He explained in that April 4th email his reason for writing at length about his father:
I was railing to our daughter, Rachel, about the Maine governor having the mural celebrating Maine laborers stripped from the Maine Department of Labor building. She suggested that I get it off my chest by writing something for my sister to post on her Facebook page. (I don't have or want a Facebook account.) The attached file is it; I got a little carried away.
A tribute to my Father, Frank Gene McKinney
(June 27, 1917 - January 16, 1997)
My father was born into a working-class family during the first World War, in the small town of Waverley, Alabama, the first-born of eight siblings (seven brothers and one sister). He had a great deal of responsibility within the family, began working at an early age with a paper route that was passed down to his brothers in turn, and was mentor to his brothers in a close-knit family.
His birth coincided with the 1917 opening of the huge steel mill in Fairfield, Alabama, the new (1910) company town of the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company (TCI), which was by then a subsidiary of United States Steel Corporation.
Fairly soon after my father was born, the growing family moved from Waverley to Fairfield (essentially an extension of Birmingham, Alabama), where my Grandfather, Bernard, labored in the sheet mill of the new TCI operation. Eventually my father, most of his brothers, and some uncles on my mother’s side of the family worked as laborers for TCI or for Birmingham Southern Railroad, a short-line railroad largely serving TCI. Some of my uncles worked as laborers for TCI or the Railroad for a fairly short time before moving on to desk jobs in the companies or working through university educations. One uncle on each side of the family spent his working career working in the mills of TCI, but in the mid-1950s my father took a job in maintenance at Lloyd Noland Hospital in Fairfield, a hospital formerly part of TCI to serve its employees, but an independent community-based hospital since 1949.
My father was an honorable, hard-working man who lived his life with complete integrity. Even times when income was token, 10% came off the top as tithe to the church. Later, when most of his siblings were grown and earning incomes, they taxed themselves to support their mother with a dependable income (she pre-dated Social Security) and later upped that family tax for her final years among fellow Methodists in a nursing home. The 15 cents was there every week for the life insurance collector to come by, the amount growing as he could afford to add yet another small policy with my mother as beneficiary.
As a teenager I had to go along with him as he moonlighted as electrician in the neighborhood most weekends; if my yawning and lack of attention as gopher and flashlight-holder irritated him too much, he would remind me that all the money he was making by moonlighting was going to me, the dollar or two that I got as helper and all the rest into my college fund.
That doesn’t mean that he wasn’t a product of his times or of the segregated South; we all accept some things about the context in which we live that future generations will judge to have been wrong. My sister had more native intelligence than I did; but that appeared not to carry much weight in our parents’ plans for us: it would be a heavy financial burden to send just one of us through college; I was the boy and would therefore be educated. My sister would need to make her way through life by marriage. Our parents also struggled – only partially successfully – later in life to accept racial integration. But there’s a profoundly unfair temporal sense to Robert Burns’ line, “O would some power the giftie gie us to see ourselves as others see us.”
My early memories are relatively few, except that they collectively convey a remarkably happy childhood, not affluent by any stretch of the imagination but full of the essence of life: discovery, play, imagination, extended family outings. But there were serious things too that cut through. One of them, perhaps a reason that I have been a reader all my life, was having to keep the house quiet all day for a week each month while my father slept in a darkened room because of working the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift as part of a continuous rotation of two weeks day shift (7-3), a week of evening (3-11), and a week of night (11-7). Equally clear are discussions between my father and uncles of rumors that communists might be trying to infiltrate the union at TCI, obligations to man the picket lines, my father having to go away to distant places (Kentucky!) to find work during long strikes, the need to comb the neighborhood and collect sacks full of poke weed in summer and especially during strikes.
(One thing is pretty funny. Like most little kids, I wanted to be like my father and so mimicked what he did. When just a few years old I convinced him to let me drink milky coffee and asked for sugar in it. He said that he didn’t have any sugar in his coffee, and I didn’t need it either. OK, I learned to drink and prefer coffee – now black – with no sugar. Decades later, I saw him ladling sugar into his coffee. “What’s up with the sugar?!?” “I always liked sugar in my coffee. We just didn’t have the money to buy it.”)
You see, my father was a union man. Although a paternalistic company during the earliest part of the 20th century, TCI had had a firmly union-prohibiting policy. The onset of the Great Depression in 1929 caused them not so much to lay off workers but to cut them back to part time, even to a few hours per month, causing large numbers of them to become heavily indebted to the company commissaries and to owe back rent if in company housing. At the same time, the paternalistic programs such as recreational activities, health care, safety measures, support of local schools were severely curtailed or eliminated.
However, in 1935 Franklin Roosevelt’s National Labor Relations Act gave unions the right to organize and to engage in collective bargaining, and two years later U. S. Steel and the Steel Workers Organizing Committee signed a deal that brought in unions, eventually affiliating with the United Steelworkers of America.
Birmingham’s reason for existence was the realization during the 19th century that here, within just a few miles' radius, were substantial quantities of the raw ingredients required for producing steel: iron ore, coal, and (for flux) limestone. In fact, during my early childhood while all three products were still being produced locally, the men in our neighborhood mostly worked in one or other of the types of mines or in the steel mills themselves. The miners were color-coded when they came home from their shifts, the limestone miners less so because they worked in an open-cast rather than underground mine. Occasional roof collapses in an underground mine would keep the entire community awake and on edge until all the men were accounted for. The men weren’t well protected from the dust that they raised as they worked. One uncle by marriage on my mother’s side of the family began working in the coal mines at age seven, and early in his adulthood his lungs were in such sorry state that he couldn’t work any more. Ignorant of silicosis or black lung disease, the family censored him as a malingerer, but after moving to an area of dry, clean air in the American West, he never recovered fully but was able to work part time. Exploitative child labor within industry doesn’t seem very far in the past to me.
