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How Unions Gave My Redneck Family a Chance at the American Dream

Restoring dignity to laboring America won't be easy. It won't be pretty, and it won't be "within the system." Because the system is the problem.

In looking back on growing up, I always remember 1957 and 1958 as "the two good years." They were the only years my working-class redneck family ever caught a real break in their working lives, and that break came because of organized labor.

After working as a farmhand, driving a hicktown taxi part time and a dozen catch-as-catch-can jobs, my father found himself owning a used semi-truck and hauling produce for a Teamster-unionized trucking company called Blue Goose.

Daddy was making more money than he'd ever made in his life, about $4,000 a year. The median national household income at the time was $5,000, mostly thanks to America's unions. After years of moving from one rented dump to another, we bought a modest home ($8,000) and felt like we might at last be getting some traction in achieving the so-called American Dream.

Yup, Daddy was doing pretty good for a backwoods boy who'd quit school in the sixth or seventh grade -- he was never sure, which gives some idea how seriously the farm boy took his attendance at the one-room school we both attended in our lifetimes.

This was the golden age of both trucking and of unions. Thirty-five percent of American labor, 17 million working folks, were union members, and it was during this period the American middle class was created.

The American middle class has never been as big as advertised, but if it means the middle third income-wise, then we actually had one at the time. But whatever it means, one-third of working folks, the people who busted their asses day in and day out making the nation function, were living better than they ever had. Or at least had the opportunity to do so.

From the Depression through World War II, the Teamsters Union became a powerful entity, and a popular one, too, because of such things as its pledge never to strike during the war or a national emergency. President Roosevelt even had a special-designated liaison to the Teamsters.

But power and money eventually drew the usual assortment of lizards, and by the mid-'50s the Teamsters Union had become one corrupt pile of shit at the top level. So rotten even the mob enjoyed a piece of the action.

The membership, ordinary guys like my dad, was outraged and ashamed, but rendered powerless by the crooked union bosses in the big cities.

My old man was no great follower of the news or current events, but he tried to keep up with and understand Teamster developments. Which was impossible since his reading consisted of anti-union Southern newspapers, and the television coverage of Teamster criminality, including murders and the ongoing courtroom trials.

All this left him conflicted. His Appalachian Christian upbringing defined the world in black-and-white, with no gray areas. Inside, he felt he should not be even remotely connected with such vile things as the Teamsters were associated with. And he sometimes prayed for guidance in the matter.

On the other hand, there was the pride and satisfaction in providing for his family in ways previously impossible. He'd built a reasonable, working-class security for those times and that place in West Virginia. Being a Teamster certainly made that possible. But for damned sure no one had handed it to him. He drove his guts out to get what he had.

There were rules and log books and all the other crap that were supposed to assure drivers got enough rest., and ensure road safety and fairness for the truckers. Rural heartland drivers saw it for the bullshit it was, but it was much better-paying bullshit. For a little guy hauling produce from Podunk, USA, to the big cities, it still came down to heartburn, hemorrhoids and longer hauls and longer hours than most driver's falsified log books showed. And sometimes way too much Benzedrine, or "bennies."

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