Worker Rights: No Balls, No Gains

In looking back on growing up, I always remember 1957 and 1958 as “the two good years.” They were the only years my working class redneck family ever caught a real break in their working lives, and that break came because of organized labor. After working as a farm hand, driving a hicktown taxi part time, and a dozen catch-as-catch-can jobs, my father found himself owning a used semi-truck and hauling produce for a Teamster unionized trucking company called Blue Goose.

Daddy was making more money than he’d ever made in his life, about $4,000 a year. The median national household income at the time was $5,000, mostly thanks to America’s unions. After years of moving from one rented dump to another, we bought a modest home ($8,000) and felt like we might at last be getting some traction in achieving the so-called “American Dream.” Yup, Daddy was doing pretty good for a backwoods boy who’d quit school in the sixth or seventh grade — he was never sure, which gives some idea how seriously the farm boy took his attendance at the one-room school we both attended in our lifetimes.

This was the golden age of both trucking and of unions. Thirty-five percent of American labor — 17 million working folks — were union members, and it was during this period the American middle class was created. The American middle class has never been as big as advertised, but if it means the middle third income-wise, then we actually had one at the time. But whatever it means, one third of working folks, the people who busted their asses day in and day out making the nation function, were living better than they ever had. Or at least had the opportunity to do so.

From the Depression through World War II the Teamsters Union became a powerful entity, and a popular one too because of such things as its pledge never to strike during the war or a national emergency. President Roosevelt even had a special designated liaison to the Teamsters. But power and money eventually drew the usual assortment of lizards, and by the mid-fifties the Teamsters Union had become one corrupt pile of shit at the top level. So rotten even the mob enjoyed a piece of the action. The membership, ordinary guys like my dad, was outraged and ashamed, but rendered powerless by the crooked union bosses in the big cities.

My old man was no great follower of the news or current events, but he tried to keep up with and understand Teamster developments. Which was impossible since his reading consisted of anti-union Southern newspapers, and the television coverage of Teamster criminality, including murders, and the ongoing courtroom trials.

All this left him conflicted. His Appalachian Christian upbringing defined the world in black and white, with no gray areas. Inside he felt he should not be even remotely connected with such vile things as the Teamsters were associated with. And he sometimes prayed for guidance in the matter. On the other hand, there was the pride and satisfaction in providing for his family in ways previously impossible. He’d built a reasonable working class security for those times and that place in West Virginia. Being a Teamster certainly made that possible. But for damned sure no one had handed it to him. He drove hi s guts out to get what he had.

There were rules, and log books and all the other crap that were supposed to assure drivers got enough rest, and ensure road safety and fairness for the truckers. Rural heartland drivers saw it for the bullshit it was, but it was much better paying bullshit. For a little guy hauling produce from Podunk USA to the big cities, it still came down to heartburn, hemorrhoids, and longer hauls and longer hours than most driver’s falsified log books showed. And sometimes way too much Benzedrine, or “bennies.”

Bennies were a type of speed commonly used by truckers back then because of the grueling hauls. As a former doper who has done bennies, I can avow they are some gritty nerve jagging shit. Their only virtue is making you wide awake and jumpy, and after you’ve been awake on them a couple days, which many drivers were, crazier than a shithouse rat. Nearly every truck stop sold bennies under the counter. Once while hallucinating on bennies, Daddy nearly wiped out a roadside joint. He recalled “layin’ on the jake brake, down shifting, and watching hundreds of the witches like in The Wizard of Oz come down out of the sky in the dark.” Somehow he got 30,000=2 0pounds back onto the road while several folks inside the diner were pissing themselves in the windowside booths.

