That title is either from a song or just a saying that Unions have used for years, and one I heard every year at the Labor Day Parade in Northern Minnesota. Back in the early 1970s I was in the Carpenters Union. Growing up, my dad was in the Machinists Union, and later on he was in the Bartenders Union.
Starting out, the Union was great, but let me tell you how I got in. I was building a commissioned outdoor sculpture for Rainey River Community College in International Falls. I was making it out of wood, and metal and while I was building it, the Carpenter's Union business agent stopped by and asked to see my Union Card. I said I didn't have one, I was an artist. He said, you are building something with wood, and being paid by the State of Minnesota, and if you don't want us to shut you down, you'd better join up. I laughed thinking he was joking. He wasn't.
So, I asked, "How much?". He told me it depended if I wanted to be an apprentice or a journeyman. It was one hundred dollars to be an apprentice and two hundred to be a journeyman. Well, I paid the two hundred and got my Journeyman's card that day.
A few months later a big job opened at Boise Cascade in International Falls, and they needed many carpenters. All the young men who lived around me went up there and signed on as apprentices, and I showed up with my Journeyman's card and got hired at $5 dollars a hours higher they did. Guys would say to me, "I didn't know you were a carpenter." I look them right in the eye and said, "Yep. Made journeyman about six months ago."
That was the best $200 dollars I had ever spent. I made it up that first week. Of course I had to borrow an old tool belt from someone, because I didn't want to go in with a brand new one, and actually I knew nothing about heavy construction, or really any construction, but I faked it and figured out the vocabulary of a carpenter.
I worked Union jobs for several winters in International Falls and remember it fondly, except for the 30 to 40 below zero days. The pay was good, and Union people are some of the nicest people you will ever meet... if you are in the Union. They don't much care for non-Union carpenters.
We went on strike a couple of times, but more often we didn't work because we wouldn't cross another Union's picket line when they were on strike. Our pay was good, but only if we were working for some big company or for the government. There were no Union residential home building jobs, because the Union pay scale was so high nobody could afford us. Many guys worked those jobs on the side for less than scale, because they had to feed their families when there was no Union work.
Sometime in the 70's, I Started doing more art work and stopped working with the Union. Come to find out, it really wasn't true that you needed a Union Card to build sculptures for the State or anybody else, but like I said that card paid off for me.
In Minnesota the Democratic Party is the DFL. That stands for Democratic Farmer Labor Party. It got that title back in the late 1930s when Farmers and Unions were working together, and the Democrats, at least in Minnesota, were socialists as were the Unions. Back then I was in the local DFL and attended many Democratic functions at the Iron Range Labor Assembly, over on "Da Range" in (I think) Virginia, Minnesota.
There I met many of the original Union peoplepeople who risked their lives to build the AFL-CIO. I was always interested in hearing about their time as young men and women who fought for the labor rights I took for granted, like a 40 hour work week, over-time pay, holiday pay, and a safe work environment. Yes, these were some of the very people who got those things for me, my dad, and even my grandfather. Early Unions helped every working man and woman in America back in the 1930's and 40's.
Today, I live in the South, North Florida, and working people, people who get their hands dirty don't have Unions, but they do have all the things that those early Union members fought to get them. Down here it is the white collar people who are in Unions. Mostly teachers and government office workers.
I talk to local carpenters, and they want nothing to do with Unions. They ask me, "What have Unions done for me lately?" I have nothing to tell them.
To me, Unions today are all about money, and I'm not talking about money for their workers, but money for the Union itself. Did you know there are Union bosses who make over a half million dollars a year? Here is the salary of one Union officer. This was dated 07/17/2007. It was the latest info I could find.
Now this is only one Union boss, but he isn't from the biggest Union. The biggest Union is the Teachers Union. Here is a little story about what really soured me on Unions. I had a friend who was the Editor of the Minneapolis Labor Review newspaper, and he had a second floor office at a Union Labor Hall in Minneapolis. I was visiting him one day, and as I looked down at the street I saw this limousine pull up. When I asked him about it, he laughed and told me it was the day for the weekly State Union presidents' meeting and that limo was carrying the Carpenters Union President. I guess he was telling the truth, because about five more people showed up being driven to that Union Hall.
Soon after that I was at a meeting on the Range, and some upset workers from the United Brotherhood of Steel Workers were asking a Union official how much he was paid. The man was not the president of the Union, but somebody sent from out East to calm the workers down. Remember this was back in the 70's, and this man was honest and he said he made $168,000 a year. Well, that didn't help at all to calm those guys, who were out on strike at the time.
Doing a little research, I have learned that Unions today are just as corrupt as the companies were that they fought back in the 1930s. Union dues pay the big wages and benefits Union bosses get, and they buy political power. Few would argue that Unions own a big part of the Democratic Party.
The question that keeps coming back to me is, "What have Unions done for me lately?" Then I remember how the Carpenter's Union priced us right out of Residential construction. I am afraid that is what is happening today.
In the 1950's, one in four American workers were in a Union. Today it is one in ten. Unions priced people out of jobs. Think back. There was a time when every car and truck made in America was Union made. Now that is no longer true, and the non-Union workers make good money, and their jobs seem a lot safer than the Union ones do. By the way, my local Union in International Falls is no longer in existence. The Union priced us out of work, and non Union contractors do much of the work for the Boise Cascade paper mill today.
Now we have a big pro-Union thing going on in Wisconsin and other states, too. Mostly it is about Teachers Unions. Well here in Florida, on my face book page people are posting You Tube songs. They are old Union songs like "Which Side Are You On," sung by Pete Seeger. I don't even think they know that song was written by Florence Reece back in 1931.
Union backers of today want America to remember Unions like they were back before World War II, but those Unions are gone. Teachers are not fighting for a 40 hour work week, or a living wage, or even safe working conditions. They are not fighting some evil company and their goons who are trying to break the Union.
Teachers, at least the ones in Wisconsin, are fighting because they don't want to pay anything toward their own retirement or pay anything for their family health benefits. They want to keep the status quo, where anyone who teaches in a Wisconsin school has to pay Union dues, even if they don't what to join the Union. They want the State to continue to automatically and mandatorily deduct those Union dues from the teachers' pay checks and continue the State sending that money to the Union. Why? Because the Union knows if the teachers had to write out a $50 dollar check every two weeks, many would stop doing that, and the Union bosses would no longer get the big bucks they make now.
Like the old preacher said, "When it don't makes sense, there's a buck behind it." Like everything else in America, this story comes around to money. Not money for the working men and women of America, but money, big money, for Union officials.
I started out this column with "Mighty, Mighty Union," Seventy some years ago it was the workers, some of whom gave their lives to the Union cause that made Unions mighty. Today, it is the MONEY that makes Unions of today mighty.
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