My grandfather, Alexander, immigrated to the US from Europe in 1905. He apprenticed and worked as a carpenter. By the time I was asking about his early life he was already retired. What I got were anecdotal stories about his life rather than a comprehensive history.
It would be accurate to describe my grandfather as a “union man”. I knew that he still spent a considerable amount of time each week at the union office with many of his union buddies.
I remember thinking that you needed to be “tough” to be in the union. It had been mentioned more than once around the dinner table that he had been severely beaten by the police while walking a picket line at some point in the late 1920s.
Around the dinner table that event was viewed as a sacrifice; a beating that he took on behalf of his union brothers. But that was not what he wanted to talk about when I asked him about the union.
Grandpa saw his union and his union brothers as part of an extended family. If I could synthesize what I learned about his relationship with them it would be “helping all brothers and their families to succeed; letting no brother fail”.
Hunger was a reality in Grandpa’s community and in other immigrant communities then and now. In many of these communities, then as now, religious organizations stepped up to care for the community’s needs. Much of what was considered “radical” about socialists then was really just working hand-in-glove with the conservative religious organizations.
Grandpa’s Local was affiliated with the Workman’s Circle; an organization formed in the late 1800’s to assist Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. The Workman’s Circle was a national organization in the US with branches in most industrial cities.
Workman’s Circle was certainly pro-worker and pro-union but it was much more. It helped immigrants to adopt and assimilate. Workman’s Circle sponsored schools, health clinics, food banks, business loans, English and job training and funeral and burial assistance.
The Workman’s Circle’s world view was rooted in the raw 19th Century brand of socialism. I have no doubt that some members of the Workman’s Circle who organized alongside my grandfather might have heard Marx himself extol a group of workers to unite and strike for higher wages and better conditions.
I do not think I ever heard anyone affiliated with the union complain about banks or condemn them as evil. My family had its bank account at a local Savings and Loan. It was the same account my father had since he came back from WWII. It was the same S&L where Alexander had his checking and savings accounts. Apparently this particular bank had always catered to union members.
Nor did my grandfather particularly hate people who were wealthier. On more than one occasion, as we drove passed a local shopping center, he expressed how thankful he was that the developer had the backing to build it, as it had provided more than a year of steady work for himself and his union buddies in one of the worst years of the Great Depression.
My grandfather was a US citizen, although I cannot tell you when he became one. As far as I know he voted Democratic as did most of my expanded family at that point in time. I do remember conversations where Pres. Roosevelt was spoken of favorably. I cannot remember a single word suggesting that anyone in the extended family advocated the violent overthrow of the government.
When I saw him at home before he went into the hospital for the last time, he asked me to take $6 out of his wallet and to go down to the union hall and pay his dues. He could not accept dying if his union dues were in arrears.
I had been to the union hall many times over the years. It was the same crowd, just older than I remembered. The clerk Aaron, who took the payment, remarked how he was surprised to see me so “grown-up”.
Three weeks later Aaron and I were pall bearers at grandpa’s funeral. As the casket was wheeled into a little walled off section of the cemetery reserved for union members, I noticed my grandfather’s name on the plague next to the gate. He had been on the union’s cemetery committee when it was dedicated in 1927.
In 1970 the garment center, represented by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) was the largest employer in New York City. By the end of that decade the ILGWU was running ads on TV asking people to “look for the Union label, when you are buying a suit, coat or dress.”
People did not take that advice and look for the union label. Those jobs moved to Southern states employing non-union labor and then off-shore where labor was cheaper still.
The argument can be made that the unions had only themselves to blame. As they pushed the price of their labor higher and higher, more and more people were willing to do the jobs for less. From the 1970s forward, as global transport became cheaper and faster, more and more jobs moved off-shore.
So what is the legacy of these 20th Century Socialists in America? Coming out of the pandemic there is certainly an enflamed attitude among workers that they still need to be paid more and treated better. More and more, unions still matter.
In May of this year, ExxonMobil, one of the world’s wealthiest corporations, shut down a refinery in Beaumont, Texas and locked out about 500 workers. The company claimed that the workers were about to strike anyway, so the lock-out protected the company from any “disruption” that a strike would cause.
More recently, the company threatened to fire the workers if they refused to accept its current offer and disband the union. The workers, represented by the United Steelworkers union (USW) took a vote and essentially told the company to shove it.
That refinery processes about 400,000 bls. of oil per day. Closing it is one reason ExxonMobil can today talk about supply shortages and raise the price at the pump to over $5.00 for the rest of us. The company will tell you those workers were offered a fair deal.
Right now there are 10,000 workers on strike against John Deere. Their union, the United Auto Workers (UAW) and the company negotiated a settlement, with a raise for the workers. Almost 90% of the union members rejected the deal.
The membership argued that the company is making a lot of money and its stock price near all time highs. The executives and shareholders are well paid. The question “what about the workers” is the question that is always at the core of any discussion about socialism.
Today’s post pandemic labor market is unique. There are plenty of workers available today and at the same time a great many jobs going wanting. Workers are demanding more pay and better conditions to return to their old jobs.
Even the largest unions like the UAW are having difficulty delivering what workers want but I would not count them out. There is one other fact I learned from my grandfather, union members do not cross other unions’ picket lines.
There are many more workers on strike today than in the months before pandemic. As noted above, they want to be paid more and they do not like to be bullied. Marx, the socialist, is remembered for challenging the workers to unite. What if they do?
What would happen if all the union members who work for ExxonMobil walk out in support of the union in Beaumont? What if the union members in trucking industry refuse to service any ExxonMobil or Deere facilities?
Could there be general strikes as Marx envisioned in the US? I would think that workers would need to be pretty unhappy. Autoworkers and steelworkers are higher paid than most workers and they want more. If you have ever been a waiter (and I have), I would bet that you would be unhappy with the current minimum wage.
Perhaps the smartest person in the labor/management debate was Henry Ford. He famously doubled workers’ wages in 1914 to keep the unions out and forced the other auto makers to do the same. He believed that the workers needed to be paid enough to be able to purchase the cars they were making. There is no question that the overall economy is better when people have more money in their pockets to spend.
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