I grew up in a right-to-work state, so unions are a bit exotic to me. Most of what I learned about them growing up came through popular entertainments: both ones of local interest like Matewan and Denise Giardina’s Storming Heaven (about the infamous Battle of Blair Mountain) that told the story of the coal unions, and better-known ones like On the Waterfront and Ransom, which was the subject of a lawsuit by the Machinists’ union in 1996 for its depiction of the organization. As Thomas Geoghegan put it in his book Which Side Are You On? Trying to Be for Labor When It’s Flat on its Back:
Sometimes I represent Teamster dissidents who get beaten up at the Union hall. Oh yes, really beaten up, like Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront. It is just like the movies, and in a way, even the goons, or the smarter goons, are weirdly conscious of their connection to kitsch. There are moments when I expect all of us to break into little half-smiles. That is the problem with the Teamsters: Hoffa, the Mob, et al. have made the Teamsters into an icon of pop culture, like Elvis. It is hard to take it seriously.
Geoghegan is a near-lifelong labor lawyer. So the kitsch runs deep. Since I grew up in Virginia, just up the rail lines from coal country, I was inculcated with the extremes of both depictions of labor unions: a broader but not more realistic view.
The bad side came rushing back when I read Jason Grotto’s investigative work—with the help of Mark Suppelsa and Marsha Bartel of WGN—on former Chicago Federation of Labor president Dennis Gannon:
Tribune/WGN-TV investigation has found that Gannon is eligible for the lucrative pension deal only because City Hall rehired the former Streets and Sanitation Department worker for a single day in 1994, then granted him an indefinite leave of absence.
State law allowed Gannon to retire from the city in 2004, the year he turned 50; since then, he has received about $1 million from his city pension. He stands to collect approximately $5 million during his lifetime, according to an analysis based on the fund’s actuarial assumptions.
What I can I even say? Well, besides directing you to Rich Miller’s explanation of the poor legislative habits that saddled us with this sort of thing. Blame Gannon, of course, but it takes two to tango.
John Kass writes: “After I read Grotto’s reporting, I was so angry I could hardly see. Desperate people are out of work in Illinois.”
There’s that. Then there are the people who do have jobs, union jobs, and who want to keep a pension amid tension about fraying social safety nets, and this drops when the city and state badly need to have a rational discussion about the difficulties of maintaining fair pensions over time. And there’s the idea that someone who should ideally serve as a check against power inequities—for fair deals—received a $130,000 pension one year while still working for the union.
Thanks in part to our neighbors to the north, people are talking about unions—and union-busting—again. The move against unions in states like Wisconsin is often attributed to the rise of bigger and bigger businesses and the increasing conservatism of the Republican party, but it’s worth remembering that some of the damage is self-inflicted and the trend across party identification has followed.
The talk about unions is also more oppositional, between both union-buisiness and union-state, which worries labor supporters. But maybe it shouldn’t. As Geoghegan wrote:
So when the state turned on labor, as it did later on, labor didn’t know how to fight back. It had to “anti-statist” tradition to fall back on, as Lech Walesa or Solidarity would have now, if their “New Deal” in Poland ever fell apart.
This is what [John L.] Lewis knew, too, and what he was trying his damndest, even in the thirties, to say:
We should never, ever, embrace the state.
We should never completely join the New Deal.
Embracing the state, of course, is exactly what allowed this latest local scandal to occur, and why the whole thing looks to be legal. So maybe it’s not just about preserving the ability to fight back, but also the ability to fight the temptations of power.
Photograph: Chicago Tribune