Years ago I knew a man who taught kindergarten in a public school in an up-scale neighborhood in Ventura County, California. A significant number of his students arrived each day in chauffeur-driven limousines.
My friend was something of a populist—a left-wing Jewish man who revered the notions of justice and equality and despised the notion of privilege.
He was also a union man who, when sensing that a student’s parent needed to be taken down a peg or two for their ill-mannered or unreasonable behavior, would end the school day with rousing choruses of the ‘70s advertising jingle sponsored by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU).
“Look for the union label,” the children would sing, even after arriving home. (It was a catchy tune if you’ll remember.) His action usually would have its intended effect—pissing off the decidedly anti-union, well-heeled parents of his students.
His actions could have been taken from the Yippee! playbook of political antics, had Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin bothered to write such a tract. My friend’s actions made me laugh and smile.
Joe Biden, who has won the 2020 election so many times that he might now well be the 54th president of the United States, noted that in less than a year, he’s uttered the word “union” more often than the previous seven presidents, combined. In his Tuesday address at a training facility in Howell, Michigan, he uttered the word too many times to count.
Biden, who hails from a working class neighborhood in Scranton, Pennsylvania, knows from experience about hard work and the struggle of the working class. He is a strong union supporter because he recognizes that without organized labor, the American worker would still be struggling with poor working conditions, slave wages, long hours, and no job security.
Proudly, I come from a family of unionists. My paternal grandmother, after arriving to Ellis Island from Bohemia at the turn of the last century, found work in the sweatshops in New York City. She sewed in dirty factories with dim lighting and poor ventilation, and made pennies on the day, working piece-meal sewing garments. She found her way to Chicago, where she found more of the same work and married my grandfather, Josip, who could only use his Austrian education in structural engineering, to work as a laborer in the dangerous steel mills on the South Side.
My grandfather saved his money and opened his own shop to make steel grates and decorative railings. He grew his business slowly, adding employees and expanding his shop to handle the work that was steadily coming in. In 1931, my father was a 12-year-old schoolboy and when he arrived home one day, he learned that his father had had his back broken when a structural steel beam broke from a crane and landed on him.
This, of course, was at the height of the Depression. I can’t imagine the details of what the next few days or even weeks were like, but my grandmother sold her husband’s business and the family’s home. Being a woman, I doubt if she received fair compensation. She used the proceeds to buy a small corner grocery, turning a back storage room into a bedroom for her husband. She kept a sewing machine there so that she could sit with her husband and mend clothes for people. She also took in laundry, and served the U.S. government as a distributor—without compensation—of flour, sugar, and other foodstuffs to the neighborhood’s residents. The family lived in the three small rooms on the second floor.
My father quit school, taking a job driving a truck to deliver vegetables and ice. He also had a newspaper route and partnered with a friend to run a newsstand on Cermack Road.
Dad joined the Army five years later, eventually becoming a captain, going off to Europe and landing on Omaha Beach on D-Day. By the time his participation in the war was done, he came home and he and his father—both healed but forever scarred—started a steel business.
My grandfather told Dad that he wanted to unionize the shop.
Historically, business owners tend to be anti-union. My grandfather explained to his son that if his employees had their union cards, they would have an easier time to find work should something go wrong at J. Liska & Son. After all, he reasoned, it had happened before.
I joined the Chicago Federation of Musicians, Local 10 of the American Federation of Musicians, when I was twelve. I was playing in small combos in bars, restaurants, and social clubs in the western suburbs. A union steward appeared one evening to inform me that without a union card, I couldn’t play for money and that my bandmates would be fined for working with a non-union player. While there was a question about my eligibility to become a member based on age, there was no question about the union’s eagerness to collect money from me.
I wasn’t old enough to drive, but I signed on as a union member.
In a gigging economy, no union can effectively protect its members from the hundreds, if not thousands, of venues that provide work. The union will establish minimum payments to whatever venues it reaches and it’s up to the musicians to comply. But if you’re a cabaret musician and scale is $35, you’ll take $25 because you’re hungry and need the work.
In Cleveland, where I joined Local 4 in 1969, the union processed its members’ pay in the form of a payroll. If you worked under scale, you’d have to add your own cash to meet the scale requirements—or face hefty fines. When I joined 802 in New York, there seemed to be little difference.
It’s sometimes challenging to be a unionist. I was a long-standing member of the American Federation of Musicians and experienced nothing of much value. I helped unionize the production side—paste-up workers, camera operators, et cetera—of the Daily Illini, a privately held company with no direct connection with the University of Illinois.
At heart, I know the labor unions provide a lot of benefits to its members. It’s too bad that there is such avarice that unions need to exist to seek good wages, benefits, and safe working conditions in the first place.
And that is why the unions deserve our support.
Photography by Courtney A. Liska
LINGUINE WITH CLAMS
This is one of my favorite meals. It’s easy to throw together and the flavors are absolutely fabulous.
6-8 whole fresh clams
2 Tbs. minced garlic
1 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
1 small can whole baby clams, with juice
1/4 cup dry white wine
pinch fresh Italian parsley
pinch of red pepper flakes
1/2 cup cream
2 tsp. butter
4-6 oz. dried linguine, cooked per package instructions
Place a sauté pan over high heat and add the garlic and oil. Cook until fragrant.
Place the 6 whole clams in the sauté pan and add the can of whole baby clams including the juice. Add white wine, parsley, red pepper, cream, and butter and continue cooking until it thickens slightly.
Place the linguine in a shallow bowl. Arrange whole clams around the edges and pour the sauce on top.