A Union Lesson from My Grandfather

My grandfather was one of the more interesting people I've known. His story is one of the quintessentially American stories that tells our history.

As a student at Georgetown University, he excelled at baseball and football, eventually turning down the Washington Senators to finish his studies and continue playing football. Some months later, his pelvis was broken during a tackle. So much for the dreams of becoming another Jim Thorpe.

Graduating during the Depression did not exactly put him in a prime job market, Georgetown degree or not. Instead of getting the important, financially rewarding job he sought, he found work as a longshoreman on the docks in Jersey City. He wasn't behind a desk or wearing a tie; he was loading and unloading crate after crate, day after day. The movie "On the Waterfront" was his daily reality.

Harry Dougherty became a union man.

He also became a capital-D Democrat who reminded us often that it was the unions who gave him a job and helped him build a family.

Visiting my grandfather after he retired included watching countless baseball games and a lot of Headline News. One day, following a news story on unions, he turned off the TV, yelling, "They've gone too far!" That my grandfather could ever think unions could go too far was unthinkable.

Walking through the "Senate Swamp" yesterday, I could imagine what his reaction would have been over the rally for the Employee Free Choice Act, which is anything but. For a longshoreman who owed his livelihood to unions — only to watch them stray further and further from protecting worker rights — the "card-check" legislation is light-years away from what unions originally meant to him. The image the legislation conjures, of the secret ballot being replaced as someone leans over your shoulder to "help" you decide whether or not to join the union, is chilling.

The right to a secret ballot is sacred. Legislation stripping people of that right is not what my grandfather toiled in the Jersey City docks and became a loyal union man for.