My Childhood and the Unions
Why are Unions so Vitally Important?
A Global Reach-A Single Cause
Charles J. Hunsinger
Growing up with the Unions
The melodic tones of Hank Williams, Bob Wills and Jimmy Wakely were my young life in the 1940’s. Their music was a constant and the words of their songs became truths, became a way of life, of living and of dying. It was a sad and depressive life, in a sad place.
I was the youngest of nine children, of parents who should have never been married. We moved constantly from one rat and cockroach infested house to another, with alcohol and hillbilly music the only constants. Nonpayment of rent was the prime mover. Hillbilly music was the solace and where one hid from life, you hid with the words of Hanks, “I’m so lonesome I could cry”. The words repeating, endlessly, as a forever scratchy 78 record boring into every waking and sleeping moment. The comfort was that someone else understood the emptiness of alone.
Night would fall though and radio stations often went off the air, but as they did the drinking would start, the arguing and fighting would begin, and the family from South Carolina, who shared the house, would begin to play. The music was Hank and Bob and Jimmy, but the instruments, guitars, fiddles and voices were on the back porch.
The arguing and fighting were over the sharing of food between the families, often about nothing, but mostly over unions. This was one slum in Detroit MI., on 16th St., two blocks south of Grand River Blvd. We were one end of the Hillbilly Highway, which brought tens of thousands north to escape the poverty of the south. Poverty was here too, but here because of a single man there was hope; Henry Ford.
Everybody wanted a “car job” and some wanted the protection of the unions more, except my father and my brother. Teeth would be punched out, noses broken, hair pulled and faces scratched. Broken whiskey and beer bottles were used as weapons; men, women and children would fight the union wars on our back porch while the mournful tones of Hank singing, “I’m so lonesome I could cry”, were ever present.
I think, perhaps, that my fondest memory of my father and my brother was their tremendously strong stand against the unions. My father, although an on again off again self employed painter and full time whiskey receptacle, believed that a man must stand or fall by his own strength and not hide behind the “thugs” of the unions. He was not much of a political or patriotic sort, but saw the unions as a thief, a robber of strength and dignity. “A Halloween mask hiding thugs.” was his most repeatable definition of the unions.
These memories were all brought, vividly back to life in the past couple of years. I have watched television news accounts of union activists and the rank and file, what a self imposed description of a human being; rank and file, occupy the Wisconsin State Capitol. The chanting of mindless slogans, spewing union hate and marching, as wind-up toys to the mechanical beat of a puppet master. What was more difficult to watch and to listen to were the very people we have hired to educate our children unable to articulate, intelligently their cause without the use of monosyllabic words and obscene gestures. It is sad that those teachers of quality have such an association with those who are so challenged by life’s misdeeds of intellectual development.
Then there was Chicago and the poor and oppressed teachers, who sought only for the betterment of their students. The students however, were left without schooling, often without a parent at home to care for them, while their caring teachers paraded with nonsensical and misspelled signs. Many of these, $70,000 per year, guardians of our youth, dressed, as if they lived in a cardboard box, spoke with the aggressiveness of a coiled snake, with words that or may not have been from the English language. And they teach our children.
More recently in Michigan where the Right to Work in a supposedly free society and where the Inherent right to work, to achieve, is the essence of The Bill of Rights, is staunchly rejected by the unions, but why? In Michigan we saw what I saw in the 1940’s; greed, not just for money, but power; political and social power over others. We saw in Lansing MI. thugs disguised with Halloween masks, announcing their presence. Punching, swearing and destroying, they proudly waved the union flag. Not all, most certainly, but enough to inscribe the union label on the event..
I left Detroit at the age of 17 to return for a short period of time in the late 60’s. I took a position, as a Foreman with Fords at the Dearborn Iron Foundry, pouring molten iron into engine molds. During my new employee indoctrination the Plant Manager gave a brief talk. He did not smile. His demeanor was hard; his face, his eyes were distant. At the end of his welcoming, he paused and from the inside of his suit withdrew a small booklet. Holding it above his head and looking at each one of us he said, “This is the union contract. This represents what we no longer control at Fords. This little book will get bigger and bigger until we no longer control our own company.” He put the booklet back in his pocket and, without a glance, left the room.
As a Foreman in a very rough and antiquated environment my experiences were many and sometimes threatening. Of the 32 men I supervised, three stand out in my memory. One, a very large man; his job placed him on a precarious perch about 50 or 60 feet above the work floor. His job was to hold onto a railing, lean over as the cooling engines, which hung from their sprew heads, past just below him and with one hand and a handle shortened 4lb sludge hammer knock off the iron heads of the passing engine blocks, releasing them to another conveyor belt below. As my memory serves the engines past at a rate of about 12 per minute; the very large man had a grueling task, and it was superbly done by a union man who never complained and always smiled.
