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Splendors and Miseries of Being a Union Official

A Man for All Seasons

by DAVID MACARAY

What sustains you as a union president—what causes you to rejoice even when things look bleak—is knowing that you’re on the right side of a worthwhile cause and are making a contribution to the lives of working people who depend on you.  That knowledge makes all the difference in the world.  But because the job is “political” in nature, you also know you are subject to the vagaries of  public opinion.  If you didn’t know it going in, you certainly know it coming out.

Even though the stakes are infinitely smaller, union politics can be seen as a microcosm of national politics.  After all, union candidates compete in scheduled elections, just as the big boys do, they campaign, pass out literature, shake hands, answer questions, get scrutinized, and put their political futures squarely in the hands of an unpredictable electorate.

Moreover, union members vote from the same mind-set as voters in national elections.  They vote on the basis of self-interests, on the basis of a candidate’s physical appearance, demeanor, positions, past associations, character and charm; they vote on the advice of other people, and they vote from a renegade what-the-hell-let’s-throw-all-the-bums-out mentality (which is when the incumbents lose).

In a paper mill with 700 union members working three shifts, around theclock, in close proximity to folks they’ve known for years (if not decades), very little stays confidential.  It was like a huge boarding house.  For a secret to get out, all it took was for one person, in a weak moment, to share it with another.  A day later the whole place knew about it.  And despite our Constitutional “right” to privacy, there was no line drawn when it came to union elections.  You often learned how and why people voted.  Some of their reasons were very odd.

A woman once told me she’d voted for me “because I had asked her to.”  Another woman voted for me because I seemed “happily married.”  A man voted for me because I drove an American car, a big Buick.  I learned that a man had voted against me because I was friends with “Carl,” a person he hated.  A woman told someone that she’d voted against me because I was a “narcissist” (not a word you generally hear bandied about in a factory).

Before an election,  a man told me he was going to vote for me because I seemed “level-headed….not like those jerks who took us out on strike.”  Obviously, he’d forgotten I was a member of that very strike board, one of the “jerks’ that shut the mill down. There were fifteen or twenty men in the plant who, like myself, were avid sports memorabilia collectors.  I assume I got every one of their votes.

On one occasion a member of the union balloting committee glimpsed the ballot of a long-time friend of mine (“Jim”), and shocked me with the news that Jim had voted for my opponent, a man he didn’t even know.  I believed this committeeman because he seemed as stunned at telling me as I was at hearing it.  Why would Jimmy vote against me?  The committeemen’s theory:  I was favored to win.  Watching me lose would have been “exciting.”

I had a mechanic, a millwright, tell me I was “the best president the union ever had”  Not simply a “good” president, mind you, but the “best.”  Unfortunately, this fellow had worked in the mill barely two years and knew nothing of the union’s history or its former officers, which made his remark not only meaningless, but a little creepy.  A graveyard casepacker—a woman old enough to be my mother—told me to my face that she “liked me but didn’t trust me.”

For several reasons, the maintenance department (one of seven departments in the mill) was my nemesis and tormenter.  One of those reasons was that they regarded me as a “feminist.”  I had a long history of arguing for a woman’s right to be promoted to machine operator (the highest paid job in the mill), which was something most maintenance guys stubbornly disagreed with, believing that women and sophisticated machinery didn’t mix.  They were wrong, of course, as some of the Infant Care department’s best operators were women.

Although the maintenance crews (mechanics and electricians) were excellent tradesmen and, for the most part, loyal union members, their politics were of the spooky, right-wing, flag-waving, gun-toting variety.  They were enthusiastic supporters of Ronald Reagan and the majority of them had come to believe I was a socialist.

In my first run for re-election, my opponent’s handbill claimed, tongue-in-cheek, that I had “been endorsed by Jesse Jackson and the ACLU,” and that my “favorite authors were Malcom X, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels.”  An example of maintenance humor. (Heavy-handed as the flyer was, I must give them credit for being ideologically sensitive; they could have said “Hitler.”)

While the mechanics saw me as a raging feminist, a group of women once accused me of being “anti-women” for refusing to endorse a female candidate.  Despite me explaining my reasons for backing her male opponent, they remained unmoved.  Nothing I said made so much as a dent.  Before leaving the room, one of them—a crazy, wildly opinionated woman I’d known for ten years—said snidely, “You just don’t want another woman on the E-Board, and that’s all there is to it.”

People could be fickle.  For taking them out on a 56-day strike, I was labeled a “militant”; for recommending a mediocre contract, I was called “weak.”  When I sent an unpopular grievance to arbitration, I was a “radical”; when I held one back, I was “timid.”  Losing my cool at a joint union-management meeting made me “unstable”; remaining too quiet made me “unresponsive.”  Spending too much time in one department  was “showing favoritism”; spending too little time was “ignoring them.” The list was long.

The job of a union president can be summed up in one sentence:  You are saying No to people who want to hear Yes.  Accordingly, when the number of No’s reaches a critical mass—when you’ve said No to more people than you’ve said Yes to—you get voted out of office.  That’s how it ends….you get voted out and the donkeys enter the ring and drag your body away.

That said, people constantly surprised me with their willingness to forgive.  I once forgot to turn in paperwork on a grievance, a failure which resulted in the time limits expiring and the grievance being automatically dropped.  It was a serious blunder on my part.  Amazingly, people took it in stride….even the grievant who lost his right to be heard.  A young woman kindly said to me, “We all make mistakes, don’t we?”

And then there were those who didn’t forgive.  A true story:  For almost 40 years the swing-shift crews were scheduled from 3:30 PM to 11:30 PM.  Then, in the 1990s, the mill voted to change the hours to 2:30 to 10:30.  The proposed change was a wildly popular initiative, and the measure passed by a 70-30 margin.  A week before the scheduled vote, “Bill,” a swing-shift worker, begged me to intervene.

“Don’t let ‘em do it, Dave,” he pleaded.  He went on to tell me that his greatest joy was being able to see his kids before leaving for work.  They got home from school at 2:30, and he didn’t have to leave until 3:00, which gave him half an hour.  “If I have to be here by 2:30, it means I can’t see them,” Bill said.  “They’re in bed when I come home.”  He told me that not being able to see his kids from Monday to Friday would “ruin his life.”

Even though I sympathized with him (who wouldn’t?), I tried to explain that when a super-majority wants something as reasonable as a modified starting time, you can’t refuse them simply because some people in the minority won’t like it.  To Bill, I must have sounded like a mealy-mouth “politician” mindlessly jabbering away, because as soon as he sensed I wasn’t going to play ball, he stormed off, his life ruined.

For several weeks he refused to speak to me or even acknowledge me.  When we passed in the corridor, he looked down at his shoes.  Determined to put this nonsense behind us, I finally cornered him.  “C’mon, Bill,” I said good-naturedly, “you’re not going to stay mad at me, are you?”  He glowered with contempt.  “Fuck you,” he said, brushing me aside and walking away.  We didn’t speak again for over a year.

While many of the aforementioned examples annoyed the hell out of me, none of them—not the maintenance guys, not the schizoid perceptions, not even Bill’s little tantrum—seriously affected me.  Why?  Because some of the best people I ever met in my life were the men and women in that paper mill.  Watching them work as diligently as they did, under hostile conditions, never failed to stir me.  It more or less trumped everything else.

Being in office also taught me that, in order to make it in politics—even the lowly level I was at—you had to be a grown-up.  And, as a grown-up, you were forced to relinquish one of life’s most satisfying and luxurious pleasures:  holding a grudge.

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor”. He served 9 terms as president of AWPPW Local 672. He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net