Sunday, March 26, 2017

My union gave me a better life. But the union is only as good as you make it.

Richard Mellor
Local 444, retired

I have been adding to my "Union" album on Facebook but I thought I would share this one here. Back in 1982 my local, Afscme Local 444, a blue collar local representing workers at a water utility in the East San Francisco Bay, had a female president.

Although we parted ways a long time ago she was an important influence in getting me active in the local as were the old guys I worked with in my yard. Most of them were  older black men, most of them migrants from the south after WW11.  I know it was hard for Kate being in the mechanics shop as a woman because we discussed these things at time. She was from the middle class I would guess and had some political history although I don't really know what but she was a strong leader and a fighter. I remember she once told me that she couldn't win, if she asked for help it confirmed she was weak and couldn't do the job, if she didn't she was a "cold bitch". Not everyone makes a woman in a job like this makes them feel this way but it occurs too mcuh. It also occurs for men too as we are not supposed to ask for help are we?

For those of us in the maintenance department, in the four service yards who fixed or replaced broken mains and services, getting out of the ditch was always a priority. The public sector is undoubtedly more humane than the private but that damn ditch takes it out of you as our bodies in later years constantly reminds us. There were only so many forepersons positions, (we called them foremen then) so becoming a backhoe operator or truck driver was also a choice. Other than that you had to join management.

I eventually got a backhoe operators job. What a relief. Any time you get more money and less manual labor that's progress.  The problem was that as a public utility, when a vacancy arose for a backhoe operator for example, the public at large could not be excluded from the test.  What would happen then is that heavy equipment operators out of Operating Engineers local 3 would take the test or other skilled operators would and it would close a door of opportunity for folks already working there.

Existing employees who might be working for a foreman that liked them, a fishing buddy or who simply wanted to help, would let some guys practice on machinery at lunch time and stuff like that. We did not have an in house training program.  Relying on the luck of the draw was unfair, discriminatory and sowed division. Black workers, simply due to the results of historic institutionalized racism were affected even more so by this process.

The union filed a grievance arguing that opportunity was lost for those already employed (I can't find the grievance at the moment). Women and other marginalized sections of the working  class in this industry were harmed. I think it was initially filed by an older black worker who actually never got a job out of it himself after we won an internal training program. He was a scab in the strike three years later chauffeuring bosses' around among other things.

The point is, that I came out number one on the test for training and it got me out of the ditch. It didn't mean one got the job, but it was a good chance you could. Some women got truck driver and operator jobs as well, as the training program included trucks and backhoes.

My local was a very democratic rank and file run local. The bureaucracy had not penetrated it and, to its credit, the national union did not interfere in the local in the way some have been known to do.

Also, for a blue collar local, women, although a minority in terms of numbers, played a very prominent role in the leadership and as stewards on the shop floor in the carpenters shop, janitorial, the machine shop, meter reading and also at SD1 the water treatment plant where all the waste in our area ended up. We had another female president and officers who were women, a number of them gay women. I know they had it difficult, but they came to be well respected by those of us who fought alongside them for the betterment of all workers. It is struggle and the class solidarity that arises through it that changes consciousness, that undermines the divide and rule ideologies of racism, sexism, nationalism.

We could never have accomplished this without organization, without a union.  I was with a buddy who was part of this process last night and we were talking about some of this history and how some of the old timers have been forgotten as no one writes the history. Old conservatives, black and white, Latino and Asian, who fought for the right to a union and a collective voice on the job. Black workers, despite dealing with prejudice in the union as well, fought against it knowing that unity with all workers increased their power and rights too. Workers united cannot be defeated as they say.

As I said in that piece I posted yesterday, those white workers that voted for Trump, those that are not Nazi's and white nationalists but simply hoping him and his gang might return them to better days are in for a rude awakening. Unfortunately their vote, and their silence in the face of Trump's racism, misogyny and xenophobia has hurt them, has increased the divide between workers of different colors and backgrounds that is crucial to building a genuine secure and productive future for them and their families. They would have strengthened the class bond between themselves and workers of color as well as all women had they voted for no one.

It's a setback but it can easily be overcome if we learn from our mistakes. We'd better learn from them if we don't want to end up paupers.

No comments: