Glory Days

          She emailed a picture of me and a group of other guys on our last day at Washington Grade School. If Carol had not told me the names of those standing casually in front of a wall, I am not sure that I would have recognized any, even me, although we had all been classmates and would be for four more years in high school.

          I replied to Carol, and we struck up a correspondence. Each time she would attach a picture with me in it and would ask about my memories of some event—the safety patrol picnic, for example—which I hardly remembered at all. Recently she said that she had only one more picture to send, although she had Sheboygan Press clippings that mentioned me. She felt certain that I already had these. I assumed that her assumption was wrong. I don’t dwell much on those “Glory Days.” After all I did not have an outstanding high school speedball, though I did hit a walk-off home run in my first Little League game. But…but…but then I vaguely remembered that I had a file in a rarely-opened drawer labeled “High School.” I dumped its contents onto my desk and a flotilla of faded newspaper clippings floated across it. This unexpected volume of paper was misleading. From handwritten notes I realized that aunts and friends and even the local bank had sometimes sent my parents an article they had clipped out of the evening paper if it mentioned me, so my high school file had many duplicates.

          On the other hand, the Press published articles about high school students that a paper in a larger town (Sheboygan had a population of about 45,000) no doubt would not have, and thus the clippings did contain a fair number of separate stories. Even though I played high school sports, there were no mentions of my athletic accomplishments. There were good reasons for that. My four-point basketball average did not draw much attention. The athletic glory days ended in grade school.

I remembered many of the events chronicled in the clippings, but there was one that surprised me. I did not remember winning the Constitution Contest sponsored by Sheboygan Elks Lodge 299, although I remembered placing third in the state constitution contest sponsored by the Elks. The story said I had won $150. How could I forget such a thing?! That was a significant amount of money to me, and my parents, back then—the equivalent of about $1,300 today. By comparison, I had my first forty-hour-a-week job that summer. I was paid the minimum wage, which was $1.25 an hour. Work a day and get paid ten bucks. Work three weeks and get $150 — the same amount I got for taking a two- or three-hour test. (That $1.25 an hour minimum wage translates to about $11.10 an hour today, a paltry amount but still more than the national minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.) I don’t have the vaguest notion of what I did with my $150 largesse.

          What I found most interesting was not reading about me or my classmates, but the stories on the back or surrounding the clippings. They revealed that I did not know as many things about Sheboygan as I thought I did. Growing up, I thought of the area as safe, but there were more hazardous happenings than I was aware of. For example, a driver struck and killed a 500-pound black calf on County Trunk S. “He said that two calves suddenly ran across the road in front of his car and he was unable to avoid striking one of them.” The story did not report any damage to the driver or damage to the vehicle.

Cooking oil on a residential stove ignited and the fire department was called. “The blaze was extinguished by the time firemen arrived, but they used fans to ventilate the home.”

A truck ran into a road barricade, and the driver was charged, but the clipping cut off the rest of the story, so I did not find out with what.

A man not feeling well left his work at a furniture manufacturer. He felt worse as he was headed to the hospital and flagged down a patrol car “to take him the rest of the way. He apparently suffered a slight heart attack.”

A 9-year-old “suffered a bump to the back of the head and bruises to the left arm in a fall from his bicycle.”

A warning went out about a poisonous bean used in necklaces, rosaries, and as dolls’ eyes.

          The town had crime unknown to me. Six weeks after a night of vandalism that included dragging a swing set and garbage cans into the street and opening car doors, twenty boys and girls were apprehended and referred to the juvenile authorities. A Mr. James Prigge discovered that windshield wipers, the radio aerial, horn ring, steering wheel, gas pedal and floorboards were ripped out, a tire was flattened, and the cigar-lighter was missing from his seven-year-old car that had been parked in his company’s parking lot. (A disgruntled employee? General labor trouble? Or just vandalism? I did not have a follow-up story.) An owner of a plumbing supply company reported that in the last two days chrome pipes were stolen from a storage area. “He valued the missing supplies at $4.20.”

