The Labor Movement Is Us

Some people go on and on about labor unions as if they’re some kind of STD, so un-hip to the reality that the Labor Movement is us, We the People.

Who else labors?

As far as my relations with unions is concerned, if it hadn’t been for the San Diego Teachers Union I wouldn’t have enjoyed the time of a lifetime, a period of three years where I put work aside and took a “Parental Leave,” the first such leave taken by a man in the school district.

I don’t know how that wonderful opportunity made it through all the stancing and dancing required to get a contract signed. I think it must have happened as kind of an after thought, something put on the table as part of a tooth fairy like wish to mess with management’s mind, and the district must have gone along with it in a “Whatever, if it sails your boat” frame of mind, knowing they weren’t going to give up much more. That’s how negotiations go in the labor movement sometimes.

But, hey, I jumped like a contestant in a slam dunk contest at the chance to just hang out with my newly born twin girls and their mom without having to show up for running a school for a while. That time in my life ranks as the fondest of my memories of life with my family. And that loss of three years of “Pension Benefits?” No sweat. Not a single regret. It hasn’t dampened the joy of my “Retirement” in any way. Just knowing that I, because of the union, was guaranteed a job equal to the one I had when I took off, took care of my needs and desires.

And the joy of which I speak is the feeling that comes with having worked since the age of five and now 69 years later having funds deposited in my bank account every month for as long as I remain alive. That this deal is one of the Labor Movement’s greatest accomplishments is a notion to which I subscribe.

And for that, alone, I’m a union kind of person to the bone. When I was working and didn’t feel too well I’d call my area director on the phone to let her know I was staying home. “Sick Leave.” And I’d go to the doctor because I had “Health Benefits” going back to the days when I was a beginning teacher making what some jokers considered a “Living Wage.” A barely liveable wage is what it was but over time the union made progress towards gaining better compensation, always fighting, sometimes resorting to striking. That’s what “We the People,” the unions, are supposed to do. Or it won’t get done.

So when I hear folks bashing the Labor Movement I just don’t understand. What’s served but madness if we rail against ourselves?

I mean the Labor Movement played a major role in gaining “Civil Rights,” our most precious of rights, our right to political and social freedom and equality.

Without the Labor Movement I wonder who we would be and what we would do without, say, OSHA and what would life be like if there was no “Unemployment Insurance” or “Child Labor Laws” or “Social Security” or no such things as “Work Place Power” or “Minimum Wage” or “Grievance Procedures” or “Workers Comp” or “Paid Vacations” or “Overtime Pay?” And how about “Domestic Partner Benefits” which helped pave the way to further conversations and actions seeking more rights and opportunities for people who are gay?

And let’s not forget everybody’s favorite gift from the Labor Movement: “The Weekend!” Oh, we love it so much it makes us yell to the sky, or mutter in a sigh, “TGIF!” Time off! Party time! For me it was a time for my children’s soccer games and hockey games and t-ball games and baseball games and track meets and swim meets and piano and dance recitals – sprinkled with causes of my heart like taking a stand with Cesar’s United Farm Workers in behalf of “Farm Labor Rights,” chanting in front of giant grocery store chains: “Don’t Buy California Grapes!” With strawberries, tomatoes, Gallo Wine and Campbell Soup getting their due too at other times.

The Labor Movement has a long colorful exciting history that’s been totally about us yet there are some among us who seek to make all that the movement has done, history (think, Wisconsin and Ohio). If this were to happen we would fall short of fulfilling one of the movement’s more glorious struggles: “Equal pay for Equal Work.”

Put sadly and simply we would be giving up on ourselves, our power to make our lives better as a potential progressive society and if, indeed, we were to let the movement die we’d better be ready to revive that old spiritual: “Nobody knows de trouble I’ve seen” – a song first sung by people, slaves, who, of course, had no protections in their workplace.

Truly nobody knows the trouble we’ll see if we aren’t vigilant in protecting our rights as workers which are closely attached, in essence, to our hopes and dreams. We need to think critically, my friends, and take a long hard look at our history and come to realize that all that is of lasting value on our jobs was given to us by ourselves: the Labor Movement. We the People have got to stand together, more united than ever before, and keep it alive.

Photo courtesy of


Ernie McCray

I was raised in a loving and alive home, in a black neighborhood filled with colorful characters in Tucson, Arizona. Such an environment gave me a hint that life has to be grabbed by the tail as tight as a pimple on a mosquito's butt. With no BS and a whole lot of love. So, from those days to now I get up every morning set on making the world a better place. On my good foot*, and I hope my writing reflects that. *an old black expression

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  1. avatarDavid says

    So… Regarding the Chicago Teacher’s strike…. I have a question:…

    How can a group of highly educated professionals making $75,000 a year (avg) for working nine months with benefits, justify putting 350,000 kids on the street… ?

