Daddy Was a Union Man: An Illustrated Story

April 1, 2011

I keep "remembering" the '30s as the good ol' days (minus the sexism, racism, and colonialism), but maybe it was never cool to be "working class." Recent decades have been all about meritocracy: our perpetual climb up the social ladder, toward some degree of gentility. We now prefer not to identify as "workers," which explains why the Wisconsin protests and all the fuss about collective bargaining seem so foreign. With so few of us unionized today -- only 11.9%* nationwide, down from 20% in the early 1980s -- we hear about the costs, without experiencing the benefits, of collective worker action.

It's an interesting time to be a workers' rights lawyer; the political climate is discouraging, to say the least. But I'm inspired by my clients, mostly low-wage immigrants, who continue organizing for better working conditions. And I recall my dad doing the same, walking the picket line more than once with his machinists' union, an IAM&AW Local. The union wasn't perfect -- it was run by old-guard white men who retreated too easily from sick days and other necessary rights -- but it still gave my dad community, job security, some benefits, and the promise of a decent retirement.

By fighting for these goods, unions transcend their members' interests. They need to do a better job explaining this: that they're not another special-interest group. Unions, workers' centers, and other collectives remind us that we are all workers, each deserving to labor and live with dignity. Here is a small, personal story to this effect.

* Asian American men have the lowest rate of unionization, only 9.4%.


Tammy Kim


Tammy lives in Brooklyn, where she writes, works as a social-justice lawyer, and teaches. She grew up in Tacoma, WA and was educated at Yale and NYU.