All the industrial jobs in Birmingham needed union representation and collective bargaining for their safety on the job as well as for improved living standards for the men and their families. Serious injuries and even deaths occurred in the TCI steel mills when body parts got in the way of rapidly moving red hot sheets.
Why was he a union man? That’s simple. The company was making profits hand-over-fist, the top executives were living well, the office workers were paid relatively well, the laborers were barely getting by and had no financial safety net. Collective bargaining meant slowly achieving a more livable wage, worker input into safety of the work environment, plus gradual addition and growth of non-wage benefits such as medical attention for the family.
When my father was born, the top 10% of income earners made 40% of the share of the country’s annual income. Twelve years later when the Great Depression began and in fact all through the Great Depression (1929-1941), that top 10% garnered about 45% of the country’s annual income. When the Great Depression ended and labor unions began to have a voice, that degree of inequity plummeted to roughly 33% of the country’s total income to the top 10% and stayed at that level until 1981. That was the year that President Reagan broke the air traffic controllers’ union, which emboldened a variety of industries “plagued” by sharing with the workforce what otherwise could be enriching shareholders. There has been an essentially straight-line increase in proportional income for the top 10%, back to the just over 45% that it was in 1929.1
But that’s not all. The Congressional Budget Office's “Average Household After-Tax Income” tells the horrifying story in graphic terms.2
In 1979 Marg and I were probably in the middle 20% after-tax household income group, gradually moving into the Fourth 20% toward the end of our work life and now back comfortably at just about the boundary, which means that our after-tax income puts us a little above the average in the US. We have such a comfortable income because my father worked and saved like crazy to be able to put me through college, Marg and I did well enough in undergraduate school to continue on our own into graduate school, and I only had to have one offer of employment (at a far higher salary) in the oil industry to know that I wanted to teach instead of being income-driven, whether it be salary in a large company or percentage override of production if working as an independent or small company.
Enough about where I fit in on the scale, except that my father made it possible by hard work and sacrificing a lot of Saturdays. But the genuinely disturbing thing about that CBO graph is the contrast between the four bars on the left and the four bars on the right. The better off your income group was in 1979, the much MUCH better off you are now. The top 20% have a quantum jump of about three times income increase relative even to the 60-80% (Fourth 20%). Keep breaking down that top 20% group into even smaller high-end slices (the three bars on the right end), and the proportional increase in annual income is staggering, which means that the actual increase is immorally obscene. Take it on to the richest 400 individuals (the Forbes 400), and together the 400 of them now own as much wealth as 50% (155 million) of the rest of us. And some of the richest among them provided most of the funds to get the tea party movement established as a political force, to ensure that their federal tax rate doesn’t increase to the same rate that the lower 90% of us pay and their business operating expenses don’t rise to compensate for trivial things such as environmental and human damage.
What would my father make of the current assault on the state, county, and municipal unions? Or the Governor of Maine removing the mural portraying the labor history of Maine from its Department of Labor building because it sends the wrong message to potential business investment? I really don’t know.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, who set the stage for the labor movement to grow, was my father’s all-time political hero. Curiously, Ronald Reagan, who along with outsourcing initiated the post-1979 decline of unions, was also high on the list. But by the time Ronald Reagan was in office my father was deeply influenced by conservative rhetoric, which he found very compelling. Because of that rhetoric he thought that the unions had over-reached. Political rhetoric often, especially agenda-driven rhetoric, commonly is supported only by hot air. My father had no access to actual comprehensive data, just rhetoric and carefully chosen examples to support the point of the rhetoric. (Neither “conservatives” nor “liberals” have a corner on that.) Would he have felt the same if he had known that income inequality had been flattened with the growth of unions and the onset of WWII and remained unchanged at that level until Ronald Reagan squashed the air traffic controllers’ union, which unleashed the outmaneuvering and destruction of unions, and started the trend right back up to the income inequality level at the onset of the Great Depression? I don’t think so. Nor do I think that, if he had access to comprehensive data rather than just to persuasive rhetoric, would he countenance the present attempt to polish off unions in the US by crippling the largest of the remaining unions.
Whether he would or wouldn’t have understood what has been and is currently happening to unions and economic disparity in the US, I blew a gasket when the Governor of Maine had the labor-honoring mural removed (which celebrated the collective Rosie the Riveters’ contributions to WWII!!). To me that is a personal insult to my father, and I don’t like it one whit. It’s bad enough to set things up so that the wealth of the nation flows ever faster into the hands of a few. There are no words strong enough to condemn someone who so blatantly insults my father and everybody else who worked to get decent working conditions and a living wage available to the common man.
Frank K. (Ken) McKinney
April 4, 2011
1 Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, "Income Inequality in the United States, 1913-1998," Quarterly Journal of Economics, 118(1), 2003. Updated to 2007.
2 Congressional Budget Office, “Average Household After-Tax Income,” Data on the Distribution of Federal Taxes and Household Income, April, 2009.