My daddy ran the eastern seaboard in a 12-wheeler — there were no 18-wheelers yet. It had polished chrome and bold letters that read, “BLUE GOOSE LINE.” Parked alongside our little asbestos-sided house, I’d marvel at the magic of those bold words, the golden diamond and sturdy goose, and dream of someday “burning up Route 50″ like my dad.
Old U.S. Route 50 ran near the house and was the stuff of legend if your daddy happened to be a truck driver who sometimes took you with him on the shorter hauls: “OK boy, now scrunch down and look into the side mirror. I’m gonna turn the top of them side stacks red hot.” And he would pop the clutch and strike sparks on the anvil of the night, downshifting toward Pinkerton, Coolville and Hanging Rock. It never once occurred to me that his ebullience and our camaraderie might be due to a handful of bennies. Yessir, Old 50 was a mighty thing, a howling black slash through the Blue Ridge Mountain fog. A place where famed and treacherous curves made widows and truck stops and cafes bloomed in the tractor trailers’ smoky wakes. A roadmap will tell you it eventually reaches Columbus and Saint Louis, places I imagined had floodlights raking the skies heralding the arrival of heroic Teamster truckers like my father. Guys who’d fought in Germany and Italy and the Solomon Islands and were still wearing their service caps these years later, but now pinned with the gold steering wheel of the Teamsters Union. Such are a working class boy’s dreams.

I have two parched photos from that time. One is of me and my brother and sister, ages ten, eight and six. We are standing in the front yard, three little redneck kids with bad haircuts squinting for some faint clue as to whether there was really a world out there, somewhere beyond West Virginia. The other photo is of my mother and the three of us on the porch of that house on route 50. On the day my father was slated to return from any given run we’d all stand on the porch listening for the sound of airbrakes, the deep roar as he came down off the mountain. Each time my mother would step onto the porch blotting her lipstick, Betty Grable style hair rustling in the breeze, and say, “Stand close, your daddy’s home.”

And that was about as good as it ever got for our family. Daddy’s heart later gave way from a congenital defect and he lost everything. He was so scrupulously honest about debts he could never recover financially. Unable to borrow money, uneducated and weakened for life, he set to working in car washes and garages. After his union trucking days were over, we were assigned to the margins of America, a million miles from the American Dream, joining those people never seen on television, represented by no politician and never heard from in the halls of power.

Now it was only a little house by the side of the road with not enough closets and ugly asbestos shingle siding. But it was ours, just like the truck and the chance to get ahead that it offered. And we had felt like we were some small part of America as it was advertised. All because of a union job during the heyday of unions in this nation.

It was also a period of Teamsters Union corruption, replete with criminal moguls such as Dave Beck, George Meany and Jimmy Hoffa. Yet the history of the few top lizards on the national rock of greed is not the history of the people.

If a few pricks and gangsters have occasionally seized power over the dignity of labor, countless more calculating, bloodless and malevolent pricks — the capitalist elites — have always held most of the cards

Which is why in 1886 railroad and financial baron Jay Gould could sneer, “I can always hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.” And why a speaker at the U.S. Business Conference Board in 1974 could arrogantly declare, “One man, one vote has undermined the power of business in all capitalist countries since World War II.” And why that same year Business Week magazine said, “It will be a hard pill for many Americans to swallow — the idea of doing with less so that big business can have more. Nothing in modern economic history compares with the selling job that must now be done to make people accept this new reality.”

The new reality is here, and has been since 1973, the last year American workers made a wage gain in real dollars. Hell, it’s been here so long we accept it as part of America’s cultural furniture. Only about 12% of American workers are unionized and even with a supposedly union-friendly Democratic Congress, unions are still fighting to exist (although government employees are unionized at 36%, because the Empire allows some leeway for its commissars). In fact, things are worse than ever. Employers can now force employees to attend anti-union presentations during the workday, at captive audience meetings in which union supporters are forbidden to speak under threat of insubordination. Back in 1978 when I was working to organize the local newspaper, the management was not even allowed to speak to the workers on the matter until after the union vote results were in.

