My father was a construction electrician. Attending trade school after World War II under the GI Bill (he was in the Army Air Force, serving in North Africa), he then apprenticed through the electrical workers union, the IBEW (Local 134). He made a good wage, especially for a man with only a high school diploma.
He worked hard and long hours, sometimes, always hoping for “overtime,” especially those Sunday, holiday and overnight shifts when he earned “double bubble” wages. He would point with pride as we would sometimes go into Downtown Chicago, traveling from our comfortable, but modest, home in the north suburbs, to the skyscrapers that make Chicago’s skyline one of the most beautiful in the world: the Sears Tower (now the Willis Tower), the AON Building (then the Standard Oil Building), the John Hancock Building, McCormick Place, and so many others.
He helped build my alma mater, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and the vast expansion many years ago of O’Hare International Airport. He was a lifelong Democrat, teaching us that the labor unions made our lives possible. When he died, the IBEW took care of my mother, who was legally blind, helping her stay independent in many ways with my dad’s union pension and medical coverage.
The Republicans would have us believe that labor unions are evil, the bane of forward progress in this country. They must be sought out and destroyed. The Repulbicans are wrong.
We look derisively down at China and other countries where labor is cheap, working conditions are horrific, and where we acquire nearly all our own goods. Made in the U.S.A. is a great slogan, but I’ll bet you that fewer than 20 percent of your clothing is made here, and nearly none of your (or my) electronic gizmos. Yet, it wasn’t so long ago that American factories and mines were sweatshops, or places so unsafe or unhealthy that worker mortality was common. Wages were barely enough to eke out a living, much less give your children a better life.
Unions helped build the great middle class, helped make this country strong and prosperous for our generation. They are not evil; they have been, and still are in many ways, the hardworking backbone of our nation. Tough economic times call for compromise, and the unions have done that, saving airlines, auto companies, school districts and more, understanding the great stake they have in the success of their industries. They are not perfect, but neither are the companies they help build.
It makes me nauseous to hear Republican after Republican boast “I built this” in response to President Obama’s recent statement that no one builds a successful business without a lot of help. It is narcissistic and it is a lie. Nobody “builds this” alone, in a vacuum, with his (or her) own two hands.
Of course, what the president actually said when he uttered those words, was that businesses owe part of their success to the government and to the taxpayers who fund it: public roads, public schools, government grants, loan guarantees, public utilities, waterways, and other parts of our now-crumbling infrastructure.
But besides government, businesses owe their success to their workers, these days more and more marginalized, pushed further down the ladder of success by stagnant wages and the fear of becoming outsourced and irrelevant. Unions protect workers from the unbridled greed of corporations that would otherwise cut corners on health, safety, and environmental protections to increase profit, and cut wages to the bone while adding millions to the bonuses of those at the top.
When I was in college, my dad, with pride, gave me an alabaster brick taken from his job site at the (then called) Standard Oil Building. They had just completed the work on the beautiful, stark white building. “I helped build this,” he told me. “Keep it and show it to your kids someday, and remind them that their grandfather helped build this great city.” It is as ludicrous for Mitt Romney to say “I built this” as it would have been for my father to take sole responsibility for creating the Amoco Building. Nobody builds anything themselves, with no help from government, from stone masons, electricians, plumbers, pipe-fitters, truck drivers, teachers, policemen, firemen. It’s especially fitting to remember that on this Labor Day.