Friday, September 02, 2011

My Mom and Organized Labor

I mentioned that I had interesting articles coming up about my mom and I may have already broken the first rule of setting expectations:  Aim Low.  I have a friend that begins many of her stories by saying, “Let me tell you one of the funniest stories you’ve ever heard…” and she has to be warned that unless it involves a midget, a clown, and a dozen tubes of plastic wrap, she’s probably not going to come close.  So if this wasn’t interesting to you, I apologize in advance.

I’ve shared before that I had the misfortune of attending awful public schools and without the aggressive involvement of my parents, I probably would’ve accepted much of the pedestrian narrative told to me by teachers who were simply not very good at what they did…and didn’t mind telling you that sometimes.  I’ve had former classmates give me the “the schools weren’t that bad” line but they usually retreat when I’m done reminding them of the facts that always clear up the sentimental thoughts of their youth.

As a child my mom, because of polio, missed large amount of school because of her long hospital stays.  I remember her telling me that what she wanted more than anything else was to be able to go to school.  She felt awful about the schools her children ended up in.
My mom became involved in the public schools and was a huge advocate for education of all kinds.  She tutored students in all subjects, volunteered in classrooms, and was a friend to teachers.  Growing up in my house it was not uncommon to come home and find a teacher in our house talking to my mom.  In the last years of her life, two people that helped her with things around the house or errands were both local public school teachers.

Thirty-one years ago almost to the day my mom was in the middle of a huge labor dispute.  My mom was chairman of the school board in our school district and the district’s teachers were coming up on the renewal of their contract.  I remember it vividly and I remember the conversations that went on in our house.  Months before the contract had expired, she knew the union wasn’t that serious about coming to an agreement and that a strike was likely.  Public funds were in short supply in 1980 and the country was facing inflation and unemployment.  Raises were in short supply, but the need for them had never been greater.  Contract negotiations were tense all over our state, but for this little rural school district, things were about to boil over. 

The decision to hire substitute teachers district-wide made front page news.

It’s impossible these days to talk about unions without having one of two pre-approved opinions on which to span a discussion. 
  1. You believe that only organized labor rescued the average worker from the Robber Barons and without the unions we would still have child labor and work seven days a week making mere pennies while living in houses with dirt floors.
  2. You believe that unions are the enemy of the worker and create widespread unemployment while protecting their own interests and anyone in a union is just a lazy bum who is afraid of competition.  You may concede they were once necessary, but are no longer.
My mom thought neither of these arguments were necessarily true.  My mom respected the right of people to collectively bargain and protect their rights to do the job they were hired to do and be treated fairly.  She also thought being forced to join a union to do a job was nonsense. 

But for the purpose of this blog she believed that the public schools belonged to the public and that no kid should have to miss a single day of school because of what anyone thought about the unions.  The school board made state-wide news for hiring in advance, substitute teachers for the whole district.  School opened on time and negotiations with the union continued.

Personally, I hated the news because I was hoping for a longer Summer vacation.  I was stunned though how opening the schools on time brought such controversy and how the media spun the events.  We had print and TV media at our house regularly trying to get comments.  My mom refused to comment.

On the last school board meeting before the contract was eventually signed the media was out in full force.  Parents, teachers, and even some students turned out and I remember my Dad and I taking my mom to the meeting (she never drove).  Other school board members with the protection of a sheriff’s deputy entered in through a side entrance to stay away from the picket line and arguing mobs that had formed outside.

My mom wanted to go into the front entrance since there were fewer steps (she walked with an exaggerated limp and stairs were not her friend) so this meant driving across the picket line with angry teachers (some had already been in the news for allegedly damaging cars with their signs) and making her way through the charged up crowd.  This was going to be awesome, I couldn’t wait to see the first teacher that hit my dad’s truck with a sign.  Nothing would’ve pleased me more than seeing my dad take one of these “educators” on a field trip to the pavement with his fist.

My dad slowly and patiently drove his truck up toward the entrance and my mom opened the door and a hand was extended to her by a man who would later become my high school Civics teacher.  My mom took his hand and she eased out of the truck and they walked along side talking.  That teacher, while not a good teacher in my view, was a welcome visitor in our house for years.  Maybe my mom didn’t have the good sense to be concerned about what could happen to her but instead she decided to be an honest broker and treat people with respect.  More respect than they deserved I remembered thinking.

The media told great untruths and were generally sloppy reporting on what happened and the events of that time eventually changed my mom’s mind about public education entirely. That’s a subject for another day.

I work near the Machinists Union building which serves as a headquarters for the local that is employed by the Boeing company.  In front of their building is metal artwork of people carrying signs by a burning barrel.  I’ve always been impressed that they chose to have that in front of their building instead of artwork portraying people actually working.

For me, Labor Day is the three-day weekend that tells me College Football is here and clothes are on sale at back-to-school sales everywhere.  There is no better time of year to head out to the stores to look for new clothes manufactured by child labor. 

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