I am a child of labor, born into a labor family; timewise, in the middle of The Great Depression; placewise, in the middle of an ethnically diverse working class town in New Jersey. I grew up with the Labor Movement.
My father was my hero. All 6 feet 2 inches and 195 pounds of him! A high school drop-out who later took an Associate of Science Degree in Chemistry. For that is where he worked, in a chemical factory on the waterfront!
Here was a man who was instrumental in founding a labor union—an Independent Labor Union—and then becoming its President during World War II. Here was a man who, at the end of his 50-year tour, was the only worker who refused to join the “closed shop” of a corrupt and tyrannical union that had taken over the Independent.
The Third Way
For Dad, American Labor was “The Third Way.” He rejected the greed of the “Capitalistic Credo” which he labeled “Management.” He rejected the tyranny of “Communistic Totalitarianism” which he termed “Tin Horn Dictators.”
The Labor Union Objectives were simple and linear. Dad summarized them as “The Three S’s” which insured performance (See Figure 2):
- Safety—Protection from harm;
- Security—Protection from abuses;
- Salary—Sharing in profits.
First, insure the safety of “the men.” In the 1920s and 1930s, dozens of men had died from poisonous fumes. Dad had, himself, been severely poisoned while running the pilot lab as a 16-year-old.
Second, insure the workers’ security. Seniority played an important role here in guaranteeing the job according to the time-on-job and independent of abuses of the manager’s sometimes “random whims.”
Figure 2. Historic Labor Union Objectives
Third, insure the workers’ salaries. The men understood that they were implementers and not initiators of the industrial designs. They simply wanted a “fair share” for their physical labor.
I accompanied Dad on many of his activities as union leader. The main principle that I got was his commitment to “The Third Way.” For example, when the union was going out on strike, management hired busloads of what Dad called “axe-handle-wielding goons” from the Pennsylvania mining towns. Dad chose to invite our town’s mayor and the council to visit the strike on the occasion of the “Pennsylvania Visitation.” Needless to say, there was no violence. When talking about it later, Dad claimed that his action had saved “those Pennsylvania boys’ lives.”
Leading this group of men was not an easy task. In fact, it was quite physical. Every few months, Dad had to “throw” one of the men who challenged his authority. The only movies that I saw which approached representing the workers’ experience were “On the Waterfront” and, later on, “Matewan.”
In terms of safety, Dad was the only person to ever climb down the ladders of the huge vats to save someone who had been overcome by poisonous gases. He saved six men that way.
In terms of salary, the union leaders were able to influence management to a “no lay-off” policy during “hard times.” First, they cut the work to four days a week; then they cut the work to three days a week. At least they ensured the survival of the workers’ families.
In terms of security, I accompanied Dad to a National Labor Relations Board-monitored election in 1953. Dad had forced this election when a “mobbed-up” union “bought off” many of the Independent delegates. Dad sat by the ballot box for two of the three shifts and was satisfied with the progress. During the third shift, another person monitored the voting.
When the votes were tallied, it seems more votes were cast than there were union members. When queried about abandoning his monitoring during the third shift, Dad said only this: “You have to trust somebody sometime.”
Many of the workers never enjoyed the benefits of retirement because they died by 60 years of age due to pulmonary problems and cancers related to the poisons that they breathed. Those were the times. These were “hard men.” The unions enabled their members to receive some greater benefits from the investments of their lives. “But, by no means equitable in God’s eyes,” Dad would add.
Dad was the last one standing, the last of his beloved men to die. He suffered through all of the changes in insurance policies as the retirees’ numbers narrowed. He suffered worse for all the losses that the union movement had experienced.
In his dying moments, he knew that unionism was always several steps behind. It reactively handled past griefs but never proactively anticipated future initiatives.
Sadly, now more than ever, Dad would recognize that unionism was a victim of the past rather than a generator of the future: “Nothing lives beyond us but the principles we teach.”
Dad would add empathically: “I guess it’s time to grow up!”