My first steady job was as a bag boy for Jewel Foods, where service manager Marie Spoo was my boss.
At 16, I was clueless about pacing myself in the workplace. That's because jobs or chores which I had been assigned as a boy were often punishments which I tried to be done with as fast as possible.
So on the first hectic Saturday, while I was busy breaking the speed record for stuffing a brown 50-pound-capacity bag with groceries, store manager Wally Ruder came from behind and dumped all the contents on the counter.
I felt my face redden. My first urge was to run. My second was to rip off my apron and toss it at him.
Fortunately, Marie rushed over, shooed Wally away, and doubled the empty paper bag before helping me to refill it. And she patiently asked if my own mother would have wanted the heavy cans of beans and tomato sauce on top, crushing the eggs and grapes, had she been my customer waiting in line.
Thanks to Marie, I henceforth perceived work as compensated, careful service to my fellow man.
I would subsequently learn from dozens of jobs over the next several decades, that I was always more comfortable and more productive if my supervisor was female.
Neuro-scientist Regini Verma led a study in 2014 at the University of Pennsylvania, confirming that the brains of men and women are different: Brain tissue controlling language and communication is denser and more active in women, while those sections controlling math and geometry are more pronounced in men.
And then there is the maternal instinct, in a larger part of a woman's brain which Verma would say stores the "social skills”: women try to nurture others, while men try to control them. And when this tendency carries over into the working world, who wouldn't rather be nurtured than controlled?
My first significant full-time employment was as an English teacher at an inner city high school in Chicago. Reginald Brown was an effective principal, with a militaristic approach in a vast campus housing 4,000 teenagers. His high expectations of students and teachers was comparable to the zero tolerance for deviations from the rules demanded by the drill sergeant played by Lou Gosset Jr. in the film "An Officer and a Gentleman," who did not like to be questioned.
But since a rookie teacher has way more questions than answers, I needed guidance with his leadership, which I could only get from Maryhelen Ryan, head honcho in the school's attendance office who knew the school inside out.
With no interest in upholding either a certain image or a workplace pecking order, Maryhelen freely gave me hide-saving advice, such as whose orders I could ignore (a certain loud and officious assistant principal), and whose I should follow to the letter (class schedule coordinator Mrs. Fortuna).
Whereas, to some male bosses, a 23-year-old greenhorn might represent a pawn, a threat, or an opportunity of exploitation, the ladies saw a fledgling in need of care before being pushed out of the nest.
And this is why I have great hopes for the labor movement that till recently has been in precipitous decline. Women, who I found more able or more willing to empathize with workers' struggles and feelings, have been lately leading labor's resurgence.
Saru Jayaraman, for example, head of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, is agitating successfully for a national minimum wage for wait staff.
Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, made national headlines when she engineered the successful strike against the Chicago Board of Education in 2012.
Ai-jen Poo, leader of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, is a key figure in the push for immigration reform.
Randi Weingarten leads the American Federation of Teachers; Kay Henry, the Service Employees International Union; Barbara Crane, National Nurses United; Nadia Marin Molina, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network; and Elizabeth Shuler is the secretary-treasurer of the mammoth AFL-CIO.
More women heading unions is not a guarantee against the politics, the corruption, and the graft that weakened and decimated the male-dominated unions of the 20th century.
But women labor leaders' emphasis on workers' needs and workplace conditions, as they affect the quality of family life at home, promises new hope and new life for Labor Day.
Former Hayward resident David McGrath has been a member of the United Retail Workers, Chicago Teachers Union, and National Education Association. He is author of "The Territory." firstname.lastname@example.org
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