My father, Sam Ross, believed passionately in organized labor. He knew, from his own experience, how crucial it was for workers to organize themselves into unions. He knew the power which organized workers could bring to a workplace– whether that power was used to protect themselves from unsafe working conditions or whether that power was used to demand a living wage. On this Labor Day, 2012, the first since my father died, I am remembering him and his keen sense of justice, learned early in his life. This sense of justice animated his political views for all of his 93 years.
I believe my father’s passion for the labor movement emerged from a clear insight about human nature. He knew that people generally, not always, but generally, look out for their own personal welfare. If this was true, then the owners and managers of factories, especially in the steel industry in which he worked, would run their forges and factories in as cheap a way possible, so as to maximize their profits. This in itself is not bad. But in an industry whose production is often dangerous– and in a country where the gap between owners and skilled workers is often vast– the need for worker protection is great.
My father also learned that the desire to maximize profit can take hold of a system, causing it to treat its workers in degrading ways. In the 1940s and 50s, when he worked at Taylor Forge, a large steel plant in Southern California, he and a friend who had been hired the same day 15 years before, went to work on this anniversary of their hiring, only to learn they had been fired. They had worked for 15 years minus one day because if they worked for 15 years, Taylor Forge would have been responsible for a variety of new benefits, including a retirement benefit.
Because at this time, the workers at Taylor Forge were not organized, there was nothing he could do. The 15 years (minus one day) he had put in were gone and meaningless. Precisely because of this unjust treatment, my dad would become an organizer for the United Steel Workers throughout California.
Today, it seems many American workers have become complacent about their potential power. We often feel that our employers have the right to hire and fire in largely whatever ways they desire. We also have such an aversion to creating tension that today’s workers become accustomed to silence. We don’t speak up because we need the job. This fear, of course, is precisely what employers count on. We know they can fire us, so we work under less than fair conditions.
Although my father was saddened some by the decline of the labor movement in recent years, his passion for its ideals never wavered. He knew that every worker’s strongest ally was the willingness to stand up for one another. It is the bond between workers that gives them a voice against those who use their work to build their own profits, sometimes at the expense of worker safety and dignity.
On this Labor Day, 2012, I fondly remember my father’s dedication to just wages, safe working conditions, and every worker’s right to organize to achieve those goals.As President Obama often says, “We are stronger together than we are apart.” This is the essential American narrative. I refuse to believe those who suggest the American narrative is essentially an individual narrative, about succeeding and gaining wealth on one’s own. The example of my father’s life compels me to disagree. The American narrative is told through what can be accomplished when people stand together. The icons of the American dream are not individual wealthy people who think they earned their wealth solely by their own wits. The icons of the American dream are people like Mother Jones, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Cesar Chavez, and Harvey Milk — all Americans who knew our willingness to work and sacrifice for the rights of others — that is the uniquely American dream.