For the first 10 years of my post high school employment I was part of a labor union. During that time I spent some considerable time serving in positions in that organization hoping to better the lot of all the workers that surrounded me. At one point I came close to becoming a paid representative for the state association I belonged to, but for better or worse I decided that wasn't what I wanted to do.
At the end of that time, I was promoted into management, and suddenly instead of sitting on the labor side of the negotiation table, I was on the side that had to deal with budgets and employee problems that I had never faced before. It was an eye opener.
Then I went into business for myself and having no employees to worry about or members to represent the union vs. management debate became moot for me, except when I dealt with customers of my business who were embroiled in such problems.
As of late my employment has come to rest at this newspaper. A different world from what I have been in before. A medium sized publishing company with no union; labor problems are handled between the individual employees and management.
But even after all those years, dealing on both sides of the table, I had never equated the workrights I have enjoyed my whole life with actions past union activists had been involved in. Stupidity on my part entirely.
The service and sacrifice union acitivists have provided in the past, could well be equated with the service and sacrifice that military men and women have made in our country's history. The wars they fought were different, but there were casualties just the same.
Carbon County has seen it's share of labor unrest over the years. Labor disputes in many of the mines turned into out right brawls at times and even deaths resulted in some cases. The concessions that unions won from management were not unstained by blood.
Many of the rights I have today, in a non-union workplace I only enjoy because of what these people, and what others around the country sacrificed in their lives. They lost money, time and sometimes their jobs over my ultimate right to have a decent, healthy and safe place to work. Some of them lost their lives.
Many people think that unions in our country are dead. Many feel that they are unneeded; that today's safety regulations and labor laws protect workers to such an extent that some feel the day for the labor organization as it presently stands is over
But I totally disagree with that premise. In fact unions are as important today as they have ever been; not only to win new battles for those that work in the trenches, but to hold onto what all of us enjoy because of their past actitivities.
As I did research on the article I wrote last week about the visit of the United Mine Workers of America president Cecil Roberts to Carbon County, I began to realize how much I owe those who came before me. The major events of the labor movement are punctuated by triumph and often accompanied by tragedy. I honestly believe that most employers, large and small have always wanted what was best for employees; but sometimes the quest for profits leaves management in the proverbial forest not being able to see the trees.
But it also seems there have always been a core of employers, often large ones with a lot of power that crushed the common guy and didn't care one bit what happened to him. Unions were the great equalizer; but they were a pry bar which often cost the membership dearly before their force came into play.
It's easy to forget those who came before us. Whether one believes in evolution or not, we have a lot in common with many of the other living organisms on this planet. We require food, water and oxygen. We live a short life and then we die. But there are a few things that separate us from the other animals and one of those is history. A dog, no matter how smart, doesn't have a way to remember any generation except possibly his parents. We have the ability to record and remember the history of our past, and we should learn from it. Part of that past is what unions have done for everyone who works in today's business environment, regardless of position. The history of the labor movement needs to be better imparted to those in school; few people, even college graduates can relate the facts about the union movement in this country. They can tell you about great inventors and industrialists like Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. But few know who John L. Lewis was or when important labor legislation was approved by congress. Yet those events impact the average persons day almost as much as the invention of the light bulb or the mass production of automobiles.
To believe that we would have the same rights as employees today if unions had never existed is extremely naive. Likewise to believe if they went away we could hold onto those hard earned rights is also ingenuous.
This year Memorial Day took on special meaning because of 9-11. Labor Day is there to honor past heros too; gallant individuals of a different kind, but just as brave.