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 reminder. The plant closed a few years ago as did so many factories in the industrial heartland. Today there are many abandoned buildings and empty lots where stores once thrived; and young people either move out or take a job at or slightly above the minimum wage. There is a lot more crime and a flourishing drug trade. When I was a boy, the high wages of the union workers supported not just bars and churches but two movie theaters (in a town of 5,000), restaurants, and a variety of retail stores, banks, and service shops. A person could buy shoes, furniture, and clothing, shoot pool and bowl, eat a good meal, take out a mortgage at a bank, or take a stroll in a park, all without leaving the town.

My father's steady work and decent compensation allowed my parents to buy a house on a large lot, great for raising a big family. He quit walking to work and bought a car, and we went for Sunday drives and short vacations. If any of us got sick, the union-won health plan took care of us. When a relative was down on his luck, we helped out. Some money was set aside for emergencies. Most remarkably, some of the children went to college. And what was most important, we lived a life which allowed us to hold our heads up, and we avoided the myriad physical and social debilitations which follow in poverty's wake. Sadly, this worker prosperity only lasted for about a generation, but it was my generation and I made the most of it. And it was as different as night is from day compared to the life of a typical worker's family before the Second World War.

So, my father's union meant a lot, and I am grateful. I could not have achieved even what little I have without it. However, there were many shortcomings, many things which the union, and by extension the labor movement, did not do and which had far-reaching consequences. The sad thing is that the unions could have done these things, in part if not in whole, but chose not to. My father died a horrible death from emphysema, brought on in part from daily exposure to glass-bearing dust and asbestos. His union had won him a good pension, but he did not draw one complete breath during his 12 years of retirement. He could not enjoy activities human beings ought to be able to take for granted, from taking a walk to mowing the lawn to, in the end, walking from his bed to the bathroom. Why didn't the union fight harder to make the plant safe? Why did it, like most other unions, agree to the "labor-management accord" after the War, in which the management of the workplaces was left to the employers and the unions fought for more money and filed grievances? Why didn't it see that labor is what gives life meaning, that it is what human beings are all about? Why didn't it demand that the workers have some say about the nature of their work? Maybe if it had, those glass factories would have been more than stepping stones to the cemeteries.

We all have internal moral compasses which help us to decide what actions we should take. One of the great tragedies of the U.S. labor movement is that it failed to develop and teach a labor-centered view of the world which could guide working people in their daily lives and thereby abandoned them to the ideological predations of corporate America. My father was patriotic, and as he got older, this patriotism hardened. Where was the union and the labor movement to teach us that there is a difference between a war against fascism and a brutal imperial slaughter of Vietnamese? Where were the unions to demand that the war against the fascists bear more democratic fruits at home? Instead of doing these things the unions were busy embracing the mindless anti-communism which helped to bring us the Cold War, McCarthyism, a succession of wars against workers and peasants in poor countries, and ultimately the demise of the labor movement itself. How is it that workers could beat up their own sons and daughters in defense of something as horrible and as wrong as the war against Vietnam?

My sister married an African American, and for 20 years my father suffered abuse from his workmates who seldom missed an opportunity to make a racist remark in his presence. Where was the union to tell its members that racism would not be tolerated? Where was the labor movement to teach us that, irrespective of race, an injury to one is an injury to all? Why could you not go into a white working class bar in my hometown without hearing the word "nigger" before an hour passed? How is it that just last year, in a class I taught to automobile workers at a GM plant, a man could come up to me at the break and offer the opinion that he preferred professional baseball to basketball because there were too many "blacks' in basketball? Racism has been the Achilles heel of the U.S. labor movement. The industrial union revolution of the 1930s had the potential to defeat it. But just as it gave up the fight against imperialism, so also did it give up the struggle against racism.

The men and women who built our great unions paid a heavy price for what they achieved. And now their gains have become memories and dreams for most workers. Imagine what might have been if the unions had fought to extend their power by hammering out a class-based ideology which demanded that the life of a worker was more than a (hopefully) high-priced commodity. That work was not something to be escaped but a means of living a good life. That the people themselves would decide when and if to go to war. That all men and women were really brothers and sisters. Then maybe I wouldn't be so angry. Then maybe the old man would still be here when I call out his name. I hope that the new leaders of the AFL-CIO mean what they say when they promise a rebirth of a labor "movement." I hope that they will take to heart the failures as well as the successes of the past. I trust that they will know that peoples' lives are at stake.

Michael Yates posting of his obituary to his father along with May Day greetings was a breath of fresh air on this list - so often bound down in hi-falutin' theoretical discussions which so often seem to go on and on getting nowhere in particular....

As one just a year or two younger than Michael's father - starting work at 16 in a public analyst laboratory in the East End of London - and then spending three years in the Army - Michael's father's story, and its lessons were very moving, with very close relationship to my own experience - though I was lucky to have achieved professional qualifications and consequently a much more healthful working environment, so that I have already had over 12 years healthy and happy retirement.

Like Michael's father I learnt a lot from my time in the army - about comradeship and what can be achieved when working together - tho' unlike him I must say I have never believed governments nor liked taking orders without being convinced they were correct. I do well know, however, how much was achieved by trade union action in the years following the end of WW2 - but how, at the same time, many of the hopes we shared during the war were dashed in the ensuing Cold War - which followed so soon after 1945.... and how much those economic gains have been undermined since the 70s...

Many thanks Michael for sharing your thoughts with this list...

Greetings Paddy