By Rich Florentino
April 3, 2013
Friday, March 22, [of last year] I attended a luncheon for retirees of Local 3 of the IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) in New York City with my brothers. I was representing our father who at the time was 100(!) years of age. [He has sadly since passed on but we were all grateful for his long well-lived life.]
There were over 1,000 men and women at the lunch that day – all beneficiaries of gains made by the labor movement. It was wonderful to see what the middle class used to be about – and can be once again? The gains these folks now benefit from – they fought for, personally, in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s – and some, like my father, even earlier. Whenever called, they stood on picket lines, contributed funds, got signatures and voted in the interests of a vibrant middle class.
They stood together for Local 3 and for many other workers in the city. They were there to help teachers, cab drivers, hospital workers and many others build their unions. The people in the room lived the labor movement in its heyday and they fought not just for monetary matters but for dignity – the unshakeable belief that workers are every bit the partners of management in the success of the businesses they work in and the full equals of any citizens in our republic. The pride they still exuded was palpable in the room.
These days, current workers of Local 3, along with wage workers everywhere, are having their troubles. But, even though unemployment in construction, including for electricians, has been high, the difficulties (and not just the benefits) are shared – always. If any members are unemployed for extended periods – all members enter into a furlough program where each member takes a rotating share of time off – so that no member is left to suffer an undue burden.
This is true unionism – something the Union that is supposed to be our Nation can learn something from: a decent living for all, not high income for some and hardship for others, not some threatening the livelihood of others, but the self-evident truth that we are all in this together.
However, nowadays, wage workers, regular folks, the non-privileged, the ‘salt of the earth’, are being deliberately divided: Left v. Right. Dem v. Republican. Immigrant v. ‘Native(?)’. Gay v. Straight. Pro-life v. Pro-choice. etc., etc… Each of these distinctions are important and understandable but they are all being relentlessly exaggerated – by continual messaging, political posturing and ‘viewpoint’ news coverage. Can democracy survive television? Is any of it more important than government of ‘the people’, for ‘the people’ and by ‘the people’?
Can’t “We, the People”, trying to leave aside received analyses, find enough common ground with our fellow citizens, our co-workers, our neighbors – in our first hand ideas and experiences, our personal battles won and lost – to restore our ‘common’ sense of what is fundamentally important for the well-being of ourselves and our families as a Nation that is allegedly a Union? Or, are we going to allow self-government to continue to disintegrate while we ‘take our ball and go home’ like petulant children?
If we insist on remaining divided, if we continue to only talk within our circles of like-minded friends, how can our Union be strong? We will continue our downward spiral as more and more wealth flows upward – to the ‘message creators’ who benefit from our bickering, and we have less and less voice in our democracy. We must reach out. The solution starts simply with talking to fellow citizens, of all ‘stripes’ – face to face, one to one, in small groups – and always with respect.
The leader and revered Founding Father of Local 3, and champion of all labor in NYC, was Harry Van Arsdale, Jr., a man still deeply admired and missed 30 years since his passing. He knew, through long, contentious and sometimes violent strugglesand vicious attacks over many decades, the difficulties of bringing people together and keeping them together – to enable them see the light and equitably share the benefits of everyone’s hard work.
Harry had a card he used to hand out that said, “Be kind. Everyone you meet is putting up a hard fight.” If he could hold to that thought, in his pressure-filled, embattled circumstances – and accomplish as much as he did – can’t we try it?… with those we have differences with? Isn’t it the necessary first step back to a “more Perfect Union”? To common sense. To a strong-again middle class? What other path is there – the one where ‘one side’ wins? We’ve seen how hollow those ‘victories’ are.