
I will not entertain the argument that unions were good years ago, but they’ve lost their usefulness. I will also not entertain the ignorant sentiment that the two or three union workers one might know are lazy and the union just protects their inadequacy, or the really uneducated argument that unions are just too powerful. Labor activists have died for something you take for granted such as a 40-hour work week, or the ability to use the toilet when you need to while at work. I can’t help you if you don’t think such sacrifices were worth it, and I certainly find it hard to respect you.
Learn about what unions actually provided for you, regardless of whether or not you or any member of your family was ever personally involved. Learn who and why and how they fought. Tell me why you trust big corporations to do the right thing by workers and their families. Tell me why you find it so easy to turn against your neighbors, who aren’t fighting for the hope they will ever be as rich and powerful as a big company owner. They just want their kids to have a home, an education, a healthy, stable life. Just like my dad wanted for me. And I got it. It wasn’t perfect, and it wasn’t easy. But I am grateful, and I will express that gratitude by standing up for people in hopes that, when I need it, they will be standing up, again, for me.