My dad--and I'm not sure why--wasn't crazy about labor unions. In fact, when he was teaching teacher-education courses at Hiram College (1956-66), he would distinguish between the teachers' union (AFT--American Federation of Teachers) and what he called "professional organizations" (like the NEA--National Education Association). No surprise: He favored the latter. I knew this for two reasons: (1) I lived in the same house with him; (2) I took his (required) introductory course for those considering a teaching career, Educ. 301: The School in American Society (and, yes, I got an "A," dammit!).
As a result, I was slow to warm to unions myself. When I began teaching (fall of 1966), the Aurora Education Association (AEA), an affiliate of the NEA and OEA, was pretty much a social club. It sponsored a progressive dinner at Christmas, a teachers' bowling league (which I loved, by the way), and seemed to me to be pretty much a formality.
My first year I chaired some committee (why me?) that never met ("Professional Rights" or some such name), but one spring day I got a message: We needed to meet with a teacher and the Superintendent about a salary issue ...
At that time, Aurora still had a merit-pay system. Based on your building principal's recommendation, you could earn up to 4% more on your salary (also available, 1, 2, and 3%). The best part: That percentage became a permanent part of your base.
Well, one of the veteran teachers believed he'd been unfairly denied the merit increase and demanded a hearing. I was just 22 years old that spring.
We met in a room at Aurora High School (the brand-new AHS had opened just that year), and the Superintendent came swooping in, declared peremptorily why this wasn't going to be an issue, and rose to leave--all within about two minutes.
The two other teachers and I (and the veteran who'd wanted the hearing) sat there silent and awe-struck.
And then something that sounded like my voice said, "Wait!"
The Superintendent turned around. "Yes?"
"Shouldn't we at least talk about this a few minutes?"
And for a reason I cannot to this day figure out, the Superintendent turned around, sat, and talked with us, eventually agreeing on some sort of compromise involving the veteran teacher's status the next year when merit pay decisions came up.
I have no clue why I spoke up (I was terrified)--or, as I said, why the Superintendent broke stride and returned. But I did, and he did, and my opinion of unions began to change.
Later, I would become a very active member of the AEA, participated very vigorously in our teachers' strike (spring of 1978)--I even got cited by the Aurora Police for blocking (amiably) a driveway so that a vehicle full of replacement teachers could not just cruise up to the high school. (Yes, I have a record!)
I remember that, near the bottom of the Harmon Middle School driveway, we used to picket. It was friendly--some sad parents would pull up and talk with us (a few were angry; most were not)--but occasionally joining us was a retired teamster who lived across the street, a man who was puzzled by our genial behavior: You guys need some damn ball bats out here, he would tell us. We would smile and talk about Proust (not really--but you get the idea).
Oh, I'm no Pollyanna about labor unions--even our own. I well know the problems I saw firsthand (e.g., protecting those whom the teaching profession would perhaps be better off without)--and those problems I read about in other unions (corruption).
But on balance? No question, at least for me. Unions made better the lives of millions of workers and their families. Joyce's father (a life-long URW member in Akron) was able to live in a nice home in Firestone Park (Akron), to send his only daughter to college, to save, enjoy health and retirement benefits, job protection (which came in handy when the company decided to cut him off just months before his full retirement benefits would have kicked in). He went to his grave a Union Man.
And so I'm saddened to see a chart like the one I've posted below ...
This, of course, is the result of downsizing, of out-sourcing, and, of course, of flat-out union-busting and unadulterated greed. Workers who, because of unions, were once firmly in the middle class now must struggle even to get by--working multiple jobs for diminished wages and benefits. Exacerbating the problem? These workers have few advocates. In a non-union job you're pretty much helpless, on your own. Fragile.
I personally benefited tremendously from the teachers' union. Working conditions, health care, job protection, retirement benefits ... and on and on. And my students benefited, as well, from the overall climate and working conditions, from the stable faculty (happy people generally don't leave their jobs, etc.).
Again--I do not wish to suggest there were no problems with unions--of course there were (they comprised human beings, of course--this flawed species of ours).
But still I have to ask: Why can't all American workers enjoy such things? Shouldn't our simple humanity insist on it? Demand it? Are we really going to have to fight the union battle all over again?