Then there’s President Obama, the guy softheaded liberals think is going to turn this dreadful scenario around. He talks a good game about unions, when he is forced to. But Obama is working on the things that will “create a legacy,” such as health care (which is simply a new way to pay the insurance industry’s blackmail) or the economy (by appointing the same damned people who fucked it up to fix it), and immigration reform, a nicely nebulous term that can mean whatever either side of the issue wants it to mean. Obama’s not going to publicly ignore the unions. But he’s not going to sink much political capital into this corporatized nation’s most radioactive issue either. For him, union legislation is just a distraction from the “legacy building” of a very charming, savvy, and ambitious politician. That is the assessment of Glenn Spencer of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, one of the most anti-union institutions in America. (Many thanks to Washington writer Ken Silverstein for publishing Spencer’s astute observations).
Things are changing though. Union membership climbed 12 percent last year. Twelve percent of twelve percent ain’t shit, but at least it’s forward motion. At that rate it will only take us 21 years to get back to the 1956 level of union membership. We can expect no miracles; top union leaders are still among the Empire’s elites. And they are still technically accountable to whatever membership will still have jobs when the 2012 elections roll around. The least they could do is make it harder for Obama to lick off those millions of hard earned union support dollars from the top of the campaign contribution ice cream cone as he did in ’08.

But who can be sure? Because the new union elites and their minions are lawyers and marketing professionals. They’ve never come down off the mountain with both stacks red hot, or gathered on the porch of a crappy but new roadside bungalow, proud because they owned it, and stood up straight because, “Boys, your daddy is coming home.”
I’m not going into the current brouhaha about the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) or the “card check” bullshit here. Because what it’s gonna take to restore dignity to laboring America ain’t gonna be more legislative wrangling. What it takes won’t be pretty, maybe not even legal in this new police state, and sure as hell won’t be “within the system.” Because the system is the problem.

So it will be up to us, just like it always has been . . . the writer, the Nicaraguan janitor, the forty-year-old family man forced to bag groceries at Wal-Mart, the pizza delivery guy, the welder and the certified nurse . . . the long haul trucker and the short order cook. And they will snicker at us from their gilded roosts on Wall Street and Pennsylvania Avenue.

Some people are bound to get hurt in the necessary fight. In fact, people need to be willing to get hurt in the fight. That’s the way we once gained worker rights, and that’s the way we will get them back. The only way to get rid of the robbers’ roost is to burn the fucker down.

Anyone got a match?

Joe Bageant is author of the book, Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches from America's Class War (Random House Crown), about working class America. He is also a contributor to Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland" edited by Jeffrey St. Clair and Joshua Frank, to be published this summer by AK Press. A complete archive of his on-line work, along with the thoughts of many working Americans on the subject of class may be found on his website. Feel free to contact him at: joebageant@joebageant.com. Read other articles by Joe, or visit Joe's website.

19 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Don Hawkins said on June 27th, 2009 at 9:51am #

    Joe it looks like some are way ahead of this little game. Texas or some are thinking about leaving the Union. Now with the climate change bill a joke we could hear more of that although it will problem not pass in the Senate the forth graders. On Fox news channel remember the tea party yes they are out front on this one. No more tax’s for the little people, right. There seems to be a number of agendas all working in different directions. Remember the Earth is also moving in one direction. I wonder will all these different directions meet?

  2. Brittancus said on June 27th, 2009 at 9:51am #

    ONLY THE DECISION OF EVERY AMERICAN AND LEGAL RESIDENT, BY CONTACTING YOUR SENATOR OR REPRESENTATIVE WILL PUT A STOP TO AN 8th AMNESTY!

    The 1986 Simpson/Mazzoli Immigration bill is–NOT BROKEN–is just has never been enforced. Sen.Ted Kennedy a liberal, would never have voted, assisted in drafting it 23 years ago, if it was broken? NO! It’s just another excuse to push through another path to citizenship–or AMNESTY. Obama promised open door sessions, but the Democrat leadership allowed no press or even Republicans to enter immigration reform discussion. President Obama promised transparency when it comes to all major issues and illegal immigration invasion is certainly a flash-point of major issues facing the taxpayer. It’s completely beyond any comprehension that Washington, would look for votes to pass this so-called immigration reform, when there are 11 percent jobless Americans and legal residents in our nation?