    A more important question:… How is this week of lost learning going to be made up in a school district that only graduates 60% of its students… ?

    I guess if I already knew the answers to these questions I would not be here…


    Dave Beekman
    Spring Valley Ca

    ps: Ernie… Good work above… Yep… I remember my dad always worked six days a week back in our Tucson Days… Thanks to the labor movement, I never had to do that… BTW… I don’t remember my College professors working Fridays either… What’s up with that ?…. : )

    • avatarErnie McCray says

      Hey, homie, we get what we can get. I remember after graduating from the U of A, I worked briefly in Louie’s Lower Level while working on a masters – for some ridiculous wage as we students were not unionized – and all that basketball stardom was worth less than the pay. They just wanted me to fry those burgers and keep my mouth closed. Then I worked at Hughes for a while, still while in school, and it was there that I first got a close look at how, without unions, laborers would have nothing that remotely looked like a “benefit.” As to the Chicago Teachers Strike, I see Doug’s suggestion here and I echo it. Jim Miller, as well as anybody I know, has a take on labor issues that’s always worth paying attention to.

      • avatarAngela Sciacqua-Smith says

        Mr. McCray,
        I am proud to say that I am a former student of yours (quite a few years back at Muir Alt. School)! I am also proud to say I am a teacher who believes your view of the necessity of unions. Still as erudite as ever Mr. McCray.

        • avatarErnie McCray says

          We are, indeed, talking a “few years back.” Good to hear from you, Angela. So glad you’re teaching and thinking critically which was a big part of John Muir Alternative School – a place I loved dearly, a source of so many of my facebook friends.

  2. avatarDavid says

    That was good read…. but my most important question is still not answered…

    How is this week of lost learning going to be made up in a school district that only graduates 60% of its students… ?

    Teachers are not ‘Grape Pickers’ or factory workers.. Striking is beneath them…
    An extended strike borders on criminal behavior… in my opinion….

    The Union has made it’s point… Now: Lets get back to work… !

    Dave B.
    Spring Valley

  3. avatarrick trujillo says

    This story and conversation repeats all over the u.s., yes? Where, in the 21st Century, on the Continent of Our Americas (as opposed to their– 1% america) is there a way out of this utter, cyclical mess? Look to Europe? Look to Elections? Look to the ‘news”? Look to their experts? Nope, none of those, including the the ever present incompetent union leadership, nationwide,…who have taught the rank and file how to beg for what is theirs in the first place. That’s their biggest labor crime.
    Education, limitless education, cradle to grave is a right of all humanity. That’s the staring point. Pointless questions about making up lost time etc., are, in fact pointless in the context of competitive learning. Why do scientists compete? Now there’s a question.
    Teachers, out of work, poorly compensated, demonized (even the assholes) and this is civilization? No worries, the semper fi crew is on alert to defend us from harm and ignorance to the nth degree. George Armstrong Custer lives. Our Sioux won at Little Big Horn then it all went to hell. Xican@ Politics 101.

  4. avatarDavid says

    So my son, who is ‘fresh out of college’, asks me…..”Do they really make 75k a year?. I don’t think even my College instructors made that”….

    Dad’s reply:
    That’s because The Art Institute of Denver (and everywhere else) is run as a BUSINESS… No ‘coddling’ to teachers, administrators, janitors or their unions…

    Don’t get me wrong… Unions have provided just about every benefit we non union folks have enjoyed over the past 60 years… The five day 40 hr work week, Medical& Dental benefits and Safe work conditions for everyone but ironically… Teachers… !!

    Just ask any of my friends who have worked in the inner city schools as they started their careers…. No kevlar vests for those folks…


  5. avatar says

    One of the most important benefits of unions today is that they are the major contributors to the Democratic Party, especially the teachers’ unions, especially the NEA and the AFT. Without those unions the Democratic Party would have lost its funding base completely. That’s why Republican power brokers are so anxious to get rid of them. The country is only 7% unionized today compared to 30% 30 years ago. Since most people are no longer in unions, a lot of them don’t identify with unions any more and are in fact anti-union. The private sector is for the most part deunionized. It’s only unions in the government sector that are keeping the union movement and in fact the Democratic Party alive at all.

    That’s why governmnent worker unions need to be supported, and the deunionizing governors such as Scott Walker need to be gotten rid of.