My Italian grandmother worked at Full Flex Rubber Corporation for over 40 years on the 3rd shift. A highlight of her life was meeting Ted Kennedy and Cesar Chavez as a member of the executive board for the United Rubber Workers Union. She took one three-week trip to Italy, and owned a tiny two-bedroom home with a garden and access to the Highlands Beach in Bristol, Rhode Island. The kitchen floor under the counter where I played was cool, clean and safe. Always sauce was cooking, and meatballs and pasta needed testing. Everywhere were bowls of nuts, tangerines and candy. A replica of da Vinci’s Last Supper was on the wall. The union enabled her modest success, and some of my fondest childhood memories.
When my grandmother sold her house, her lungs were choked with talc from the factory, and she moved in to the same brick building that had been Full Flex Rubber Corporation, now an elder-care facility.
Everything has shades of light and dark. When a group of unsavory thugs from a different union showed up at my family’s business in New York and pressured long-time loyal employees to organize, it was both frightening and heroic that my father caught the ringleader stealing gas from the company and fired him. Two of the former union presidents were rumored to have been murdered, and one found in a cement truck in the Hudson River. The union lost the vote 99 to 6. The business gave me my first job, put me through college and law school, and helped me buy my first house.
When Wall Street crashed the economy to the ground, government rushed in with tourniquets and bandages. Corporate America was rescued, but the bail-out had conditions attached. Stricter regulations and regulatory reform, while not perfect, were negotiated to protect the public interest.
Now unions and public pensions are being blamed for budget shortfalls in many states including Maine, and government should again throw a life line with conditions attached that will better American society, because big business and organized labor are polar forces that exist in relation to each other. The middle class of the United States is dependent on the balance of power between corporations and unions, and the government must protect the public interest by not favoring one over the other.
Wealth created by business helped pay for an education that led to a life fighting for the civil rights of employees -- many of them union members. Unions allowed a woman with meager means in the 1950’s and 60’s to enjoy the bounty of a middle-class life. The corporation she worked for polluted her body and reneged on its pension promises.
There is high and low in unions. Their contributions to society made the American middle class. Wages and working conditions were improved. Women were invited to the marketplace and empowered to fight for voting and civil rights laws. Children are protected from exploitation.
And there is hot and cold in business. Business supports jobs, families, and communities. The never ending hunt for market share, unchecked, however can lead to exploitation. Powerful interests influence government and get advantages. Greed motivates relentless quests for tax breaks, loop holes and preferential treatment. Hunger for profit blinds executives to the trials and tribulations of employees. Faces become numbers.
The role of government in tending to the balance between business and labor is the question. Unions are not perfect, but they are a necessary ingredient in the American Dream. The pension shortfall was created in large part by corporate malfeasance and dereliction of duty by previous lawmakers. The government can help craft a solution that includes concessions such as longer school years, charter schools, and healthcare reform that will protect union members and push the United States forward.