Thursday, November 29, 2012

Woody Guthrie’s Union Blues

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Woody Guthrie’s birth. We celebrated the milestone by attending a concert at the Hurdy Gurdy Folk Club in Fair Lawn, New Jersey. The concert was actually a repeat of a 1957 event held in New York to help raise money for Woody’s hospitalization with Huntington’s Chorea disease. With Tom Chapin narrating and a group of talented young folk artists performing, the spirit of Woody Guthie filled the hall. And all of the issues that were so important to him—migrant workers, life during The Depression, government-sponsored work programs, the Pacific Northwest, working in California fields, trying to get together the “Do-Re-Mi” in order to survive—were sung about with a mixture of joy and nostalgia.

Google's Tribute to Woody Guthrie on July 4, 2012
There was a lot to enjoy and a lot to think about. There are many different ideas about Woody on which I could focus, but as minds often do, mine was drawn in a particular direction during the concert. What struck me most was Woody’s strong belief in working men and women and the role of labor unions in protecting them.

I can’t remember who sang Woody’s song “Union Maid” that night, but I know it got strong audience response.

There once was a union maid, she never was afraid
Of goons and ginks and company finks and the deputy sheriffs who made the raid.
She went to the union hall when a meeting it was called,
And when the Legion boys come 'round
She always stood her ground.

Oh, you can't scare me, I'm sticking to the union,
I'm sticking to the union, I'm sticking to the union.
Oh, you can't scare me, I'm sticking to the union,
I'm sticking to the union 'til the day I die.

Soon, everyone in the audience was loudly proclaiming that we were sticking to the union. I suspect that few in the room really would make that statement outside of a concert hall. Labor unions have fallen on hard times these days and have gotten a lot of bad press. There has been a lot of publicity about “evil” right wing governors, such as Scott Walker in Wisconsin, trying to undermine or eliminate public sector unions. But evil governors are not the only ones who believe that unions have played out their time in America.

I don’t have much of a history with unions myself. Neither of my parents held manufacturing or public sector jobs, so they never joined a union or discussed any aspects of unions at our dinner table. The only one of my family who might have been a union member at one time was my mother’s mother, but I doubt it. She had worked at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory up until only weeks before the infamous March 1911 fire that cost the lives of more than 140 workers locked in the sweatshop in Lower Manhattan. That fire led to passage of a number of labor laws and to the growth of the International Lady Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU). Nana never discussed the fire, her time in New York, or labor issues.

My grandparents in New York around 1910
I can remember debating the Taft-Hartley Act in competition at BBYO conventions when I was in my teens. Our specific issue involved whether there should be closed shops that required workers to belong to a union to get and keep their jobs? The drafters of Taft-Hartley didn’t think so. Congress even overturned President Truman’s veto of the Act. I am certain that I didn’t really understand the debate issues very well then, even as I argued one side or the other, depending on the coin flip before each debate.

When I did have a chance to experience a union in 1971 while I was a teaching intern in Providence, RI, working on my master’s degree, I came under the influence of my department chairman, Iris Kinoian, whom I idolized. As she explained it, Iris did not join the teachers’ union because she did not believe that she could ever take part a teachers’ strike, for whatever reason. She never talked about any other purpose for the union, and I just went along with her thinking. When I started teaching in Teaneck, NJ, the following year, I didn’t join the union. That did not endear me to my fellow teachers, I would guess, though I never was confronted directly in the one year I spent at the school. I was too busy trying to survive in the classroom to worry about anything else at the time. And I was stubborn in my ignorance. I am not particularly proud of this part of my history.

I suspect that had I been a Woody Guthrie fan at the time or had more knowledge of labor history, I would have thought differently. I certainly do now. I have become more cynical in my growing age and less trustful that corporate executives and government leaders have the interests of workers high in their priorities. Shareholders and fundraisers, certainly, but workers not so much. Until that trust is restored, there is a need for both private and public sector unions to stand up for the workers. Most workers don’t know how to be successful negotiators in the labor realm. That’s where union leaders come in. Their role must be different from what it was in the past—because labor and economic conditions are different, but there is still an important role to fill.

Parenthetically, Major League Baseball union leader Marvin Miller died yesterday. No one did more to improve the life of professional baseball players than Miller, who helped push for free agency under his watch, which led to greater freedom for players and significantly higher salaries. You don’t have to agree with all of Miller’s actions, and you might feel that salaries are really out of whack now, but the sport is still alive and obviously profitable, even as players are getting to share much more equitably in those profits. So how is Miller treated by the baseball establishment for his role in modern baseball history? He was conspicuously not elected to the Hall of Fame during his lifetime. Perhaps it will happen after his death. If so, I think that will be hollow recognition.

There is a lot that scares us about debt and economic downturns these days. But I don’t think it is unions that should be scaring us or deserve so much wrath. Woody tried to tell us that many years ago. According to the narration at the anniversary concert, Woody belonged to more than 100 unions in his life. And his songs have inspired millions of working people. Count me among them.

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