I'm proud to say that I grew up in a union household.
My father was a card-carrying union plumber for 40-plus years. Ed “Moosie” Bell’s career choice to tuck a folding ruler in his bib overalls, grab his gray steel lunch pail, hit the road at 6 a.m. and ply his trade with a crescent wrench building everything from lakefront mansions to nuclear power plants provided my family with a simple yet comfortable small-town existence.
Moosie also had a unique bond with his buddies — guys he grew up with who landed in different trades but remained united by their union affiliations. They bowled together and tossed back beers at the Elks Lodge. And when they weren’t talking about da Bears, White Sox or Cubs, they swapped work stories.
Those days are long gone. Moosie has passed on, as have all the regulars save one. A different time and place, like an episode straight from “Archie Bunker’s Place.”
I thought of my father and his friends as a new union movement headed into uncharted waters earlier this year. I began wondering what Moosie and the boys would say about Northwestern University football players’ push to form a union. I take that back: I know what Moosie would have said: “Are you kiddin’ me? These spoiled kids think they have the right to form a union? Let ’em get knee-deep in muck for a livin’ before they talk about a union.”
As the beer flowed, the barroom chatter would have followed:
“Toad” would have jumped in first with a huff: “Who’s dat quarterback leading this? Kain Colter? Let him come work da overnight shift wit’ me and see how union guys really work tagedder.”
“Rhoadie,” our neighbor who drove an 18-wheeler for Chrysler, would have been more sympathetic. “C’mon Toad, dese kids deserve some credit, stickin’ their neck out. A new union’s gotta be good for all of us. I saw da UAW is helpin’ ’em. Got the players a step closer after the labor board rep gave ’em da tumbs-up, which means dey’re NU employees now.”
Until they’re ultimately shot down by the U.S. Supreme Court, Toad would have corrected. “ ’Course, dat Colter fella will be long gone by den.”
Then “Jim,” the barroom brainiac and nonstop reader who drove a Bomag paver on road-construction projects, would have piped up.
“Sure they’re college kids, but they aren’t much different from us. They work their asses off; they don’t get squat for pay and the university profits big time. Like the NLRB said, Northwestern’s got control over these athletes, so they gotta recognize the players as Northwestern employees. Good fer them.”
“Colter seems like a bright kid,” Rhoadie would have mused. “But him and this union deal reminds me of that kid in our high school goverrmint class …”
“Da one who ran for city council for extra credit?” Toad would have interjected, laughing. “I voted for him. But you knew it was a lark dat was gonna be a bust. Same ting with Colter. Union doesn’t stand a chance on a college campus.”
That’s when Moosie would have jumped back in: “Don’t get me wrong. On George Meany’s grave, I’m not some sourpuss who wants ta squash a union. It’s a shame how the NC double-A exploits these kids. But a union ain’t how to do it.”
“Maybe a union’s their only answer,” Jim would have retorted. “One of their arguments is about medical care after an injury and who’s responsible for dem bills? You can’t expect a 21-year-old kid whose ACL gets shredded and can’t walk anymore ta pay.”
Toad would have jumped all over that: “Dat’s gotta be part a da scholarship, Jim! You don’t need no union for dat!”
“Pay these clowns,” Rhoadie would have shot back, “and talk of a union disappears. If an athlete can make money signing autographs, let him. A&M’s Johnny Manziel made a fortune sellin’ his autograph. Why shouldn’t he keep it? And if one of ’em can get an endorsement from 7UP or whoever, good deal.”
“You know that a scholarship is worth 76 thousand dollars a year at Northwestern?” Moosie would have grumbled. “Imagine getting that kinda dough as a kid. There’s no way a union’s gonna do better’n 300 grand to go to school and play football for four years.” Deep breath. “Free education. A comfy room. Three squares a day. Just to play a game and learn. They’ll never have to drive a truck or stand in mud up to their knees every day after they graduate.”
“Where do I sign?” Toad would have exclaimed.
Then silence, finally broken by a glance up at the TV showing a Chicago Blackhawks goal.
“Now what about the VW plant in Chattanooga? Can you believe management agreed to let the union in and those meatheads voted against it?”