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Union Politics for Grown-Ups

by DAVID MACARAY

You hear a lot of hypothetical “Hitler” questions in Ethics 101 classes.  Here’s one:  Who would object to a scenario where Hitler failed to receive enough votes to force that 1932 runoff election for president of Germany—even if that scenario required election fraud?  Stated differently:  Who, in hindsight, wouldn’t have taken the necessary steps to prevent Hitler from coming to power?

Although we all rejoice in democracy, it’s important to remember that wallowing in the electoral process was never intended to be an end in itself.  Even our Founders realized that. They considered democracy to be, at best, a fairly clumsy means to a very specific end.  Given democracy’s dubious pedigree, doesn’t it follow then, that if no one is willing to step up to the plate occasionally and make the necessary adjustments, all we have is glorified mob rule?

On the other hand there’s the chilling prospect of the alternative.  The suggestion that we allow people to go around circumventing the democratic process by making these “necessary adjustments” is not only fraught with peril, it’s downright terrifying.  After all, one man’s adjustment is another man’s tyranny….which puts us right back to square one.

A recent newspaper story referencing wide-spread election fraud in Afghanistan triggered a personal memory that took me back to my days as a union rep and to a ballot fraud incident that occurred at our union local.  Though the venue was pitifully modest compared to the grandeur of the national stage, the crime—a violation of a federal labor statute (a Class C felony)—was nonetheless a serious one.

Here’s the set-up:  I was the newly elected union president.  I’d been in office barely four months, still learning the job.  Because I’d already rushed into some questionable decisions, I was a bit twitchy, still trying to find my way.  A fellow union officer (“Fred”) and I were alone in the union hall, discussing a complex “class action” seniority grievance that had been recently filed. 

We’re carefully sifting through the finer points of the grievance when, out of nowhere, he suddenly blurts out that he’d once rigged a shop steward election.  I was flabbergasted.  It was like he had told me he’d assassinated Kennedy.  What?!  What the hell do you mean you “rigged” it?  “I destroyed a bunch of real ballots and replaced them with phony ones,” he said calmly.  I remember thinking…..well, yes, that certainly qualifies as “rigging.” 

Let me jump ahead and say that Fred was never caught.  Not only was he never caught, no one in the Local before or since had the faintest suspicion that any hanky-panky had occurred.  By the time he “confessed” to me, three years had passed since the election, and the union had no mechanism for overturning the results or scheduling a re-vote—not after three years.  That election was ancient history. 

As president of the Local, I had two options:  First, even at this late date, I could report Fred and have him brought up on formal charges (which our International bylaws clearly allowed).  Or, second,  I could simply forget everything he told me and pretend it never happened.  Profess to having no memory of anything, like those Mafia guys on the witness stand, or Ronald Reagan when he was questioned about Iran-Contra.

While I was absolutely staggered by what Fred had just told me, I was also confused by why he would risk exposure by announcing it.  After all, hadn’t he already gotten away with it?  Why bring it up three years later?  

Although I never asked why and he never offered an explanation, I came to the conclusion that his confession sprang from the same impulse that causes fishermen to recount catching a large fish—an overriding desire to share an accomplishment.  Despite the risk of me turning him in, Fred clearly needed to tell somebody.

And why didn’t I turn him in?  In truth, one reason was because he was a friend and I didn’t want to see him ruined, which he undoubtedly would have been.  It was a poor reason, but it was a factor nonetheless.  Another reason was that I knew if word of this thing ever reached the floor, the membership would never again trust the union, which would have been a disaster—the labor equivalent of Armageddon. 

But it occurred to me that there might have been another, more complicated reason for not exposing him.  What if, on some deeper, darker subconscious level, I actually approved of what he had done?  And what if, three years after the fact, Fred had somehow sensed in advance that I would approve….which was why he had no reservations about telling me?

Neither “Gene,” who had the election stolen from him, nor “Carol,” to whom it was handed, had any reason to suspect mischief.  As militant and undisciplined as our Local could be, Chicago-style ballot-tampering was alien to us.  God knows we had our problems and defects, but corruption wasn’t one of them.     

Therefore, when Carol won, she naturally assumed that the voters had graciously decided to overlook her lack of experience and grant her the opportunity to show what she could do.  “You go, girl!”  In reality, according to Fred, if the election committee had tallied the legitimate ballots, she would have lost by a hefty margin.

Why did he do it?  He told me that he simply couldn’t allow Gene to become a union officer, not when Fate had provided him the means of stopping him.  As it happened, he found himself with sole access to the ballot box for a couple of hours….and that was all it took.  By the time the votes were officially tabulated, the ballots had been switched and Gene had already had the election stolen from him. 

There were no overarching principles involved; no ego-maniacal impulses, no desire on his part to “play God.”  It was cold-blooded practicality.  Everyone who knew Gene knew he was lazy, dishonest, cunning and, frankly, unstable.  Fred was simply willing to raise the sperm count, to become (in today’s parlance) pro-active.  He sincerely believed that if Gene were elected he would end up damaging a perfectly good union.

Gene had what could generously be called a “checkered past.”  Among other things, he had done time in an Arizona penitentiary for assault and mayhem.  According to his own account, after a barroom altercation, he went home, got his two pit bulls, waited for the guy to leave the bar, and set the dogs on him.  While his prison record was something most union insiders knew about, we kept it concealed from management. 

Loathsome as he was, none of us were going to say or do anything to get him fired.  It wasn’t the union’s job to terminate people.  If management wanted to take him down, that was their business (indeed, most of the membership would have welcomed it), but the union wasn’t going to be an accomplice.  As to Gene’s original job application, his time in prison (30 months) was conveniently explained away by the all-purpose “self-employed.” 

While Gene had a handful of friends, most employees were unnerved by him.  What spooked them were his stories.  For example, he had boasted of killing his neighbor’s dog because it barked too much; of setting fire to a man’s car as a “warning”; of humiliating an ex-girlfriend’s boyfriend; of stealing a relative’s coin collection.  He had dozens of stories like these, all of them creepy.

Because he wasn’t shy about displaying his menacing side, we came to regard him as a world-class revenge freak, capable of holding a grudge or nursing a petty grievance longer than anyone thought humanly possible.  Having heard him explain his elaborate revenge schemes, it wasn’t hard to picture this man sitting on a bunk in his prison cell, earnestly making retribution lists for when he got out.  A scary dude.

It was clear to Fred that Gene’s reasons for wanting to become a union official were motivated by selfishness and not by any altruistic desire to serve the Local.  First and foremost, he was looking for payback, believing his union credentials would provide leverage for settling some long-standing scores against management personnel who’d rubbed him the wrong way.

And second, he knew that if he played your cards right, being a shop steward could get him preferential treatment from management.  Gene had that unfortunate jailhouse mentality where nothing was done without an ulterior motive, where everyone was on the hustle, where favors begot favors, and everyone existed within an oppressive pecking order.

An obvious question:  If he were so toxic, why did the membership vote for him?  Arguably, it was because they considered him tough and merciless, exactly the sort of hired gun they might need in case things got ugly.  With hostilities between union and management always one or two grievances away from bursting into the open, the membership saw Gene as the ideal warrior-priest.  A union member once put it this way:  “When you’re in a fight, you want a fighter.”

The story more or less had a happy ending.  It took her a while, but Carol went on to become a decent union shop steward.  She was smart and efficient, (she practically memorized the contract) and when she ran for a second and then a third term, she won handily—not by landslides, but by clear mandates.  Although she was inactive by the time I became president, I was familiar with her performance.  She had been a steady, competent steward.

Verifying Heraclitus’ dictum that “Character is fate,” Gene soon self-destructed.  After his long-time girlfriend (I knew her; she was much younger than he, and nice….way too nice for him) got fed up and left him, he went back to binge drinking and cocaine use, and eventually got himself fired for chronic absenteeism.  The last anyone heard, he was selling bootleg T-shirts at rock concerts, not something you want to be doing when you’re 53 years old.

Even though it’s been years now, and I had no part in it, I still struggle with that election.  While the results were desirable, the means were plainly unethical and illegal.  No matter how Fred chose to spin it, he had violated his oath of office, contradicted the will of the people, broken the law, and desecrated one of the cornerstones of democracy.  That’s a heavy load. 

But Fred saw himself heroically—he saw himself as that guy in Germany who was given an opportunity to prevent Adolf Hitler from ascending to power, and made the most of it.  In his view, anyone who sneered with disapproval at what he had done was either a hypocrite or fool.  And so long as Gene was guaranteed to be another Hitler, he was probably right.  We’ll never know.

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

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