Obituary for a trade unionist


Happy May Day to one and all! Here is an obituary I wrote for my father two years ago. Seems fitting on this day.


By Michael D. Yates

I was scheduled to lead a session at the recent Labor Notes conference. I was excited to have been invited, and I had prepared copious notes, anticipating a lively discussion. But as sometimes happens, fate intervened, and I had to cancel my plans. On April 8th my father died, and I was just in too much pain to go anywhere. But since the conference concerned the state of the labor movement in the United States and since my father was an ordinary working man, I thought that the following attempt to connect the labor movement to his life might be of interest to those who attended. I offer them by way of apology for not coming to Detroit and in memory and honor of my father's life.

My father went to work in a glass factory in 1940, the year he graduated from high school. He spent the next 44 years working there, interrupted only by three years in the Navy during World War Two, spent mostly in the South Pacific. The war was a transformative experience for him as it was for so many men. On the one hand, he learned what large groups of committed people could do under the most trying circumstances, and he learned what it meant to be emotionally connected to his friends, to be willing to make sacrifices for others. But on the other hand, he learned to take orders without question and to believe what his government told him.

When he returned from the war, he settled into the routines of work and family which would dominate his life for the next 40 years. The immediate postwar years were marked by strikes and other forms of worker resistance as the union, which was formed in the late 1930s, sought to permanently alter the relationship of the workers to the company. In this it was tremendously successful. Of course, the extended economic boom, fueled by military spending and the seemingly insatiable worldwide demand for U.S. capital, provided a propitious environment for union activity. But it was the collective actions of the workers which were decisive, clearly evidenced by the gains which they made in their standard of living, gains unprecedented in the history of U. S. capitalism.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s the union won impressive increases in wages and benefits: steady increments in wages (including incentives), generous cost-of-living adjustments, extended vacations, additional paid holidays (when my father retired, each day from Christmas through New Year's Day was a paid holiday), better pensions, and comprehensive health care. The power which foremen had previously had over the workers' lives was ended once and for all; now grievances could be filed and won or workers could threaten to take direct actions to get what they wanted.

It is easy now to forget what the union meant to my father, his buddies, and their families, but a walk through the town now provides a stark remin