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My Father's Lost Barn

An Encounter with the Past Leads to Dave's New Year's Resolution

Dave Arnold

On a recent hunting trip, I was struck with what would become my New Year's resolution.

As I sat in my deer stand sipping coffee and looking through binoculars, not a critter was in sight. Finally, I caught glimpse through some naked trees of something I had heard about but never seen.

As I examined the quiet terrain, I knew I was looking at the remnants of a barn my dad built nearly 80 years ago. Though he never took me for a visit, he told me where it was located and how he walked 10 miles each way to get there.

I recall him explaining how he provided the tools and some of the materials to build the structure for a local family. He built the barn during the hard times of the Great Depression and was paid about $1 a day for 10 hours labor.

Solid Foundation

In its day, the barn was said to be one of the finest structures around. My dad was a proud carpenter. He didn't let poor wages and working conditions compromise the quality of his work. At the same time, he knew he deserved a fair wage for a fair day's work. Pay and working conditions didn't improve for him until he joined a union.

The union became one of the foundations of his life. After joining, he said he never took his job for granted. In his memory, for the next 12 months, I resolve not take for granted my cherished job as head custodian at Brownstown elementary school.

I think many education support professionals (ESP) and other district workers on the job today can remember pre-union work days. Working conditions didn't change for many ESPs until we became members of the National Education Association (NEA). With the NEA and its state and local affiliates, school staff began building and bargaining for a better life.

"With a union you bargain, without a union you beg," my dad use to tell me.

Non-union Days

Sure, things could be better today for many ESPs, especially those without bargaining rights. I know because I've been there. When I started work for our school district in 1982, we didn't have union representation or a contract. Here's what I had:

  • Earned under $9,000 per year.
  • Salary steps, pay schedules and job descriptions didn't exist.
  • Not paid overtime for work that was performed in excess of 40 hours a week.
  • District paid $75.00 per month of the employee's health insurance.
  • Received nine sick days per year that weren't accumulative (use or lose).
  • Received one personal day per year with restrictions.
  • My only holidays: Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years Day and Good Friday.
  • Received one week's vacation after we had been employed two years.
  • Received notice of changes in salary and employment by reading it in the newspaper or hearing it through the grapevine.

Others Struggled Before Us

I'll spare you the mundane details of our current school district contract. But if you go down the above list, rest assured that my working conditions have dramatically improved.

It took a cold day in the woods and a rundown barn to remind me that my improved standard of living came at a cost. It is a result of the toil and tears of countless men and women involved in the labor movement.

Inspired by them and my dad, how could I ever take my job or benefits for granted?

(Dave Arnold, a member of the Illinois Education Association, is head custodian at Brownstown Elementary School in Southern Illinois. He can be contacted at

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NEA or its affiliates.