Monday, September 4, 2023

Labor Day

  Here's my Labor Day post, recycled and improved every year since 2012.

My Zaydeh was a paperhanger. So was my uncle, his son,. They belonged to the Paperhanger's Union. When he retired, my Zaydeh got a lapel pin and a photograph of himself. The also-retiring 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. In the same way that her parents' accented speech and his parents' religious devotion were cudgels in their relationship, management/labor spent a lot of time bruising the edges.

I sat on Zaydeh's shoulders, bouncing around the living room to his enthusiastic rendition of Zum Gali Gali, a Zionist/Socialist work song.  When I needed a biography for a book report in second grade, his daughter, my mother, suggested Eugene Debs. I was the only one in the class who wrote about the Wobblies, who knew that, before Bernie Sanders, a Socialist, a man who understood the plight of the working man, ran for President.

On the other hand, Daddooooo inherited his father's bridal shop, working alongside my uncle,  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 he held accountable were the Union Guys.

He was unable to make a go of a business he'd rather not have owned.  He was living a life unlike that which he'd imagined in college.  It was not making him happy, nor was it paying the oil bill.  His generalized anger at his life was unassailable; the Union Guys were real.

I knew that we needed unions - the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire proved that management had no interest in protecting the welfare of the worker, that 
protections were necessary.  Without collective action, nothing could be achieved.  I was still the 8 year old in love with Eugene V. Debs, who ran for President from prison (sigh.... in 2024 this precedent seems ready to repeat itself).

Those feelings didn't seem incompatible with the boss's daughter piece of me, the one who loved seeing her Daddy's name on the showroom door, loved the fact that the shop was his.  

But the ladies who sewed and who did the piece-work always had time to smile and chatter at me, in Italian.  The cutter, an imposing fellow with a gigantic pair of scissors, shared a small corner of his even more gigantic table with me, as I worked beside them, trimming lace, doing idiot work in my father's parlance, completely content, with a foot on each side of the divide.

When Daddooooo wasn't  around to hear, 
G'ma told stories of marching with her parents in Solidarity Parades  Daddooooo railed about union bullies, but rarely in G'ma's presence.

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


  1. The disparity in wealth between business heads and workers has grown quite exponentially since our parents' day.
    My father worked for IBM, a company that "takes such good care of its workers that there is no need for a union." He wanted his kids to get jobs there because of the benefits. It would have broken his heart to see the one son who did work for IBM be forced into early retirement with a package that was no where near what my parents enjoyed. But we all did get a good work ethic so it's good.

  2. My father, as a logger in his earlier years, had a love/hate relationship with unions. I, as a teacher, served as a union building rep.
    I believe the weakening of unions in more recent times has added to the gap between the wealthy and the surviving.

    1. The teachers' union bargain with the taxpayers, ultimately. No one looks at it that way, but, as I said over and over and over again, "This is a zero sum game. You put in. We put out. No one is taking vacations with your tax dollars."
      Unions are vilified because, as in any large sector, there are rotten apples. But when they work.....


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