By David R. Radtke
David R. Radtke is a partner in the Michigan law firm of Klimist, McKnight, Sale, McClow & Canzano and a member of the AFL-CIO Lawyers Coordinating Committee.
I have a confession. My father is an autoworker. I know that some people will recoil in disgust upon learning that fact, but it gets worse—he's a retired UAW autoworker and he and my mother live on a pension and have retiree health care benefits that supplement Medicare. In other words, he is public enemy #1 to Sens. Richard Shelby, Bob Corker and Jim DeMint.
According to these senators, my dad and his cadre of active and retired UAW-represented autoworkers are responsible for this country's economic downturn. In the color-coded chart of America's enemies, they are right below Al Qaeda and moving up fast.
My dad is despised by the right and the left. Right-wing Republican senators rail against my dad on the Senate floor because he's lazy, overpaid and coddled. For some on the left, their view of class consciousness compels them to speak out against anyone who has middle-class existence without the rigors of a college degree. My dad also is detested by the rich and the poor. Rich people don't like my dad because if workers earn good wages and benefits, it somehow diminishes their own affluence. Many poor people don't like my dad because they have dead-end, low-wage jobs, nonunion jobs with no benefits. It's America's version of class warfare, where you hate other workers that have more than you but idolize their bosses.
Since I've already established that my father is the scourge of "right-thinking" Americans—high school educated, union member, blue-collar job and now retired with a pension and health care benefits. But let me tell you a little more about him.
My dad grew up in Hamtramck, Mich., a Polish enclave surrounded by the city of Detroit. His mother was born in Poland and his father was second generation German-Polish. My dad graduated from Hamtramck High School in 1955 and, like nearly everyone of his classmates, went into the military. After two uneventful years in the peacetime Army, he returned home and married my mother. He got a job servicing office machines and my mom worked at the phone company.
None of their friends or relatives went to college. None. They all got blue-collar union jobs in factories or driving trucks or working for the government.
After a few years, me and my sister were born and my mom quit her job. My dad got into a tool-and-die apprenticeship program in a small factory and served a four-year apprenticeship. He also joined the UAW and my parents bought a three-bedroom, 1,300-square-foot brick ranch in Warren, Mich.
After getting his journeyman’s card, my dad got a job at Chrysler. He worked at various plants in Metro Detroit as a tool-and-die maker. I remember he was laid off a few times and went on strike once. When my sister and I were in grade school, he was often on the afternoon or midnight shift, so he would wake up for an hour or so in the morning to see us before school.
At some point, my parents bought a small, empty lot for $1,500 on a little lake in northern Michigan. My dad and his cousins built a little two-room cabin. Other than two weeks at Disney World, we spent every vacation at that cabin.
I vividly remember the tension and unease in our house when Chrysler was in deep financial trouble in the late 1970s. After Congress gave Chrysler a loan (which it paid back early, with interest) we had a gold Plymouth Volare—with a bumper sticker that said: THANKS, AMERICA.
When I was six years old, I had a serious medical problem that required two surgeries, extended stays in the hospital and many, many doctor visits and tests. Because my dad had UAW-negotiated health care, our family was not financially devastated.
Later, my dad transferred to an office job with Chrysler's parts division where he continued to use his knowledge of tooling and parts. It also was a UAW-represented job, but it was 9-to-5, so he saw my sister and I every day.
Just weeks before I was to head off to college, my dad had a heart attack shoveling snow. He was hospitalized for a short time and was off work for a couple months. Because of the UAW contract, his medical treatment was fully covered and he received sick pay. The UAW contract also guaranteed that he could return to his job when he recovered. Because of these benefits, I didn't have to drop out of college and get a job. Instead, I was able to continue my education with my parents' help and student loans.
When my dad retired after nearly 30 years at Chrysler, he retired with a union-negotiated pension and retiree health care benefits that supplement Medicare. My parents still live in the same three-bedroom brick house in Warren and spend a lot of their time with their five grandchildren.
Other than the short time my dad was off after the heart attack, he never missed a day of work. He raised a family and now he and my mother have a comfortable life.
But dad's not alone. Most of my parents' friends live much the same life. They are now in their 70s and they have modest, secure lives. They have lived what I was taught to be the promise of this country. Each generation progresses from the previous. Every person who works has financial security, decent health care and a dignified retirement. I learned this lesson in the public schools I attended and have heard it in speeches made by many politicians.
So, when did it become acceptable to be against that ideal? How can U.S. senators stand on the Senate floor and denounce millions of Americans like my dad? Workers who spent their lives raising families, paying taxes, adding to their communities and laboring in good union jobs for a middle-class life—the vaunted American Dream. Well, it's not acceptable and it is those senators who should be denounced.