Workers must seize back the golden age for themselves
During my childhood, 1957 and 1958 were “the two good years,” the were the only years my working class redneck family ever caught a real break. And that break came because of organized labor. After working as a farm hand, driving a hicktown taxi part time, and a dozen catch as catch can jobs, my father found himself owning a used semi-truck and hauling produce for a Teamster unionized trucking company called Blue Goose.
Daddy was making more money than he’d ever made in his life, about $4,000 a year. The median national household income at the time was $5,000, mostly thanks to America’s unions. After years of moving from one rented dump to another, we bought a modest home, ($8,000) and felt like we might at last be getting some traction in achieving the so-called “American Dream.”
This was the golden age of both trucking and of unions. Thirty-five percent of American labor, 17 million working folks, were union members, and it was during this period the American middle class was created. It was also a period of Teamsters Union corruption, replete with criminal moguls such as Dave Beck, George Meany and Jimmy Hoffa. Yet the history of the few top lizards on the national rock of greed is not the history of the people.
If a few pricks and gangsters have occasionally seized power over the dignity of labor, countless more calculating, bloodless business and corporate elites—have always held most of the cards in America. Which is why in 1886 railroad and financial baron Jay Gould could sneer, “I can always hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.” And why the speaker at the U.S. Business Conference Board in 1974 could arrogantly declare, “One man, one vote has undermined the power of business in all capitalist countries since World War II.” And why that same year Business Week magazine said, “It will be a hard pill for many Americans to swallow—the idea of doing with less so that big business can have more. Nothing in modern economic history compares with the selling job that must now be done to make people accept this new reality.” The new reality is here, and has been since 1974, the last year American workers made a wage gain in real dollars.
My daddy ran the eastern seaboard in a 12-wheeler—there were no 18 wheelers yet. It had polished chrome and bold letters that read, “BLUE GOOSE LINE”. Parked alongside our little asbestos sided house, I’d marvel at the magic of those bold words, the golden diamond and sturdy goose. And dream of someday “burning up Route 50” like my dad.
Old U.S. Route 50 ran near the house and was the stuff of legend if your daddy happened to be a truck driver who sometimes took you with him on the shorter hauls: “OK boy, now scrunch down and look into the side mirror. I’m gonna turn the top of them side stacks red hot.” And he would pop the clutch and strike sparks on the anvil of the night, downshifting toward Pinkerton, Coolville and Hanging Rock, eventually into Columbus and Saint Louis, places where I imagined had floodlights raking the skies heralding the arrival of heroic Teamster truckers like my father. Guys who’d fought in Germany and Italy and the Solomon Islands and were still wearing their service caps these years later, but now pinned with the gold steering wheel of the Teamsters Union. Such are a working class boy’s dreams.
I have a parched photo from that time. of my mother and the three of us kids on the porch of that house on route 50. On the day my father was slated to return from any given run we’d all stand on the porch listening for the sound of air brakes, the deep roar as he came down off the mountain. Each time my mother would step onto the porch blotting her lipstick, Betty Grable style hair rustling in the breeze, and say, “Stand close, your daddy’s home.”
And that was about as good as it ever got for our family.
Daddy’s heart later gave way from a congenital defect and he lost everything. He was so scrupulously honest about debts he could never recover financially. Unable to borrow money, uneducated and weakened for life, he set to working in car washes and garages. After his union trucking days were over, we were assigned to the margins of America, a million miles from the American Dream, joining those people never seen on television, represented by no politician and never heard from in halls of power.
Now it was only a little house by the side of the road with not enough closets and ugly asbestos shingle siding. But it was ours, just like the truck and the chance to get ahead that it offered. And we had felt like we were some small part of America as it was advertised. All because of a union job during the heyday of unions in this nation.
Only about 12% of American workers are now unionized and even with a supposedly union friendly Democratic Congress, unions are still fighting to exist Some Americans believe President Obama is going to turn this dreadful scenario around. Obama talks a good game about unions, when he is forced to. But he is working on the things that will “create a legacy,” such as health care (which is simply a new way to pay the insurance industry’s blackmail) or the economy (by appointing the same damned people who fucked it up to fix it), and immigration reform, a nicely nebulous term that can mean whatever either side of the issue wants it to mean.
Obama’s not going to publicly ignore the unions. But he’s not going to sink much political capital into this corporatized nation’s most radio-active issue either. For him, union legislation is just a distraction from the “legacy building” of a very charming, savvy, and ambitious politician. That is the assessment of Glenn Spencer of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, one of the most anti-union institutions in America. (Many thanks to Washington writer Ken Silverstein for publishing Spencer’s astute observations).
Things are changing though. Union membership climbed 12 percent last year. Big deal. Twelve percent of twelve percent ain’t shit. We can expect no miracles, top union leaders are still among the Empire’s elites. Yet they are still technically accountable to whatever membership will still have jobs when the 2012 elections roll around. The least they could do is make it harder for Obama to lick off those millions of hard earned union support dollars from the top of the campaign contribution ice cream cone as he did in ‘08.
But who can be sure? Because the new union elites and their minions are lawyers and marketing professionals. They’ve never come down off the mountain with both stacks red hot, or gathered on the porch of a crappy but new roadside bungalow, proud because they owned it, and stood up straight because, “Boys, your daddy is coming home.”
So it will be up to us, just as it always has been … the writer, the Nicaraguan janitor, the forty year old family man forced to bag groceries at Wal-Mart, the pizza delivery guy, the welder and the certified nurse … the long haul trucker and the short order cook. And they will snicker at us from their gilded roosts on Wall Street and Pennsylvania Avenue.
Some people are bound to get hurt in the necessary fight. In fact, people need to be willing to get hurt in the fight. That’s the way we once gained worker rights.
And that’s the way we will get them back.
Read all about it
Up to the minute Twitter chatter
The latest and greatest
Good morning Punchers. After four years of excellent fun and great conversation, this is the final post…
I have had some close calls, one that involved what looked to me like an AK47 pointed my way, followed…
In a world in which there are still people who subscribe to the vile notion that certain victims of sexual…