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A Cheap Shot That Felt Good

Union Workers: A True Story

by DAVID MACARAY

In May of 1994, the Executive Board of our local union voted to accept my idea (I was president) to hand out free Thanksgiving turkeys to our membership. This idea, while new, was far from original. Indeed, labor unions across the country had been passing out Thanksgiving turkeys for decades. But it was a new idea to us, and, as everyone knows, new ideas—even the good ones—can be tricky.

The vote was 7-2. The two dissenters presented three excellent arguments for voting against it: (1) Not knowing what the future will bring, we should be “saving for a rainy day,” not blowing it on gifts; (2) because turkeys were something the membership had never received before, they wouldn’t miss not getting them; and (3) if we give them free turkeys this Thanksgiving, they’re going to expect them every year.

But we had counter-arguments: (1) Because the local had been investing profitably in mutual funds since 1989, and had benefited from a belt-tightening campaign (fewer conventions, fewer lawyers, smaller committees, etc.), our treasury was fat; (2) receiving free turkeys would cause the union-haters to like us (or, at the very least, hate us less); and (3) given our financial status and newly acquired “austerity consciousness,” providing turkeys in perpetuity would be no problem.

In truth, there were no actual turkeys involved. After researching it, we realized that with people working around-the-clock shifts, and us having to rent a freezer locker large enough to hold nearly 600 turkeys, handing them out individually would be a logistical nightmare. So after determining that one could buy a decent-size turkey for $15, we decided to mail each member a $15 gift certificate redeemable at Stater Bros. market.

I called Stater Bros., spoke to a very courteous customer service rep, and ordered 600 certificates at $15 each, for a total of $9,000. I was surprised when the rep asked if I wanted to specify that these holiday gift certificates could NOT be used for cigarettes or alcohol, which, apparently, was a fairly common request.

Already infected with mirthful, pre-holiday spirit, I attempted a lame joke. I told her that because this was an industrial labor union, we’re requesting that these gift certificates ONLY be used for cigarettes or alcohol. Ha-ha. She didn’t laugh.

The following week I posted a letter, announcing the gifts. Word spread quickly. While the news went over well, there were a few isolated gripes. Some people objected to it being Stater Bros., lamenting that there wasn’t a store close to their home, and wondering why the hell we hadn’t chosen Von’s or Albertson’s. And two mechanics complained that, given the size of our union treasury, $15 wasn’t near enough. We should’ve sprung for $25.

But there was one sentence in the announcement that caused management people (who, by rights, had no business reading the union posting in the first place) to react with alarm. Toward the end of the letter I stated that anyone who hadn’t received their certificate by the Tuesday before Thanksgiving should contact me, and I would give them one, because I had ordered a few extra gift cards, just in case.

That sentence caused management to go ape-shit. A floor supervisor approached me and smirked, “I hope you guys bought a couple hundred extras, ‘cause you’re going to need ‘em.” An HR person took me aside and condescendingly said, “Dave, even though I understand your thought process, you never want to give honest people an engraved invitation to do something dishonest.”

As it turned out, only two people—two out of nearly 600—said that they hadn’t received their gift card in the mail. It was testimony to the efficiency of the Post Office and the integrity of our membership. Local 672 members could piss and moan with the best of them, but at root, they were honorable, hard-working people. No way were they going to stoop so low as to lie to their own union about a measly $15 gift card.

One of the two who came forward was a man I’d had previous dealings with. I shall describe him as “strange,” and leave it at that. When he told me he hadn’t received his gift card, he looked sheepish. I assumed he was lying. Then he told me it was very possible his wife had intentionally thrown it in the trash. He said they were having marital problems, and he now believed she was purposely throwing away his personal mail. I gave him a certificate, no questions asked, and wished him luck.

The other person was a woman who had married and then divorced a management employee. To avoid awkwardness, the company had allowed the ex-husband to transfer to another facility. She telephoned me on Tuesday and said she hadn’t received her card. She was extremely apologetic. I told her not to worry, that I would come into the plant on Wednesday, and give her one. When I came in the following day, card in hand, she happily informed me that her certificate had arrived that morning.

After the holiday, I couldn’t resist rubbing it in to management people. When I announced that only one person had claimed not to have received a card, they were shocked. They asked who it was but I wouldn’t say. However, I did tell them that I completely understood why management folks were so untrusting of others. That was because management wasn’t as honest as the union. It was a cheap shot, but it felt good.

David Macaray, an LA playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor,” 2nd edition), is a former union rep. He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net.