Up Front: April 2008
I’m a union man
Just like my daddy and all my kin
I took a union stand
No matter what the company said
I got me two good hands
And just as long as I’m able I won’t give in
— Steve Earle, “Harlan Man”
My daddy was a union man, but he didn’t cut a particularly proletarian figure in the custom-tailored suit and Sinatra-style, short-brim fedora he favored upon shedding his blue twill uniform for a night on the town. Then again, the Plumbers and Pipefitters union had been part of the American Federation of Labor — “skilled craftsmen, the aristocracy of labor,” he was quick to remind us - before its merger with the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1955.
He was the only union plumber in Burlington, getting his card while working out of town in the Hampton Roads shipyards during the ’57 recession. Back home, it did him little good. He was a foreman, so I figure he kept up his dues out of the same perverse streak that made him a rabid Republican and diehard Duke fan: It gave him something to argue about with his cronies at Sharkey’s.
Nor was he down solid with the working man, often railing about how John L. Lewis should have faced a firing squad for taking the coal miners out while the war was on, but occasionally he’d go on a tear and wouldn’t let anything in the house that wasn’t union-made. That’s when six-packs of Falstaff would appear in the fridge, and he’d forsake Salem for Kool — one of the few white men I’ve ever witnessed smoking one.
For him, during that time and in that place, it was a safe sort of rebellion. He never had to walk off a job or on a picket line. Unlike my mom, who had to pass machine guns guarding mills on the way to school during the General Textile Strike of 1934, he probably found it all rather romantic. Likewise for me. Reading Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and In Dubious Battle and listening to folk music as a kid made me a union man. A union man wannabe.
At age 30, after participating in a half-hearted and even more half-assed attempt to organize a newsroom (while at the same time angling for a promotion to assistant city editor), I found myself in B.J. Widick’s industrial-relations class at Columbia University. I was there on a fellowship to study economics and business journalism. He was there after a long career as the real deal, an activist turned academic. A former reporter, he had been one of the founders of the Newspaper Guild, research director for the United Rubber Workers in the ’30s and an associate of the Reuther brothers in the United Auto Workers in the ’40s and ’50s.
Then in his 70s, a feisty fireplug with a shaven head, he would growl at grade-grubbing MBA students scribbling his every word: “Stop writing and listen! I’ll tell you when you need to write something down.” It was in that class and during a semester of independent study with him that I learned about the union movement, shorn of the sentiment, the myths, the Woody Guthrie songs. “Labor relations,” he would say, “is about one thing: power. And how that power is brought to bear by each side within a framework of law.” I trust this month’s cover story illuminates Professor Widick’s lessons.