I can remember my short, bird-like grandmother putting my hand on her head, under her hair, and making me feel the lumps and scars that were hidden there.
“The feckin’ goouns did that, Stephen!” 75 years in America and my grandmother went to her grave with a brogue I could barely understand. I finally figured out she was saying “the fuckin’ goons.”
And that’s when she told me her story.
About how she had to find work when her husband died at age 28 (from blood poisoning due to a goddamn abscessed tooth, if you can believe it), and went to work doing piecework in a sweatshop in the NYC garment district. Her story helped me to understand why she would stand up any time the “Look For The Union Label” commercial came on the TV and put her hand over her heart like it was the National Anthem. For her, it was. She helped organize, and she got her fair share of harassments and beatings from the “feckin’ goouns.” And she told me something I’ve never forgotten: “You don’t give an inch. You fight.”
My grandmother was just one of millions, immigrants most of them or the children of immigrants, pushed out of their ancestral lands by starvation and brutality and pogroms and forced to cross the ocean to a new land, the land of exile, no giddy triumphalist “Land Of Opportunity™” but simply a place where they were somewhat less likely to be killed, or to starve to death. And here is where they drew their line and said “Enough! Here is where we stand; we can do no other.”
And so they did.
Stand with the unions? How could I do otherwise? To do otherwise would mean I was without honor. And to be without honor is to dishonor all those who came before, endless generations whose existence made mine possible. Endless generations, back all the way to those who spoke forgotten languages and worshipped forgotten gods, and who walked up out of Ice Age Europe and across the shallow marsh that is now the Irish Sea. We have to answer to them, every single one of them, in this world or the next. Because they watch us, always, and they judge us, asking themselves: “Does this one live with honor?”
I stand with the unions because I want them to be able to judge me, nod their heads, and say one word: