When I was growing up, my perception of a worker who belonged to a union was mostly a positive one. It conjured up images of skilled or semi-skilled blue-collar laborers learning a trade at the side of a master journeyman through a graduated apprenticeship system. This apprenticeship could be of similar duration to obtaining a university degree but was not the same, as the training you received was generally much more directly related to the job you would eventually be performing. While remaining ignorant of such subjects as philosophy or literature unless taking them up on their own time, you could be reasonably sure that anyone producing something under the auspices of the “Union Label” was producing something with a measurable level of competency. Unions were not just an entity for collective bargaining of benefits but were in a real sense providers of an education for those unable or unsuited to pursue what might be called “higher” learning.
This perception mostly held until fresh out of high school, I took a job for the summer in which membership in the Teamsters Union was mandatory. It was factory work in an ice cream manufacturing plant and the job mostly consisted of standing by an enormous contraption that made ice cream bars, occasionally refilling the rolls of paper that wrapped the bars as they came off of the assembly line. It wasn’t difficult work, the ins and outs of the job could be mastered in a couple of weeks, but it was noisy and remarkably boring. Amazingly, for a young kid just out of high school who had been taught that college was the path to success and financial security, the pay and benefits were equal or superior to that of my father who had graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 1956 with a degree in mechanical engineering and a minor in mathematics, and had been employed by The Boeing Company as an aerospace engineer for twenty years. With each paycheck I received, the job I had taken for the summer to make some money prior to starting my real life took on more permanence. Sixteen dollars an hour with full medical and dental insurance coverage in 1976 was all the reason I needed to put college off… just for a little while.
In 1984, after having gone on strike for better wages and benefits twice since I had hired on, management had become determined to scale back labor costs that now included 100% coverage of medical, dental, orthodonture, ophthalmology, you name it you were covered, and a wage north of eighteen dollars an hour. They locked us out, hiring replacement workers in a down economy who were happy to work for a fraction of what we were receiving. We of course were not happy about this and responded in the time-honored union fashion of baracading the entrances and exits to the plant and hurling rocks and threats of violence, some carried through with after work hours, at the scabs who had the gall to undermine that which our union had negotiated and that we so obviously, to us anyway, deserved. After about three months of bitter battle, management caved and granted a new contract with nearly everything we had demanded. We returned to work jubilant and more sure than ever that by getting nasty with those fat cats who ran the company, we would get what was coming to us. Six months later after having come to the conclusion that the new contracts were economically unfeasible the owners sold the hundred year old family business to an over seas corporation, the plant was closed and all the equipment auctioned off while 300 of us stood in the parking lot with our final paychecks and a form letter from the new owners that began “we regret to inform you”. Turning to our union representatives for redress as we had always done, they said they were sure sorry and that while we had been dealt an injustice, their responsibility was now with the union members at other plants who still had a paycheck coming in. Times were changing. They wished us all good luck and that was that. The sense of entitlement for more, always more, that they had convinced us through fiery rhetoric and bitter strike was our due turned out to be unsustainable, a word that while in common use today was not well understood by us union men and women at the time.
The only advice I would have for the teachers protesting the modest concessions being asked of them by the people of Wisconsin through their duly elected representatives, is that while we all have respect for educators and the difficult jobs they perform for often unappreciative parents and administrators, what can’t continue, won’t. Not always pleasant or pretty but a fact of life none the less when the money runs out.