“Vickie Fintelmann reported her J.C. Higgins bicycle, valued at $15, stolen from the Kuehne Court playground.” This surprised me. I went to that playground on my bike almost every day during the summer. We left the bikes unattended, and there was no thought in those days of locking them. I had never heard of one being stolen. But perhaps Vickie’s bike was tempting because it was a J.C. Higgins. Almost everyone, both boys and girls, rode a single speed bicycle with wide tires, often with a basket on the front. Then a few people showed up at the bike racks with the fancy “English-style” bicycles with narrow tires and three gears, and I think the J.C. Higgins fell into that category. My memory is that my correspondent Carol, on whom I always had a crush, was the first I knew to have such a bike although hers may have been a Raleigh.

(Continued May 28)

Put Labor Back into Labor Day (concluded)

          Ofttimes unions have been a scapegoat for various economic woes. At the time that Japanese car companies were first making major inroads into the American market and American automobile makers started to decline, I was at a party where I met Tina who worked for a major investment house. She railed against the auto unions and blamed them for the problems of General Motors and their brethren. I found this strange. The Japanese car companies were then known to take much better care of their workers than their American counterparts. That didn’t seem to indicate that the unions were the real cause of the problems. On the other hand, Japan car companies had devised a superior just-in-time system of assembly line production that the Americans did not have. The Japanese were simply more efficient. The foreign companies were simply better managed, but for Tina, and many others, it was easier to blame unions than to criticize the American corporate structure.

          It is not just narratives like Tina’s that has made the American corporate war on unions successful. It has been aided by laws passed by conservative states and legal decisions by conservative courts. It has also been furthered by our immigration laws and enforcement. Periodically, as happened recently, ICE raids a plant and arrests hundreds of undocumented aliens working there. Gee, how does it happen that those large numbers were at the same workplace? Did management not know they were there? Perhaps such a raid seems to harm the companies because they lose a workforce, but instead they aid the owners. The workers are soon replaced, and a message is sent out to them and to others in different companies: Don’t draw attention to yourselves by unionizing or complaining about wages or unsafe and other working conditions. Such attention can lead to your deportation. Until such raids have serious consequences for the companies and management, the raids just nurture low wages and dangerous work environments.

The number of unionized private sector jobs is about one-fifth of what it once was, well under ten percent. The consequences for the country have been immense. A study concluded that a major cause of our rising income inequality has been the decline of unions.  See It is not just that the wages in what were unionized jobs have not kept pace, but also that when unions were strong, companies often increased wages to stave off unionization efforts.

          There has also been a political fallout. Who you hang out with affects your views. Politicians no longer seek out union support as they once did. They hang out with corporate and other business leaders. That is where the money is, and money increasingly controls our political process. In the 2016 election cycle, business outspent labor by sixteen to one, with businesses spending $3 billion on lobbying and unions spending $48 million.

          Unions in the past worked for laws that helped all working people, but now they have little effect. This is part of the reason that, unlike in other developed countries, we do not have guaranteed paid parental leave, paid vacations or sick days, and the minimum wage as a percentage of the median wage is lower than in other developed countries. Instead, we have seen the rise of unpaid interns in the work force and workers forced into arbitration systems that favor corporations. We have also seen a major shift to temporary and contract workers. Google, for example, has more temporary and contract workers than full-time employees.

            This is not to suggest that everything unions might advocate for is necessarily a good thing, but as the union voice is increasingly drowned out by the big money coming from a relative handful of rich people something important has been lost in our country. (If you want to be depressed, read Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer.)Unions may still be in the dining room, but they are at the kids table and seldom heard.

On Labor Day we can have picnics and hit the back-to-school sales, but the day was meant to be a commemoration of organized labor. We have politicians who proclaim a concern for blue collar workers, but our present political system is rigged so that labor can be largely ignored, and corporations can be served.  Without a strong labor movement, the country is not as well off as it ought to be. Let’s put Labor back into Labor Day.