Wednesday, June 6, 2012

I'm Sticking with the Union!

Our Galesburg house is smack dab in the middle of the Soangetaha Country Club's golf course, and all my neighbors are union hating, rich Republicans.  Since we bought the house in 2004, I've been listening to my neighbors bitch and moan about how the labor unions are responsible for killing the job market in Galesburg, a town of 30,000 residents that once had a population of almost 40,000.

Finally a week ago last Monday at the neighborhood picnic I decided I'd heard enough.

As I sat with Wayne and Marv having a cocktail, I listened to their stories about how Outboard Marine Company would not have moved out of Galesburg if it wasn't for the company's union demanding so much.

Then it was Maytag's turn.  Marv said that Maytag would still be producing refrigerators in Galesburg, but because of the union, the company moved its operations to Reynosa, Mexico. 

Now in the past I would have just sat there and listened (You know, respect your elders and all that horse bleep!), but I've been hearing this anti-union rant for almost eight years now.  I quit going to coffee at Hy-Vee with my neighbors in the mornings because three times a week they would sing the same old song that Galesburg would still be a healthy town if it weren't for the labor unions.

So I finally spoke up!

"Galesburg was a healthy town BECAUSE of the unions," I said last Monday.  "When I came to town in 1971, the middle-class had lots of money, and business was booming.  The new shopping mall was built, and downtown Galesburg was full of shoppers.  If you guys had your way, everyone would be making minimum wage."

Wayne responded with a story about how he saw a professional wrestling match in Galesburg in the 1940's, and when one of wrestlers pushed the other wrestler's head into the light bulb over the ring and broke the light bulb, the union boys in the crowd wouldn't let the wrestling promoter change the bulb.  They had to wait until a union guy changed it.

"That's an extreme example, Wayne," I countered.  "The fact is it takes two to sign a labor contract.  If management feels that the proposed contract is not going to make the company money, then management should not sign the contract.  Labor can strike.  Management can lock labor out.  It's a delicate balance, but it used to work until Clinton signed the NAFTA treaty.  That's what sunk Maytag; it wasn't the union!

"Besides," I continued, "There are no labor unions left in Galesburg now except for the teachers, cops, and firemen.  The unions are all gone so why don't you stop bitching about them."

But Wayne and Marv went on and on telling anti-union stories from Galesburg's past.  Finally I had had enough so I got up and went over to the grill to talk weather or sports with Phil, the grill master.

I'm the proud son of a life member of the Railway Clerks Union.  My dad started working for the American Express Company, which later became Railway Express, in 1940.  He retired in 1968 with a disability pension because of lingering injuries he suffered while being held for over two years in three different German prison camps during World War II.  My dad wouldn't have received that pension if it wasn't for his union.

After my dad received his pension, he was able to work part-time as a security guard and later as an instructor for senior citizen driver education courses.  His pension was less than what he would have had if he had worked until the retirement age of 65, but it was decent.  In fact my mother received half of my dad's pension for the sixteen years she lived after my dad's death--until 2006.

That Railway Clerks Union sure helped my family.  The union helped put me through college!

I am now a member of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, and my wife is a member of the Illinois Education Association, the two much maligned teachers unions in Illinois.  In my case, the union changed my life.  When I was hired at Fremd High School, the principal asked how I was going to be able to absorb the salary cut going from radio to teaching.

"Salary cut?" I said.  "Heck, I'm getting a $3,500 raise by becoming a teacher!"

The principal couldn't believe it because I had been working full-time in radio for 9 1/2 years.  But small market radio has no unions.  My pay was a paltry $105 a week when I started in radio in 1971.  The guy who hired me for my first radio job recommended I live in the basement of the Galesburg YMCA.  Nice!

I was married with a three-year old child when I jumped out of full-time radio in 1980.  I started teaching at Fremd, and the Palatine-Schaumburg District #211 School Board had just become progressive because Board president Robert Creek believed that the district had to pay top dollar for good teachers.  Later, District 211 teacher salaries were tops in the state.  Sure, there were tense negotiations between the school board and the teachers union after Bob Creek died, but there was always respect.  Now companies look for any tactic to greedily line their pockets.  There is no thought for union members' families or for the communities where the companies are located.

And after what happened in Wisconsin yesterday, the future looks bleak for public employee unions.  In fact all unions are under siege.  The machinists union at Caterpillar in Joliet is just trying to hold the line against the company's continual cuts to union benefits.  CAT has already busted the United Auto Workers Union.  And it's not like CAT isn't making any money.  Cat is rolling in money thanks to tax breaks from the State of Illinois.

Maybe the pendulum will shift back towards unions, but I'm not hopeful.  Galesburg is ground zero in the struggle, and here things are bleak.  In addition to Maytag, Butler Buildings and Gates Rubber have either closed, reduced the work force, or moved to another country.

That middle class that make these country club members rich back in the 1950's through 1970's is gone.  Now over 50% of the students at Galesburg High School are on free lunch.  Things are so bad that the school district is required by the state to offer kids free lunch at neighborhood schools during the summer vacation.

I don't know how many Galesburg residents are on welfare, but the number has to be astronomical.  About half the time I'm checking out at the Hy-Vee supermarket, the person in front of me has an Illinois Link Card, which is used in place of food stamps.

Why can't there be national laws in place that require companies to unionize?  The idea that Maytag can just dump its Galesburg work force and move to Reynosa, Mexico is crazy.  But that's what happened.  It's happening other places every day.  Companies are moving to states that are anti-union.

Wayne and Marv weren't at the neighborhood picnic last night, but I'll be looking for them next week.  I've got lots more to say to them about unions!  Like Norma Rae, I'm sticking with the union!




1 comment:

  1. James PennebakerJune 6, 2012 at 3:59 PM

    The thing is Rona it's not just unions. I worked for Black Dot in Crystal Lake for 37 years. No union but that was OK because I earned an above average wage plus profit sharing. Black Dot is gone now, even the buildings that had employed hundreds of people are gone. In 2008 our school book publishing clients told us that unless we had a "physical presents" in India they would not renew our contracts. That wiped out about 40% of our business. The thing is those books were sold to schools using tax payer money. Now they're created in India and printed in China! And Rona, that is just one example of the "GREED IS GOOD" philosophy.

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