Growing up, I always enjoyed my uncle’s perspective on things. I’ve written about him before. In my eyes, he was a world traveler because he’d gone as far as the Badlands, Black Hills, Mt Rushmore, Yellowstone and other western netherlands that seemed like the ends of the earth compared to our travels. He valued the experience, the adventure, the time with his family so he prioritized his time in accordance with the things he valued the most. I respected him for that and it influenced me more than he probably ever knew.
On the other hand, I was often frustrated in conversations with him. He was worldly to me yet as I grew older we would have debates that demonstrated just how narrow minded he was about come things. Specifically, we completely disagreed on the topic of labor unions. Growing up in a blue collar town where factories provided the great majority of the economic force behind our city, citizens of my birthplace could not help but proclaim the advantages brought to average employees by the powerful labor unions specifically the United Auto Workers. I saw the benefits of their work in every facet of my life. My dad, and my uncles, worked very hard always taking overtime opportunities in order to get double or triple time thanks to the contracts their union negotiated. We lived for over ten years in factory subsidized housing that got us out of a shrew infested duplex and into a brand new home that we otherwise couldn’t afford. One thing I vividly remember is going to the factory sponsored, family Christmas party each year where they had tables covered in wrapped gifts for each age group and gender that provided toys or games that most families could never have purchased on their own. All of these examples, and things that mattered far more to employees such as environmental conditions in the plant, work hours, etc, reflect the positive reasons unions sprung up over time and enjoyed such strong support from the working men and women of this great country.
As I grew older and followed my uncle’s example of becoming more worldly through travel in the military and on my own, I learned that the unions had evolved, but my family’s thinking hadn’t. Ironically, my worldly-wise uncle maintained a local perspective when it came to the value of his union and the national union under which it aligned. The union had done so much to support labor (the working class) over the years, that the labor stopped questioning the actions, and more importantly, the motives of union leadership. My position was that most unions had been so successful in negotiations with industry over time that they essentially outlived their purpose. While I considered this a good thing, my uncle and labor leadership considered this a threat. They had to come up with some rationale to maintain the purpose that had always justified the union’s existence. Unfortunately, this caused them to evolve from a service-oriented organization to a self-serving organization who’s members followed through blind loyalty. All of these factors alone are generally positive characteristics that we want human beings to espouse. But under the wrong circumstances and for the wrong motives even a collection of positive character traits can result in negative influences.
Sadly, unions didn’t have to evolve this way. It’s a tremendous challenge for any of us or any organization to identify, acknowledge and submit to the fact that we have outlived our purpose. However, we don’t have to let this submission result in a lack of purpose. We can celebrate the fact that our objectives were achieved and then resolve to move on to the next challenge, reinvent ourselves and recommit ourselves to another noble objective. Here’s one perspective on Labor Day: our work is done when it’s done, but our purpose, and the effort it requires, never ends.