Why I Joined the Picket Line

Why I Joined the Picket Line by Steve Clemens. June 10, 2010

I’ve never been a member of a union. In fact, I was raised in an anti-union family. My father-in-law broke a union picket line as a management-level worker before I was married. My lens was always from the management side of the labor equation.

My family of origin continues in the meat packing industry. From the age of 7 my brothers and I were required to work in the family business before and after school by my parents. My Dad paid me 15 cents/hour at the beginning in 1957 and I was ecstatic when I turned 15 and could get my “working papers” which qualified me for the current minimum wage of $1.15/hour. What could be a tale of the horrors of “child labor abuse” was instead a memory for me of family, teamwork, and pride in being able to contribute in a meaningful way at whatever age I was.

The family business prided itself in caring for its employees. Granted, my perspective (and relationship with the other employees) was necessarily affected by my father’s position as Vice President of the company. The other corporate officers were my uncles and I had other aunts and cousins to work alongside. I saw first-hand the working conditions, made friendships with fellow employees, and worked a variety of jobs within the firm before my last time of employment when I started graduate school in 1973. I took pride in the profit-sharing plan that was established early on for employees and heard recent stories how several workers I worked alongside in my youth have retired with more than a million dollars in their profit-sharing accounts after 40 or 50 year careers in the business.

I’m sure there were times of frustration and disagreement between some of the workers and my dad and my uncles but it seemed to me that their personal religious values and integrity was integral to the way they ran the family business. It appeared to me to be modeled more on compassion and charity than justice. Workers were paid the prevailing (union-established) wage for the meat packing industry and probably a little more – plus the profit-sharing plan which made the lure of union organizing within that company less appealing to those workers. The business saw the value of “giving back” to the community by always donating a minimum of 10% of the profits to charitable organizations before any dividends were paid to shareholders. But, working within the capitalist ethos, justice was skewed in that “management” shared disproportionately in the profits. Those taking “the risks” reaped most of the “rewards”. That may have been true in the early years of the business but after it was fully established, the risks became fewer as the rewards increased disproportionately. But capitalism is seldom concerned with justice and seemingly more concerned with channeling greed.

So what led me on my journey to the striking picket line in 2010?

Part of that answer is my wife’s profession. As a Registered Nurse, one is trained to advocate and care for one’s patients. When Christine switched professions from an elementary public school teacher to return to college for her RN degree, she did so in the context of living in rural southwestern Georgia. Unions were virtually nonexistent in the area in her early jobs as an RN in the local hospital, public health department, or the local primary care clinic in President Jimmy Carter’s hometown of Plains, GA. After some time away from the profession after our sons were born and then we moved “up north” to Minnesota, Christine returned to work again as a nurse.

In the past 19 years, she has watched the hospitals where she works as a post-partum (mother-baby) nurse grow more corporate and less compassionate in its treatment of both the workers and the patients. Cost-cutting measures seem paramount in the struggle with adequate staffing and patient care. LPNs and Nurses Aides are given part of the responsibilities often done by nurses in the past and then those positions are cut or reduced leaving many nurses overworked as they are understaffed. Much of the blame can rightly be shifted to an increasingly dysfunctional heathcare-for-profit-by-insurance model we presently endure. But it is often the nurse and the patient who suffers the brunt of present dysfunction.

When Christine looked at the present concession proposals demanded by the hospitals for the present contract negotiations, her first thought was: “Oh no, this looks a lot like the policies I faced in Georgia 30 years ago!” It wasn’t just the weather climate – but also the political climate – that led us to move to Minnesota.

Lord Acton told us “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Yes some unions are corrupt. I was raised with the sordid tales of Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamsters Union. As an anti-war demonstrator I experienced some of the racism and militarism of some powerful union leaders in the 1960s and 70s. And, it seems, the more powerful the unions become, the more danger there is of them being controlled by individuals seeking their own interests above the groups they purport to represent. On the other side, we find hospitals, many of which were started by compassionate religious groups, are now in the hands of large, “non-profit corporations” which act in the marketplace no different than for-profit corporations. Local hospital CEOs are pulling in million dollar a year salaries and their boards are peopled with the “movers and shakers” of the community rather than the pastors, social workers, and other “common folk” of their early years. Remember when the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet ran St. Mary’s Hospital before it merged with the Lutheran Fairview – before it merged again with the University of MN? Sister Kate McDonald is no longer at the admitting desk, she’s now on the picket line!

I admit it: I am biased in this fight. I know Christine to be a committed, conscientious, and compassionate nurse. I am tired of having her return home from her latest shift to tell me how under-staffed her unit is at the hospital. She wants to have time to help new mothers learn the “art” of breastfeeding but is too often pulled away from that teaching and nurturing function by the other demands caused by having too few other support staff or being assigned too many patients. When many of her patients are recent immigrants with language or cultural challenges or young mothers with social or chemical challenges, it is crucial that proper care be rendered – especially when new life is now part of the equation. Even for those who seem to worship the “bottom line” should recognize the need – survey after survey reports that a positive birthing experience in a hospital often results in a positive life-long association for that patient’s family with that hospital. Good care can translate into good future “customer relations”. It should be enough to warm whatever cockles might still reside in that cold capitalist heart. Yet our economy seems to only care about immediate, short-term profits, cynically disregarding the long-term costs.

What we need are hospital administrators who recognize their employees as valuable assets rather than another group to divide and conquer. I think of the words of our late, great U.S. Senator, Paul Wellstone: “When we all do better, we all do better.” This strike is about insuring justice and right treatment for both workers and patients. It is no accident that the whole country is watching what happens to these Twin City nurses. If the hospitals are able to break the back of this union which is comprised of mostly white, middle-class women, are any other workers safe from a predatory capitalism which continues to destroy our natural environment (the Gulf of Mexico is just the most recent, egregious example) and the workers?

I stand (and march) with my wife and her co-workers. I carried the union sign with pride and gratitude.

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