Saturday, December 13, 2014

"A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" still resonates today with its pro-union, pro-people message--from Hong Kong to West Virginia

(A scene from the 1945 movie version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Francie irons for her good-hearted-but-alcoholic father Johnny)

I met Francie Nolan when I was a young man, and I’ve never been prouder of that than now after having read her story in Betty Smith’s classic 1943 novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

Francie is the main character in this tale of poor first and second generation immigrants living in the tenements of turn-of-the-last-century Brooklyn. She’s an impressionable teenager who loves her good-hearted-but-alcoholic father Johnny and respects her mother Katie’s daily struggles to make ends meet when even a single penny is a precious possession.

I was a student at East Carolina University in the late 1960s visiting a friend in Chapel Hill, N.C., who roomed with author Betty Smith. She, of course, was Francie in this very autobiographical novel, and she was a gracious lady. During dinner at her home that evening she consoled me when a piece of my steak few unexplainably from my fork across the room. “It could happen to anyone,” she said, and the redness began to drain from my face.

I never got around to reading her great novel—the Oscar-winning 1945 movie is also a classic—until now, and I’m glad I finally did. It’s a perfect novel to read at Christmas time, and it still has much to say seven decades after it first appeared.

The Nolan family was fiercely pro-union. “Look at my Waiters’ Union button,” Johnny Nolan tells Francie while she irons his waiter’s apron. “Before I joined the Union the bosses paid me what they felt like. Sometimes they paid me nothing. The tips, they said, would take care of me. Some places even charged me for the privilege of working. … Then I joined the Union. … The Union gets me jobs where the boss has to pay me certain wages, regardless of tips. All trades should be unionized.”

Much later in the novel, after Johnny’s death, Francie is at the iron again, this time to iron her younger brother Neeley’s shirt. “Francie looked for the union label in Neeley’s shirt and pressed that first. (`That label is like an ornament … like a rose you wear.’) The Nolans sought for the union label on everything they bought. It was their memorial to Johnny.”

Like the Nolans, working people today still struggle all around the world. Whether they’re immigrants or native-born, they don’t have many politicians, preachers, or scribblers to stand by their side and take up their cause. 

Their best chance is to stand together. That’s when they get heard.

No organization has been stronger in defense of democracy and the rights of regular folks than the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) in Hong Kong, where student demonstrators and union leaders have stood side-by-side to protest since September the heavy hand of Beijing in their city’s affairs. They’ve risked their freedom and even possibly their lives to stand against a plan that would guarantee a coalition of Big Business and Communist Party leaders in Beijing vetting rights over candidates in Hong Kong’s 2017 election for chief executive.

It’s a fight for democracy, and you’d think President Obama and the great so-called champions of democracy in both U.S. parties would be rallying to support the pro-democracy demonstrators. You’d be wrong. Obama and Congress have been silent.

Not much more has been heard from Great Britain, the former imperialist, drug-running (remember the Opium Wars?) colonizer that once “owned” Hong Kong. A group of British Parliament lawmakers did plan last month to go to the city of 7 million to investigate but was told it would be refused entry.

In recent weeks, HKCTU leaders and journalists have been arrested by Hong Kong authorities for their alleged role in the protests. The HKCTU leaders were quickly released, but government officials have expressed growing impatience. Without Western support, the protesters have little leverage over the long haul.

Back here in the States, Battle Creek, Mich.-based Kellogg Co. is threatening to close plants if the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union doesn’t accept its latest contract offer, union officials say. The union has indeed rejected that offer. You’d think the company would be more willing to bargain in good conscience after a judge forced it to end its nine-month lockout of workers at its Memphis, Tenn., plant.

To the east of Memphis in Nashville, Tenn., students and workers have joined to protest Vanderbilt University’s outsourcing of custodial services to the Aramark firm. That outsourcing cost 35 workers their jobs. Their successors will likely earn less wages and have fewer benefits.

Some good news has emerged, however, with the indictment of coal mining baron Donald L. Blankenship in connection with the 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia that cost 29 workers their lives. Blankenship was chief executive of the company, Massey Energy, that owned the mine.  The federal government has accused him of gross violations of health and safety laws.

You hate to think that an indictment is a cause for good cheer here at Christmas time, and in reality it’s not. The good cheer comes whenever and wherever justice is served.

Justice is what you’d like to be able to expect here at home in the United States. It’s part of the American dream that brought Katie Nolan’s mother to this country. “What did we have in the old country?” Mary Rommely tells her daughter. “We were peasants. We starved. … I miss the homeland, the trees and broad fields, the familiar way of living, the old friends. … In spite of the hard, unfamiliar things, there is here—hope.”