In which I have Things To Say.

This is not a post about the Triangle Fire.

This is not a post about suffrage, or equality, or family history.

This is not a post about the perils of unrestricted capitalism, of individualism run amok, or of anti-labor sentiment spilling into violence.

But all of these things are part of it. I am part of it.

This is a story of what unions mean to me.


My great-grandfathers and their fathers worked union jobs, in union shops, while their wives ran the farms, raised the children, made ends meet. They came to this country, all of them, hoping for more. And many of them fought for unions, for socialism, for their children, for the rights that every person deserves. With grade-school educations, they watched their children finish high school. That's what unions gave them.

My grandfathers both worked railroad union jobs. Their pensions are union-won pensions, and their politics are Labor Democrat, with the flaws and the triumphs that label implies. Unions have given them a political identity that has outlasted the strikes, the jobs, and over half a century of history.

My father was a trucker, and then a shop steward, before becoming a manager who wears a uniform and works the factory floor as much as any of his employees. Every day, my brother works a union job. Every day, my husband works a union job.

Unions built my hometown, and when the union jobs started to disappear, so did the city I remember. It's dying, fading away into history, cracking into a shadow of what it was. It is the Rust Belt, writ small.

But my grandmothers worked union jobs, driving a school bus and serving school lunches. My mother worked a union job for twenty years, taking care of other people's newborn children.

My sister's first job was a union job. She finished graduate school, working a union job. Her son went to daycare with the money from a union job.

The women I come from didn't ask for leisure or extravagance or special treatment. But they expected to have enough if they worked a fair day's labor, and when they didn't, when there were layoffs and cutbacks and excuses, they expected the union to help.

They expected more, whether it was the right to vote or equal pay or family leave or the choice for themselves to raise children or wait. Each of them, each generation, wanted things a little better for the next, and for as long as my family history goes back, unions have been a part of that. We are union, even when we aren't.

My first paycheck job included union dues. So did my second, and my third. Since then, I have worked for a city, a state, and the federal government. Every job I have, union or not, is better than it would be if unions didn't exist.

Every time I hear (or see) someone complaining that unions don't do enough, that unions aren't needed, that unions are obsolete, that unions interfere with business, I know that whatever we have done, my family and millions like it, whatever we have whispered, argued, shouted, it isn't enough. I know that not everyone knows Lowell, Centralia, the Haymarket, the Triangle Factory. That not everyone remembers Gompers, Debs, Moyer, Robins. That not everyone can tell the story of American labor in a hundred years of fighting and working and sweating and reaching, always, for a better life, for more, for fairness and justice and enough to survive.

There is no union for my profession, but I still reap the benefits gained by union members, benefits that spread out into the system until we think of them as constants, as natural rights. Unlike cutting taxes for businesses and the rich, union successes really do create gains that trickle down. Unlike natural rights (or perhaps exactly like them) these are gains that require our repeated, vocal commitment.

Unions are not supposed to give us everything we want. They are not supposed to overthrow the system. They are not supposed to do all the work, while we reap the benefits. Like any other social entity, they will only accomplish the goals for which we are willing to speak, to stand up, to take to the streets and the squares and the state capitols to defend. Unions are us, the people who labor and hope and ask that a country be more than profit and ledgers and the shiny trappings of capitalism.

Unions are supposed to get us what we need, if we give them our full support. Union demands gave my grandfathers and grandmothers schooling, instead of factory work. Union demands gave my father unemployment insurance when the economy tanked and there was no other money to pay the mortgage. Union demands gave my parents health insurance, to keep me alive when my lungs drew tight and every breath whistled like drafty windows.

Because of unions, I can choose to work overtime for more pay. I can choose not to work overtime. I can expect my workplace to be safe on a daily basis. I can expect a contract that lays out my rights and responsibilities, and those of my employer. I can expect days off, and regular breaks. If I get sick or injured or fired I can expect help from my government, even if it isn't enough to be comfortable. I can expect a minimum wage. All because of unions.

I can expect that my nephew will not have to quit the sixth grade and go to work. I can expect that my parents won't have to choose between working until they die and starving.

I can expect fire alarms and escape routes and enough light and ventilation and space to walk from my desk to the exit. I can expect that if the building catches on fire, the fire doors will not be locked. The fire doors will not open inward. The fire doors will exist.

And so we return to the beginning. One hundred years ago, 146 people died horribly, jumping from windows and tumbling from a fire escape, toppling into elevator shafts as the flames roared close, burning to death where they stood. They died because they were locked into a factory that demanded the exclusion of the union in exchange for employment.

But it isn't the fire that makes those 146 lives important. The fire, the tragedy that has littered my feeds today (but not enough, still not enough), that fire was only the tipping point, the moment that everyone realized unions were only asking for the bare minimum, for the things that anyone had a right to expect. Those balls of fabric, flame, and fear were people, women and girls and children and men. They were horrible, and galvanizing, and the coda to the story we ought to tell.

The year before, garment workers from the Triangle Factory started a picket line that grew into a strike that became thousands upon thousands of workers, all asking for more. They stood in the cold and the rain, against beatings and lies and imprisonment. They stood, and they demanded, and they were heroes in that moment, worth remembering for that bravery. For claiming for themselves, as workers and as women, some measure of justice.

We wouldn't have remembered them. Not for that. But we should.

That should be what we remember—that they stood up. That they fought, and the longer they fought the more the city stood with them. That when the bosses paid thugs to beat the strikers, when the police watched and allowed it, when the arrests and the workhouse and the supercilious magistrates didn't end the strike, other women joined in. Women stood on the picket lines and they spoke to the papers and they were more powerful, together, than they perhaps imagined. It was a strike begun by a woman, championed by women, for women's rights and workers' rights.

And we should remember, we should never, ever forget, that months later, when those women went back to work, the Triangle was one of the few shops that wasn't union. The locked doors, the empty fire hoses, the useless buckets of water in a cramped tinder box of a factory, the bent and broken fire escape, were all the result of someone cutting costs. Of saving money, at the expense of lives. Of the bottom line.

Unions are in my bones, my history, my identity. They are wound so tightly though the roots of my family tree that there's no difference between the labor movement and the names I've been given, the names of my great-great-grandmothers and their daughters.

Everything I am, I owe to a union. Everything I've had the chance to do, the education and the thinking and the writing and the teaching, has happened because somewhere, years ago, someone decided that the time had come to take a stand. To make demands. To say, as loudly as possible, that good intentions are nothing, absolutely nothing without contracts and solidarity and the will to walk out. Even if it doesn't always work. Especially then, because if it doesn't work this time, maybe it will the next. Hope, more than anything, is what unions mean to me.

Don't tell me that the days for collective bargaining are past. If workers don't stand together, then they won't stand at all.



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