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If you, an ‘essential’ worker, have been treated poorly — get organized

Every worker must be willing to defend the basic rights of labor: good pay, benefits, safe conditions and good relations with management.

A statue honoring Southeast Side steelworkers and their families stands in Steelworkers Park, 87th Street and South Lakeshore Drive.
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My father died in February of 1995 and his wake was quite an affair, as he was well liked and respected by members of Local 1033 of the United Steelworkers of America.

He had served the union for many years as a grievance committeeman, and by nightfall his wake was packed, as was the parking lot.

I often find myself thinking about words that were spoken to me just as his wake began, words that were soft and kind and true. The funeral director, Jim Betkowski of Elmwood Chapel, came up to me and apologized for, of all things, my father’s hands.

My father had a perpetual deposit of mill grease and dirt deeply embedded under his fingernails. Deeply. To my knowledge, he never tried to dig it out.

Jim told me that he had attended to my father himself, and that he had tried to remove the grease from under my father’s fingernails, but gave up. Jim said it best: my father’s hands defined him. I had to admit, with a smile, that he was right.

My father’s hands were those of an older generation who had a particular view of what work meant. Work should be performed with dignity and intent. One must do one’s work to the best of his or her ability, no matter the task. And one must help other workers to do their best; after all, everyone’s job often depended on that.

One must also be willing, at a higher level, to defend the basic rights of labor: good pay, benefits, safe conditions, and good (if not guarded) relations with management and ownership.

On March 20, Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Mayor Lori Lightfoot held a joint news conference, which I listened to on the radio, to announce the shutdown of the state and city due to COVID-19.

I was struck by their matter-of-fact tone in regards to their ability to shut down the state and the city, but also in regards to their ability to decide who would be able to work and who wouldn’t.

And I became quite uneasy with their use of the word “essential.”

That uneasy feeling stayed with me as I read various articles (including some in this newspaper) that gave advice on how to work from home. I found such advice to be shallow, smirky, and a bit smug, and I wondered if a shift were underway in how we view work, a shift favoring those who do, or could, work from home at the expense of “essential” workers who can’t.

Such an attitude suggests a category of worker that stands in opposition to an essential worker: a privileged worker.

Working from a home office might be viable for some, but it is not viable for people who work at jobs that require them to get their hands dirty. Here, I am thinking of my father, and of all those who labored in the former steel mills of the 10th Ward, and of all those who cut and wrap meat, assemble or operate machinery and who work, say, at the local hardware store.

I’m not concerned with how privileged workers view essential workers, but I am concerned with how essential workers view themselves and their place in this economy, and so I’ll address them directly.

As spring collapsed, summer sizzled and Congress fiddled, did you do your work willingly, or did you work in a fog of fear, afraid of losing your job or contracting the virus? Or both? Did your employer provide you with the proper protective gear? If not, why not? Were you given some type of bonus or raise for working through the heart and heat of the pandemic, or were you merely given “thanks” and the empty title of “hero”?

If you deal with the public, do you feel that your customers appreciated your work, or were you subjected to discourtesies or even threats? And when you look at your finances, do you feel as if you’re poised on the brink, or have you already fallen over the edge?

If you disagree with me, fine. But if you agree, then what are you to do?

I suggest that first you get angry, and then get organized. It is, after all, Labor Day, a day set aside to honor organized labor — men and women of all colors and persuasions who, like those of my father’s generation, could see what needed to be done and who could then take action.

And if you agree with me, to put my mind at ease, how about an old-fashioned show of hands?

John Vukmirovich is a Chicago-area writer, researcher and book reviewer.

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