Three True Stories From Union Contract Negotiations
Companies beat unions for the same reason an antique wooden chair splits apart when a 350-pound man sits in it. The only genuine weapon a union can rely on is the strike, where workers willingly withdraw their labor, a form of punishing the company by sacrificing themselves. But ever since strikes have fallen out of fashion, unions have been left with little firepower.
One morning, during the 1993 negotiations, held in the Laguna Room of the Holiday Inn, we found a pile of material stacked next to the wall, behind our chairs. Apparently, the hotel rented out the room for evening seminars, and this material had belonged to the nighttime renters. It must not have been too important, because they appeared to have abandoned it. From what we could gather, it was some sort of real estate information.
Because the company always had us so overwhelmingly out-resourced, we came up with the rather juvenile idea of pretending this stuff was research data that we had compiled for negotiations. So we dragged it closer to our table and kept it there for the remainder of the bargain. From time to time, we actually gestured to it, indicating that we were relying on it as source material for statistics.
Weeks later, when the bargain ended, the HR rep and mill manager dropped by to make sure the room (whose cost the union and company were splitting) was left in presentable condition. The business agent and I were finishing up and about to leave. As we headed for the door the HR rep pointed to the pile and said helpfully, “Dave, don’t forget your documents.”
“Actually, that stuff isn’t ours,” I said. She paused a full beat and studied the pile of documents a moment. She was flummoxed.
“It isn’t yours?” she said in wounded bewilderment. “What do you mean, it isn’t yours?”
“We just found it here,” I said. “Somebody left it in the room, and we thought, you know, we’d pretend it was research material, just to fuck with you guys.”
You could see her mind racing a hundred miles and hour, trying to process what I had just told her, wondering how it had or hadn’t factored into our negotiations. But neither she nor the mill manager said anything, not so much as one word. And with the two of still standing there, the business agent and I said goodbye and left the room.
The first day always begins with the company and union reading aloud of each other’s agenda. In 1993, we had led the company to believe we were going to be “more realistic,” and not submit our usual, lengthy wish-list. That was the plan. But on second-thought, we concluded that a pared-down agenda would make us look weak and defeatist, so we submitted one of our usual ones. Obviously upset, the mill manager pretended to read it aloud. In a voice dripping with sarcasm, he began, “Dear Santa….” It was funny.
We were surprised to see their agenda items affixed to bullet points instead of numbers. It was the first time we’d ever seen that, and we didn’t like it. For one thing, numbers were more practical, allowing us to say things like, “Could you explain agenda item #3?” For another, bullet points looked trendy and New Age, something a seminar creature had invented. When we asked why they used bullet points instead of numbers, the HR rep said that bullet points were “less adversarial” than numbers.
Whenever an American union asks for something socially progressive, such as extended maternity leaves or subsidized child care, the company accuses it of wanting “Swedish benefits,” a mocking reference to the social programs generally believed to be associated with Scandinavian socialism and weirdness, but which, in fact, are found all over the world. Except here. Sadly, there is no western industrialized nation in the world with maternity leaves worse than ours.
At the 1997 negotiations, with maternity leave off the table, we were sniffing around for an additional holiday, maybe Martin Luther King’s birthday or May Day. As expected, the company reacted impatiently, reminding us that our holiday package was as good or better than any on the West Coast. Someone on their side of the table then said sarcastically, “I guess we’re lucky the Super Bowl is on Sunday, otherwise you guys would want that as a holiday too.”
Demonstrating what a devoted professional football fan she was, the HR manager asked in all seriousness, “Is the Super Bowl always on Sunday?” She was the only woman in the room. All the men laughed uproariously.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org