Talking union

Talking union

With nowhere to turn, workers seek the only protection available

By Lionel Rolfe 03/25/2014

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There’s a curious thing about talking union. It’s not cool. Unions ain’t cool. They are so uncool you’ll notice almost nobody writes about them. They ain’t trendy, but they’re the coming thing. True, most of the great folk songs about workers organizing are from yesteryear. But ignoring something doesn’t mean it’s nonexistent. No doubt there are more songs yet to be written.  

Despite what one might think, Hollywood is not the only economic driver of Los Angeles. The Los Angeles area is one of the world’s greatest industrial areas, comparable to the Ruhr in Germany or the vast industrial areas of Shanghai. There’s a lot of organizing in the city these days. Some even dream of organizing Wal-Mart and McDonald’s.

For many years, Harry Bernstein was the labor writer for the Los Angeles Times, and while his politics were distinctly middle-of-the-road, he knew his subject. During the glory years of the Times, he provided generally fair and knowledgeable coverage of labor issues, which was amazing considering that the newspaper had been known as the most anti-labor rag in the world.

Bernstein was a good antidote to the newspaper’s history, and it also strongly suggested the owners really were trying to build up the old paper into something great and important. Now Bernstein is gone, and the Times apparently has no one left who can or would be allowed to write intelligently about labor. 

When I went to work at the San Francisco Chronicle in 1969, I felt particularly proud to receive my Newspaper Guild card at the age of 16. I still remember talking with “Slim” Connelly, the first president of the Los Angeles Newspaper Guild. Slim, needless to say, was not slim. Quite the opposite.

I loved reading Heywood Broun, the first national president of the Newspaper Guild in 1933. Broun was a Depression Era columnist who famously feuded with Westbrook Pegler, a writer who was as right-wing as Broun was left. The writers of those times were masters of invective, as well as beautifully polished prose which brought one to whatever scene they were describing more vividly than any modern television news crew could.

My love of unions came early. When I was still in junior high school, I used to deliver the Long Beach Press-Telegram. I was up at 5 a.m., folding newspapers and pedaling my way around town. I had a history of being a newspaper boy. Before the Press-Telegram, in my West Side neighborhood I delivered the old Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News, owned by Manchester Boddy, who died in Pasadena in 1967 at the age of 75. Boddy’s estate in La Cañada Flintridge, Descanso Gardens, was bequeathed as a floral garden to the county of Los Angeles.

I began delivering the Daily News, which published nearby on Pico Boulevard, because my father didn’t want me growing up soft and lazy. What my dad did not count on was my discovery of class struggle. At his most left, dad was a middle-of-the-road Roosevelt Democrat. Later in life, he was a Reagan Democrat. Like Bernstein, he wasn’t an ideologue, but as a workers’ compensation appeals court judge he knew class struggle wasn’t just an ideological term, but one that described a way of life.
I read lots of Charles Dickens and Jack London and I saw the faces of young men all over the world peering out from dreary factory windows, and mine shafts, and ships, and agricultural fields. I saw those factories in England when I took a train from London to Weymouth, where George II kept his navy. We passed rows and rows of dreary brick workhouses from Victorian times, haunting in their ugliness and oppressiveness.

At the Press-Telegram, I determined to organize the other paper boys. My boss was a large, red-faced Irishman with 12 kids of his own, and they all worked with him. He came to my father and urged him to rein me in. He told my dad that if he couldn’t deal with the situation, the newspaper proprietors said they would fire him. My dad the judge understood class struggle, but he had grown up in the Depression relatively comfortable. That’s because his father had been in the “wholesale liquor business” in Minnesota with old Joe Kennedy during Prohibition. Ben Papa was my nice old grandfather who doted on me. His greatest joy in retirement was polishing the magnificent chrome on his Chrysler, and then taking us to the drug store for a five-cent malt and a five-cent Saturday Evening Post.

My dad forbade me from continuing my organizing, but it taught me a lesson — I had some ability as an organizer. I’m a shop steward for my union at work today for a Los Angeles news service, which is somewhat allied with what’s left of the old Newspaper Guild. In the case of my first organizing attempts at the Press-Telegram, I capitulated to my dad. I think we got a symbolic raise, and I got a tour of the city room on Pine Street, where I was allowed to write a pro-Adlai Stevenson letter to the editor. That’s when the ink first got in my veins.

I knew that I probably did not have to look forward to a life as a member of the industrial proletariat. But I felt perilously close to it when an editor at my current employer used to constantly remind me of the tenets of true industrial journalism. “We’re producing Chevrolets and McDonald’s here. We want all those stories rolling off the assembly line looking the same.” That was his constant refrain.

Now I know this is a far from perfect world, and labor unions are not all run by perfect gentlemen and gentlewomen. The father of an ex-wife of mine owned a furniture factory in Gardena that employed about 100 workers. My wife, writer and musician Nigey Lennon had worked for her dad — and he had run afoul of his straw boss, a real white guy, a Southerner by background, who was a Baptist minister on the side and also continuously made racist jokes about the mostly Mexicans who worked for him. He also would look at me. I don’t recall him using the term “kike,” but he liked using his hands to indicate I had a big nose; a lovely fellow, indeed. 

One day a man named Tony showed up and announced that he was organizing the factory for the Teamsters. My ex-father-in-law wailed that he had always run a nice establishment where everyone was treated like family. He was mostly blind to his straw boss’ considerable failures, not the least of which was a nasty habit of stealing furniture out the back door all the while talking about how we should all accept Jesus.

Now Tony was not a gentleman. He was a Native American with a rugged, red face. He wore loud plaid jackets in which he conspicuously carried a weapon. He liked to brag and wink and show off that weapon. My former father-in-law begged his daughter and me to help him write messages to his workers, telling them why they should not join the union. And to us, he said Tony and the Teamster were corrupt. Probably, we said. But your workers are demeaned and insulted by your straw boss. He’s lucky he hasn’t been stabbed and his body dumped in the alley at the rear of the factory.

The Teamsters got in and Tony was around a lot. When they negotiated, my father-in-law said they went into a room and watched a ballgame, just so the guys would believe the union was fighting for them. Instead, an envelope full of cash was handed to Tony. He was pocketing part of the money he had negotiated with the boss. Still, Tony gave his workers some clout, even if they only negotiated a corrupt, sweetheart deal. And the workers now had some real say over the fundamentalist straw boss who hated Jews and Mexicans.

And that’s when I learned a basic lesson. When you talk union, the bosses aren’t allowed to totally screw you over. It’s not so much the raises, which are mostly paltry, although more than the bosses would offer on their own. It’s the dignity you have by having some real clout as a worker and not being treated as nothing more than a wage slave.

When you’re in the union and you talk to the boss, it’s nice to know that you’ve got a Tony at your side. Tony, by the way, was later shot to death in Delano where he was trying to organize farm workers for the Teamsters. 

Lionel Rolfe is the author of a number of books, all available at Amazon’s Kindle Store. Follow him at twitter.com/lionelrolfe.

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