Unions. It seems people either hate them or love them. Growing up in urban, working class Youngstown, they were part of the fabric of life. Many of the parties and weddings I attended as a kid were in local union halls. This was true even though, except for when my brother briefly was a member of a steel workers union, we were not a union family. Most of those in my neighborhood who worked in the mills, or manufacturing plants, or the big GM Lordstown plant that opened in the 1960s were union members. Most wouldn’t have it any other way.
That was true for my wife’s father, who worked for General Fireproofing, a manufacturer of office furniture. We actually have two GF desks in our home, and I swear you could land aircraft on them! They are practically indestructible. That was the quality of workmanship that came out of these factories.
Whatever you might say about unions today, it is important to understand what it was like for workers in the factories of Youngstown in the first part of the twentieth century. The work was dangerous and physically demanding. An injury could often end a life or a working career. OSHA and health, workers comp, and disability benefits only came later. Companies were known to arbitrarily fire workers weeks short of retirement. Workers were an expendable commodity–and knew it.
Union organizing was dangerous. Strikes even more so, especially in the early years. On January 7, 1916, striking workers for the U. S. Steel Corporation seeking a 5.5 cent hourly raise were fired upon by company security, perhaps after someone had thrown a brick or rock at them. Several volleys were fired. Three died, 27 were wounded officially, possibly more because many feared seeking treatment. In Youngstown’s Butler Museum of Art, a striking painting by William Gropper captures the violence of this event. Similar events occurred 21 years later at the “Women’s Day Massacre“.
My wife has memories of her dad’s union giving kids toys at Christmas. They were the ones providing strike pay when strikes became necessary. Unions were far from perfect and union officials sometimes misused their power. But they were the only advocate the “little guy” had. Indeed, the “little guy” mindset is one that shaped the mindset of generations of those of us who grew up in Youngstown. The corporate world was filled with “fat cats” who didn’t care about the guys on the line, only the bottom line. Only much later in life as I met principled people of faith in business who didn’t take huge salaries and who valued and developed their workers did I realize that it didn’t have to be this way.
How has growing up in this environment shaped me? One thing is that I just can’t buy the arguments against unions by those who I see profiting with huge stock gains and dividends and who defend the huge disparity of wages between the lowest paid workers in companies and the CEOs of those companies. A 2013 Businessweek article finds that the CEOs of the Standard & Poor top 500 companies make an average of 204 times as much as rank and file employees, and it is nearly 500 times as much in the top 100 companies. It has also sensitized me to the labor exploitation that goes on in the sweatshops that make our clothing and our tablet computers and phones. I guess I just can’t stop thinking about that “little guy”. That’s what happens when you grow up in Youngstown.