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More Democratic Than Congress

Debunking the Myth of the “Union Boss”

by DAVID MACARAY

Among the many myths and outright lies being circulated about labor unions (e.g., union members can’t be fired, they are inferior workers, it was union wages that forced companies to relocate overseas, etc.), one of the most annoying and downright offensive is the Myth of the Union Boss.

Because anti-union propagandists won’t risk alienating the rank-and-file by insulting them directly, they try to portray these people as “victims,” as regular, good-hearted working stiffs who, alas, are at the mercy of their corrupt, overpaid, dictatorial union officials.

Yet if anyone examined the facts, they’d see that unions across the country are not only wildly democratic, they’re more democratic than our own Congress, which is still dragging around the moldy carcass of something called the Electoral College because they’re too afraid to let the people decide via a simple popular vote.

Evidence of just how conspicuously democratic unions are was seen in two recent contract negotiations.  In the first case, public school teachers in Chicago defied their CTU “union bosses” (Chicago Teachers Union) by putting the brakes on and turning down their recommendation.

The teachers’ House of Delegates refused to go along with the district’s offer because they believed they were being “stampeded” toward approval.  While the delegates acknowledged the diligence and hard work of their union negotiators, they believed there were some critical agenda items that needed to be revisited before they brought the contract to a vote.

Unlike decisions made in corporate board rooms, the teachers response was done publicly, out in the open, for all the world to see, and was dutifully covered by the media.  It was your classic three-step procedure:  union leadership brought back an offer, they recommended the offer, their recommendation was ignored. That’s democracy in action.

The second case is occurring right now at the Chrysler plant in Dundee, Michigan.  The members of UAW Local 723 voted down the company’s LBF (last, best and final offer), despite the union urging them to ratify it.  The rank-and-file voted against it because they didn’t like it, and they had no qualms about overruling their “union bosses.”  Simple as that.  Another vote is planned for the first week in October.  We’ll see what happens.

I’ve personally been on both sides of this.  Many moons ago, I was a twitchy, rank-and-file member of an industrial union (one of those “jailhouse lawyer” members who took great pleasure in showing up at monthly membership meetings and doing mischief).  Later, I became president and chief contract negotiator of that same union.

From the International all the way down to the west coast Locals, our union was proudly democratic.  Virtually everything we did was done in the open.  As a union negotiator, I convinced the membership to shut down the plant and go on a 57-day strike.  And a dozen years later, as president, I had the membership overwhelmingly reject my call for a shutdown.

Because they were older and a bit more conservative and cautious, they didn’t have the stomach for another battle.  Clearly, they didn’t want to be clobbered at the bargaining table, but they also didn’t want to go to the mat unless absolutely necessary.  Despite my pleas, I couldn’t convince them.  They were a great bunch of people.  We simply disagreed on a very important decision.  It happens.

One device management occasionally uses at contract time is the sidebar agreement.  Bargaining protocol requires that a record be kept of each formal offer.  The offer is put in writing and initialed by the two parties.  The company submits a language draft; the union acknowledges it by dating and signing it.  Then we present a counter-offer, and they sign it and date it.  Etc.

But let’s say the parties get stalled out on a GWI (general wage increase).  The company won’t budge from their offer of a 2-percent raise each year, and the union pounds the table, insisting that the minimum GWI they’ll accept is 5-percent.   Standard procedure.

After a few hours (or days) of this bickering, the company’s spokesperson will invite the union’s chief negotiator to step outside.  He will then make him a sidebar offer.  For example, he will offer 3-percent each year, along with some other goodies, but only on the condition the union recommends it to the membership.

Without our sworn oath to recommend it, the 3-percent offer never happened.  The 3-percent vanishes, and we’re left with their last (signed and dated) offer of 2-percent.  When it comes to money, companies are cautious.  They won’t lock themselves into this higher figure unless they’re almost guaranteed it will be accepted.

It’s a risky tactic.  If the union refuses to recommend it, the company could adhere to its promise, withdraw the 3-percent, insist that 2-percent is their last, best and final offer, and dare us to go on strike.  It’s happened before.  Unions have lost money by refusing to recommend.  On the other hand, with the cat out of the bag, we could simply use that 3-percent as the new starting point and beat them over the head with it.

I’ve done both.  I’ve told them that we don’t negotiate in secret, that if they have an offer, write it down….but thanks for alerting us to the fact that 3-percent is now in play.  I’ve also told the membership the truth, that the offer we’ve brought back is contingent upon our recommendation.  Union people are generally very savvy.  In most cases, all they want is the truth.  They listened and they understood.  In my opinion, that’s one mistake politicians make:  They treat the voters like idiots.

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor”), was a former labor union rep.  He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net