This is a special Labor Day post. I was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which used to be a blue collar, union city. Both of my parents were union members as were many of their friends.
After finishing high school, my mom went to work at the Armstrong Cork Factory, located not far from where she lived in the Strip. She knew how to type so she started in the offices, but soon switched to the factory. The pay was better and you didn't have to dress up. When the US entered World War II, Armstrong Cork became part of the war effort and my mom made jeep parts, kind of like Rosie the Riveter, only without the rivets. The feds came in to fingerprint everyone but couldn't get a complete set of prints from my mom because the machine she operated had rubbed the pads of two of her fingers smooth. I don't remember exactly which union she belonged to, but I think it was part of the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) which merged with the AFL in 1955.
My dad, a truck driver, was pretty much a lifelong member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. One of his jobs was to deliver meat to grocery stores and meat markets. This was in the days when every market had it's own butcher, so that meant my dad and his co-workers had to take a meat hook and carry big chunks of meat from the truck to the freezer, including hind quarters of beef. At about 5'7, my dad wasn't a big guy, but he was strong for his size. Driving in Pittsburgh was no picnic either, between the bad weather, narrow streets (at the time many still paved with bricks) and the surrounding hills. He used to cuss the "goat paths" that passed for streets in the area. Being a Teamster in those days was hard work. Still is, I'm sure, but maybe not quite as much.
When times got tough, the Teamsters ran a list at the union hall. Any member needing a job, signed onto a list every day. When temporary workers were needed, the guys at the top of the list got the job. If you missed a day, your name dropped to the bottom of the list. This was a problem the winter of 1963 when we had a bad snowstorm and temperatures of 18 degrees below zero. My dad was determined to report in at the union hall, but the car wouldn't start. He waited an hour for a streetcar to show up so he could make his way downtown. By the time he got home that night, his ear was frostbitten. That was an important day in my life, because it was what pushed my dad into deciding to move the family to California. Three days after school ended, we were on the road headed west.
We ended up in Azusa and my dad found a job as a warehouseman at the GEMCO store in San Gabriel. He stayed with GEMCO until he retired and was promoted to receiving clerk. Once a month he drove into LA to attend the monthly union meeting. When he retired, the only pension he received was from the union. Over the years, no matter how much scandal plagued the Teamsters, he always defended the union and Jimmy Hoffa because they took care of their members.
Unions aren't as pervasive an influence in American life these days, and I think that's bad. During the 20th century, the union movement helped build a vibrant and prosperous middle class and I think that's a good thing for democracy. What do you think?
My Town Monday comes to us via Travis Erwin. Thanks, Travis! Click out his site to read his latest post and find links to the other participants.