nothin's scarier than a blank page

21 June 2011

While I waste time... Union History!

[Note: After I wrote this and came to a necessary break point, I felt the need to give you forewarning that absolutely no good information about Union History is contained in this post.  It's a prequel of sorts to posts-to-come.  Read at your own risk.]

My DVR messed up my recording of Beck this afternoon.  While I wait until 1:00 a.m. (it's midnight now) to
A. ensure the DVR records the second showing
B. watch A
C. try to transcribe what I missed before passing out
I'm going to spend time on a long overdue personal project -- researching unions.

I'm sick of being taught American Labor History by secondary sources, especially the public sector unions.  For months I've been poking around, picking up bits and pieces, but mostly I've been assaulted with contradictory information from opposing sides.  And none of it gels.  My critical eye doesn't buy any of the narratives.  My critical eye has discerned what I currently believe as truth, but my critical eye does not believe the whole narrative of both the Right or Left or Unions in this matter.  I'm sick of not knowing a more informed palette of information.  My palette is decent, I suppose, but not up to my personal standards.

I don't think there is a clear cut side here, nor do I think that my research will uncover some hidden truth that will shut everyone up forever and ever.  I do think that if I'm going to espouse opinions about the subject, not to mention be a responsible citizen of Wisconsin, that I oughta do my own homework.  (And I do wish more Wisconsinites would also do their own homework... SIGH...)

I suppose this is Post No. One in a presumed series of "Hey, today I learned this factoid about unions that seems Incredibly! Important! right now but may merely be exposing my previous ignorance."

To be fair, it's not like before the collective bargaining kerfuffle in Wisconsin the only thing I knew about unions was The Simpsons episode in which Homer fights Mr. Burns to get a dental plan for Lisa. I had an incredibly idealistic view of unions for the greater portion of my 35 years.  Did this have something to do with seeing Newsies in the theater during my freshman year of high school?  Perhaps. (Actually, I honestly think it did.  And I think that movie impacted my views more than reading The Jungle the year before.)

I do not come from union stock.  I was raised in 80s suburbia in a town with an actual public gazebo.  Yes, we had our brushes with infamy, such as the football coach who faked his own death to promote team spirit (ask me and I'll tell you the tale) or the trio of jocks that tried to form a chapter of the KKK or the writing teacher who was jailed for inappropriate relations with students...  But we were the kind of town where, in 1992, hats were outlawed in school for fear of gang problems infiltrating our borders from Chicago (an hour away).

I'm fourth generation retail.  My great-grandfather opened an eponymous department store in the 1914, and it was bought out by his son and then his son (my father).  By the time I was around to see it, it was a Men's/Women's clothing boutique.  I'm sure this informed my view of the world in ways that I've yet to realize, but as a child it only meant that everyone knew my last name.  In my teens, it meant two important things:
A. If I didn't want to wear "old lady bras", I had to buy them myself at the mall.
B. I learned the tricks owners used to catch shoplifters (e.g. the behaviors to avoid if you wanted to successfully partake in this horrid behavior), and I used this information to my advantage during my regrettable shoplifting phase.  (Don't tell my dad.  I've 'fessed up to many things from my youth, but I can't bear to break his heart with this one.)

I was a member of the outcast class in high school.  I wasn't an outcast; the school was clearly divided into two camps, and I was within the hierarchy of the conforming non-conformists.  I rooted for the underdog.  I understood that hard work should not be penalized, but my understanding of hard work, penalization/reward, and justice was largely informed by the Freak/Jock divide in my high school and the administration's treatment of those on either side and within the divide.  One kid ditches school for two weeks and gets three "Breakfast Club" detentions; another forges hall passes to get out of study hall (to practice music in the piano lab and discuss writing with a teacher) and gets the same punishment.  In my teenage brain, these were great injustices.  And, in my teenage brain, the idea of unions was like imagining a justice force taking over my high school and, with the wave of a wand, changing the people who created the injustice.  Not changing the system, but changing the people.  In some weird way, I think that's a notable distinction.

In college, I relished learning about events like the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and Haymarket Massacre/Riot.  Hell, I wasn't taught about these events, I chose to learn about them and teach my peers.  Assignment: give a speech about [something with social movement theory, I don't remember the assignment].  I discovered the Haymarket Events.  I studied them.  I went through the archives.  I gave a speech in which I taught my peers about anarchism, labor fights, and The Man where the activists were the heroes.  I visited a friend in Chicago and made her take me two El trains and a bus ride to the actual, physical location of the Haymarket Event.  I laid down on the gritty Chicago street, curled around a plaque memorializing the event, and I had her take my picture.

I wasn't born into or raised in a union home, but somehow or another, despite my white bread town and Southern Baptist college, I was enamored by unions and workers' rights movements.  My progressive sister, who attended pretty much the 100% opposite college (in terms of political environment) was the first person who ever made me think twice about my glorification of unions.  In my mid-twenties I made an offhand comment about amazing unions, and she said, "I don't think anyone's ever thought Thank Be To The Unions, at least not now."  Or something like that.  She didn't change my mind, but that was the first time I can remember hearing an anti-union sentiment.

