Sunday, May 8, 2011
My "lazy, greedy, union-employee" parents
If you've ever met me, you know I love talking politics. If you've ever talked politics with me, you know the one subject about which I will entertain absolutely no debate is labor unions. While I have many reasons for my stance, I'd like to elaborate on just two of these.
I'll start with my mom. My mom is a member of the most vilified of all unions; the teacher's union. Specifically, she belongs to the Pennsylvania State Educator's Association (PSEA).
My mom has been teaching for 30 years; since she was fresh out of college at 22. Officially, she works 9 1/2 months a year, from 7:20AM until 2:40PM. In reality, my mom stays at school until at least 8PM one to two nights a week with her journalism students putting out a nationally award winning yearbook and newspaper. When she was hired, the yearbook and newspaper didn't win any awards.
She never leaves school ever before 4PM. She stays after to do some grading, prepare her lesson plans, or talk to students who come to speak with her. Her "summer break" starts in mid-to-late June due to the many snow days caused by the Pittsburgh-area winters. She starts spending all her days back at the high school again by mid-August, when she comes in to get her classroom ready for school to start, and to receive the yearbooks from the publication company and get them in order to distribute to students on the first day of school.
July is her only real time off. In July, she spends one week every summer with her students at a yearbook and journalism conference so she and the students can learn new skills to help improve the publications and build closer bonds among the publication staff. When my mom has a student who can't afford to go, but wants to, she pays for their trip herself out of pocket.
She takes her students on a trip to New York City every year in March to attend a national journalism conference at Columbia University. The students who can't afford the trip sell candy bars as a fundraiser to pay for their trip. When my mom has a student who can't afford to go even after fundraising, she pays for the remainder of their trip herself. One year, with a particularly promising but poor journalism student, after a chaperone backed out last minute and couldn't go, my mom gave the opened spot to the student.
When one of my mom's students recently became homeless, she came and asked my mom if she knew anyone who wanted two cats, because she could no longer keep her beloved pets. With two rescue cats and a rescue dog of her own, my mom couldn't take them in herself. After asking and emailing around unsuccessfully at the high school, my mom paid $200 to have her cats neutered and fostered so they could find forever homes. They had to be neutered in order to be fostered.
My mom has several students every year who can't even afford lunches, but who for whatever reason, are not yet part of the school lunch program. My mom buys them food at the grocery store when she goes shopping for our family, and every night when she makes her lunch she packs healthy lunches for her students who can't afford one. She finds a subtle way to get it to the student after the other students have left the classroom for the next period, so they won't be embarrassed by having the other kids see.
Students come to my mom for advice when they're pregnant, when they have problems at home, problems in a relationship or with a friend, or for advice on where to go for college or which elective classes to take. In her spare time, my mom writes letters of recommendation and grades an endless stack of papers. My mom easily spends 12 hours every week outside of work grading papers. She makes and updates her lesson plans. She goes to the store to purchase supplies for her class room, because the limited budget she has through the school for these expenses doesn't provide enough for her to get all the things she needs to give her students the best education she feels they deserve. When invited, she attends students' graduation parties and the weddings and baby showers of former students. She goes to the musicals and plays at night in the spring when her students are in them.
Years after her students graduate, or on graduation day, they come and see my mom or write letters that have made her cry, thanking her for all she did for them. They tell her how much she has changed their life for the better.
My mom loves her job. She doesn't want to retire early, and often jokes about how she'll be teaching until she's so old, students just stop listening to her. Her only remaining goal for herself in life is to be able to travel the world. She was born in France. Since then, she has never left the US but for twice to the Virgin Islands. It's too expensive and our family can't afford it.
My father, on the other hand, has never gotten a thank you note for his work. He is in construction and has been since he was 18 years old when he worked in the summers to pay to put himself through college. My dad is a union member of Laborers' Local 1058.
