October 2014
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One last hurrah

By David Feela

Last year on Labor Day I found myself in Las Vegas, a vacation destination known for buffet lines, not picket lines. Turning a corner beside The Cosmopolitan, I heard bullhorns blaring protest slogans while hundreds of people lofting signs formed a human barricade in front of the casino, all of them wearing red t-shirts, responding to their union’s call to strike.

“Tasteless” was the comment I overheard from a bystander. I laughed aloud. He gave me a dirty look, then moved off, not a clue as to how appropriately his single-word editorial captured the dissatisfaction of the 44,000-member culinary workers’ union that had voted to walk away from the table.

Jimmy Hoffa probably dreamt about picket lines, for he started his career as a young union activist, became a successful organizer, and ultimately was elected to serve as president of this nation’s largest collective bargaining group, the Teamsters. He was also convicted of fraud, attempted bribery, and jury tampering, receiving a 13-year prison sentence, of which he only served four years, because, oddly, Richard Nixon pardoned him in 1971.

“One, two, three, four, don’t go through that hotel door” -- a rhyme for solidarity, urging tourists to boycott the casino, and the picket signs danced, reminding me of 1981, the year I signed my first teaching contract in Minnesota, the first year I paid any union dues.

That year also served as my first experience with a strike when the teachers’ union called for a walkout over contract issues I didn’t even understand. Further negotiations eventually resolved the impasse, and I followed my fellow unionites back to work. I believed in unions then, in the power of employees to join together and stand up for each other, to be treated fairly, to be heard in the larger arena where management decisions affected workers’ livelihoods. My little classroom was a cog in the great wheel of educational well-being, and I felt proud to have joined ranks with my teaching colleagues.

That spring, just as the hard feelings started to soften, the next year’s contracts were delivered. Instead of a contract, I received a letter informing me that my job had been eliminated due to a “reduction in forces.” My colleagues told me I’d been riffed.

Fired? No, just not rehired, but I wanted to know why. My evaluations were acceptable. I called my representative and told him what happened. He already knew, and he said there was nothing the union could do.

I asked if I got fired because I joined in the walkout. He said probably. I asked if the School Board could do that. He said yes, that non-tenured teachers could be dismissed for any reason, or for no reason. I demanded that the union file some kind of complaint on my behalf. I had, after all, paid my dues.

I even thought about making trouble, but then I remembered James Riddle Hoffa, the union boss that disappeared. Thirty-nine years later, we still have no idea what happened to him, or rather, where his body ended up, because it’s unlikely he moved to a resort in South America.

Sixty-seven percent of those surveyed at Debate.org believe labor unions have outlived their usefulness, citing the enactment of tougher labor laws, redundancy, expense, and corruption as the biggest reasons for the slump in popularity. In a current Gallup poll, the labor-union reputation does not fare much better. Though respondents generally approve, a majority of people believe unions are weaker and of less importance than in their heyday, and over 80 percent of households have no family member that belongs to a union.

I recall without fondness the Cortez school district’s battle with faculty trying to unionize. And the trend for bosses to ditch union affiliations is no different today – perhaps even more popular – than it was when I joined up as a teacher in the early 1980s.

The most depressing aspect of labor-union history is that much of our youth has probably never heard of Jimmy Hoffa, but today’s workforce has a growing need to address an agenda of contemporary grievances, like minimum wage, the nebulous nature of company health insurance, and the artificial status of part-time positions imposed by bosses to reduce worker benefits. Just like locating Hoffa’s remains, we seem to have stopped looking for answers.

Perhaps what we need is a tombstone planted in every cemetery across America, engraved with the words “Jimmy Hoffa Lies Here.” People will start to ask, Who was this Hoffa guy? And maybe then we’ll be able to dig deeper for a better explanation about why America has taken the weekend off.

David Feela, an award-winning poet, essayist and author, writes from Montezuma County, Colo. See more of his works at http://feelasophy.weebly.com/.


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