Labor Day Ramblings

It’s Labor Day, and for most of us it’s simply a long weekend of cookouts with friends and family.

Where I’m originally from in upstate New York, it also marks the real end of summer and the beginning of the school year. I’ve gotten used to the cycle here in the south where school-fall bears no relationship to climatological fall. But in upstate New York, winter– along with the rainy cold seasons on either side of it–can last up to eight or nine miserable months of the year. As a result, summers are sacred and we live out every last moment of them. While our fall semesters get underway here in Louisiana, back home it’s the Saratoga track and summer trips to Lake George and the Adirondacks season. We could have cool snaps from mid-August on, but often the first wave of fall weather coincides with the end of the Labor Day weekend, and first frost usually within 2-3 weeks of that. The first day of school in my home school district this year is Thursday, September 8. Faculty report back for professional development tomorrow.

So while the US Labor Day is what it is because May 1 was just too controversial, it made perfect sense to me growing up not just because it marked the beginning of school, but the beginning of teacher-labor for the year. For most of my childhood and young adulthood, my dad was a labor negotiator for New York State United Teachers, or NYSUT, then and I think still now the strongest teacher’s union in the country.

Through kindergarten, my dad was an English teacher in one of the suburban districts around Utica, New York. When I was in first grade, he got a job for a private negotiating firm that contracted out to represent school boards. There are three things I remember about that job:

  • he was gone a lot because we still lived in Utica, and the job was 90 miles away in Albany. Plus he traveled all over upstate negotiating school board contracts with teachers union locals.
  • he wrote a book about labor negotiations. He was really proud of that book and talked about it a lot.
  • during show and tell at school I tried and failed to describe my dad’s new job to my class. English teacher would have been easy. But labor negotiator? I couldn’t even pronounce it, probably because I had never seen it in print. My parents taught me to read phonetically before I was in kindergarten and I could read the newspaper out loud as early as age 4 even though I didn’t understand 90% of what I was reading. So in class negotiator became “agotiator,” and my dad was like Robin Hood, which in retrospect probably didn’t impress my teacher much because at the time the side that he was paid to take stuff away from was hers. I do remember I got laughed at by my classmates, but since I always got laughed at it wasn’t a big deal.

We did end up moving to the Albany area a couple of years later. I don’t know how long it was after that–a year or less?–but then my dad got the job as a union rep for NYSUT, based in–guess where?–Utica. This is the job he ended up retiring from. As a former teacher himself it fit both his background and his belief system and by all reports he and the group of negotiators he worked with in his generation were quite good at what they did.

So, my dad was gone a lot again. Around this same time, my mom got a job at the New York Bell Company, or what we called Ma Bell (it’s Verizon today). This was before the AT&T split in the 1980s, though my mom worked there after the breakup until she retired, relatively young, in the late 80s. Yes, it was a union shop too.

You could probably define our prevailing family politics then as “unionist.” However, the Albany suburb we moved to was very Republican (which at that time was Rockefeller Republican, not the Southern Strategy endgame version prevalent today). One of my new schoolmate’s parents was the chair of the local Republican party, which is where I think I got that 1972 Nixon poster that ended up on my bedroom wall. My dad was appalled but he didn’t make me take it down. My best friend’s mom next door was an activist Republican and worked for the New York Speaker of the House. Everyone remembered her because she was an extremely attractive and outspoken redheaded divorcee. Yes, you could be a “liberated” woman at that time and Republican. In my eyes my best friend’s mom was the coolest mom ever. There was another reason why she was cooler than my also increasingly “liberated” mom who began subscribing to Ms. and MoJo magazines which I’ll get to next.

During that stage in my life labor unions and the competing politics around them were always there, but very much in the background. That’s because my mom was also a raging alcoholic, and my dad’s traveling so much for work pretty much blew the lid off any control she might have possibly had on her drinking. My mom also decided at that time she hated my dad. So my elementary school years were defined more by my mom’s out of control drinking and behavior. She would get home from work, drink, I would try to get to bed as early as possible before she got out of control, she would anyway, I’d wake up and hope like hell my dad would get home before she did something stupid. But when he did, she would lash out at him, so that usually wasn’t much better. She would also try to kill herself by taking a bunch of pills while he was gone, so his getting home in time to call the ambulance and save her life was a good thing.

