Connections: Union Makes Us Strong

A further weakening of the strength of unions

I’ve been thinking about a topic very much in the news these days, which has not gained as much attention as it should — understandable, considering all the emergencies, especially emergencies involving children in recent weeks — and that is the Supreme Court decision on June 27 that public employees do not have to pay the costs of collective bargaining by unions that represent them if they have not chosen to be members. In general, the court’s decision has been assessed as a further weakening of the strength of unions at a time when they have been in continuous decline. And this reminds me of how vital a union was for my father.

He was born in 1898 on Clinton Street in New York City to Polish immigrants, and he did not go to school beyond eighth grade. He may have been a proverbial newsboy; after working in various places, including a button factory, he was getting old enough for a real job when a relative helped him become a Prudential Insurance agent. Gregarious and energetic, the job suited him to a T.  

Prudential had instituted a major innovation in life insurance by that time, writing policies for workers, not just for the middle class or wealthy. These policies cost only pennies a week, and insurance agents made the payments easy by visiting customers at home to pick up weekly premiums. My father liked the exercise he got by going up and down the stairs of the lower-class brownstones to which he was assigned, chatting with the housewives of men who were at work, and often offering advice.

Later on, he would talk about similarly collecting payments on annuities, an annuity, in the parlance of the day, being a retirement fund someone created for him or herself that would pay out regular sums beginning at some future date.  

In 1951, having been a Prudential agent for a long time, my father was among those members of the American Federation of Labor Unions who voted to strike. It was newsworthy because it was the first formal job action by a white-collar union in the nation. And that is what I remember most, because my father was pictured on the front page of The Daily News reading while on the picket line none other than James Jones’s debut novel, “From Here to Eternity,” which was published that year. It took three months of negotiations for the agents to win working improvements and recognition of the A.F.L. as their bargaining agent.

I am certainly not going to try to summarize the positive effects unions have had on working conditions over the years, although the good they have done is overwhelming. (Well, okay, just a few things: the minimum wage, the right to sick leave, the creation of Social Security, protections for whistleblowers, maternity leave, overtime pay . . . the list goes on and on.) I am proud of my father’s place in the hard-working world and, given how far we have traveled from the idealism of those days — and given how many union-won worker rights have been chipped away by the modern environment of permanent freelancing, job insecurity, and benefit-free part-timer scheduling at places like Walmart — feeling a bit sentimental.