Monday, September 04, 2006

Labor Day

One morning in 1948 my father got up, shaved, got dressed and ready to go to work. By noon, he was dead of tetanus. He had been going to work for several days with swollen lymph nodes and in pain.

He was working for Bethlehem Steel, in Antioch, California. He had stepped on a rusty nail at work and been given a tetanus booster that day. The doctor who saw him at the hospital wrote cerebral hemorrhage on his death certificate. The only reason we ever knew the truth was that his body was shipped to Modesto, my parents' home town. My Great-aunt Julie had been friends with the mortician since they had gone to school together. He called her and told her that "this boy's death certificate is wrong. The company is trying to cover this up." In 1948, the company owned the town and the doctor. Protecting the company from a lawsuit for dispensing out-of-date tetanus booster came before serving the powerless widow who paid your bill.

When people hear this story, they can't understand why on earth a man who was that sick would get up and try to go to work. Or how a company could own a town, control a physician in private practice. And the reason that they can't understand it is labor unions. It is because of labor unions that when you and I are sick, we can stay home and our families don't have to make do without that day's income. In 1948 people didn't get "paid for not working". There were no sick days. There was no health insurance. There was only the simple, stark reality of a day's pay for a day's work. It is only because of labor unions that towns in the United States are rarely owned so openly by corporations these days.

Today, when you celebrate Labor Day in whatever way you do, be grateful for labor unions. When you barbecue for your relatives or go to that sale or just take a picnic to the park with your kids, remember that all of the benefits you and I have as workers are due to the work and persistence of labor unions.

They didn't just make changes for their members, but for all of us. I have never belonged to a union and yet I have all of the benefits that they have fought for. And none of the benefits that I have were given without their struggle.

12 comments:

saz said...

My dad also worked for Bethlehem Steel but in South San Francisco. He was a union member during some of their longest and hardest strikes. People lost their lives fighting for benefits we take for granted. I was in the union when I first started with the telephone company. I was promoted to a management job and soon REALLY understood the necessity of unions. Unions are the reason there is consistent treatment of employees. A union shop is just as beneficial for management as it is for non- management.

Happy Labor Day and thanks for reminding us of it's history.

Ginnie said...

This is the first time that I've visited your blog...and I'm hooked.
I agree with so much of what you say and my husband, who had many, many Dr's over the years always said they were "the hired help and not to be revered!"

Potato Print said...

Well said, well told. What a sad story! Thank you for the reminder of the sacrifices that labor made in the past so that we have fair working conditions in the present. Now let me go outside and flame up my grill.

naomi dagen bloom said...

in my family the IDEA of unions was central to our belief system. we'd listen to recorded songs like "there once was a union maid," knew their words, supported the struggle. though my parents had become white collar professionals, they carried the history of the early 20th century struggles.

becoming ahistorical is one of the dangers of our american times. thank you and saz for reminding us.

wally said...

I retired from a career with the Postal Service. I couldn't have made it all those years without the union. The Postal Service was the most toxic work environment I'd ever experienced.I would hate to see the inhuman treatment of the employees if the Unions suddenly disappeared. But there is a world wide neo-conservative movement to bust the unions.

Piece of Work said...

I agree with you, and this is nice reminder, on this day. I'm so sorry about your dad, how completely senseless.

jay lassiter said...

Imagine my astonishment when i learned at the timeclock that i was getting time and a half.

You could have knocked me over with a feather.

jay lassiter said...

I got time and a half today.
I was pleasantly astonished.

Joy Des Jardins said...

Such a sad story of the times about your dad Joycelyn...but quite common as you say....so heartbreaking for your family...and certainly for you. Yes, we should be very grateful for Labor Unions and their benefits to us all. Thanks for reminding us about it today.

colleen said...

Well said, poignant, especially considering it being Labor Day. I come from a working class background and am all for labor rights!

meno said...

Hi there, thanks for visiting my blog. I spent a bit of time poking around here. This looks like a good read. I'll be back.

And what a poignant story for labor day. Thank you.

Tabor said...

So so true. My dad was a member of the AFL-CIO and I even won a little college money in a writing contest they had.