Late afternoon sunlight beamed through the front windows of Cherry Street Brewing Company on Tuesday. Soft chimes of gaming machines could be heard along with the gentle, steady “whoosh” of chilled air flowing from air conditioning ducts. Neon lights reflected on clean brick walls.
Then Randy Bryan, heavy machine operator, organizer of the Labor Day parade, member of International Union of Operating Engineers Local 649, and representative of the Galesburg Trades and Labor Assembly, walked in. He sat down and discussed with The Register-Mail the history, purpose and future of organized labor in Galesburg.
Labor celebrated in Galesburg for 130 years
For 130 years, labor has been celebrated in Galesburg, beginning with the July 4, 1892, organization of the Trades and Labor Assembly and that years’ Labor Day parade. With the exception of 1941-1945, when Galesburg and most other cities in the United States canceled their Labor Day parades, union men and women have marched the downtown streets to honor the working American.
Over the course of these 130 years, organized labor has seen its ups and downs. Unions grew first from local jobs such as cigar-making, to huge manufacturing such as Butler and Maytag, and then shifted to a focus on the skilled trades used in construction along with teachers and the healthcare industry.
It has been 18 years since Maytag closed the doors of its Galesburg plant, which manufactured refrigerators. A factory which at its peak employed nearly 5,000 men and women and whose grounds, now used to store wind turbine parts, can be interpreted as a headstone for “the good union jobs in Galesburg” as it was only the latest of over 20 years of loss in the city. Tombstones engraved with “Rowe,” “Outboard Marine,” “Butler,” and “State Research Hospital” also are found in this cemetery of memory.
Money from union pensions circulates locally
But from behind the grave, blood pumps from these graves in the forms of pensions. Retirees from these workplaces continue to live in Galesburg and they receive the checks that they were able to earn thanks to the efforts of generations of workers who fought for rights and wages.
Current union jobs, including railroad workers and teachers, continue to pump money into the local economy.
“I get my paycheck, and here is where I spend it,” noted Randy Bryan as he sipped ice tea.
“Even just getting a haircut,” that’s paid for with union wages.
He cites how for many people, whether it was in the past or today, “they may make enough to live and eat. But nothing more.”
“They can’t go out to eat. They can’t have someone build them a deck. They can’t go on vacation. It’s just staying alive and going to work. Then they’re in their 60s, tired of working, and there’s nothing there.
“It’s scary and there’s a bigger percentage of people that this is happening to,” Bryan said.
Bryan: Unions improved wages and added insurance
“And it took years … getting paid well didn’t just happen. It took years and years of guys doing things.”
It is not just wages he says are better because of unions, but the availability of health insurance and having retirement funds.
Of his own union membership, Bryan feels fortunate. Not understanding in his early 20s the importance of paying for insurance or retirement, over the years it has hit him.
“I realized, there’s going to be a day where I don’t have to work. I don’t have to just stay in my apartment and eat noodles. I can actually DO stuff. It goes back to what we talked about before, how pensioners continue to spend money in the community. I will be able to pitch in … that’s what keeps everything going.”
Apprenticeships can lead to life-long skills
While recognizing that the American economy has changed, Bryan notes that not everyone wants or is best suited for college degrees and the careers those degrees lead to. This is where apprenticeship comes into play.
“There’s a couple of young kids from Knoxville that just got into what I do and they got their hours to be members,” Bryan says.
“I want them to have what I have. And at the same time, you’re trying to teach them the correct way so that down the road, they will pass what they learned on as well, when they are in the position that I am.”
The advantages of learning a skilled, union trade goes beyond wages, according to Bryan.
“They are learning a skill that you can take somewhere. You don’t have to stay tied down. You can take your skill to almost anywhere.”
He has advice for those who are intimidated by the challenge of apprenticeship in the trades as well, as not all can always enter the program they want, when they want. Often, more apply than can be accepted.
“If you want it, keep at it. Try again next year. They will see that you want it.”
“All programs are different, but ours (International Union of Operating Engineers Local 649) is four years. You get accepted and for four weeks you teach what you can in the classroom. Then they go with contractors who are requesting apprentices. Many jobs require that they always have apprentices, to always have people learning. More classroom instruction comes, and each time they know and are able to do more.”
Because of this, Bryan sees a future for organized labor in Galesburg.
“I think that’s an advantage of the Labor Day parade, because people can watch and they see their friends and neighbors and just folks they see around the community and realize that this is a path that they can take too.”
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September 2, 2022 at 03:53PM