At a recent union meeting at Stony Brook, a new (very young) member asked how and why we were all union activists. I was intrigued by the question. Unions have always been part of my life, but I never fully analyzed it and put it in words. So here goes.
I was born in 1931, the heart of the terrible Depression. (Yes, I am that old!) I grew up in a union household. My father came to the United States as an immigrant at age 14, and he got his first job as a copy boy for the New York World. He then went on to be a “mailer” (they send out the subscription papers) and immediately joined the International Typographical Union (ITU), one of the oldest in the U.S. He became active in his local, and by the time I was six or seven, he had become a member of its executive board. He never referred to himself as “middle class”; he always said he was a worker.
My uncles were also union members: one in the ITU, one in the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, and one a shop steward for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers. Family dinners involved much eating and much political discussion. As a young child, I listened to the stories of the sit-down strikes, of the struggle of the Reuther brothers to organize the United Automobile Workers, and of course, the founding of the CIO. Franklin Roosevelt was idolized and the New Deal’s achievements greeted with tears of joy.
My father’s local fought hard for its members. I can remember him and three other executive board members crowding into our small kitchen with a bottle of Canadian whiskey and my mother’s honey cake, to come up with a proposal for a new contract. When ordered to cut staff, the union made an unusual decision. Nobody was fired. They simply put their members on a part-time schedule so everyone would have at least some salary. We got through the Depression without going hungry.
I also remember the day when he came home with bruises. In a show of union solidarity, he’d joined the picket line of Wall Street workers (yes, Wall Street workers!) who were trying to form a union. He was hit with a policeman’s truncheon. My father always said, you have to fight for your rights. The bosses will give you nothing.
He had a heart attack in 1937 and spent two months in the hospital. For the next six years, he frequently worked two jobs so he could pay his debts. Think of that when people attack Obamacare. And then, two victories! I remember my father coming home with his Social Security card: He would have a pension! And another triumph: The union negotiated a contract that gave them Blue Cross hospital coverage.
So I knew from an early age that if workers wanted to improve their lives, they needed a union that would fight for them. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, as the economy boomed, unions were powerful forces for economic and social justice.
Perhaps it was inevitable that when I became an academic, I would join the union and become active. Administrators wanted the freedom to control hiring and firing, to determine salaries, to control curriculum. I knew that only a union would fight for improved working conditions, for tenure and permanent appointment, for diversity, and most critically, for academic freedom. We in UUP have fought many battles, not only for our salaries and benefits, but also for public higher education and our students. And yes, we had UUP’s solid support when in the 1970s, Stony Brook’s women began their class-action suit for pay equity and promotion.
The union movement has been severely weakened in this country. It began when the AFL-CIO bought into the severe anti-communist hysteria of the McCarthy era. Militants, whether communist or not, were forced out of activity, and progressive unions destroyed. And when factories began moving to non-union states, there was no massive organizational action to resist that, and the union movement was again weakened. Political attacks on unions, the spread of so-called “right-to-work” state laws banning the union shop, and the attacks on the remaining strong public workers’ unions have all led to the current lack of a strong union movement.
We, as academics and academic professionals, must continue to build and support a strong UUP. We must restore full-time tenured lines, and we must fight for the rights of the underpaid and insecure contingent workers. We must encourage diversity. We must fight for state support of higher public education. We must also support workers all over this country who are fighting for decent wages and benefits. We must not let “right to work” become the law of the United States. We must rebuild the union movement, or we will be back to the 1930s but without the guarantees of the New Deal. So that is why, even as a retiree, I am an active member of UUP.
Reprinted with permission from the United University Professions’ The Active Retiree newsletter.