Boomers Looked for the Union Label on Labor Day

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?

Boomers Witnessed History in August of 1968

Boomers Witnessed History in August of 1968

Where were you in August of 1968? Fifty years ago, it seemed like the whole world was in upheaval. There were many more plane crashes than occur today, massive floods from summer monsoons were ravaging India and at least two earthquakes occurred in Asia. Anyone who lived through that month and year will surely recall that they were witnessing history in our country, too. Here are a few of the momentous happenings that affected our lives a half century ago:

• Former Vice President Richard Nixon received the nomination for the Republican Party’s candidate for President in Miami Beach (August 6). He chose Spiro Agnew as his running mate for Vice President the next day. He went on to win the election in November of that year and became the 37th President.

• The Soviet Union agreed to begin talks about arms limitation on antiballistic missiles (August 10). Discussions did not include nuclear warheads, but paved the way for the 1972 ABM Treaty.

• Phase III of the Tet Offensive was launched by the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong (August 17). The massive attacks on 27 Vietnamese cities would go on until late September.

• Mia Farrow divorced Frank Sinatra (August 17). This was big news on the entertainment front.

• Tanks and troops from the Soviet Union, Poland, East Germany and Hungary invaded Czechoslovakia (August 20).

• Photographs by Alfred Eisenstaedt were featured in an essay in Life magazine (August 23). Entitled, “Blighted Great Lakes,” it raised the country’s awareness to the dangers of pollution by illustrating the extent that water pollution was having on the Great Lakes system. It eventually led to the passing of The Clean Water Act in 1972.

Hey Jude was released by The Beatles on Apple Records, the first single on their new label (August 26). It became the best-selling single of 1968.

• Senator Hubert Humphrey from Minnesota became the Democratic Party’s candidate for President (August 28). Edmund Muskie would be his running mate for Vice President. And, of course, we all remember the protests and police response surrounding the convention in Chicago from all the television coverage.

• William Talman died (August 30). He was the actor who portrayed the prosecuting attorney who went up against Perry Mason each week. Mister B mentions him here because he died of lung cancer. He was the first person to record a commercial for the American Cancer Society warning others of the dangers of smoking, only six weeks before his death. This spawned the “from the grave” testimonial genre that continues to be aired in cancer commercials today.

Mister Boomer was a teenager in high school in 1968. He was having trouble processing everything that was happening that year, between the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy a few months earlier, then the political conventions in August. As a result, 1968 was probably the year he became politically aware. It seemed like every day something monumental was occurring, not the least of which was the looming specter of Vietnam for Mister B and his classmates, just a couple of years shy of registering for the Draft. Mister B found that music was a great place to turn to for refuge and a little clarity. Music from that time was highly creative, reflecting both the tumultuous times and the pangs of growing up and falling in love. It’s like the Boomer Generation lost its innocence that year, because we had a front-row seat to history.

What do you remember about August of 1968, boomers?