When my great grandfather died, my 8 year old grandfather went to work along with he older brothers in the coal mines of Pennsylvania. It wasn’t a union job. And it wasn’t a safe job. But he did it to support his family. He saw men die in the mines. And decades later, he watched his brothers die young from black lung.
In his early 20’s my grandfather got into a free training program, and became a welder.
He got a union job in the steel industry, and they took good care of him. He worked with them for decades, until he was in an industrial accident and his leg was crushed. Unable to work as a welder after the accident, the union trained him to be a draftsman, and he was a draftsman until the day he retired.
My grandfather loved the union. The union changed his life, and gave him opportunities that his brothers never had. He was a smart man, and a hard worker, who was cheated out of a childhood and cheated out of an education. But the union took care of him. They offered him protections and opportunities that non-unionized industries would not.
From the time I was a child, I remember my grandfather telling me he would be proud of me, whatever I did. So long as I wasn’t a scab.
His daughter, my mom, was a teacher. She was part of a teacher’s union that fought to protect the excellent health benefits that my family always enjoyed. She supported the union, and went on strike with them when contract negotiations broke down, and future benefits (not her benefits, but benefits for those hired after her) were threatened.
My dad was a college professor, and was part of a union as well. He hated his union, for many of the reasons that we see teacher unions criticized. In an era in which tenured professors still represented the majority of teaching staff, my father was critical of a system in which he saw colleagues who he believed were lazy or who were not particularly skilled teachers, whose jobs were protected. I honestly don’t know enough about how much of it was tenure and how much of it was the union, but my father hated his union.
I have mixed feelings about professional unions, as opposed to labor unions. But I feel very clear about labor.
As long as we don’t have adequate laws to protect laborers from profit-hungry corporations, workers need protections. Sadly, union membership has become a sort of elite class unto itself. The vast majority of laborers do not enjoy union protection.