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Remembrance of Things Past: Union workers owe a lot to those who paved the way

I saw a sign the other day advertising an art show on Laborday weekend. Please note, I didn’t spell it wrong. That’s the way the sign was printed. It may have been a typo, but that’s an expensive error at $12 or more per sign.

What I fear is that many folks have simply forgotten the meaning of the Labor Day holiday, first enacted in 1894, to be a day set aside to honor the American labor force.

As we learned in school, 19th century industrial conditions were generally pretty miserable with low wages, long hours, child labor and inherent dangers. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire is a prime example. Labor unions fought against such injustices and aided in their betterment.

I’ve belonged to unions. My stints at Electric Boat saw me join the International Association of Machinists, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the International Molders and Foundry Workers Union.

Each of these unions has shop stewards whose task it is to deal with management and enforce the contract. Oftentimes tradesmen were jealous of other folks doing work that should be theirs. I remember one day when I was working as an electronics mechanic (a fancy title for a job that entailed crawling around in ballast tanks installing panning in which to run sonar cables), the bulb in my droplight broke. I went down to where the outside electricians kept their supplies and began to change the bulb. One of the electricians pointed out that changing a bulb was his job and I could get grieved. I pointed out that we were both in the same union.

Part of my job was to cut hangers so the welders could install the pans. The welder with whom I worked commented that if the edges of the hangers I cut were beveled, he could do a better job.

So, the next time I cut some, I went over to the grindstone outside the machine shop, took off my silver hard hat (machinists wore brown hats), and beveled the edges. The welder was very happy.

In some cases, however, job descriptions went by the boards. While working in the foundry, which was at the bottom of the south yard hill, there was a terrific rainstorm that threatened to flood the building. Water in a foundry can be extremely dangerous.

I grabbed a shovel and began piling sand up near the garage-sized door to stop the water. When I looked up, I saw the union steward also shoveling sand. Next to him was the superintendent of the foundry who had removed his jacket and rolled up his sleeves, also wielding a shovel.

With the draft beckoning, I joined the Navy. There were no unions, of course, but each rating had certain tasks to perform. I went to CTA A-school and learned about being what was then called a Communications Technician (Administrative). My first command after school was working at a Registered Publications Issuing Office in Charleston. I think that job may have been briefly mentioned once in A-school. The first task I was assigned was to use a sledgehammer to break up some old pallets and throw them in a dumpster, hardly what I envisioned in school!

The next day the chief handed me a copy of the Registered Publications Custodian officer correspondence course and told me to complete it. The commanding officer wanted all the enlisted personnel to take the officer course before they could go to work in the vault holding all the cryptographic material.

After two years in Charleston, where I had become the leading vault petty officer, I got orders to sea aboard the carrier USS Kitty Hawk. I found that I was the only CTA on the ship, and my duties ranged far and wide.

I had never learned about standing communications watches or writing intelligence briefings in A-school, but it was a fascinating job.

I had joined the Navy at the suggestion of the assistant superintendent of schools, Jim Shaughnessey, in 1969. As Jim said, join the Navy and when you get out, I’ll give you a job. I did and he did.

I was assigned to Cutler Jr. High, where I joined the Groton Education Association (a union, despite the name), the district bargaining unit. After 10 years at Cutler, I was transferred to Fitch Junior High. Many of the teachers there belonged to the American Federation of Teachers, but the GEA was the bargaining unit, and I became the building representative, in essence, the shop steward.

Mike, one of our math teachers, who walked with canes and was not able to get around as well as others, complained that his classroom was always cold in the winter. Since it had three outside walls and was near an entry door, he was right. He said that he had talked to the principal to no avail.

I approached Mr. Scott, the principal, and reiterated Mike’s complaint. Mr. Scott told me he had talked to maintenance but they hadn’t done anything. I asked him if filing a grievance would help. Instead of being confrontational, he smiled, called the central office and told them the union representative was in his office and if they didn’t put more heat in Room C-104, there would be a grievance.

The next day there were two plumbers at work in the room.

In another case, one of the special ed teachers complained to me that the door knob in her classroom was sometimes very difficult to open from the inside. This time I filled out the work order, in red, and indicated fire hazard. That brought two carpenters!

A couple of years later, Bob Strouse, the principal of West Side Jr. High, was filling in for Don while he was hospitalized. On the morning of the all-faculty get-together, the day before school opened, I was discussing the contract with Mr. Strouse when the new superintendent, Ron Bates, reminded us that we all had to get along. When he left, I looked at Mr. Strouse and he looked at me, and we both chuckled.

We’d known each other for years. We were just talking about the contract.

After five years as build rep, I turned the job over to someone else, but I remained a member of the GEA. They did a good job in negotiations, both in terms of salary and working conditions, and I am grateful to have belonged to and been represented by that union. Even though union membership has dwindled over the years, today’s workers still owe a lot to those who walked the picket lines in previous generations.

Robert F. Welt is a retired Groton Public Schools teacher who lives in Mystic.

 

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