There is a movement afoot. There is a wonderful movement. This movement aims to organize, recognize and dignify workers in all fields, especially in fast food franchises and big box stores.
I like unions. That is not an unusual position around these parts. The love of unions is deep and sincere here in western Pennsylvania. Even our current tea-party governor knew better than to try a “right to work” law here. We like unions. Let me tell you why.
Almost everyone here, where I live, is a descendant of union members. Most of us can track our lineage to coal miners, steel workers. glass workers, etc. Some of us actually were at least one of these things, like me. I was a glass worker. I was also a union member at that time. I am also the descendant of coal miners and steel workers, so I guess I have all my bases covered.
Unions are so important. The relationship between employer and employee is unbalanced. It simply is. The employer has almost all of the power. We all know the horror stories of company stores, company housing, child labor, etc. This was all real. It happened here, where I live. Massacres happened here, too. Massacres happened when folks tried to organize. Homestead. We remember.
When we talk about unions versus corporations, we are really talking about democracy versus autocracy. When conservatives stifle unions, they stifle the right of free association. Conservatives believe that government should never interfere, unless it is to favor business or to regulate the personal behavior of its citizens. Then it is okay, I guess. Government can interfere with free speech, free association and commerce, if somebody pays elected representatives enough. And they do.
But here, where I live, in western Pennsylvania, we still generally like unions. A lot. May I please tell you a couple of stories?
A while ago, there was a strike among workers in a local grocery chain here. The chain kept the majority of their employees “part time” and engaged in many other bad practices. The employees struck. Business crashed. Almost nobody wanted to cross the picket line. They were not afraid. Hell, no. They just agreed with the strikers. You see, the local media actually reported both sides of the story, and almost everyone sided with the workers. Because they were right. And they won. Hooray!
And now, another union story.
When I was young, my father died. Well, I was not that young. I finished my first year of college and was into my second. My mother, a waitress, fell ill and had to go into the hospital. I was forced to drop out and go to work to support my mom and (much younger) little brother. I did. I was fortunate, at that time, to gain employment in a glass factory. Here is my union story.
I really did need that job. My mom came home, but still was unable to work (for six months after her operation). My brother was in junior high school. I really did give my best every day at work. I had a lot to work for.
Let me tell you a bit about that job. I worked in the “Hot End”. That is what they called it. It was the place where molten glass was formed into shape. I was a “ware handler”. What did I do? Well, I took newly formed, still glowing glass from the molds. I placed them on a conveyor belt. Or sometimes the glass needed another step after molding. Usually that was done by machine. So I placed the hot glass into wherever it had to go. At the end of the conveyor, somebody had to take the hot glass (it was still hot, there were gas jet flames on each side of the belt) and put it into the Lear. You don't know what a Lear is? Don't worry about it. It does not matter and will probably never come up again in your life. I did all of this with asbestos coated tongs. That was probably not a healthy thing to do.
One day, I went to work. I was assigned to “the floor”. I was happy about that. You see, they normally schedule a few more workers than are needed, in case anyone calls off. If someone has a heat stroke or something like that (it happened a lot), a floor person would fill in. The duties of the “floor person” were to clean up broken glass, sprinkle kitty litter on any oil spills, put out fires, etc.
But this day, I was called by the siren blasts. That was a signal, the number called me and told me where to report. When I got there, the foreman was there, along with another guy. That guy was holding a rope and a bundle of something.
“Okay,” the foreman yelled. He had to yell. We were outside of the lines, back at the “tanks”. We had to wear ear protection, according to the law. I had a cotton ball stuffed in each ear. That was our ear protection. But it was still loud. I did not know anyone there, personally. We could not talk. It was too loud. I removed one of the cotton balls. The foreman continued, still yelling, “This tank is frozen up, you have to go in there with this dynamite and set it. We're gonna tie this rope around your waist in case you pass out from the heat. Don't worry, we'll drag you out.”
I turned and looked at the “tank”, a huge structure with a big slab pulled out of the side. I was supposed to enter there. The inside of the tank did not look inviting. The floor glowed a ghastly red in spots, many spots, and the heat blasted from the opening.
“No.” I said that. I was so scared. Not scared of going in there, I was more afraid of what would become of my family. But I knew that if I did that, my family would be worse off. We had just experienced death. We did not need another one.
“You're fired!” the foreman screamed. “Go stand over there, next to that guy.”
I saw another really young guy, like me, probably too young to buy alcohol. Like me. I walked over and stood beside him. “I been fired, too.” he said. “I wouldn't do it, neither.”
Soon, a third guy showed up. They blew his signal on the siren, and he showed up. He got fired, too.
Just then, some guy showed up, screaming his head off. He said stuff like, "What the f$@# are you doing?" and "Are you f#@$ing nuts?"
Somebody had seen what was going on. They were going on break and they ran to the shop steward.
I was not fired anymore.
Of course, that is not why I like unions. I liked them before. I was brought up that way. I was brought up right. But it is nice to have one when you need one. And we all do.
Unions have given us so much. Almost all of the rights that workers have today, they owe to unions. If you have health care through your employer, or if you get paid vacation or paid holidays, or if you get sick days, or... well, you get the idea.
There has been a concerted effort to destroy unions in the last thirty years. It is working. At least, it has been working. The tide is turning.
Thank you, so much, to the brave people in the fast food industry who are leading this fight. And to Wal-Mart workers as well. And to all of the others who slave to feed their families while also trying to do better, by organizing.
You are my heroes.