I had the great privilege, yesterday and today, of tattooing the logo for the United Steel Workers on a couple of very active union organizers. 

It was a simple tattoo, but I can’t tell you how proud I was to do this for these hard-working union members.  It made me feel, somehow, part of the resurgence that has arisen since the Wisconsin debates about the right of workers to organize, to lobby for their own worth and their own needs as workers.

I’d never really thought about my own relationship to union families, until, reflecting on the protests against the curtailing of worker’s rights in by Gov. Walker in Wisconsin, I asked my mother if Washington state had a union for teachers back when my dad was teaching in the public schools.

My mom, quite frankly, was a little hazy on the concept.  She told me that they’d had something – she wasn’t exactly sure if it was a union – but in any case, there’d been some sort of organization to lobby for teachers wages and benefits and working conditions, and yes, my dad (and probably my mom as well, the one year she taught 4th grade in the public schools) was a part of it.  But it was no memorable organization for my mother; it existed, it advanced the rights of teachers, it worked to some degree, but it made little lasting impression on her, outside of the basics.

I have never been a member of any kind of union, but I still feel the benefits of unions in my life as a working person.

I do not work in an industry which is likely to EVER unionize. The old adage, “like herding cats” probably was never so applicable as in the case of trying to bring tattoo artists together.

But still, I feel those benefits.  I may work more than a 40-hour work week on a very regular basis, but where did that 40 hour work-week come from?  The unions. And it’s my choice to bust past that 40 hours, not mandated by my employer.

I may forego a normal Saturday-Sunday weekend (so that I can make more money, quite frankly) in favor of taking my days off on Wednesday and Thursday, but my “right” to two days off (days I usually do bookkeeping, business-oriented shopping, and artwork for tattoo projects), and in fact my very sense of having anything like reliable “days off” comes from the Unions.

I may not have health care, or retirement/pension benefits, or any kind of bonus structure, but my knowledge of those benefits, and my educated decision to forego them in my current profession stems directly from my knowledge that these are standard, accepted benefits, baselines against which I measure my own earnings, and that knowledge is based in the history of Unions securing those rights for workers in major industries.

I’m not naïve to the corruption within some unions. I’m not unaware of how some unions, at some times, did more for their leadership, and less for the workers. But overall, unions do more or less what they are supposed to do: lobby for good working conditions, good pay, and reasonable expectations.

And so it is, without direct membership or benefit from the efforts of a labor union, I still thank them.

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