Look at their faces. They are happy, capable, and perhaps a bit cocky.
The man with the mustache is my late father, Ed, surrounded by his union brothers from Republic Steel on Chicago’s Southeast Side. He worked at Republic for over 30 years, and for many of them he was a respected grievance committeeman, defending the rights of his fellow union members.
The photograph, a family classic, was taken in the late 1950s or very early ‘60s. The occasion was a union meeting for Local 1033 of the United Steelworkers of America, and the place was some banquet hall, either in South Chicago or South Deering. He remembered where, while I, unfortunately, have long forgotten.
When the photograph was taken, my father would have been in his late 30s, and his face, like those of his friends, exudes a smiling confidence. But where did that confidence come from? A combat-tested, Navy veteran of World War II, as well as a youthful survivor of the Great Depression, he fought and labored and, at the moment the camera’s shutter clicked, was thriving, as was the labor movement in America. Paychecks were full, homes and cars were bought, and the hard years were fading into black and white.
If I had to pick a high point for organized labor in America during the 20th century, I wouldn’t, ironically, turn first to the steel industry, but to the auto industry. In 1950, the United Automobile Workers, headed by Walter Reuther, signed a labor contract with General Motors, a contract dubbed The Treaty of Detroit. The positive results for the workers (especially, and radical for its time, the cost of living adjustment), reverberated through other industries, including steel. All told, American industry boomed and unions thrived, and so did the American economy.
When it comes to the state of unions today, however, I don’t share my father’s confident smile.
Locally, there have been some clear skies. As part of a global effort to unionize IKEA facilities, workers at the Joliet and Mokena locations recently voted to join the IAM, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. In addition, members of AFSCME Council 31 voted in June to accept a new contract with the state after four years of stalemate under the administration of Gov. Bruce Rauner. Then in July, SEIU Local 1 secured union contracts for belabored workers at O’Hare International Airport.
On the other hand, there’s potential rough weather ahead, both locally and nationally. To start, the UAW is attempting to negotiate a new contract for the workers at the Southeast Side facility and other Ford plants. Negotiations began in mid-July, and as of this writing, are still ongoing.
Next, 27 states currently have active “right-to-work” laws, which create what are known as “open shops,” whereby employees at unionized workplaces (public, but some private), are able to opt-out of union membership. They do not have to pay what are known as “fair share dues,” while still benefiting from most of the protections of the given union’s contract. (Fair share dues are based on the premise that non-union workers still benefit from being in a unionized workplace and so should pay their “fair share” to maintain the union).
Further, the concept behind right-to-work laws was, essentially, expanded nationally — at least in regards to public unions — on June 27, 2018, when the Supreme Court ruled, in Illinois Janus v. AFSCME Council 31, that “fair share” was unconstitutional. Many feared that Janus would be potentially damaging to unions, but as Sun-Times reporter Lynn Sweet reported on the one-year anniversary of Janus, the damage seems, for now, to be minimal.
While this might be true, the Janus ruling should be viewed as an attempt by the courts and government to erode the power of unions.
However, the greatest obstacle to strong unions is the decline of a collective mindset. To be in a union is to accept “we” over “I.” Too many people today are too self-centered, self-important, and can’t think past the “I,” or some image on a screen.
Collective action requires collective thought, and both are hard to attain and maintain.
Will unions, with their economic benefits and potential political muscle, ever return to the status they held in the 1950s and ‘60s? If they do, we will, ideally, see faces like those in the photograph, as unions, strong unions, have the potential to cut across social, political and racial lines, uniting us rather than dividing us. But before there can be a union resurgence, we need to change our individual and collective mindsets.
The men in the photograph knew how to act for their, and our, common good.
John Vukmirovich is a Chicago-area writer, researcher and book reviewer.
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