Friday evening, enroute home from a trip to my home state of North Dakota, I stopped at a freeway restaurant for a cup of coffee with a retired teacher friend from Anoka-Hennepin Education Association days.
Kathy gave me the below photo, and asked if I would scan it for her. It wasn’t labeled (a usual malady for photos – hint!) but we basically came to consensus that it was probably taken at the 1989 NEA Convention (New Orleans) in an expression of solidarity for the students who had occupied Tienanmen Square in Beijing in 1989.
(click on photos to enlarge)
It was common for these kinds of actions at union gatherings. Most of we union members and staff had a keen and sincere sense of justice. Indeed, that is why I became active as a union leader in the late 1960s, then staff member of the Minnesota teachers union (MEA/Education Minnesota) for the rest of my career.
Sunday night came another event: a retirement celebration for Lee J., a union staff colleague for many years, who said he’d been in the profession either as teacher or staff for 40 years.
It was a great celebration, with a great number of family, current and retired colleagues and friends.
Lee likely went home pleased and proud last night.
I’ve never been much of a ‘dress for success’ kind of guy, but last night I decided I needed to choose an accessory for my evening ‘ensemble’. It is below:
I don’t recall where I got the button, but occasionally it adorns me like a piece of jewelry. It is something to be proud of. (People who know me would chuckle at the ‘thug’* part. No matter. I care about Unions.)
There were the usual memories last night, spoken and unspoken. We were regaled with the never-ending “grapefruit tree” grievance which, at one point, snared me for a time though I was nowhere near the teachers district.
After the event, I recalled to Lee the time, I’m guessing it was 1984 or 1985, when he was still a teacher and local leader, that he and his family borrowed my meager apartment in Hibbing for free accommodations for a summer vacation. My place was nothing fancy, that’s for sure, but for Lee and Becky and their two young kids it worked just fine.
Today is not the best of times for Unions generally, public employee unions in particular.
It seems that working for economic and social justice is viewed as a threat.
Newt Gingrich’s infamous 100 words from 1996 includes among the 64 repulsive words, “Taxes” and “Unionized”.
(Actually, Newt’s list emphasizes 64 “optimistic and positive governing words”, and 64 “contrasting words”. He didn’t invent the language, but to this day if one looks carefully at this list of words, one can identify the theme of most every campaign for or against…. These days, these words are called ‘dog whistle’ words – you are either supposed to have reverence for, or be repulsed by certain words. Much like a Pavlov’s dog reaction. It is not healthy for us as a society.)
Those who buy the nonsense of Newt’s words, especially from within the dwindling middle class, will rue the day they chose to buy the propaganda that certain words represented good, and others, evil.
It’s been 40 years since I started my union staff career, and a dozen since that career ended with my own retirement.
To Kathy and Lee and to all who have toiled in the often thankless task of seeking justice for working people, thank you.
And to the younger folks who need to take on the duties going forward, be mindful of the fact that what you now take for granted came at great cost in time and energy by people just like yourselves, too busy, but committed to justice.
What was gained, can be lost.
* – I can’t say that I know a true “union thug”. Doubtless they exist somewhere, but they’re rare. Closest call I had was once talking to a management representative who negotiated with Jimmy Hoffa of the Teamsters on occasion. He said Hoffa was a really decent guy, but he knew what he needed for his members, and that was that.