So needless to say when the state union sent negotiators to other areas of the country for up to 2 weeks at a time, I don’t remember much about what my dad was doing in Lincoln, Nebraska or New Orleans (actually Jefferson Parish), other than that he left my brother and me alone with my raging drunk mom. Fortunately, she didn’t die and neither did we, but it was rough when he was gone. At least there weren’t any fights.

My dad came back from Nebraska with a map which ended up on my bedroom wall (I don’t remember if I still had Nixon up or not). According to my dad, Nebraska was flat and had bad food. But he loved New Orleans. He came back with pralines, individually wrapped in wax envelopes in a box. I ate every single last one of them. I was still finding and throwing away those wax envelopes for years afterward. He also came back with a recipe for oyster stew which is still a family Christmas tradition today – but really shared mostly with his second family with my stepmom, because my parents divorced around this same time.

For a year after they divorced it was sheer hell because my mother drank when she wasn’t working or passed out (I have no idea how she kept that job with Ma Bell. I know she went to work still drunk, and once she even totaled the car on the interstate on her way to work. Maybe its being a union shop had something to do with it?) but then she went to an outpatient rehab and became super active in Alcoholics Anonymous. While my elementary school years were defined by her alcoholism, my teens and young adulthood were shaped by her (and later my) involvement 12-step groups. She became somewhat of a local AA celebrity and when she died too-young (in her 50s) of cancer 20 years ago the funeral home where we had her memorial service couldn’t hold the crowd.

So back to Labor Day, and my parents’ involvement with labor unions. Before my mom retired, she was union steward in her office. Her union membership didn’t define her the way my dad’s job as a labor negotiator did him, but it was a source of pride. We didn’t make a big deal out of it or talk about unions all the time–it just was. But my generation was the one coming of age when Reagan was elected. There was a sense of fear among my parents’ generation when he was elected–that he would dismantle everything they had worked for–but not so much among mine. I actually vacillated back and forth between the moderate leftism of my parents, to outright progressivism when I dated a guy from Chappaqua who had rebelled against his corporatist parents and listened to WBAI, and then I rebelled against them all in my Rush Limbaugh/Ayn Rand phase, which ended a little over ten years ago after I moved with my now-husband to Louisiana, briefly joined and then escaped from a right-wing religious cult, and in my research into the cult learned that much of what poses as modern conservatism is a racially-motivated, pseudo-religious scam. So my politics now are pretty much what I started with – what I inherited from my parents, even though I mostly ignored them for the first forty years of my life.

I haven’t lived in upstate New York since I left soon after my mom died, so I don’t know what things are like now other than it being a rustier Rust Belt than the one I left. But I don’t see much of what my parents believed in. None of his kids–the ones still there and the ones who left–will be able to retire comfortably if at all, not even the oldest (me) who grew up to be a “state worker.” I’m afraid our retirement is going to be more along the lines of Work Until We Die. My dad is still a staunch unionist. My stepmom grew up Republican but she’s a retired teacher and watches MSNBC. But they aren’t stereotypical affluent “white northern Progressives” who read Daily Kos or get TFA jobs in New Orleans charters, but rather retired Rust Belt unionists. Just like upstate suburban Republicans of that generation were very different, so were upstate urban Democrats. We were all pretty pragmatic on both sides of the party divide, unlike downstate–or down south–where the ideological lines became much more clearly defined.

The state of labor this Labor Day, here in Louisiana pretty much sucks. Labor is a commodity, just like it was in the 1800s. And that’s not even getting to the most dehumanizing commodification of labor – enslavement – which still reverberates through our history today. African Americans are still enslaved in our prisons and trapped in the school-to-prison pipeline. Our HBCUs are under attack and I don’t know how much longer our public HBCUs can continue to exist. I’m glad to see that the Jefferson Parish AFT that my dad worked with all those years ago still exists, and that Jeff Parish has (so far) mostly resisted the divide-and-conquer, labor-killing charterization that is destroying public education as we know it, especially right next door in Orleans. Sadly, I identified my dad’s trip here with leaving me home alone with my drunken mom, and then returning with pralines and oyster stew rather to any work he did until I began working in Louisiana and realized what it all meant and why it was being dismantled. While my dad loves telling stories about his life and work, it’s been a long time since I’ve taken the time to really listen to them. My mom has been dead for two decades so whatever stories my brother and I don’t remember are long gone. Maybe it’s time to talk to my dad and get his stories before it’s too late.

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