Unions in America: Love ‘em or Hate ‘em, Hell, Who Cares Anymore?

When I was a young boy in oil-rich South Texas my father worked at Gulf Refinery in Port Arthur at the Barrel House. That was a manual labor position where you hoisted and carried and transferred big barrels of grease and lube oil on wagons pulled by mules sometimes. It was wartime during WWII and you had to work, i.e., you had no choice. See, Uncle Sam had declared the oil refining business one most critical to the war so you had to work or face jail. So despite the fact that dad had had only one eye since he was 5 and could not join the Army due to that handicap, he still had to work at the Gulf Oil Refinery in the Barrel House. It was not optional.

Before that my father had worked with his wife, my mother, as teachers in a one-room country school house in the country, and they only made $900 a year, the both of them.  So Dad heard about the wonderful, high-paying jobs down on the Gulf Coast, and he and Mom drug up from teaching and went for the big money in South Texas. 

Dad finally got promoted to a job in the Gulf Refinery Accounting Main Office at the Port Arthur refinery.  He was sharp at figures and rose up fast through the ranks, but he was still Union to the core, tried and true.  He was elected by his Union peers to the Chairman of the Workmen’s Committee which was a feather in anyone’s cap who belonged to the AFL-CIO (which later become the OCAW:  Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union).  Many people thought unions were bad, even though organized labor numbered in the thousands of members. 

The Gulf Coast of South Texas had more refineries than any other place on earth back in oil’s early days. Giants flourished like the Texas Company (later, Texaco), Gulf Oil Corporation (the Mellons of Pittsburg, Pa who found their way to the notable giant oil deposits at Spindletop near Beaumont.  That’s right, the Mellons bought land near the ocean at Port Arthur and piped and shipped the oil 15 miles down to Port Arthur where it was refined into gasoline and other wondrous oil products used by all of mankind.  Other refineries flourished down in South Texas, e.g., Pure Oil, Magnolia (later Mobil), Shell Oil (then Royal Dutch Shell), Humble Oil (later Esso, then Enco, then Exxon).  There was much heavy industry work to be done, and unions were organized and dug in early on down there near the Gulf of Mexico which proved a great shipping point from the vast oil fields in South Texas on the water.  Good waterways from Sabine Pass on up the Neches River to Beaumont enabled thriving barge business for transferring oil from Spindletop in Beaumont down to Port Arthur refineries in less than 2 hours one way.  All the planets lined up as if God’s own finger was directing the potter’s wheel of life, prosperity, and this new discovery, oil.  And union jobs at any refinery were among the highest in the nation at the time.

I did not know what a union was back in the mid-40s just before the end of WWII, but I knew that my Dad liked unions and that many of my friends in grammar school hated them (I supposed because their parents did).  They hated Democrats, too, but in Texas you had to belong to the Democratic Party back then or face defeat at the ballot box.  Shoot, even LBJ was a closet Republican running on the Democratic Party way back when he played footsie with Brown Root who was, I would guess one of the first military industrial complex corporations in bed with key elected officials in Washington.  That’s right, LBJ prospered when he saw the money of Brown-Root and Kellog Construction (the division of Brown Root that built all the refineries).  But he was not unlike all the other politicians.  They all smiled at the money because those big oil bucks meant reelection.  And they would slap their grandma in a minute to have access to the money and hence, an ongoing life of ease and wealth in politics, you see.

Some of the most conservative of all Texas Democrats soon became labeled as such so to speak, and you knew that they would soon as vote with Republicans on states’ rights issues as well as against the unions whom they believed held up the corporations with a loaded pistol.  Unions used the fear of strike and shutting down the refineries, and management came to hate unions from the git-go.  I asked my Dad one time why unions did not like the company men, to wit, why couldn’t they both agree to get along for the mutual good of both?  Well, to be honest, his answer was a bit convoluted. He did not know why unions needed to use muscle and the strength of their numbers to strike to get their points and “grievances” as he called them to be listened to and acted upon by management or the “company” but he knew that it was an unholy alliance to say the least.  It would me more likely that the Capulet’s and Montague’s could get along and allow Romeo and Juliet to marry without incident or all the necessary killings to justify the honor, imagined or real, on either side of the hedge.

“But who is the Oil Can Harry here, the union or the company?”  I asked him.

