After reading the post, I realized that my dad was a freelancer who belonged to a union. Somehow I just never made that connection before. Ever humble, he used to call himself a “ditch digger,” although he was in fact an entrepreneur who operated a backhoe. He hired himself out to construction firms around the San Francisco Bay Area.
He joined the Operating Engineers Local 3 for a number of reasons, one of which was health benefits. Without the union, we might not have had medical care. And because of a birth defect, I needed open heart surgery when I was five. I love the story of how he went around to union meetings and coffee shops recruiting his friends and fellow construction workers to give blood for my surgery.
The union was also a source of professional pride and a place to network. And believe me, networking is just as important in construction as it is in any white collar job. In those days, union membership was an advantage, and maybe even a necessity for getting onto a job site.
I have a degree in economics and my favorite subject was labor history. I was in college in the late 70s when the power and prestige of unions were already beginning to wane. My husband and I actually met in a labor history class and formed a bond because we were two of the only students to volunteer to be on the side of the union in mock contract negotiations. Most of our fellow students were disdainful of organized labor. Several told us that they were going to become managers, so they had no interest in representing the union. I guess they were just there to learn how to beat ‘em.
Did you get that? These 20-year-olds were convinced that they would never be “workers.” They would just go straight into management and stay there forever. Today’s 20-year-olds know better.
This happened at the same time I was learning that decent conditions we take for granted in the workplace, from safety to medical benefits to common respect and dignity, were largely outcomes of the struggles of workers and their unions. And that applies to managers as well as the rank and file. I don’t want to discount other struggles such as the woman’s movement, and I don’t want to pretend that workplaces don’t still have problems, but we all owe unions a huge debt regardless of our political views or our ideas about their current failings.
Years ago, I did join the National Writers Union but I let my membership lapse. So Princess’ blog post was a wake-up call. I chose the freelance life and at times, I have had to support a family that way. It’s not easy. We do need each other for a lot of reasons, including health benefits and mutual support.