Working construction means you work long hours in every condition. When the roads are so bad no one else can get to or from work, my dad has to be on the job site. He has worked in the freezing cold winters in Buffalo and Pittsburgh in sub-zero temperatures, where massive heaters have to be turned on at the site so they can do pours and the concrete doesn't freeze before they can lay it properly. He is currently working in New Orleans where temperatures are in the 90s all summer and the humidity through the roof. He of course works outside in all these conditions.
He works in all these places and many others, far from his family and home, because that is the nature of the construction industry. You follow the projects the company for which you work does. I remember the first time my father was sent out of town. I was 4-years-old and my dad sat down with my little brother and me on my grandmother's couch and told us. He didn't want to go, but he had to. That was the first, and one of the only, times I ever remember seeing my father cry. He still drove home every single weekend to be with his family.
He works from 5AM until 6PM virtually every single day. He works 7 days a week nearly every week. He has off Christmas, but not Christmas eve or the day after. When the company does major pours, my dad will get home from his regular work day around 7PM, and needs to be back into work at 2AM for a pour that will go until midnight the next night. He still has to be at work the very next day at 5AM again.
He comes home from work covered head-to-toe in mud and cement.
A few days before my dad married my mom, he fell off the Liberty Bridge in Pittsburgh. He fell into one of the giant 150 ft-or-so concrete pillars. Fortunately, he was wearing a safety harness that was secured to the bridge. Labor unions, who lobbied for improved worker safety devices on job sites, were responsible for saving my father's life. A few years before, on the same job site, an iron worker fell off the bridge at another spot and was paralyzed.
On a different job site where my father worked, the boom of a crane collapsed and crushed the oiler inside the cab to death. While building one of the tunnels to the Pittsburgh airport, one of my father's coworkers was in a work accident that decapitated him. While building the Whitehurst Freeway in Georgetown in Washington DC, my dad, one of the first on the job site every day, found the destroyed body of a woman. She had thrown herself off the partially-finished freeway to commit suicide, and landed in front of their construction trailer. That was how my father started that work day, and he worked the full day afterward.
My dad was one of the first on the scene in October, 2001, when a speeding tractor-trailer veered onto a road-side job site and killed five of the construction workers who work with him. He was the superintendent of that site, and they were one of his crews. They were sitting and eating their lunches when it happened. He came home that day, in shock, and told our family about how he came upon their lunch boxes with their half-eaten lunches. He didn't need to elaborate on the rest of the gruesome details of that scene. If he had gotten back to that area of the job a few minutes earlier, that could have been him. [ http://www.wtae.com/r/1010736/detail.html ]
My father's coworkers who have died were also, of course, union employees. Thanks to labor union lobbying as a result of this and similar accidents, state police are now present on most road-side construction projects in Pennsylvania to be sure traffic actually obeys the construction signs.
My dad was shot with a paintball gun in Lancaster, PA by some kids driving by a job site.
He works constantly around jack hammers and incredibly loud machines and will undoubtedly one day suffer hearing problems. My grandfather, who was in construction for his entire life, has to hear through a hearing aid, and even then very poorly. My dad already has serious back problems as a result of the heavy lifting required of him. These will no doubt only get worse with age.
My father is in New Orleans now working to build new and vastly improved flood walls to protect the city so another Katrina will never happen.
Most people in the US have never seen a dead body outside a funeral home, or been shot. Most people's lives aren't at risk every single day at their job site. The giant construction signs reading "Slow Down, My Daddy Works Here" in a child's handwriting have special meaning to me. My father has seen as many of his friends and coworkers die as any Iraq or Afghanistan war veteran, but he isn't treated like a hero. Instead, when we do things like take a bus tour of the city in Boston, he gets to hear the tour guide on the loud speaker crack jokes about construction workers "not exactly being qualified for Mensa" as we ride past them.
These are just two examples of union workers. This is what your tax dollars pay for. My parents are the "Everyman" union worker to me. So the next time you hear a talking point about "lazy, greedy" union employees, you can feel free to think, like I do, of my parents, and see if those words still ring true to you, or if you find yourself searching for some new adjectives.