(Imaging a possible conversation between friends.  More conversations to follow)

I ran into my always skeptical friend, Albert, the other morning.  A bunch of old guys like myself gather most mornings in a back corner of the neighborhood burger joint (you know, the one with the arches).

Albert (he wanted to be ‘Albert,’ never just plain ‘Al’) was seated next to me on the bench.  While the other guys argued about how badly our Brewers would do in the National League this year, Albert chose to chide me about my big obsession: labor history.

“See you got you big shindig next Saturday, that labor history group of yours.*  Seems like a waste of time to me,” he said.  There was a distinct derisive tone in the question.  I knew he was baiting me.

“I like history, so what?” I answered, hoping he’d go away.

“Hell, unions are just about dead anyway.  What good is studying their history doing?”

“Unions are not dead, Albert,” I said emphatically.  “And history can tell us lots about how unions can bounce back.”

“You’re dreaming, Kenny,” he said, laughing.

“Unions have been facing times like these in the past, and they came back bigger and stronger than ever,” I argued.

“Hah!” he laughed, so loud that the rest of the guys stopped talking baseball and turned their ears toward us.

“Albert, you better not wish the unions would die,” piped up Jorge Jimenez, who retired recently after 30 years as a city sanitation crew worker.  “Just ‘cause you work in that nonunion shop, doesn’t mean that you didn’t benefit from my union or Kenny’s or Charlie’s here.  You only got raises when we did, and how are you doing now?”

Albert looked at Jorge for minute, considering how to answer.  “I’m doing OK.  Mr. Hollingsworth looks after us.”

“I bet,” Jorge said, a touch of irony in his voice.  “When did you get a raise last?”

Albert grew red.  We all knew he hadn’t had a raise in several years because he’d been complaining about every little increase in the price of coffee and danish pastry.

Jorge, of course, was no dummy.  He liked answers, too.

“Albert’s question still is worth answering Kenny,” Jorge said.  “What good is studying history?”

“History can tell us lots,” I replied.  “First of all, back in the 1920s, a time they called the ‘Roaring 20s.’  It was only ‘roaring’ for the rich and the bosses.  Workers were sucking hind teat and unions had been beaten back badly.”

Jorge nodded, saying, “My grandpa told me about those days.  He came to this country from Mexico then, looking for work and all he could do was grunt work in the fields at starvation pay.”

“Well workers got their backs up by 1930 with the start of the Depression and they marched and rallied and went on strike,” I said.  “And they got involved in politics, too, helping to elect Franklin D. Roosevelt and lots of Democrats and we got the New Deal.

“Because of all the solidarity among workers, FDR realized he’d have to give us a chance to air our grievances and win equality.  So he and the Democrats gave us the Wagner Act, or the National Labor Relations Act, that gave working people the right to get together and bargain collectively as a union for better pay and benefits.”

Albert was not to be convinced.  “So what,” he said.  “That was then. Now is now and times are different.”

“Yes,” I agreed.  “Times are different, but we can still learn from how workers got together and created a better life for all.”

“I think it came because of the solidarity of workers then,” Jorge said.

“Right you are,” I replied.  “When workers can stick together, there’s no telling what we can do, particularly with a union.”

“You guys are dreaming,” Albert said.

“Believe what you want, Al,” I said, deliberately using the nickname he hated.  “You can continue to labor away in your ignorance at pay that doesn’t really equal what you’re worth.”

“I’m not ignorant,” he protested.

“I wouldn’t know about that,” I said.  “Bye guys, I need to go.  Lawn needs to be fertilized today.”  — Ken Germanson

  • The big shindig mentioned is the 36th Annual Conference of the Wisconsin Labor History Society to be held from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday, April 8, at the Madison Labor Temple, Madison WI.  The topic is: “Building Workers’ Power:  When Labor’s Under Attack, How Do We Fight Back?”  For information about the conference and to register, click here.