Be union proud


AFT Local 1360

 An old black-and-white print of a smiling Hubert H. Humphrey hangs in the office at the Western Kentucky AFL-CIO Area Council hall in Paducah.

Dubbed "The Happy Warrior," Humphrey was a senator and vice president. The Minnesotan was one of the best friends unions ever had in Washington.

I treasure my paperback copy of The Cause is Mankind: A Liberal Program for Modern America. Printed in 1965, its pages are dog eared and yellowed a bit. But the passage of 54 years has not dimmed its shining words:  

Union organizations have provided for millions of formerly inarticulate citizens the forum in which to hammer out policies affecting the world in which they live and which their children will inherit. And not only have they hammered out policies, but they have developed techniques and resources for implementing those policies.

This is what I find so right about the labor movement. Unions have made democracy and citizenship and the right to petition a reality to millions of men and women. 

If you pack a union card like I do, you ought to thank your lucky stars for liberals like Hubert Humphrey. If it were up to conservatives, we wouldn’t have unions. 

Conservatives are the folks who brought us scabs, labor spies, yellow dog contracts, strikebreaking injunctions, and “right to work” laws. They hired gunmen and sicced the National Guard and even federal troops on unions to break strikes.

They’ve slammed us as communists, un-America and even un-Christian. 

“Unions are one of the organizations leading the world to wickedness,” said Tim Lahaye, who helped found the Moral Majority. “Christians have a responsibility to submit to the authority of their employers since they are designated as part of God’s plan for the exercise of authority on the earth by man,” the Christian Coalition declared.

When conservatives of the sacred and secular worlds laud “free enterprise,” they mean free of unions. Donald Trump and Matt Bevin are proud to call themselves conservatives. Trump is the most anti-union president since Herbert Hoover. Bevin is the most anti-union Kentucky governor in a century.

Anyway, conservatives often claim unions just care about union members. HHH was ever ready to set the record straight.

For example, in his book, he pointed out that unions favor boosting the minimum wage though “very few union members need a Federal minimum wage to protect them.”

Too, unions were—and still are—among the staunchest supporters of Social Security. At 69, I’m old enough to remember when unions championed Medicare, which I’m grateful to be on. (I’m thankful for my Social Security, too.) 

I also recall that many union members joined the civil rights movement. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. saw the labor movement and the civil rights movement as natural allies. 

He declared: 

As I have said many times, and believe with all my heart, the coalition that can have the greatest impact in the struggle for human dignity here in America is that of the Negro and the forces of labor, because their fortunes are so closely intertwined. 

In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, as ‘right-to-work.’ It provides no ‘rights’ and no ‘work.’ Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining… We demand this fraud be stopped. 

The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress. Out of its bold struggles, economic and social reform gave birth to unemployment insurance, old age pensions, government relief for the destitute, and above all new wage levels that meant not mere survival, but a tolerable life. The captains of industry did not lead this transformation; they resisted it until they were overcome. When in the thirties the wave of union organization crested over our nation, it carried to secure shores not only itself but the whole society.

In his book, Humphrey quoted William Schnitzler, AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer from 1955 to 1969: “I find it rather amusing—but also distressing—that labor is sometimes attacked, on the one hand, for being a selfish vested interest, and then, on the other hand—by the very same critics—for injecting itself into issues that are not related only to trade unions and their members, and presuming to speak for underprivileged, unorganized workers. 

“American labor does presume to speak for more than its own membership. It does this partially as a matter of simple enlightened self-interest. We believe that what is good for America is good for American labor. In one area after another, it is clear that our own members will improve their lot in life only as all the people in the community improve theirs.” 

History, the subject I taught in a community college for two dozen years, teaches that unions and liberal government activism have done more to uplift American workers than anything else. Hubert Humphrey was proud to stand foursquare for both. 

“The story of the labor movement needs to be taught in every school in this land,” Humphrey told the 1977 Minnesota AFL-CIO convention. (HHH was also a political science professor.) 

He added, “America is a living testimonial to what free men and women, organized in free democratic trade unions, can do to make a better life. We ought to be proud of it.” 

Indeed we should be proud to be union members and never fail to show our union pride. The "PROUD UNION HOME" sign I got at Laborers Local 1214 hall in Paducah a while back is still stuck inside the front window of our house.