    Sen Chuck Schumer and the usual conspirators are trying to blind-side the American people with a new business illegal immigration extraction tool. Same as all the creations, to pass another AMNESTY. Already his Sen. friend Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, Janet Napolitano have crippled the American Worker, by denying E-Verify in the earlier Stimulus bill. That for a start would have made sure the estimated 300.000 illegal laborers, would not have been hired for infrastructure and construction jobs. Now we are supposed to trust them with their so-called path to citizenship. It’s AMNESTY by any other word! It means the US worker gets the-rough-end-of-the pineapple again by our elected officials. 1. How do the hope to process 12 to 20 plus foreign nationals? ALL AT ONCE? What a laugh? 2. Probably the biggest enigma is OVERPOPULATION?

    Once the process is rolling, do you think that the people waiting on the other side of the fence are going to go home. That’s the biggest joke on the American worker, the US people? Then what about absolutely insaneness of family unification? Millions more will enter the pipeline? They would eventually have to call our troops back from Germany, Japan and South Korea–TO HOLD BACK THE STAMPEDE. We cannot and should not enter into any more AMNESTIES, as it will cause devastation on our open lands.

    Urban sprawl with all its ugly ramifications of clogged traffic, unavailability of potable water and a failing infrastructure and even worse–chronic poverty than we already have in the inner cities? We cannot afford the costs that have been estimated to be around $2.5 trillion dollars, just to process whoever is here already–according to the Heritage Foundation. If these people want to come here, then they should return first, to their homelands and arrange all the processing from the other-side of our make-believe sealed border? We are already supporting undesirables in our federal and state prison system that should be addressed. Then their is the annual costs of babies born here to illegal immigrant woman. Only children of at least one citizen or naturalized American should be allowed instant citizenship, not an infant born of any illegal alien female? Immediately they can access every one of the 60 means tested benefits, for low income citizens.

    Have you any idea of the price taxpayers will pay, for the hundreds of thousands of family members who can enter once sponsored under the family unification law? All the impoverished sick will descend on hospitals for dialysis and other acute illnesses, that will barrel the federal government into a financial crisis.

    Only a very few of these people already here have a high school diploma, speak English or even understand our culture. The majority come here to work, not assimilate in the mainstream America like the immigrants of yesteryear. Billions of dollars are transfered to foreign banks each year, not into the nations treasuries to circulate throughout the population?

    If our politicians just worked for the AMERICAN PEOPLE FOR A CHANGE and ignored the special interest lobby, they could enforce E-Verify on a national scale. Not voluntary but as a permanent application, for every worker new and longterm hires. Without much money being spent for deportation, the E-Verify tool would overtime start to extract illegal labor by ATTRITION! Illegal families would pack their possessions and leaving our country, making room in the workplace. Because E-Verify has a near a hundred percent success rate and working, the pariah employers who hire cheap labor are trying to kill it with the help of their associates in Washington. No illegal alien worker would show his face at the Social Security office, where rehiring issues could be resolved. Public spirited US workers could inform a well funded ICE and inform of illegal activity in their work location, for all those who seem to have something to hide.

    AS illegal immigration is such a far reaching issue and contains so many traumatic relevant problems that effects all of us, there just isn’t enough room to itemize everything that could be an irreversible impact on our daily lives? Read the answers at some of these websites including NUMBERSUSA, JUDICIAL WATCH, CAPSWEB, UNIPAC, AMERICANPATROL. and of course contacting your Senator and Congressman

  3. Don Hawkins said on June 27th, 2009 at 10:00am #

    Brittancus I tried that once to call a policy maker and got some smart ass person who seemed busy. I don’t think it works. Maybe some of them read DV just a thought.

  4. Michael Dawson said on June 27th, 2009 at 10:34am #

    Don, you’re responding to a guy who doesn’t have the brainpower, even after reading Joe Bageant, to think his way past the blame-the-immigrants ruse.

