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It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

The Gift Nobody Wanted

by DAVID MACARAY

Any union negotiator will tell you that no matter how high the stakes, how tense the talks, or how agitated or unglued the parties become, contract negotiations between labor and management are mind-numbingly boring affairs.

Take away the shoptalk and protocol, the speeches, the lectures, the charts, the graphs, the “mission statements,” the industry overviews, history lessons and grim forecasts, and a contract bargain is nothing more than one very long and punishing argument about money.  Money.  And what on God’s earth (other than watching the WNBA on television) is more boring than arguing about money?

This isn’t to trivialize or ridicule the process.  Obviously, bargains are vitally important.  Indeed, to blue-collar workers a union contract not only represents their ticket to financial security, it’s the matrix, the crucible, within which they function as employees.  Union contracts have rightly been called “socio-economic blueprints.”  It’s just that the negotiations themselves are unimaginably tedious.

Every facet of a bargain—the ground rules to the “clean-up” items to the “housekeeping” items to that portion of the agenda officially designated as “non-economic” (the terminology fools no one)—has a price attached to it.  Even before the parties have exchanged agendas, they’ve already argued over the incidental stuff:  how to split the cost of the meeting room, who pays for the coffee, the scheduled “offs,” the printed materials, etc.  Everything has a price-tag and everything is negotiable.

Consider:  A contract bargain is like spending eight weeks on a car lot trying to buy a car.  Think about that.  Eight weeks—eight hours a day, five days a week—haggling over a car.  How many times can you ask the salesman to lower the price?  And how many times can he repeat that he’s gone as low he can go?  Two or three hours of this would be enough to wipe out any normal person.  Try doing it for eight weeks.  The redundancy, the sheer repetition, is soul-crushing. 

Moreover, nothing ever changes at the table; allegiances don’t shift; ideologies don’t get abandoned, epiphanies don’t occur.  It’s like two mountain goats fighting on a ridge, butting heads, ramming each other.  They’ll do that until they’re exhausted or one of them runs away.  Mountain goats don’t change tactics.  They don’t suddenly jump up and begin fighting like kangaroos.  They fight like mountain goats. 

The cardinal rule of union bargaining:  Never put anything on your agenda you don’t want, because you may actually get it.  A corollary to that rule:  If you get it, it means you got it in lieu of something else, because a bargain is nothing if not an exercise in quid pro quo and there are only so many agenda items in play.  A second corollary:  Once you get it, you’re stuck with it.

From 1956, when the Kimberly-Clark Corporation’s Fullerton, California, paper mill first began cranking out product (Kleenex, Kotex, Hi-Dri towels, Delsey bath tissue, etc.), until 1997, when the union’s negotiating team finally—successfully, amazingly—altered the contract language, mill employees were forced to work on Thanksgiving Day.

Granted, there was money to be made.  When you worked a holiday—any holiday—you received twenty-three hours pay (one hour short of triple-time) for a single eight-hour shift; and if you were scheduled for overtime (as the maintenance crews regularly were), it was a huge day.  With holiday pay, overtime premium and “special payment,” you raked it in.

Still, despite the fact that everyone in the mill was there to make money, the economic bonanza wasn’t enough to offset a vague sense of malaise.  In the same way that suggesting to a starving man that he become a cannibal (“Hey, it’s meat, isn’t it?”), the cold, impersonal logic underpinning the virtues of working on Thanksgiving Day couldn’t quite overcome the nagging, sentimental reasons for not wanting to do it.

Women employees in particular complained about having to work, and it wasn’t hard to see why.  Typically, it was they who did all the preparation.  It was the women who planned, arranged and hosted Thanksgiving, who straightened up the house, dressed the children, dressed the bird, cooked the meal, and, afterward, were responsible for cleaning up the mess. 

If a woman worked day shift (6:30 AM to 2:30 PM), it meant that, under optimum conditions, she’d hurry home, bake a turkey, prepare the side dishes, shower, change clothes, and—if her family were lucky—get dinner on the table by 7:30 PM.  If she worked swing-shift (2:30 PM to 10:30 PM), forget about it.  A traditional Thanksgiving wasn’t going to happen, not with mom spending thirty minutes at the dinner table before having to dash off to work. 

However, if she worked graveyard (10:30 PM to 6:30 AM), she could, in theory, have a “regular” Thanksgiving.  But this woman still needed to sleep off the previous night’s shift, where she’d toiled for eight hours in a dusty, noisy paper mill.  And while a short nap might get her through the preparation of an ambitious meal, she still needed to sleep before reporting back to work that same night, where she faced another grueling 8-hour shift.  How do you fit that in and still host a “regular” Thanksgiving?   

In the manufacturing industry, a restricted holiday is commonly known as a “cold down.”  It refers to a day (or shift) where all production work is halted and all the equipment is locked out.  On a cold down, none of the production crews are allowed to work—not even in exceptional circumstances, not even on a voluntary basis.  A restricted holiday is sacrosanct.  Nobody works.

Because machinery is a manufacturer’s primary asset, its life-blood—not to mention its main investment—agreeing to have expensive equipment lie idle is, understandably, a momentous decision. That’s why there are big-time manufacturing plants in the U.S. which don’t permit any cold downs, not even Christmas Day.  They’d rather pay the crews outlandish money—crazy money—than shut down for even one shift.

The Fullerton mill already had three restricted holidays—Christmas, Fourth of July and Labor Day—and its union leadership viewed Thanksgiving as the inevitable final jewel in the crown.  For 41 years the union had asked that Thanksgiving be made a restricted holiday, and for 41 years Kimberly-Clark management had steadfastly refused.

How, in 1997, we finally got them to give it to us is a complicated story.  Suffice to say, it was a combination of luck, of grinding them down, of pleading, begging and cajoling, of appealing to naked sentimentality (kids want their mommies and daddies), the spirit of Feminism (set these women free!), and historical antecedents (the pilgrims and Indians).  We pulled out all stops.

But the story has an odd footnote.  When word of our Thanksgiving “coup” reached the membership the results were surprisingly mixed.  While some folks were obviously pleased, many were not.  In fact, the more the crews thought about it, the less they seemed to like the idea.

For one thing, people were flabbergasted they couldn’t volunteer to work.  “You mean we don’t even have a choice?!”  When we told them they were entitled to this sanctified day off, that they deserved to spend this special time with their families, some became belligerent.  “Who do you think you are….Big Brother?  Why don’t you let us decide how much time we need to spend with our families?” 

When we approached the hardcore sports fans and reminded these guys that they could now stay home, kick back, have a few beers and leisurely watch their football games, the gesture backfired.  “Oh really?” they said sarcastically.  “There aren’t enough games on Sundays?  You gave back triple-time so we could watch more TV?”

Even the women surprised us.  Apparently, some of these ladies were relieved at not being responsible for a big Thanksgiving dinner.  Others expressed dismay at now having to stay home and entertain (or visit) in-laws they despised.

Given the history of this agenda item, we were stunned.  Call us naïve, but we expected the crews to be deliriously happy when we brought it back.  Indeed, one of our negotiators actually predicted that when news of it reached the mill, we would be greeted as “conquering heroes” (his exact words). 

Of course, once we got it, it was too late.  Thanksgiving as a restricted holiday was something we were going to have to live with.  We had screwed up.  All we could say in our defense was that—like New Coke, the Edsel, and Julia Roberts marrying Lyle Lovett —it seemed like a good idea at the time.  

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright, is a former union rep and author of “It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor,” available at itsneverbeeneasy.com.  He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net