Mister Boomer has noted what Labor Day meant to him and his family through the years; a holiday that called for a family gathering with his uncles, aunts and cousins, but also a dreaded school-year eve, as school began the very next day. Yet there was another aspect to the celebration of Labor Day that was impossible to ignore — especially growing up in the midwest Rust Belt — and that is union rallies and parades on Labor Day.
It is estimated that during the Boomer Years, approximately 35-40 percent of the workforce belonged to unions. By Mister Boomer’s experience, it seemed much higher than that. Mister B’s father did not work in a union factory, but all of his uncles (except one), and a few aunts, did. In the neighborhood, far more men and women worked at union jobs than those who did not. There were a host of auto and steel workers, but also telephone company workers, postmen, truck drivers, teachers and even one neighbor in a printers’ union. In short, middle class America during the Boomer Era was well represented by unions.
No one from Mister B’s family, unionized or not, generally appeared at Labor Day union rallies, though Mister B recalls seeing reports about them on TV. On the national holiday set aside to celebrate the American worker, there was always a worker-related component to union rallies, be it safety in the workplace, wages or benefits. TV reports would show workers carrying signs promoting the selected causes for the day, and speakers, from union officials to elected politicians, took turns extolling the virtues and rights of American workers. It became an annual tradition for many politicians to attend the rallies, since union endorsement might help propel a candidate toward victory in any upcoming election. From Mister B’s vantage point, it appeared unions were at their strongest during the three decades of the Boomer Years.
Now, as then, the subject of unions draws a great deal of pride and praise on one side, and venom and distrust on the other. Mister Boomer is in no way wading into the pros and cons of unions with his humble nostalgia blog. Rather, he is pointing out his observations on the way he, and possibly millions of other boomers, lived during the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.
Mister Boomer never belonged to a union himself, though not for lack of trying. Union jobs meant better pay and benefits than non-union jobs — that’s the way it was. By the time Mister B was of teen employment age, two of his friends had union jobs at grocery stores. Consequently, once Mister B found a job, his friends made three times his hourly wage, plus had sick days, overtime and holiday pay. Mister Boomer saw what the union jobs meant in his area. No one would ever think his region was anything but a working class neighborhood, yet families could afford their houses and a second car, and in many cases, a vacation cottage and a boat, too.
While Mister B and his siblings were called “four eyes” for having to wear glasses, his parents had to pay for them. Kids of parents in some of the higher-paying union jobs, like his uncles, got complete vision care, and medical and dental coverage, too. Mister B’s family had no such luck.
From Mister Boomer’s vantage point, it is evident that unions played a major role in advancing the middle class and thus fueling the Boomer Generation. No matter how you feel about the role of unions in today’s workplace, Mister Boomer feels it is evident that the opportunities unions gave to the parents of the Baby Boom helped shape the generation to what it became.
Did your father or family members belong to a union in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, boomers? Did you ever attend a union rally on Labor Day?