  5. Synic3 said on June 27th, 2009 at 4:37pm #

    Michael Dawson wrote:
    “Don, you’re responding to a guy who doesn’t have the brainpower, even after reading Joe Bageant, to think his way past the blame-the-immigrants ruse.”
    ______________________________________________________

    Michael,

    If you think that flooding the labor market with illegal immigrants has no effect on the wages and benefits and job opportunities for US legal residents, then I don’t know what planet you are living in.
    I live in Texas, and it seems that always in any construction site accident, the victim is always illegal immigrant , while a lot of unemployed texans will be very glad to work in such jobs.
    Also, you don’t to distinguish between illegal immigrants and legal
    immigrants and you just call all of them immigrants which is misleading.
    Illigal immigration is encouraged by the ruling corporate class because it provides an endless supply of cheap and intimidated labor that don’t ask for much and get very little.

  6. Don Hawkins said on June 27th, 2009 at 4:50pm #

    You do mean NOW a lot of unemployed texans will be very glad to work in such jobs. Where I live farm country many people working side by side with people from Mexico Central America and the US. It’s hard hot work because at 61 I still do it. The first time I worked in the fields was when I was eighteen the only guy in the field born in the US.

  7. lichen said on June 27th, 2009 at 5:14pm #

    If you want full employment with living wages at democratic cooperatives for all, then campaign for that; waging a racist battle against undocumented workers who are not a flood but ALWAYS moved up and down between “mexico” and “us” (far before that area was two seperate countries) does not take you to that, and it is petty to fight amongst your fellow people for a few stupid nafta-forged scraps.

  8. Synic3 said on June 27th, 2009 at 7:35pm #

    To Don Hawkens,

    It is not farm work I am talking about, but I am talking about good paying jobs in construction.

    To lichen,

    So, when all the meat packing plants in Ilinois and Iowa are almost fully staffed by illegal immigrants, you are calling that ” ALWAYS moved up and down between “mexico” and “us””.
    When I object to that you accuse me of waging a racist battle!! For your own knowledge, the first victims of illegal immigration are the black people.
    I consider myself left of center, and I am baffled why people like you,
    progressives or leftists or whatever, who are supposed to be the defenders of the working class against the exploitation and greed of the corporate class , are encouraging a policy that is deterimental to the working people of this country, and is helping supplying the corporate class by an endless supply by cheap and intimidated labor.
    Am I a racist if I want my fellow Americans to have jobs with living wages, decent and safe working conditions.

  9. lichen said on June 27th, 2009 at 8:33pm #

    You haven’t answered my question; so where is your philosophy, where is your campaign, your shouting for everyone in this country to have a good living wage job with benefits inside a democratic workplace? Getting rid of undocumented people will not give you that (there will still be a lack of industry in this country; still mass unemployment, still bad working conditions, still outsourcing, still trash in place of jobs) ; and in fact because you won’t get rid of all undocumented people, the statements can only lead to racial tensions and hate. But the original subject here was the southwest, not illinois or iowa and the pointless, ugly murder of animals.

    And actually, yes, your invective towards “illegals” is racist, and remains so whether you claim, laughably that they “hurt black people first.” So where are your suggestions for making the US African American community invulnerable to supposed encroachment by our friends from central/south america? You can consider yourself however you please, but this lou dobbs nonsense that undocumented immigration is the cause of anything (as opposed to nafta, free market policies, long-standing attacks on labor, and the lack of living wage jobs/full employment, as I have said) is ridiculous and not constructive, built on petty observations without context.

  10. Synic3 said on June 28th, 2009 at 4:01am #

    lichen,

    I didn’t say that all the problems of the average folks here in the US is
    attributed to illegal immigration, but illigal immigration contribute
    big part to it.
    Of course off-shoring of jobs and the so called free trade, and add to that the spread of automation contribute a bigger part toward it.
    You ask me , what is your ideas about this and about that.??!! Well the
    subject of the plight of the middle and working classes in this country
    have been discussed here and all over, so do you want to copy and paste and waste your and my time?
    If you are failing to

    waste your time and my time!!

