Building Trades, Features, New York

Who We Are and Who They Think We Are

September 25, 2017

By Bill Hohlfeld

Last Thursday I sat having coffee with several other men. Most of them were “boomers” such as myself. All of them were what could be described in today’s parlance as “middle class.” Some were tradesmen, some educators, some small business owners. All were either retired or semi- retired. In general, they were an affable bunch, coming together to work on a volunteer project, give back a little to their community, and enjoy a little comradery in the process.

The environment was congenial. There was laughter around the makeshift table, as well as a few groans at some of the laughingly corny jokes. You would have been hard pressed to find even a scent of mean spiritedness in the air. And while political discussions are not explicitly forbidden, they tend to be, in the interest of the greater good, kept at a polite distance. An occasional foray into that realm is made, and just as likely as hasty a retreat, if clouds of conflict begin to appear on the horizon. Then one of those words arose that isn’t exactly political, but then again, it really is. Union.

Each man had an opinion of unions, usually based on a personal anecdote, and frankly, not a lot of what was said was good. I heard the word, corrupt. That came from a man who had been cheated in his paycheck many years ago and when he complained to the business manager was told he was lucky to have a job. It’s hard to argue with his disillusionment.

Another thought that they had outlived their usefulness; that there was a need for them at one time, but that need had long since expired due to the number of labor laws we have on the books. If we have all the protection we need from the government, so goes the reasoning, surely unions have become a mere redundancy. Why do we need yet another entity meddling in the workplace?

Then the point was made that unions actually have no real power. They can’t get anything done, or help you. The numbers just aren’t there anymore. So, continues this line of thought, if they have no significant membership, and therefore no real clout they are, at best, an anachronism, and at their worst, just one more cog in the wheel that, as it turns, siphons off the money of the worker and funnels it into the coffers of career politicians that don’t give a damn about the people they are sworn to serve.

I sat quietly, and sipped my coffee. Part of me wanted to jump to my feet a crusader and defender of the faith. Shouldn’t I be stamping out all this evil talk?

The problem was, it was not evil talk. Some of it was personal experience, which unfortunately had been a reality. Some of it was misinformation and half- truths, the type of which, the American public has received a steady diet of for close to forty years. There was no dragon to slay, there was only a table of men, good men, working men who were a lot more interested in getting the world to run smoothly than they were in blowing it all up.

So, I said only this: It makes me really sad to hear this kind of talk, because I am as pro-union as it is possible to be. So when I hear some of the stories you tell, and I don’t doubt at all that you are telling the truth, I am embarrassed because these are things that should not have happened. “You take it personally?” I was asked. I answered yes. And the man nodded and looked as though he understood.

I could have taken to my soap box and ranted about how all those labor laws we have are only there because of unions. I could have protested loudly that for every one of those union officials you caught with a hand in the till, there were a dozen others who had spent a lifetime ensuring their members got a fair day’s wage. And I certainly could have tugged at heart strings by talking about the school books, new shoes and Christmas gifts the children of millions of working class parents have been able to provide because of their union paychecks. But I don’t think any of that would have been very effective.

I thought maybe if I sit at the table with all the unorganized, sharing a joke and being part of them, while making no bones about my union blood, I might be taken more seriously. Maybe, if we continue to tell the truth, but resist the urge to lecture and harangue and condescend, making it so clear to all around us that we have seized the high moral ground, then maybe, just maybe, the 86% of America who aren’t in a union will begin to see us as who we are, and not who they think we are.

September 25, 2017

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