October 02, 2006

My History With Unions

In the 1980s, when I was a youngish teenager, the UMWA (United Mine Workers America) came to Central Pennsylvania. There were a lot of strip mines around and almost all of them were non-union. The UMWA, to the best of my knowledge, had focused mostly on deep mines and was now pushing their way into the strip mine world. Which was all well in good you might say, but it wasn't.

My Dad had been a truck driver with one too many tickets, so he ended up driving a bulldozer in the mines. He moved up and around until he had done just about every job in a strip mine - dozer, rock truck, blasting, welding, mechanic. Until finally he was made night foreman. In the company he worked for, there were ten or twelve strip mines going at all times and each had their own daytime foreman. But, at night, my Dad was in charge of the whole thing and he traveled all around PA checking on different jobs. I went with him a few times and it was interesting work because each mine was different and each one had its own problems.

An unexpected consequence of this position was that he became close with the mine owner. Not like "Hey Bill, let's go huntin' together" close, but close as in he trusted my Dad's opinion on the mine operations and my Dad knew he wouldn't be misled. That was were it stood when the employees decided to gather to vote on allowing a union rep on site. This wasn't a vote to become a union mining operation, just to allow union reps on the site to talk with workers. Well, the owner sat my dad down and told him in no certain terms that the mines weren't making money anymore, he was just breaking even, and that his family had plenty of money. If the workers voted to allow unions on the site, they mines would be shut down.

He went to the meeting and said so, and not many believed him. They all thought the old man was lying and it caused a rift that exists to this day. Because, when the vote when for the union, many folks were surprised to find the mines chained up the next morning and their jobs gone. That was it. Not a stunt, not a gimmick, no more mines.

The old man kept my Dad on for a few months to see to the auctioning off of equipment, which turned out to be a curse. By the time he was done working there, the thousands of laid-off workers had scooped up all the decent jobs, which left Dad unemployed for nearly a year. Crappy jobs came and went for a few years until he finally landed the one he has now, running a logging equipment company. Those were lean years. No vacations, no trips, no new school clothes, plastic leather shoes for school, and I remember lots of rice and "casseroles" and watered down pasta sauce.
I learned to hate the unions that year, and that hatred lasted until I was in graduate school many years later.

jungleIt all changed when I read The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. I saw then how unions had at one point been a force for good. How they had saved lives and raised the working class out of poverty. But, there is still a part of me that recalls the stories of auto workers being given 16 weeks of vacation once they had enough seniority and I can't help but revert when I hear about the plants closing down and Ford going under. I'm still of mixed emotions, even though I just joined my first union - District 19 of the State Employees Association of North Carolina. I know there is good for unions to do, which is why I have joined. But, the lessons of my youth are not to be forgotten, and won't be forgotten.


even_my_mother_hates_me said...

Came across your blog on Google. My Grandfather worked for the railroad and was killed when my mother only 7 years old. This was during the depression. My grandmother was desperate, with two children to feed and no job. With the help of the Union and the Southern Pacific management they found work for her as the first female railroad dispatcher in UP history. Up until her death she loved both the UP and the Union. I think today she would be very frustrated with what course that some many of the Unions have taken.

mundog50 said...

I have read and heard different versions of your story most of my working life. While I believe your story and the impact it had on your life, I really cannot believe that someone keeps a business open because they are rich and just want to keep a bunch of people employed. They keep it open to make a profit and if they cannot make a profit, they close. Now, the people that owned the mines your father worked at blamed the closing on the unions, but more likely the economic landscape of the eighties and the switch from coal was probably the real reason. If the business had been lucrative, they would have sat down with the union and gone over the money with them and come to an agreement. Organized labor does not exist to put people out of work. Yet they always seem to get the blame.

Robert P said...

mundog, I don't disagree with you. I have a feeling that at that point, there was very little profit in the mining business. I do know that when the mine shut down, the old man retired from all business and his son started some other small businesses. So, it might have been an excuse, but it was the end.