He was not anti-company, though he was strong in his beliefs that unions were necessary and a way to ensure more prosperity for the working man.  He did feel that management held out and tried to squeeze the last drop of blood out of the working man without much or any regard for the workers because they were the enemy, wink, wink.  He did not know why companies needed to glean most all of the profits from the business, but they just did.  They would not yield and give in to the workers.  They possessed an Ayn Rand view of the world and how workers wanted to slack off and be paid for doing nothing much, especially developing ideas that would make money which the workers had little of.  You belonged to a unique club in management.  Maybe you weren’t better than those in the working class who worked for you but it sure seemed so in the minds of those who “have.”  The “have nots” didn’t even get a mention by George W. Bush at that banquet of reporters.  He mentioned that his own base was the “Have Mores.”  It is hard to forget that when he said that, all of us who were not of that class were outsiders looking in.  At the president of the United States defining a new kind of class consciousness here in America.  Jeesus, George was your Texas neck really that red at the time?  Guess so.

Management or company men, Dad thought, were just like George W. Bush.  Until Dad became one.  Yes, Dad took a position in management at Gulf Oil in the Accounting Department.  All the former union friends he had made stayed true to him.  He did not change much.  His presence in management perhaps was the most noble one ever rendered from union to management in the halls of Gulf Oil.  So I asked him to explain how du Pont Chemicals could pay good wages and keep employees when they had never had union entrenched in the big plants that dotted the Gulf of Mexico.  Well, they were an exception, but Dad did not know why or how.  But they did not strike and had pretty good company benefits for the workers without unions.  I guess I will never know why or how du Pont dodged the bullet on having to put up with unions.  Or if Atlas Shrugged was about a few “Have Mores” as Bush dubbed them who were born with a silver spoon allowance that enabled them to run companies and make management decisions that the common working man could only aspire to make but never could pull off.  George W. Bush, with his 92 IQ sure never aspired to create anything of value, nor did he know how to do so.  He knew how to play the part written for him and had the money that would never dry up to make it happen.  He simply did not have to ever say or do anything intelligent.  Was this stupid world of affluents that Ayn Rand wrote about real or was it conceived from a vacation she took from reality in La La Land?  Certainly Ms. Rand did not devote much time in her great novel to the dust bowl paupers in Oklahoma a la Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.  So what do you have to do to get on the starting blocks to take off like the favored rich are so famous for doing?

At this juncture, why argue about the merits of the working class, unions, or the rich?  Most new kids on the block here in America or Germany or Greece won’t pick up on the comparisons, contrasts, or really give much of a damn about either.  They are off to a summer of wind-surfing, tennis, travel and other pursuits of a world gone stale with humans in denial, in pursuit of wealth no matter how it is obtained, and a pocket edition of Joseph Goebbels handy to help them never run out of lies or forget how to implement them so that they become truth and profitable.  The reason affluents resist and poke humor at minimum wage is because they presume to be better than the petty pursuit of money so insufficient when it comes to having what they seek:  luxury cars, big mansions, a good 401K and lifetime healthcare plan be it from their company or the government when retirement time comes.  They truly are the “Have Mores” who are George W. Bush’s base, aren’t they?  Funny how so many of them profess to be Christians when their attitude about the poor and minimum wage is so harshly insensitive. 

The world has become a post-funeral gathering where humans are out picking the carcasses of the remaining items of perceived value as spoils to someone who has the courage to step up to the plate and claim the prize.  You know, the Uncle Mark’s and Aunt Suzy’s who come in their pickups to take Aunt Myra’s (dearly departed) chest of drawers or vases or porcelain figurines before Allen or some other morally bankrupt forager descends upon the death booty.

Unions are no more.  They are but the honest and honorable remains of working men and women who dared stand up to the companies they worked for and to ask for a decent wage and decent working conditions.  They used to get healthcare benefits from their respective companies, but few companies give significant healthcare coverage to its employees anymore.  Or a scholarship to the kids of employees.  Without unions it feels like we have become a nation of have-nots in a sea of gluttonous monsters who would screw people programs like Social Security and Medicare and Pell Grants to the wall just so a compromise might help pay back all the borrowing and spending incurred in our invading Iraq, Afghanistan, and occupying them both.  But hey it was good times for the Ayn Rand types of the world and a lot of fun.  Just think of all the hammers and Tomahawk Missiles we got to sell on no-bid contracts.

And now our part score champion and president Barack Obama has put programs like Social Security and Medicare on the cutting table to assuage Republicans for other political considerations.  Really, Mr. President!  Shame, shame.  Bet you never were in a union, either.  But then neither was George W. Bush.