My grandfather believed in labor unions

A. J. Knight at work

A. J. Knight at work

My paternal grandfather Archie James Knight (“Arch”) was a union member when he was a young man starting out his life in Kansas City. One of the unions connected with the construction industry. He believed in unions. He believed in the New Deal. He understood the necessity of and supported the development of Social Security (I used to have his SS card and the receipt for his first SS check).

Arch Knight was exactly–in fact the epitome of–the kind of person the”Tea Partiers” believe (I surmise from what I can make myself read of their palaver) reflects the values of this country. I admired (admire) him even though a statement of his obvious characteristics might sound, to anyone who knows how “liberal” I am, to be less than complimentary: White, male, hard-working, Christian, a self-made man. He was politically progressive and personally generous and open.

Kaiser Steel, before globalization

Kaiser Steel, before globalization

Granddad was a “borderline southerner” my dad used to say (born in Arkansas, lived much of his life in Missouri), but when among the spouses of his granddaughters were a Cuban-American, a Mexican-American, and a Japanese-American, he said he thought it was great that our family could have an “international baseball team.”

No Tea Partier need get on her high horse and self-righteously assume that, of course he accepted them because none of my cousins-by-marriage or my broher-in-law were “illegal” human beings. The family of Granddad’s Cuban-American grandson-in-law were refugees from the Castro revolution.  The family of his Japanese-American grandson-in-law were held in a detention center through WWII–my brother-in-law, a natural-born US citizen, a child who never set foot in Japan, was in the camp.

Americans who despise “illegal aliens” and hold certain Americans (such as Muslims) in fear and loathing like that felt toward Japanese Americans in the ’40s might do well to follow the example of my grandfather.

My grandfather was a white, Christian, (almost) Southern Gentleman who believed that “All men are created equal,” that all people are children of God, that workers have the right to join together to seek the best possible compensation for their work, and that we–together, all of us as a nation–owe it to ourselves and each other to create and maintain a financial “safety net” and the possibility of retirement.

What a bizarre creature he was.

He had, most certainly, prejudices that remained with him through his life. I doubt he would have been so sanguine if one of his grandchildren had married a black American although I’m also sure his love would have overcome his discomfort. I’m pretty sure he never understood that I am gay. But he had a basic understanding of fairness and generosity and equality that seems to me to have disappeared from much of our political and personal discourse.

I never thought of my grandfather as “conservative” or “liberal.” He voted for FDR four times. (My grandmother had a couple of Adlai Stevenson campaign buttons, so I assume they continued to vote Democratic.) He belonged to the union. He understood the value of Social Security. But he was also the owner of a small business, a Baptist (not Southern), and a Mason.

Either he lived in a time when it was possible to be, or he simply chose to be complex, to have beliefs that seem today to be contradictory, to be open-minded and generous. I never heard him say a judgmental or derogatory word about anyone (I’m sure he did, but he was careful not to do so in the presence of his grandchildren). He and my father had political beliefs as far apart as two men could have. But on the rare occasions I heard them discuss politics, they did so with mutual respect and without rancor.

My grandfather’s labor is to an enormous extent the source of the good things in my life. He worked hard to provide a stable life for his children, and was able–with scholarship help–to put his sons through college during the depression. It’s impossible to imagine what my life would have been but for that. And it’s impossible to imagine what my life would have been without his simple but unshakeable belief in fairness and generosity.

The farthest reach of hatred

The farthest reach of hatred

Perhaps my ideas are as bizarre and contradictory as my grandfather’s seem today. But could one have a better understanding of the role of labor, both organized and individual?

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