By Peter Toll
Labor Day always reminds me of this question. It also reminds me of my first labor strike in the 1950s when I was 16 years old and had just gotten a real job as a box-boy (grocery bagger) at the local A&P supermarket.
Greeting me on my second day of after-school work was a big padlocked chain across the store’s door. Huh? What is this? I need to go to work. I need gas for my beater of a car. What the . . . ?
My dad explained to me that night. I was locked out; so were my co-workers. He explained the union and the company couldn’t agree on a new contract, and the old contract expired. That left two alternatives: The company could lock out the workers (and be closed), or the union could strike in a tactic designed to spur the company to an agreement.
He explained the history of unions in this country, that his father had been a co-founder of a union in Chicago around 1905, and that my dad was currently a member of three unions — AFTRA, SAG and the Directors Guild. He was in the entertainment business in Los Angeles.
Unions, he said, were the answer to poor working conditions, fair treatment and pay for workers, and were designed to combat the too-often self-serving needs of the company. After all, management’s responsibility is to its shareholders — people owning the stock — and not the workers.
He used the word “paternalism” when talking about management. Huh? From the Latin “pater,” meaning father. He said management, usually all males, often chooses to run their businesses as if they are the father and all the workers are their children. “Father Knows Best” was a popular television show at the time, but this gave the term added meaning.
In the course of my life, I would belong to two more unions. I would also be thrust into management — once for a big company and then for very, very small ones. But my attitude didn’t change. If the workers were unhappy then production would be down, performance would suffer, and the product — which we all sought to produce as well as we could — would be unsatisfactory.
Without the union membership, I don’t think my family would’ve gotten through that post-war period as well as we did. We enjoyed the middle class prosperity of the time. Ironically, the electorate in the 1950s didn’t credit unions for much success. Instead, we got eight years of Republican Dwight Eisenhower as president.
Democrats have traditionally supported unions and their members for good reason. At the same time, the American ethic of not depending on others, of not joining with others in mutual interest, seems to have increased. And we’re paying the price. Wages are falling and the middle class, the basic driver of the American economy, is shrinking. Union membership, once one-third of all workers, today is about one in 10.
Which brings me back to my dad. When he retired in 1977 at age 65, he had a very reasonable income. He had a pension each from AFTRA, SAG and the Directors Guild, as well as Social Security and a pension from the broadcasting network that employed him for 37 years.
And because of Medicare, which was only enacted in the 1960s, his medical bills were modest. Long term care, however, wasn’t. And when he died, all the money he had saved, including the profits from selling his home, would be gone. He was living month-to-month.
That tells us labor’s needs are unfulfilled. End-of-life care for folks with Alzheimer’s disease or the myriad other old-age afflictions, requires special treatment in special places that most people cannot afford. And it is costly. It is also the challenge labor faces in making Medicare also cover the final — and often most expensive — years of life.
So think about that on Labor Day.