This holiday makes me think about my roots, because iIn many ways, the labor movement is the story of the Hoornaert family. Without unions, I wouldn’t be an author and blogger today, because the family’s rise from humble immigrant origins wouldn’t have been possible.
My grandparents came from a long line of bakers in Belgium, but in the New World, Grandpa Polydor (or Paul, as he came to be known) because a janitor of apartment buildings. That was around the time that organizers were trying to establish a union to give janitors a bit of clout with building owners. Because Paul was well respected, the organizers asked him to talk to other Belgian janitors about the union.
From those efforts came Local No. 1, Flat Janitors Union, with Paul as a charter member. Pay improved, though not necessarily working conditions. It was hard, degrading work, pulling garbage from back porches down three or four flight of stairs, shoveling coal into boilers that heated the building’s water and radiators. There was no such thing as ‘sick time’; if grandpa was sick or injured, he still had to feed those boilers several times a day, or the tenants froze. He still had to shovel snow. He still had to unplug toilets or drains.
But the pay was decent. All three of Paul’s sons joined the union and put their children through college. ALL their children, every one of us, a total of six, with some of us getting advanced degrees. We became teacher, engineers and, in my case, an author. My summer pay helped put me through school.
At 17, fresh out of high school, I became the fifth family member, and the third generation to belong to the Flat Janitor’s Union. I only worked summers, filling in while janitors went on vacation. The pay was good, and by 17 I’d already learned enough to handle the job. And to loath it, frankly, with a deep respect for all that my family had gone through to establish itself here.
Without unions and the respectable salaries they managed to negotiate, none of that would have happened; we’d still be working class and likely poor. And so, on Labor Day, my hat is off to the labor movement!