Monday, September 2, 2013

Labor Day

My Zaydeh was a paperhanger. So was his son, my uncle. They belonged to the Paperhanger's Union. When he retired, my Zaydeh got a lapel pin and a photograph of himself and the Union Rep, the year's other retiree. The Union Rep got a pension and health insurance. No one knows if he got a copy of the photograph, too.

It was that kind of complicated relationship to Labor, with a capital L, that dominated my growing up years. Daddooooo's father owned a business. G'ma's father was a worker. That dynamic influenced their relationship in the same way that her parents' accented speech and his parents' religious devotion were there, bruising the edges of what must once have been love but wasn't anymore.

I sat on my Zaydeh's shoulders as he bounced me around the living room, singing Zum Gali Gali, a Zionist work song with one line, repeated over and over: the pioneer is meant for work; work is meant for the pioneer. When I needed a biography for a book report in second grade, G'ma suggested Eugene Debs. I was the only one in the class who wrote about the Wobblies, who knew that a Socialist ran for President from prison, who understood the plight of the working man.  It was communal, it was powerful, it was us-against-the-establishment, the entrenched, the people in our way.

There was a sense that he was on the right side of an argument I didn't know we were having.

Daddooooo inherited his father's shop, working alongside his brother and the cutters and pressers and seamstresses he'd known his entire life. He took care of the girls, the worker bees, the ones who created what he tried to sell. He struggled to make a success, and failed, and among those to blame were surely the Union Guys.

I didn't understand his anger. I'm not sure that he did, either.

We needed unions - the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire proved that protections were necessary and that management had no interest in protecting the welfare of the worker. Without collective action, nothing could be achieved. G'ma told me stories of her parents marching in Solidarity Parades, though never when Daddooooo was around to hear.  It wasn't worth giving him the chance to trash her parents' politics.

The battle between labor and management, waged over my kitchen table.

It's there, today, in discussions about the minimum wage and immigrant labor and teacher tenure. The answers don't come any easier, even six decades after Zum Gali Gali.

Stores are open, gyms and restaurants and car washes are welcoming my patronage, and it's Labor Day for crying out loud.  Let the workers go home and enjoy the last weekend of the summer.

A girl can dream......

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