I grew up in Akron, Ohio, reaching political age in the 1980’s when everything in Akron just went downhill. When I was growing up it was the place where practically every tire in the country came from, it was the rubber capital of the world; Firestone, Goodyear, Goodrich, General Tire all made tires in Akron.
All my family worked for the rubber plants; my great-grandfather for Firestone, my grandfather with Goodyear, my uncle with Goodrich. The rubber industry was more than an important part of the community–it was the economy. Everything changed when the plants rapidly shut down beginning in the late 1970s and took people from a middle-class life to food stamps overnight, or made families move thousands of miles, following jobs to Oklahoma or Arizona.
This is a story about my grandfather…
and what he taught me during this crisis about what it means to be a Union member.
My grandfather was a child of the depression. He moved to California from Arkansas looking for work, just like a Steinbeck character. He was a big guy, six foot six, very strong – and he worked up and down the Central Valley delivering carrots or cotton or whatever he had to do. World War II broke out and he was stationed back in Arkansas as a prisoner of war camp guard. At camp where he met my grandmother who was a WAC, from Akron Ohio. After the war, my grandparents moved to Akron, he got a job in a rubber plant and was there for decades.
Then it came time when the rubber plants were closing. The Union contract protected jobs be seniority, so people who had been there longer could bump junior employees and keep working for as long as their seniority held out.. My grandfather had been there for a very long time and probably would have been the last ones to go if he wanted it, but instead,he took a voluntary layoff. He volunteered to leave early; he stepped up to it.
He told me that he just simply could not take a job from somebody who had a family who needed it. His kids were grown. His house was taken care of. He could take an 18 months layoff that would end with his retirement. It was the right thing to do.
Now my grandfather was not a Union activist, very rarely I ever in my life heard anybody talk about the Union; it was just part of life. But he taught me something that will always matter to me. Through his union and because he respected his fellow workers, he realized that he should not use his situation to take from others, but instead should help the families who needed the work.
Later in my life I became a union organizer for the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades. I was assigned to the AFL-CIO for political outreach and I had an opportunity to travel around the State of Ohio to a variety of locals unions and I always would tell this story. And one of my proudest moments was when I was able to introduce my grandfather, Joseph Goodson, to the retiree group of his old local union and tell them how important his story was to me.
It’s his story. It’s also the story of Akron, Ohio,
where I grew up, a town that changed because the economy changed; because people made decisions that weren’t in the best interests of the community, but for shareholders in far off places that had nothing to do with my family and my friends.
This kind of event changes how you see the world; it makes you question the assumptions that people have. And I can look back and I can say that it was this experience that put me on a path to becoming who I am today.