Even though I was not really aware of it for years afterward, I was raised and informed in a union household. My father and my uncle ran a local of the International Longshoreman’s Association, the infamous ILA. I was a boy when my father went from being a union member to running a local. I remember the raucous celebration following his election and also remember having no idea of what exactly it meant. My friends’ fathers all seemed to be cops or firemen. Their jobs were very clearly defined. They wore uniforms. Not so my father, who, suddenly had to wear a suit sometimes. Nor did he explain much. What my brothers and sisters and I picked up about the business of unions, we picked up almost by osmosis. All we knew was that the phone rang at all hours of the day and night. Men were always looking for my father: men with the gruff voices of a long vanished New York, men who pronounced the word “father” as “fadar” as in , “Is your fadar dere?”
The men always seemed to be in trouble. Little by little we learned it was our father’s job as a union guy to help them. I never heard my father say, “ We need to look after each other” or “We need to protect each other.” I never heard my father use words like “empathy” or” brotherhood” or “justice.” And I’m not sure he ever did. I just heard him make those abstractions into realities for men who would have never tasted them, not in a million years, had it not been for the union. And slowly, in time, I learned that that was what unions did. Later, after my father’s death I happened to meet some of the men, here and there. It was as clear to me as it was to them that without the union the quality of their lives would have been grossly diminished. The unions afforded them a living wage and health care and due process and all of these combined afforded them dignity. I shudder to think what would become of them today in a world increasingly without work or unions. I shudder to think of what will become of many of my students when they need to find work in a few years. The union afforded my mother and father the wherewithal to feed, clothe and house no less than eleven children on his single modest salary and even buy us a house. The union, in very real terms, gave me my brothers and sisters. And it gave me something more: it infused in me a belief in the dignity of all labor and the sacrality of all human life. This was an immense gift that came with a sacred obligation.
These beliefs sank deep into my bones and they remain there. I am under no illusion that unions are perfect or ideal organizations any more than I am under the illusion that any human organization is perfect or ideal. I know that they can be as corrupt as any government or Wall Street hedge fund and if so they must be reformed.
But I am sure of this: the world grows crueler, more savage, more ahuman by the hour, in no small part because of the undermining or destruction of unions and all that comes with them. There are those who say that globalization, de-industrialization, technocracy, and ever increasing corporatism have made unions redundant.
They have certainly made them scarce and immensely weakened.
The results are obvious for all to see: a terrified and constantly shrinking middle class, less job security, greater fear and stress. This in turn makes us more and more selfish, less and less trusting, less and less fully human. We are perfecting the nightmarish vision of Thomas Hobbes, “The war of one man against all men.” Unions mediated against this horror show.
I understand that there are people, readers of Ayn Rand, for example, who believe that such a vicious fantasy world is somehow only natural and that such a state of ceaseless competition or outright war produces not merely splendid gadgets and gizmos but also freedom loving and heroic individuals; further that those who cannot compete in such a world should have thought of that before they were born.
I say that such a state mass produces spiritual mutants and monsters not unlike the ones currently running our nation and remaking it in their addled, diseased image.
I say the greatest display of freedom and heroism is to fully love another human being and that such an act is highly unlikely in a world fueled by insecurity and fear and limitless greed.
I say we have to find some kind of way to spark a rebirth of unionism in this nation or we will almost all soon be living lives that are barely recognizable as human.
I say happy Labor Day!