One day shortly after the start of the shift I noticed blood splatterings on the work floor, as I looked up the conveyor line came to an abrupt stop. I could see engines with sprue heads still attached jamming the conveyor system. This very large man was climbing down the ladder, his right arm dangling from his shoulder with blood pouring over his hand, cascading from each finger. I helped him down the remaining rungs of the ladder. He apologized for his mistake and asked politely if he could go to first aid. A piece of hot iron had splintered from an engine block and like a piece of red hot shrapnel cut deep into his upper arm. Emergency crews were called and he was taken to the plant infirmary.
Perhaps, four or five hours later, here he comes with over 60 stitches in his arm and bandaged from his shoulder to his elbow; he was reporting for work. I was forced to call plant security to stop him. He was determined to finish his job. Never did he raise his voice, raise a hand, but only insisting and repeating, “Mr. Chuck I have to do my job.” This man was maybe 6 feet 7 or 8 inches tall and at least 250to 300 pounds. He was perhaps, the most powerful and gentlest man I have ever met; harder than the iron he beat into submission eight hours a day and sometimes twelve. He was a Black man and a union man, but first he was a Man with a work Ethic and those are the words I capitalize.
Then there was the UAW Local 600 union representative who would inform me , on a rather consistent basis, that a union man does no more than he has to do even if it causes the line to stop and that, “ the contract” came before Ford’s cars. I remember asking myself, “Whatever happened to the car jobs?” Twenty five years ago they were, now they have become union jobs.
One day I received five new hires; one fellow was from a nowhere little town in Georgia. He was a hard worker and was very pro-union. Half way through his ninety day probation he was a few minutes late for work. Because of the probationary period, I had to write him up. Because of the rules he could be terminated. He was a valuable employee and I did not want that to happen. There was another fellow I had just written up for chronic absenteeism, tardiness, fighting and threatening a foreman. This man had a lengthy, chronically poor record and was up for termination. The union however, forced the termination of the new employee in exchange for the employee with 15 years on the job. The man continued to be an unproductive employee. The man from Georgia left Fords believing that I (Ford) had fired him.
Then there was, ‘fever man’. Fever man did not like to work. He was in love with the sound of his own voice and would often find items that may pose as safety risks. One such item was a fellow employee who he claimed was standing too close to him. For this he refused to work, due to safety risks, until a union rep arrived. For this the line was stopped.
One day fever man announced that he did not feel well and needed to see his doctor. I asked what was wrong. He replied, “I hast to go Mr. Chuck, I hassa fever. He looked well, but I agreed to have him go to the plant infirmary, he declined. I hass to go Mr. Chuck. I hassa 110 fever Mr. Chuck. Nothing more needs to be said here.
My tenure at Fords was short. For me it was a disappointing job, that paid very well, but for me independence was more important than money. Even, as a foreman I found my life controlled by the robotic functionalism of a corporation, in the middle of the quest for power by the union and a tremendously growing racial bias against, ”white honky foreman”, by black union reps and the black ‘rank and file’ union membership. For the life of me, I cannot think of a more insulting and demeaning description of a human being than ‘rank and file’.
In my early years, growing up in Detroit, Ford Motor Company and Henry Ford were iconic. They were the symbol of strength and determination. Henry Ford, and I shall call him Henry because I have known him so long, was more important to me than Roy Rogers and Flash Gordon. Having known Henry for so long, I have acquainted myself with the man and a few of his missteps and his giant steps.
Somewhere about the age of 11 or 12, I was told by an adult that Henry did not invent the automobile. I took great exception to this and aggressively informed him of my dissatisfaction. He laughed and told me that I should not believe everything I hear. From that point, in my life, I began to question all those things that came to me by virtue of my ears only and not my brain. I questioned Henry, Detroit, my family, my life and God. For Detroit and my family, I would leave, as soon as I was able. I accomplished that at the age of 17.
Henry did not invent the car or the assembly line; he added tremendously to the former and perfected the latter. For God, well, it was the beginning of a questioning period until I reached the mature age of 16 and attending an all boy Catholic high school. As for my life; I was changing it.
Due to the perchance meeting and brief conversation with that adult, and I do not remember who he was or why that conversation took place, but my life changed because of it. I began to realize the difference between knowledge and wanting to believe something. For a defined, ‘something’, let’s call it a contrived ignorance or the maintenance and proliferation of wishful thinking. We all have these failings at times, but at some point in human development and evolution the realization must come that such can be catastrophic to a reasoning life form; individually or collectively.
Back to Henry; because it was Henry who brought one of the greatest changes to the world that it had ever seen: I should note here, that in time, should our current political position remain unchanged, Henry will either be vilified, as an exploiter of the working man, become Henrietta, erased from history or be an escaped black slave from 1859.
History is a liquid element of time that ebbs and flows and is best worded here by George Orwell, 1984, “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” That is our current political position, here in Oceania.
Perhaps, for some, I neglect the title of this piece, but it’s worth is an amalgamation of points, experiences and thoughts that have brought me to this particular position in life. Simply to assert a position or ideology without foundation, without substance is a contrivance of ignorance; even worse a motivation to subvert and suppress one’s own mind or the minds of others. It is to say that Henry Ford invented the car and you should believe that because I do. At some point the adult needs to tell the child he is wrong.
Chapter one of ten