Thursday, February 24, 2011

MY FATHER WAS A UNION MAN: Why public workers need our support

A. Terry Weathers, my father, was both a union man and a school-board member who negotiated with teachers.
     My father, the most unselfish person I’ve ever known, was a union man. He belonged to the Communication Workers of America. In the Joe McCarthy red-baiting era of the 1950s, my father was accused, in anonymous notes left on his desk where he worked at AT&T, of being a “commie” and a “pinko.” My mother was convinced that AT&T never promoted my father above a middling-level job because he was a union man.
     My father was also a school-board member in my hometown of Farmingdale, on Long Island, in New York. He co-founded the Nassau-Suffolk School Boards Association and later became president of the New York State School Boards Association. He fought for years to increase state aid to schools, so children in poor districts wouldn’t be disadvantaged. He never earned a dime for his school-board work, not one penny for the thousands of hours he gave to it. I still remember him spending long evenings after work with a hand-cranked adding machine on our dining room table, figuring out state school finances. I was one of the few high school students whose dinnertime conversation focused on such things as “weighted average daily attendance.”
     As a school-board member, my father had to negotiate with Farmingdale’s teacher’s union every year or two. Never once did he “cave in” to the teachers because he was a union man or because he wanted to curry favor with them so they would support him in the next school-board election. My father knew that in those negotiations he had to represent the interests, not just of the town’s children, but of its taxpayers, especially those who were retired and on fixed incomes. 
     But my father treated those teachers with respect. He loved teachers and would have been one himself if the Depression hadn’t cost him a four-year college education. My sister was a public-school teacher in Harlem. My brother and I were both teachers at state colleges. So of course my father respected teachers. He wanted the best ones to be rewarded for their work, and he knew that only decent salaries would attract the best ones. Good salaries and benefits meant good teachers, and good teachers meant the best education for our town's kids.

My sister Joyce taught in public schools in Harlem and the South Bronx, one of thousands of hard-working, underpaid, dedicated public-school teachers. When I was three and she was 12, she was my first teacher.
     In the mostly blue-collar town of Farmingdale when I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, the teachers were respected, and each year Farmingdale’s citizens voted to support a school budget that paid teachers adequately and gave them reasonable job security. The taxpayers did this even if it meant slightly higher property taxes (which are the primary source of New York schools’ financing). As a result of the willingness of the good citizens of Farmingdale to give a bit more from their wallets, I got to attend perhaps the greatest public schools in U.S. history.
     All this is by way of saying that today I am sickened by what the governors of Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, and Colorado are trying to do, abetted by the Republicans in the U.S. Congress. 

      The Republicans, having deregulated business at the behest of Wall Street and of the billionaire Koch brothers and their crowd, ruined our economy and left it bleeding by the side of the road in 2008. Thanks to President Obama’s stimulus package—a transfusion that virtually all economists say has saved the economy—the country is recovering nicely: generating jobs, increasing production, reenergizing people’s 401K plans and pensions. Wall Street managers are again making billions. The corporations are sitting on trillions (literally) in profits. Heck, the rich are even richer now; the thirteen biggest hedge-fund managers last year averaged more than a billion dollars in income, each—enough to hire hundreds of thousands of teachers, if the billionaires' income were taxed as actual income rather than at the 15% capital gains rate the Republicans have given them. (See this column by former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich for the details.) 
      But saving the economy required spending government money, leaving us with deficits now.
      Let me repeat: The Republicans ruined the economy. The deficits now faced by states and the federal government are the Republicans’ fault.
      Are the Republicans willing to accept responsibility for what they’ve done? Are they willing to tax their rich Wall Street friends who have benefited from the stimulus that was needed to end the Great Recession? Are they willing to tax the Koch brothers and corporate moguls who are making billions off a revived economy? Of course not. In fact, the opposite. The Republicans want to blame somebody else and make innocent bystanders pay the price for their folly. They want to blame the unions.
Nobel economist Paul Krugman
     Let’s be honest: The Republicans want to use the deficits they forced upon us as an excuse to destroy one of their longtime targets: the unions. As Nobel economist Paul Krugman says, it’s not just public-employee unions they want to destroy, it’s ALL unions.
     If the unions are destroyed, life becomes much easier for the billionaire Kochs and other corporate accumulators, who will no longer have to pay workers a fair wage, who will no longer have to worry about worker-protection legislation, who will be able to fire any employees who look at them the wrong way, without grievance procedures to protect those employees. The Republicans, as Krugman says, want to return us to the Gilded Age, before unions, when workers were treated barely better than slaves. If you don’t believe me, look at the record: name one worker-protection, consumer-protection, environment-protection, or disability-protection law the Republican Party as a group has voted for in the last 30 years.
     Not to mention which, with the unions destroyed, the Democrats lose the only centralized source of campaign contributions big enough to balance the hundreds of millions of dollars the super-rich corporate aristocrats lavish upon Republican candidates.

