Ezra Klein asks

Have you or anyone close to you belonged to a union? How did that change your impressions of organized labor in general?

For 17 years or so my mother was a shop steward for the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union. She was a weaver in at Cone Mill’s White Oak plant in Greensboro, North Carolina. She eventually left that job to become a full time union organizer.

I grew up in the Union, so my impressions were formed by it. Those impressions evolved considerably as I grew older, both because of observations about the union and the world around it.

Observations from Growing Up in a Union

As a small child I thought that unions were the only way that workers could receive anything above subsistence wages. I also thought that there were intentional erected barriers in society that prevented people, particularly black people, from changing their class. If you were born working class then by-and-large you were destined to stay working class.

We did not use the phrase middle class. Carpenters, mechanics and other skilled laborers were considered well-to-do members of the working class. Doctors and lawyers and other professionals were considered part of the rich.  The least intellectual would often refer to the rich generally as “white people.” 

Though everyone was aware that working class white people were also white, this fact was not pointed out unless there was some explicitly racial conflict. The phrase “white people” generally referred to those not in the working class.

Though the issue rarely came up the assumption was that all rich people would be on the side of the Company. This wasn’t because of ideology but simply identity. The Company was rich. They were rich. There was no reason to presume people would betray their side.

None of this was taught. It was simply the air that we breathed. Working people were working people. The rich were the rich. Unions were the primary mechanism through which working people were protected from the rich.

A variant of Marxism was the accepted ideology of the Union, though the term Marxism was not regularly used. This Union Marxism was seen as different than communism in general or Soviet communism in particular. Those were viewed as perversions; a corrupted version of the perfect world. This corruption was attributed to moral weakness of their leaders.

There were some overt communist sympathizers in the Union, my parents among them. However, these people were considered radicals.

It was also not widely known that there was some worldview other than Union Marxism. Union Marxism had a role for the rich to play and they seemed to be playing it. Thus, it would not occur to someone that the rich had a different system of belief. They simply had a different role. Theirs was to oppress – ours was to struggle for freedom.

Again the Union was the primary instrument through which this could be accomplished. This was because the rich needed our work to maintain their lifestyle. If we withheld our work as a collective then they could be forced into some concessions. Though, this term was never used, the inability of the Union to demand and receive full compensation was thought to be limited by the free rider problem.

Collective action required that we all stand together but some people would naturally decline to suffer the pain of this and this would weaken the effort. This is why the Union had to constantly endeavor to increase its number and instill in its members a esprit de corps.

Loss of Faith

I began to loose my religion somewhere around the age of 10 or 11. That may seem young and people may wonder what religion I had to lose. However, the Union was as pervasive as normal religion or ethnicity. At least by five years of age it had heavily influenced my worldview because it told me things about who I was in the world, who my family was, and who other families were.

Yet by around 10 those things seemed not to be so true. For one thing I in math and science I was tracked along with the children of rich kids. I had rich kid friends and went to visit their homes. I would mention sometimes in the company of their parents that they were rich. This hardly failed to amuse them and they would say that they were not rich. They would explain that some other group of people was rich.

Though I didn’t believe them this planted the seeds of doubt because it meant that they did not share our worldview. That our worldview was true, that everyone knew it and that everyone played their part was something unsaid but core. Hearing people question it was shocking.

I also around this time became fascinated with the notion of community college. I don’t know how I first found this out but I realized that one could not be denied admittance to community college. At the same time, however, it promised access to jobs that were better paying than most working class jobs.

This was sharply at odds with the core theory. The core theory suggested that the system was designed to keep the majority of us from leaving the working class. There would be some exceptions and my parents expected me to be one. Yet, the majority was presumed to be held down.

Yet, here was a vehicle for rising somewhat and it said that admissions were open. Why then I wondered could we not all go to this community college and all escape. I was told that there would not be enough of these skilled jobs for all of us. This seemed unsatisfying and no reason not to try.

The final crack came when my mother became a union organizer. She was regularly admonished for spending too much time helping workers solve nonwork related problems and not enough time building membership.

I became convinced that dues rather than solidarity was behind the drive for more members. My faith in unionism was crushed and I went looking for other answers.

I’m not sure how I was introduced to it but within a short time I had discovered John Locke and  become obsessed with Thomas Jefferson. It was soon after that, that I discovered Milton Friedman and then mainstream economics. All of these influences further weakened my belief that unions had even played a major role in the rise of living standards.