In response to:
Sticking to the Union from the April 9, 1970 issue
To the Editors:
…Having been a member of the United Steelworkers of America for over twenty-seven years, all of that time spent in the mills, I would like to congratulate Murray Kempton for his “Union Blues” (NYR, April 9). Of late, union “leaders?” have been crying in their champagne because of their low status in the Establishment and even worse for the cynicism of most of their dues-paying members toward their rhetoric and bombast. Given the chance many union members would leave the organization tomorrow and save themselves a lot of dues money. But because of the check-off this would be very hard to do. And most union officials have sold their souls for that check-off.
The type of union leader on the current scene could just as well be a personnel manager in the company or industry his union represents. His organization is big business and he gets wages commensurate with big business executives. He seems to have very little sympathy or understanding for the problems of his members; they are his bread and butter, and they provide him with a very fancy standard of living. But the members no longer know him and he certainly does not know them.
This is so very true that I had to read James Matles’s statement to the United Electrical Workers three times before it sank in. I haven’t heard of that much honesty from any union official, much less from one of top rank, in all my years in the steel mills. Long may he wave and I hope he is still going strong in his union. From what I know he is the only one of his breed.
I do not know if it is different in other industries, I suspect that it isn’t, so that in many respects the white union member is among the most racially prejudiced citizens in this society. And his leader has done little or nothing to change his attitudes. However in this regard conditions in the steel mills have improved as far as jobs above labor status for blacks are concerned. Not because the union and the management have suddenly “seen the light,” but because past federal administrations have shoved a “gun” at the backs of both and threatened them with loss of contracts and jobs. The white steelworker is still prejudiced, that hasn’t changed.
Even though the statement by James Matles is a choice bit of “Union Blues” there is another paragraph in the article that sums it up very well and I would like to quote it to end this letter: “You feel in all this history a most deprived sense of self-esteem; the trade union movement is always embarrassed or angered when anyone propertyless rises in an assertion of right because it has never felt free in the assertion of its own right; it clings instead to those licenses which have been granted it.” How true.
P.S.: If it is of any interest I am a white steelworker.
July 23, 1970