I have accomplished almost nothing of the list of tasks that I had in mind for today. I would like to be able to crawl up on some moral high ground and say that’s because I am conflicted about Labor Day as a holiday. But the truth is, the decadent pleasure of doing absolutely nothing except take naps (yes, plural) and play on Facebook was just too seductive. I rarely have a day when I have absolutely no commitments; so making the most — or least — of it is very appealing.
But it’s also true that I am conflicted about Labor Day. That’s because Labor Day is so closely tied to labor unions, and I have a love-hate relationship with them.
On the one hand, I’m proud to be able to say that my father and my grandfather were both trade union carpenters. When I think of them, I think of the hours I got to spend in my dad’s woodworking shop in the basement of our home. It was usually my job to hold the “other end” of whatever piece of wood he was working with. I have an assortment of things he made over the years, starting with purely functional tables or bookcases, and moving into furniture sanded so smooth it just begs for you to touch it. And some of my most treasured possessions are the card tables my grandfather made, with their intricate wood inlay tops fashioned after quilt patterns. They were both the kind of carpenters who took great pride in their work; my grandpa had a reputation for being the “door whisperer”; he knew exactly how to shim the hinges of a door so that it would swing easily and stay where you put it. The training that their apprenticeships offered allowed them to refine their skills and made them excellent craftsmen. And for that I am grateful to the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America and to Local 948 in Sioux City, Iowa.
On the other hand, I have some frightening memories associated with the same organization. My grandfather was a carpenter for his entire career, and happily so. My dad did a good job as a carpenter for several years; and he also showed an aptitude for seeing the bigger picture, knowing how his work as a carpenter fit in with the other trades who were working on the same commercial buildings. After several years, he was promoted to be a foreman of the carpenter’s crew (still a union position). And then, a few years later, he was offered the chance to run an entire job as a project manager, a move that would take him from union labor into management. He was good at his work, he enjoyed bringing rolls of blueprints home and laying them out on the living room floor, describing them to me and helping me to visualize the finished building that would grow from those sheets of blue-tinged paper. He made the move, and as long as he stayed in town and ran local jobs, everything was fine. Apparently he had earned enough respect to make it work.
But then came an out-of-town job. It was a slow time for the company, and the only jobs that were available were out of town and were on such a tight budget that most of the trade crews were non-union. The company offered that job to my father, so that he wouldn’t have to be laid off. He took the job, and we got ready to move. Even before we moved there, I overheard enough anxious conversations between my parents to know that something bad might happen. And that made me anxious about the move as well. From what I picked up from my parents’ conversation, there were people in town who were angry that this building was being built by non-union crews, and there were rumblings of threats. One cool autumn evening, our phone rang. Dad got a message that there was a fire at the job site, so he left to go check things out. He was gone for a while, a long while actually. After the first hour, I could see my mother getting more and more nervous. After two hours, she called a neighbor to ask them to go to the site and look for Dad. By the time Dad finally returned about three hours later, I think my mother was convinced that he had been hurt, or worse. I don’t know whether the angry union workers set the fire. But what I do know is that the labor movement’s reputation for violence, and the threats my father had received, created a night of terror in our home. And for that I cannot respect or support them.
Like many other movements, labor unions seem to track the arc of a pendulum. They were formed when it was normal for workers to be exploited and mistreated, and they worked fiercely… and sometimes violently… to win rights for those workers. But a pendulum can’t stop at the midpoint; it keeps swinging to the opposite end of the arc, where the unions themselves were often the exploiters, the bullies, the ones to be feared. I’m not a sociologist, but it seems to me that the pendulum may be swinging back the other way now, again overshooting that elusive midpoint.
And so I’m conflicted. I appreciate the work of unions in equipping my father and grandfather with skills to do excellent work. But I still remember the fear that ruled our house that night; and because of that, I can’t join in the unbridled praise that I hear from others today. So maybe another nap, and some Facebook time.