Sunday, August 31, 2008

My Town Monday: My Union Roots

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.


pattinase (abbott) said...

Hey, Linda. I was a shop steward for the CWA in Philly a million years ago. We had an eight-week strike in support of the IBEW. Those were the days.

Reb said...

Good post. The unions did a lot of good at one time and I think it may be time for their power to be exercised again.

Barrie said...

I love the personal touch. Great post.

Linda McLaughlin said...

Good for you, Patti.

I agree, Reb, we need the unions again.

Thanks, Barrie. Being able to add a personal touch is one of the neat things about blogging, I think.


Barbara Martin said...

Many years ago I was an acting steward for the Alberta Government, and that stint taught me to keep abreast of the labour and employment laws provincially and federally. The unions helped to regulate the working conditions and pay schedules; and for a time I worked as a legal assistant in labour law where I had to keep mum on the fact I had been a steward. I think they were concerned I would want to unionize the law firm. That would be a very good idea, since many smaller law firms do not want to pay overtime when its due.

Good post, Linda, as it certainly brings up ideas to consider.

Britta Coleman said...

Interesting post, Linda. I especially liked the frostbitten ear=exodus to California part.

Travis Erwin said...

I am The Maintenance Craft Director and a shop steward for the American Postal Workers Union which is part of the Afl-CIO. Just spent a week in Vegas for the convention as a matter of fact so I enjoyed this post.

Linda McLaughlin said...

Barbara, sounds like you have quite a background in labor law. I imagine the situation for unions is better in Canada than in the US.

Britta, my dad was looking for an excuse to leave Pittsburgh and the frostbite was the last straw. He hated that cold weather.

Travis, good for getting so involved in your union. I know you enjoyed the trip to Vegas. :)


Anonymous said...

We've had bad experiences in NY with union activities - activities the leaders insisted upon despite union member objections. With the right leadership, however, I can see the benefits of unions. But, as we see in politics, the 'right' leader is not always the one chosen for the job.

btw - I loved reading about your family. I could SEE them struggling and working hard. Funny thing, though, I "saw" them in black and white. LOL. I can tell you're very proud of them.


Rhonda said...

What a long, dramatic move, though -- from Pittsburgh to California! Your dad had a lot of guts. In those days, people just didn't move so far away. Even now, people usually depend upon jobs to move them.

Linda McLaughlin said...

Debbie, I agree that unions aren't perfect. My dad often said they were killing the goose that layed the golden age. My folks did work hard, though. I'm glad their later years were easier.

Rhonda, it was a long move. My dad was very restless, so we traveled more than most people we knew back then. I think I was the only kid in my 8th grade class who'd been to Disneyland.


Beth Yarnall said...

I know I'm late commenting on this blog but I had to chime in.
When I worked for Macy's in South Coast Plaza we tried to unionize. The levels Macy's stooped to to stop us were mind boggling. I was followed everyday, my sales closely monitored for any wrong doing and was verbally harrassed by management. I was even turned down for a raise. We were unsuccessful in our attempt to unionize and all of the employee organizers were eventually fired or forced to retire early. I have a great photo of #1 son as a baby on my hip as I spoke at a pro union rally in the parking lot of the store. FYI-Macy's in Union Square San Francisco is unionized. Several of their union reps came down to support our efforts and were appalled at the working conditions, lack of benefits and multiple worker's rights violations. The violations were so egregious that several of us went up to LA to file formal charges with the goverment against Macy's. Macy's later settled.
To this day I refuse to shop in a Macy's department store.

PS-My father-in-law was born just outside of Pittsburgh in Alaquippa. Go Steelers!

Linda McLaughlin said...

Beth, you were very brave to fight so hard to unionize Macy's. That kind of employee intimidation is going on nationwide which is why the Democrats want to pass the Employee Free Choice Act which will restore employees's rights to bargain and get rid of the secret ballot which hasn't worked in favor of unions. We'll see if it can pass.


Anonymous said...

I would like to comment on working at Macys. I worked for over 30 years in the mental health field. After 6 years of retirement I thought I'd get a job at Macys for xmas for "fun". It was not fun. We were barely allowed breaks, or lunch. I was at work for 3 days when the supervisor told me I was not friendly enough to customers. The next week after 2 more days she wrote me up lying that they did this once in awhile. My transgressions were I did not say the customer name until the end (that's when it came up on the screen), did not smile enough, and did not offer the Macys share program (there was one brochure on the floor and no other employees offered it).The next week I was discharged. Thank God my whole career in Mental health as a psychologist was with union facilities. I was also yelled at, criticized, and followed, in front of customers. So even though I always met my sales goal and had several customers raving to the supervisor about me "I was not suitable." I too will never shop Macys again.

Linda McLaughlin said...

Anonymous, oh, wow, I've heard retail sales can be brutal but that's just beyond the pale. Another reason why unions are a good thing, you've got someone on your side in a dispute with management. (At least that's the way it's supposed to work.) Thanks for sharing,