  11. Synic3 said on June 28th, 2009 at 4:01am #

    lichen,

    I didn’t say that all the problems of the average folks here in the US is
    attributed to illegal immigration, but illigal immigration contribute
    big part to it.
    Of course off-shoring of jobs and the so called free trade, and add to that the spread of automation contribute a bigger part toward it.
    You ask me , what is your ideas about this and about that.??!! Well the
    subject of the plight of the middle and working classes in this country
    have been discussed here and all over, so do you want to copy and paste and waste your and my time?
    If you are failing to

    waste your time and my time!!

  12. Synic3 said on June 28th, 2009 at 4:07am #

    lichen,

    If you are failing to see, that increasing the supply of workers to a
    diminishing supply of jobs, is increasing the problems of the working people then I don’t know what else to tell you.!!

  13. Don Hawkins said on June 28th, 2009 at 4:27am #

    http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/deannelson/100001297/praying-for-rain-in-the-cauldron-of-climate-change/

    Syn3 read this and what is now happening in India China is not far behind. In the States the Southwest first then the mid west. Good paying jobs is probably the wrong way to look at this. More like save our ass. This is the real deal and tuff day’s ahead. Read that web page and the man’s thinking it put’s it right there. There is still time and happy horseshit is not the answer.

  14. Don Hawkins said on June 28th, 2009 at 4:44am #

    Last week, Delhi’s chief minister Sheila Dikshit admitted the Yumuna River, once the city’s life source, is so polluted with raw sewerage that it will be at least eight years before it can be revived. Its ‘water’ is black turning blue, but shimmers because of the vast number of dumped plastic bags. Its foul stench makes breathing difficult for passers-by.
    The key to cleaning it lies in moving shack-dwellers from their illegal semi-permanent jugghi villages on the outskirts of the city who pour sewerage and waste into the river, but their members have become a powerful vote bank for corrupt politicians. telegraph

    A little secret the same thing is happening in the States to our rivers crap into the rivers and all done in the name of growth. Then of course CO 2 that you can’t see and the reason we see these minor problems in India and now starting in China and the States. Corrupt politicians seems to be a Worldwide thing. Its ‘water’ is black turning blue, but shimmers because of the vast number of dumped plastic bags. Its foul stench makes breathing difficult for passers-by. Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler Without that thinking it will be simple alright.

  15. Don Hawkins said on June 28th, 2009 at 5:08am #

    The people I work with in the fields who are from the South are hard working take good care of there kind’s and have disciplined minds. A side effect of working hard. I guess I could write a million words here but will leave it at that.

  16. Melissa said on June 28th, 2009 at 9:36am #

    Exactly, Don.

  17. Synic3 said on June 28th, 2009 at 12:26pm #

    Don,

    I agree with you 100% that the deterioration of the environment, coupled with global warming is a very serious problem facing the world,
    and a new approach is urgently needed.
    With that said, that is not a valid excuse to give the already existing jobs to illigal immigrants and let them replace working people here.
    What good is that will do to the environment??!!
    Until the new approach is found and implemented, do not give the
    existing and future jobs to illigals, and throw working people here out of work.!!

  18. lichen said on June 28th, 2009 at 5:54pm #

    Synic, you are already wasting time, and wasting it with useless reactionary sentiments as opposed to supporting real solutions and the real problems–the lack of living wage jobs with good benefits for all in this country; in fact you’ve said nothing even in support of labor except for attacking a subclass of people; which is unproductive and stupid.

  19. Synic3 said on June 29th, 2009 at 2:25am #

    lichen,

    You said it right, I will not waste any more time with the likes of you. Probably you are a corporate agent, who under the guise of protecting illigal immigrants and defending the so called “subclass”, are advocating
    a policy, that will supply the coporate class with an endless supply of cheap and intimidated labor, and so will help to undermine labor unions and the labor bargaining position in this country and cosequently the working/middle class in this country.
    You didn’t answer a single point of what I wrote.
    You sound like a broken record. Who gave you your script??!!
    Did you really read what Brittainucus wrote and thought about it??