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Protect or Represent?

Not Every Labor Union Is Equal

by DAVID MACARAY

In the late 1990s, the Human Resource rep at the paper mill where I used to work called me at home (I was the union president) and said she had something very serious to discuss. When I asked for a hint as to what the problem was, so I wouldn’t be blind-sided, she demurred. She said it was something she “wasn’t comfortable” discussing over the phone. That alarmed me.

When I arrived, she told me that someone in the mill had stolen coupons out of several bags of Huggies disposable diapers. What made it a serious offense (not that all theft wasn’t “serious”) was that these Huggies were part of a new product line not scheduled to be introduced in the U.S. for another week. They had been produced at the Ogden, Utah, facility and shipped to our warehouse, awaiting the national roll-out.

The HR rep and I had a decent relationship. Although she viewed me as a radical (I’d once shut the mill down on a 57-day strike), she saw me as a truth-teller. So she asked me point-blank if I knew anything about the theft. This is where it got complicated. Because the mill was a sieve when it came to this sort of thing, I’d already heard a rumor that a woman I’ll call “Linda” had stolen the coupons.

Although theft was universally reviled by the crews, and Linda was, for lots of reasons, generally regarded as “low-class,” it wasn’t my job to act as a union informer or pretend to be a security guard (irony of ironies, over the years, several security guards had been fired for theft).

Given what a sieve that mill was, her next comment shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did. “We heard it was Linda X who did it,” she said. “I know you guys have this thing about [air quotes] ‘snitching,’ but I can’t understand why you wouldn’t want to get rid of someone like this.” I told her if she thought she knew who did it, then by all means, she should follow up on it. And that was that. I was a union man, not a company spy

Without an eye-witness coming forward or physical evidence implicating her, there was no way Linda was going to get nailed for this. Accordingly, nothing came of it. Angry and frustrated as they were, all that the company could do was move the Huggies from the one-million square foot general warehouse to a more secure location.

However, the theft raised some provocative questions. At the next Executive Board meeting a group of us discussed the ethical differences between “whistle-blowing” and “snitching.” At that E-Board meeting we also learned that there had, indeed, been an eye-witness to the theft, and that it was he who spawned the rumor.

My other reason for not ratting out Linda was simple compassion. I knew the woman personally. I knew her problems. She wasn’t young; she was a grandmother whose daughter, the mother of Linda’s grandchildren, was a mess, a single mother and an addict. Her life was chaos. The last thing Linda needed was to lose her job over a handful of pilfered coupons.

Which brings us to policemen and police unions. This is where our E-Board parted company with the heart-and-soul principle of union “solidarity.” The majority of us agreed that if we were cops, we’d “whistle-blow” every time we saw a fellow cop do anything unworthy of the profession—stealing money, planting evidence, beating a suspect, etc.

Union “brotherhood” or not, we’d blow the whistle on every dirty cop we saw. We’d become well-oiled snitching machines. Why? Because when you carry a badge and a gun, and, literally, have the power of life and death in your hands, you need to be held to a higher standard than a pipe-fitter.

A union that knowingly protects sadistic cops is no better than one that knowingly protects child-molesting teachers. Cops and teachers aren’t factory workers; they aren’t accountants or clerks or book editors. There’s a qualitative and civil difference between policemen and other professions.

There’s also a profound difference between a union “representing” a member who’s been accused of something heinous, and a union knowingly “protecting” a guilty member. And every union rep in America knows the difference. If you want to pretend you can’t see that distinction, then shame on you.

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