In the second Democratic debate, Washington Governor Jay Inslee was asked a question about the dire need for us to face radical climate change, a subject he’s announced was the centerpiece of his campaign for the presidency.
But before he talked about it, he gave a rousing cheer for labor unions which was greeted with cheers from the audience. I was cheering, too.
I’d just read a powerful essay in the September 2018 Harper’s (I’ll have to repeat this a number of times, I fear: I am way behind in my mag readings) by Garret Keizer, “Labor’s Last Stand: Unions must either demand a place at the table or be part of the meal.”
Time and again I find that union pride goes hand-in-hand with pride in the work. I ask a twenty-nine-year-old California ironworker named Steve Bowlus to tell me about what he does. “I’ve found a home in the structural industry,” Bowlus says. “I just love being up high. There’s nothing like being up on a high-rise and seeing those beams flying with the crane. There’s nothing like it in the world.”
Bowlus has been an ironworker since 2011 but wasn’t able to break into union jobs until 2014. I ask him what difference joining the Iron Workers union made. His doubled income and the novelty of medical coverage, a difference of “night and day” for him and his family, are not the first benefits he names. What he mentions first is a sense of “more structure on the job, more organization and job safety.” The second thing he mentions is the periodic training provided–and required–by his union, of learning how to do everything from driving forklifts to signaling cranes “the right way.” Only then do we talk about pay raises and dental plans.
And the last paragraphs should make your heart thump:
When I asked Haitian immigrant Loise Joseph, a “way finder” a LaGuardia Airport working thirty-two hours a week for eleven dollars an hour, if there was anything she liked about her job, she said she liked helping people who become “overwhelmed or frazzled.” When I asked her why she wanted to belong to a union, she told me about her “beautiful, wonderful children,” aged nine and four. And when I asked her if she wasn’t afraid that her very visible role in a pro-union rally would lead to retaliation from the powers that be, she answered for every worker in America, including every harried immigrant from the “shithole countries” on our chief executive’s war-room map.
“Let them come,” she said.