Since then, I've heard many anit-union sentiments.  Prior to the Whole Wisconsin Thing, I had a conversation with my father in which he imparted his opinions that union contracts -- and, more importantly, abuses in loopholes of pensions policies, etc -- were bankrupting IL (his home citizen-state).  That was my first insight into some of the anti-union arguments.  That, oddly enough, was about a month before the Wisconsin protests erupted.

When the protests erupted, I was diligent in my research... my research of current events, the literal text of bills, the numbers as quoted and analyzed by myriad sources, etc.  And I relied on my critical thinking skills as well as my personal knowledge of labor history from my college days.  With my eyes glued to Fox, MSNBC, local broadcasts, local newspapers, blogs, Facebook, and Twitter, I had little time available to research union history.

Point of clarification.  I'm not talking about union history as in how we got from here to here.  I'm not talking about fingers being chopped off in factories.  I'm not talking about the lineage of the head of the AFL-CIO.  For now, I'm talking about basic union history.

I live in Madison, WI.  At times it feels like a day doesn't pass without seeing a "Like your weekend? Thank a union!" bumper sticker -- and that was before the recent mess.

That's the history I'm talking about...  where did that "weekend law" come from?  To which union is it credited?  How did it get on the books?  To whom should we specifically thank?

See, it wasn't until I started asking questions that it became butt-in-your-face clear to me that there was a difference between public-sector and private-sector unions.  Now, I feel ashamed to admit such a thing, but give me a little leeway.  A few years ago, no one said a peep about unions in my neck of the woods, and I was busy consuming myself with roller derby politics.  Even now, my gauge of public knowledge is totally unknown.  I have friends on Facebook who (lovingly) threaten to defriend me for talking too much politics -- not for my take on politics, just for talking about it at all.  (Ergo, to some extent, my entrance into the blogosphere.)  I have no idea what is obvious and what is not, especially when it comes to union history.

I suspect that I am not alone.  Actually, I suspect that many don't know nearly as much as they think they do about labor history.  Case in point -- the continual Hitler references to supposedly hating unions, while he espoused in Mein Kampf that unions were essential.

So here's what I want to know.  When I say I'm investigating American Labor History, here's what I'm looking into...  to use a Simpsons phrase: Who shot who in the what now?  I want to look at the origins of unions.  I want to look at what events and union activities were specifically related to the workplace changes that we now take as The Way Things Are.  Who/what/why/where led to the 40 hour work week?  What did different political leaders think about unions?  What was the difference between private and public unions "back in the day"?

I want to know these things for myself, and I want to create bullet-point lists of information (with links to resources) of non-partisan Events! That! Happened!.

I want to educate myself.  I am open to learning information that goes against my current views of public-sector unions, and I am open to integrating that into my world-view, even if that means that fundamentals must be changed.  I know that most of my friends are beyond re-education, and I have no intention of trying to re-educate those unwilling to learn new information that contradicts their worldview.  I supposed I plan to post my bits and pieces of revelations here in hopes that someone stumbles across this blog and the information I find is new to them, and it might be of use to them in some way or another.  I suppose.  And I suppose that I will be typing bits and pieces as I find it, with the intention of later writing some whammy of a post that incorporates whatever I've personally assessed from my research.  And ya can take it or leave it.

I figure that it is my duty to myself to research.  To learn.  To know rather than to just believe.  But I also figure that it is my duty to attempt to share what I've learned... Since I don't have people in my own life with whom that sharing is not a wasted effort, I will post it here.  Perhaps someone will find it useful for themselves...

I dunno.  Really, I just know that there is a great divide between
A. my highly idealized view of specific labor struggles
B. what the unions tell me
C. what the Right tells me
D. Newsies

Up until now, I've depended on critical thinking and internet-available current events documents to inform my opinions.  I think it's damn well time that I dig a little deeper...  damn well time that I consult primary sources from a century ago to tell me the real tale of who shot who in the what now... damn well time that I allow myself to believe fanciful narratives to be what they are and look for the easily masked truth within those narratives.

And -- oh! -- I see that Beck is not only on (and, WOO!, recording) but has caught up to where this afternoon's transcription left off).  My plan was to write a small ditty about "Hey, I guess I'm gonna start researching union shit" -- and then begin actually researching tonight, perhaps posting a few bites.  Instead, I spent an hour writing this, and the union research will wait another day.

Kudos for you if you read this whole thing.  Please feel free to leave a comment.  It's not that I care about people commenting for commenting's sake... I just find it interesting strange that anyone would even want to read what I write.  And to read til the end of a post like this -- you're either a freak or we're kindred spirits.  So, say hello, if ya wanna.  That's my invitation, but it's your liberty to do as you damn well please.

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