     Let us return for a moment to the days before there were public-employee unions. I’ll use teachers as my example, but I could be talking about policemen, firemen, sanitation workers, or city hall clerks.
     Before there were teachers unions, your chance of getting hired, if you wanted to be a teacher, often depended on which school board member or city councilman or mayoral aide you knew. School teachers were the slaves of patronage: if you supported the right political party, you got hired; if not, not. Once you had a job, you were expected to support the party in power: work in its election offices, fill the crowds for its candidates’ speeches, even tell your students which candidates their parents should vote for; if you didn’t, you were fired. Without a union to protect you, you were at the mercy of your principal, who was at the mercy of the political bosses. If you were a woman and your principal or that mayoral aide made sexual advances to you, you had no union to protect you from his threat to fire you if you didn’t give in. Before there were teachers unions, you had no pension plan; when you retired, you were left with nothing; longtime teachers were often fired just so they could be replaced by cheaper young teachers (my father explained that this was called "the rotating bottom"—a classic corporate ploy to dampen wages).
     While you worked, if you were a teacher in the days before unions, you were paid a pittance, despite your good education. Without any tenure system, you couldn’t teach anything that violated the ideas of the most narrow-minded politician in power: if the politicians in  power insisted that unions were communist, you had to teach that; if the politicians in power insisted that evolution was wrong, you had to teach that; if you were a public-university professor and you published research that didn’t turn the way the politicians liked, you were fired. Before there were teachers unions, if you taught that integration was a legitimate alternative to segregation, and you lived in the wrong part of the country, you were fired. (Union support helped pump blood into the civil rights movement. Teachers unions were the strongest supporters of the Supreme Court decision to overturn separate-but-equal school laws. When Martin Luther King was killed, he was in Memphis to support the sanitation workers who wanted to unionize.) Before there were teachers unions, your students had no protection either: if the politicians decided to save money by firing teachers and increasing the size of classes, they simply did it, education be damned. Before there were teachers unions, if you got sick and couldn’t teach for a month, you were fired and replaced; if your medical bills were big enough, you went bankrupt, and your family went hungry, because you had no health plan. If you got pregnant and couldn’t teach, you lost your job. If you got pregnant and tried to continue teaching, you often got fired anyway, because school boards in some towns thought a pregnant woman was unsightly in the classroom.

Martin Luther King Jr. marched in Memphis in March, 1968 to support the sanitation workers who wanted to form a union. King was killed the next week in Memphis. Unions were among the biggest supporters of the civil rights movement.
     Let me return to my father. As a boy, he worked for a time in the coal fields of Kentucky, serving mine workers their lunch and supper. This was before the mine workers were unionized, so my father saw what a company town was. The miners, before there were unions, were forced to live in company housing, paying rent to the company; forced to shop in company-owned stores, paying with scrip, or “company money,” with which they were paid in place of U.S. dollars; and forced to pay the company doctor if they were sick. The companies, in other words, forced the workers to give all their earnings back to the company. If a worker even talked of higher wages, he was fired. If workers tried to unionize or asked to bargain collectively, they were, not rarely, beaten or killed. If you want to know what the Kentucky coal mines were like before unions, go to this web site . My father saw that world first-hand. It made him a union man forever.

Before there were unions, scrip—"company money"— (shown here as paper, above, and coin, below) was a way to force workers to return all their earnings to their employers. Unable to save real money, they became slaves to their jobs.

     That was the world before there were unions. For workers, it was a dark and ugly and corrupt world. For the greedy rich, it was almost heaven; all they had to contend with was each other. The Republicans want to return us to that world, make no mistake about it.
     So when I see the irresponsible and, to my mind, immoral way those Republican governors are treating public-school teachers and other public workers, I think of my father and the pre-union world he knew and hated. I also see how he handled the teachers union: with respect for them, respect for the collective-bargaining process, respect for the taxpayers he represented, and love for the children whose education was being shaped.
      I remember my father. That’s how I know, when I look at what we’re seeing from the Republicans in Wisconsin and elsewhere, that there is a better way. 

My first-grade class at Main Street School in Farmingdale, NY, 1953. Miss Sokolowski was a fine teacher, like nearly all public-school teachers I have ever known. That's me in the second row, second from left.
 (A column by Ezra Klein in the Washington Post adds some meaningful facts to this discussion.)



  1. Love you, Ed! I'm going to share this...

  2. Ed, I remember you and your brother George. I also remember your father and he was a very good man and school board member. I pretty much agree with just about all you said. Until you started to praise Obama. Just had to let you know about that. Hope all is well.

    George H. Fredericks

  3. Good to hear from you, George. Yes, I think by all economic measures, Obama's policies have been a great success. Took an economy that was losing 800,000 jobs/month and now it's gaining 100,000 to 200,000 jobs/month. Thanks for remembering my father so nicely.

    Thanks for sharing, Katie. Love you back!

  4. Great Post Ed,

    I am a young union man and hope to follow in your proud fathers footsteps of fighting to make life better for everyone and ensure a balance in the world.