By Mark Spearman
Such a sterile term “collective bargaining” for something as basic and personal as banding with others to establish and nurture a livelihood, and to provide for yourself and people you care about.
As 70,000 people circled the state capitol in Madison recently, my mind traveled back to an auto workers union president named Fred, from whom I learned something about that concept, about fair pay for a good day’s work, and about the politics of human aspiration and the emotions they can stir all around.
Fred was in charge of the union local in the mid-sized Midwest city where I worked as a newspaper reporter 25 years ago. He was essentially a slightly leaner, decidedly shrewder, certainly more diplomatic Wilford Brimley. Fred represented the interests of 3,000 auto workers who stamped sedans, station wagons and light trucks out of the untold tons of sheet metal brought in daily by rail.
I was the upstart reporter who’d periodically come by the union hall adjacent to the plant for comments on contract talks, rumors of contract talks, strikes, rumors of strikes, settlements, rumors of settlements… We seemed to find things to talk about pretty much all the time. Or, rather, I found an inexhaustible list of reasons to pester Fred for stories. I was the latest in a long line of know-it-all, 25-year-old journalism school grads who’d never seen a quarter panel, hood or decklid that wasn’t already neatly painted and attached to a car. We were the instant experts assigned the beat where Fred conducted business, but he took it all with patience and good humor.
No so much his colleagues in the local. I recall watching my Toyota towed from the union hall parking lot as a burly union brother, expressing much schadenfreude, pointed to a sign that read No Foreign Car Parking. It was 1985, and people preached “Buy American,” but mostly it was a matter of the media being considered an enemy.
Sometimes I’d wait by the front gate to get quotes from passing workers about a proposal or pending labor agreement. My questions elicited a spectrum of responses, ranging from indifference to F-bombs.
All of this burnished what I’d frequently heard others say about unions, that they were dominated by contentious, demanding and unenlightened yokels with an inflated sense of entitlement.
I’d grown up in a small Ohio town where unions were the rare exception. I didn’t know anyone who belonged to a union. I didn’t go to school with any kids who lived in union households. On television, labor unions were usually a device to tell stories about corruption and crime. Often, union thugs were the “muscle” when something unpleasant needed to get done.
My only personal experience with a union was the day my dad arrived home in a state of agitation because he’d just driven past strikers on a picket line. One of them had spit tobacco on the side of his sweet, 1965 red Ford Falcon.
You could fire the old Civil War cannon on the Public Square of my hometown and be certain you’d never kill a Democrat or anyone who remotely defined themselves as pro-labor, let alone liberal. Unions were why new cars cost so much, why your electric bill was too high, why in certain fields the incompetent were never fired. While anecdotes could be cited to support those claims, never mentioned was the role of unions in bringing us the eight-hour workday, minimum wage, employer-provided healthcare, paid vacations, worker safety regulations and a long list of other things taken for granted, things that may never have come about absent collective bargaining as a check and balance on the clout of big employers.
The attitude was embraced by more than a few in the newsroom. Resentment was most evident whenever a new figure was released that was purported to be the hourly rate of pay, including benefits, for an autoworker. I can still hear the squeaky ball bearings of my city editor’s chair as he’d whip around the copydesk to deliver extensive editorial commentary on that subject.
Accuracy of those estimates aside, I’d come to realize that whenever anyone’s income was reported publicly in print—regardless of who they were or what they did—there was a waiting chorus of the incredulous. It was always too much. Perhaps not too much for you, or for me, but certainly for them, for that job. Are you kidding?
A few colleagues who railed about overpaid autoworkers spent their evenings mailing resumes to other newspapers—unionized newspapers—where reporters were guaranteed a minimum rate of pay more than twice the barely livable wage we were paid.
Nationally, union power and public opinion of labor were already in decline. Reagan was in the White House, and a few years earlier he’d fired 12,000 striking air traffic controllers. The action set off a chain of events culminating in the news we’re now seeing in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and elsewhere.
But that didn’t deter Fred from fighting for the local.
One afternoon I was in the union hall conference room, getting Fred’s official response to something or other. This journalistic exercise became rote over time. Summarize the situation in the lede, quote management, quote the union, elaborate, a little history for context, conclusion. I was scribbling whatever it was Fred was saying when suddenly he stopped. Clearly he sensed, not entirely inaccurately, that I was slipping into stenographer mode, not thinking through what he was telling me.
“Listen, you need to understand something,” Fred announced in a rangy, Southern drawl that I’d come to guess was somewhere out of Arkansas or Texas.
I closed my notebook and put my pencil down.
“Don’t you aspire to a certain standard of living for yourself, for your family? That’s all we’re doing here. That’s all this is about.”
When someone’s talking about something they believe in, it has a certain signature that’s unmistakable. Fred never seemed much of a spin doctor anyway. I could tell he meant it.
In my mind I was contrasting this with the last conversation I’d had with the plant general manager, who’d phoned me at the paper with a request I first interpreted as dry humor: Would I please stop using the term “layoff” to describe the periodic herd thinning of which he was a chief architect. He asked if I could switch to the gentler term of “sendhome,” as in “Today the company issued 147 sendhome notices.” I don’t recall where the conversation went from there. I was polite, but our talk was short.
That day Fred talked about some stuff he didn’t usually get into. He’d been around the plant since the beginning, back in ’56. It was around that time that the union had first persuaded the company to pay half the cost of hospital and surgical coverage for its workers and their families—a benefit that was extraordinary in its day. He’d also seen the union get guarantees against employment discrimination based on race, three years before the rest of the country caught up via the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
His point was that this wasn’t just some zero-sum game played out to see how much each side could get. It was about securing and protecting jobs and income for real people and their families. And, it had a history that was important to acknowledge, one that started with people asserting their rights to some pretty basic things.
Something else happened that summer that changed how I viewed the plant and the people who worked there. The company announced that it had chosen this particular site over several others for a modernization project and a hundred-million-dollar-plus investment. That meant steady, significant work for years, maybe even new jobs. More than 1,000 workers gathered on the grounds outside the plant to hear the announcement.
I’d never seen people look so excited and proud of what they did. Some cheered and hollered. Many of them hugged. Some cried.
I hadn’t thought about Fred or the union or the plant for a long time. On the Web I discovered that the place was still in operation, but just barely, with about a third of the jobs of years past. No trace of Fred, but then he was not a young man in 1985. I suppose one of the old-timers at the paper might know what became of him, but I don’t really want to know.
I prefer to think Fred is still out there, looking after the interests of his union brothers and sisters, and maybe, explaining to some know-it-all kid how you make a quarter-panel out of sheet metal.
Photo provided by Mark Spearman.