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mark by campaigning, under Samual Gompers’s shrewd pragmatic leadership, for the eight-hour day. In language more conservative than earlier unions, though in practice often fighting bitter battles, the AFL usually avoided political and ideological issues and concentrated on “bread and butter.” Bread being expensive and butter scarce, this strategy often worked. The AFL became the umbrella group for a number of strong craft unions made up mostly of skilled workers; but millions of industrial workers, supposedly “unorganizable,” were ignored. They had to wait until the early 1930s, when the CIO was formed under the colorful leadership of John L. Lewis, the head of the miners’ union. Spurred by the wretched circumstances of the Depression years, enabled partly by New Deal legislation, and often staffed by idealistic young radicals, the CIO swept through the country organizing auto, steel, chemicals, rubber, and a bit later hospital and municipal employees. It was an exciting moment I remember it from my own early adolescence when hundreds of thousands of workers poured into the unions, went out on sit-down strikes, suddenly showed remarkable gifts of organization and capacities for sacrifice. In 1955 the AFL and CIO came together in one federation. Strong though it remains, the AFL-CIO still represents only about a fifth of the American working class. Major gains have been made since the days of Franklin Roosevelt and John L. Lewis don’t let anyone tell you otherwise! The “welfare state” which means a society that doesn’t trust to the magical “laws of the market” but intervenes actively on behalf of the poor and helpless is still very far from what it should be. But the lives of millions of workers are now far better than they were several decades ago. We have old age pensions, Social Security, unemployment insurance, and above all, the right to organize. Even when some hard-bitten corporations tried, in the late 1970s, to bust unions, they had to go against the more or less established norms of the society; in the late 1920s, it was the exact opposite. Let’s be candid. Trade unions are led by men and women, not saints; their membership consists of fallible human beings, not ideal “proletarians.” This is to say that trade unions have their faults. Some are very far from what they should be with regard to internal democracy; the record concerning treatment of opposition and dissident groups is spotty. Other unions are hidebound, rigid, and unconcerned with anything but the immediate needs of their members. \(Not that there is anything wrong with being criminated against blacks until recently I’m pretty sure that while there have been major improvements in this respect, there is still room for more. And only recently have unions begun to show an appropriate sensitivity to the demands and needs of women. The prejudices of our society and the corruptions of our culture necessarily seep into the unions. It could hardly be otherwise, but this makes them a target for criticism. Some of that criticism is valid, some not. I’ve already indicated kinds of criticism that seem sensible, but here let me mention two kinds that do not. The first kind comes from sectarian “leftists” who complain that unions collaborate with employers \(but they have to sign contracts, they have to work within the limits of the given situation, even if they lead in making revolutions is entirely understandable, since they aren’t organized for that purpose they are organized to pro tect the interests of all workers, both the vasVmajority who don’t want revolutions and the tiny minority who say they do. The other kind of criticism comes from high-minded middle-class folk who, from some perch of rectitude, complain that unions aren’t sufficiently concerned with “the general welfare.” Let’s acknowledge that sometimes this is true. But more often it is nonsense. For when unions fight for minimum wage laws or regulations providing safety on the job, they are protecting millions upon millions of people, including many who are not even union members. There’s a tendency in American discourse to talk about some abstract “public,” but in fact the actual public contains a very large segment of working people. When I read an editorial or hear a speech counterposing the “public” to the unions, I grow suspicious. COME from the generation that entered early adolescence just as this country was succumbing to the Great Depression. The desperation, the poverty, the sheer sense of helplessness of those days forms an experience almost impossible to cornmunicate to younger people lucky enough not to have known it firsthand. My parents had to find jobs in the garment industry once their little store went bankrupt in 1931. I remember my mother coming home exhausted each evening, and ending the week with a $12 paycheck. I remember my father, who stood all day over a steaming press-iron, coming home during the summer months with blisters all over his body. When the great strike of the garment workers was called by the International Ladies Workers Union in 1933, my folks, who had had no experience with unions before, responded immediately. Like tens of thousands of others, they picketed, they borrowed money for food, they stood fast. The strike over, my mother brought home her first new paycheck: $27. It seemed like heaven: we felt freer, better, stronger. And there was meat on the table. After that, my folks were never active in the union, but they paid their dues faithfully, and if a strike was called, they were the first to go out. This was the ethic I grew up with, the ethic of. solidarity. Almost half a century later, I still believe it. So when I hear snobs and reactionaries attack unions, I find myself going into a rage. Sure, I know the unions are open to criticism on many counts; but I continue to believe that without them our lives would be far worse than they are. I know for certain that mine would have been far worse. The unions form a backbone of social strength; they make life a little better for the underpaid, the oppressed; I want them to improve but I want them to grow stronger too. It is time we recognized, in our social arrangements and our cultural experience, the centrality of the American working class. Much of what passes among us for immigrant history, as well as the history of minority groups, really has to do with the working class. If we don’t have as cohesive and visible a “common culture” within the working class of this country as has existed in Europe, that is partly due to the diversity, the newness, the sheer size of America. But dig a little beneath the surface, brush aside the conventional myths and cliches of American middle-class life, and you will find plenty of evidence that workers and their unions ought to be far more prominent in our cultural expression than they are not in any crude propagandistic sense, but with sympathetic and critical honesty. American Income Life Insurance Company Bernard Rapoport Executive Offices: P.O. Box 208, Waco, Texas 76703 Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer THE TEXAS OBSERVER 15