Mostly I try to avoid politics. I guess it’s 36 years of having to keep my opinion to myself as a reporter.
So mostly I don’t rant about the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the underpaid, although I feel strongly about all those things. But today is Labor Day and I just can’t keep myself from thinking and writing about unions.
I come from a working class family. We grew up on the American dream — work hard and you can better your own circumstances. That’s what my dad did and that’s the gift he gave his children and he was able to do it because he was brave enough to organize a union in the backshop at the newspaper where he worked. His boss asked him how he was going to feed all those children at home. He organized the union anyway and for the rest of his career as a printer he was active in making sure all workers were treated fairly.
My dad worked in the backshop where all the big printing presses and headline machines lived. Back then it was hot metal and my dad had burn marks on his arm from coming into contact with molten lead. You had to pay attention when you worked in the backshop.
I’ve since been told that it is politically incorrect to refer to his workplace as a backshop, as if I was demoting his work to less than my own as a reporter.
But I never had a backshop guy tell me that. Back when we still had backshop guys at the La Crosse Tribune, I clicked with the printers much more easily than I did with the other reporters. That’s likely because I looked at every one of them as a substitute dad. And it didn’t take long for all of them to learn who my dad was and that I was a union supporter.
So when management set about busting the union at the Tribune, I was the only reporter any of the backshop guys would talk to. I was so obviously on their side that I used to get into shouting matches with other reporters gathered in bars to talk about what was happening in the backshop. That’s when one uppity reporter on her way into management land told me it was disrespectful to refer to that part of the Tribune as the backshop. I told her it was much more disrespectful to bust printers down to $10 an hour if they wanted to keep their jobs. She seemed to think it was a fair deal. To me, it felt like a death sentence being delivered to my dad.
Watching Governor Walker bust the teachers unions with the same amount of disrespect brought those sad days back to me. It’s one of the saddest, sorriest episodes in Wisconsin’s progressive history and it makes me glad that the many teachers in my family all work in Minnesota.
I know many people who read this are likely not supporters of unions and that’s OK, as long as you know what it is you’re not supporting. You’ve likely got this Labor Day as a paid day off. Maybe you don’t work weekends and maybe you have to be paid time and a half whenever you work past 40 hours.
That’s great. But you should find a union guy and give him a hug because he’s the reason why the rest of us get all those benefits. We didn’t earn them and we didn’t get them because of the kindness of our employers. My dad and other backshop guys in a lot of industries earned them for us.
Thanks, Dad. I’m sending a hug your way.