David Schiefelbein: Labor’s future: All work

David Schiefelbein

Organized labor has had a firm hand in painting the portrait of the American dream.

Labor unions stood up for the working class backbone of America, raised the standard of living for the great middle class it helped foster, and had a key role in limiting the spread of communist ideology to a negligible minority.

Organized labor also grew fat from its power, and with that power came corruption that led to a slow demise of its influence. Factory work still fuels a growing middle class, just not in this country.

The assembly lines Detroit made world famous are now in danger of having the power turned off year after year as it struggles to compete with the high overhead of pricey American labor (who wants to work cheap?), burdensome pensions and international competition.

So does labor still have a role to play in the American landscape of the new millennium?

Our online readers think so, but only by a narrow majority. We asked readers, “Does organized labor have a role in our future?” last week.

Fifty-three percent (231) of the 432 respondents thought it did, while 47 percent (201) said it did not.

Do those percentages split along political lines?

Not really, but they’re not that far apart, either, which is what you might expect from a bellwether state like Missouri.

Democrat Claire McCaskill edged incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Jim Talent 49.6 percent to 47.3 percent in the most recent contested statewide election.

Prior to that in 2004, McCaskill lost to Rep. Matt Blunt 50.8 to 47.9 percent in the gubernatorial election.

The closest numbers to our online polling results were actually the opposite – George W. Bush beat Dem. John Kerry 53.3 to 46.1 percent in the 2004 presidential election.

My own exposure to labor over the years has changed. I never belonged to a union, but I worked for one once for a week.

Back when I was in my late-20s, I worked for a national home builder on a subdivision project in the Chicago suburbs.

The paycheck was really good, and my dad, who had worked for them a couple decades before, told me in advance what to expect. “They’ll work your butt off for a week and then let you go.” They did, just like they had done to him back in the 60s.

Not too long after dad’s experience with them, he went into business for himself, and the union took the benefits and pensions he had been paying. He was the company now, one of the bad guys.

He had a dim view of unions after that and was adamant that his carpenters did not use union labels – his term for missing a nail with the hammer and leaving a dent in the wood.

As a young man, I was also exposed to the ill-gotten rewards of being at the top of organized labor when my dad was the carpentry subcontractor on a home. The powerful secretary-treasurer of the Chicago Teamsters union, a short, chubby Italian guy, was building a palatial house on a 40-acre estate out in what was then the suburban countryside of Mettawa, Ill.

What I remember most was reputed Mob strongman James Coli getting irate with a subcontractor’s work or lack of progress. His red face bellowed for all to hear: “If he doesn’t get it right, he’ll be wearing cement shoes in the pond!”

My dad’s friend, Bulldozer Bob, had dug the pond and assured us one day it wasn’t really t-h-a-t deep. Bob had a great sense of humor, but those of us who saw him dig the pond knew it was deep enough.

Coli was constantly under surveillance by the FBI. We would wave to the agents who photographed us from up in the trees across the road as we pulled into the driveway. Helicopters occasionally flew over the house, too.

While we were working on the house, the Chicago Tribune ran a front-page piece on Coli one Sunday, detailing all the times he had been indicted – for everything from embezzlement to extortion to murder – his only conviction had been overturned.

The subcontractors did an excellent job on Mr. Coli’s house after that, and not just because the customer is always right!

A decade or so ago, my dad’s view of labor came full circle when my mom joined the grocer's union to provide some insurance benefits.

Fighting a declining standard of living may be labor’s next calling, as more and more of the American middle class is absorbed by the richest negligible percent.

Is labor up to the task? It will have to make stories like Eco James Coli’s legacy a thing of the past to have a chance. And that will be quite a challenge indeed.

E-mail David Schiefelbein at editor@lakesunleader.com.