COLUMBUS: Labor Day arrives Monday, time to give thanks for job security, weekends, paid vacations, overtime pay, health insurance and other benefits that union and management have negotiated over the years.
But I’m postponing my celebration until Sept. 21 and the 50th reunion of the Flint Central High School Class of 1963.
That’s my class. We’re the sons and daughters of America’s Grand Bargain, the agreements hammered out by workers and bosses in cities like Flint and Akron in the 1930s that led to unprecedented middle-class wealth and opportunity.
Many of us in the class of 1963 have links to that Grand Bargain, on either labor’s or management’s side. Mine comes from two men the New York Times once dubbed the “famous Perkins’ brothers.”
When Bill and Frank Perkins were fired from a Fisher Body plant in 1936 for resisting an order to speed up piece work, it helped set the stage for a sit-down strike protesting their dismissal. The workers showed they could stick together to force management to bargain.
The company eventually called Frank and Bill back to work. Bill once recalled that they had to come for him at a bar near the plant where he’d gone for a therapeutic beer — or two. He was the best man at my parents’ wedding in 1938 and a life-long family friend.
The sit-down strike ended with General Motors recognizing the union, which helped establish the United Auto Workers and industrial unionism in the United States.
The union contracts did more than put more money in workers’ wallets.
The wealth produced by the unionized auto, tire and steel industries provided the taxes — paid by managers and workers — needed to create first-class public schools in Flint, Akron, Pittsburgh and other cities.
Flint Central was a good example. Our teachers were as intelligent and demanding as those in upscale suburbs and private schools. At least that’s the conclusion I reached after attending a liberal arts college in Michigan and graduate school on the East Coast.
Graham Provan was the best history teacher I ever had, period, college or high school. Gerald Graves, Central’s Spanish teacher, threw us into the deep end on the first day of class, requiring us to abandon English for a dialogue in a new language.
A few years later as a Peace Corps volunteer I created a similar dialogue in English and tried it on the seventh- and eighth-graders I was teaching in a small Ethiopian town where Amharic was the first language.
They loved it.
More important, it helped them master English, the language used for all subjects from the seventh grade on.
Thank you, Senor Graves.
It’s likely that not all my classmates have the same fondness for the Grand Bargain. There are people in Flint who, even as they prospered, considered the unions an unnecessary intrusion on the bosses’ right to do whatever they wanted with the workers.
There’s also no doubt that the Grand Bargain doesn’t work the way it used to. Flint Central was a casualty. It closed in 2009, a result of shrinking enrollment and hard times in my hometown.
There are plenty of reasons for the meltdown — bone-headed management, overreaching unions, global trade and automation among then. So far, however, nothing has replaced it as a way to create great prosperity — including good schools — and share it.
On Flint Central! Happy Labor Day!
Hershey is a former Washington correspondent and Columbus bureau chief for the Beacon Journal. He also was the Columbus bureau chief of the Dayton Daily News. He can be reached at email@example.com.