The Chalice that Poisoned the Labor Movements

There’s no shortage of places to look when searching for the beginning of organized labor’s decline. By “decline” we refer not to the drop in national membership rolls (which began in the mid-1960s and hasn’t let up), but to the profound decline in labor’s influence and credibility. We refer to the conditions that permit unions to look down the road and visualize with some clarity their own death.

Purists say it began as far back as 1947, with passage (by a Republican congress over Truman’s veto, albeit with the necessary assist from Democrats) of the Taft-Hartley Act, which rescinded or watered down many of the provisions of the historic 1935 National Labor Relations Act (commonly known as the “Wagner Act”), the legislation generally recognized as having ushered in the era of the modern labor union.

For 60 years labor activists have flirted with repealing Taft-Hartley. While some efforts made it as far as the floor of Congress, most broke down in the driveway. Despite a consensus that Taft-Hartley is a hindrance to labor’s organizing and bargaining, there simply isn’t sufficient interest or muscle to put up a fight, and, given the direction of the country, very likely never will be.

If one wanted to quibble, the vaunted Wagner Act itself could be blamed for setting unions on the wrong course. The ACLU (founded in 1920) cautioned organized labor against endorsing Wagner, arguing that when you acknowledge the government’s power to “certify” unions (sanction them, give them life) you tacitly acknowledge its power to “decertify” them. The ACLU urged labor to continue to go it alone (as it had done, fairly successfully, since the 1880s), and tell the feds to look for someone else to certify.

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters takes a more parochial view. They argue that labor’s decline started with the Carter administration’s deregulation of interstate trucking, a development that transformed the Teamies (the nation’s largest and most powerful union at the time) from Lords of the Highways into just a bunch of well-heeled union goons. Not insignificantly, Carter’s move (and, earlier, President Ford’s railroad deregulation) helped launch what would become the great race to deregulate the world.

More recently, during his 1984 presidential campaign, Walter Mondale claimed that the snake in the woodpile was Ronald Reagan’s abrupt firing of 11,000 striking air-traffic controllers, in 1981. That wildly provocative act served to reinvigorate and re-energize dormant anti-labor sentiment in ways no one anticipated. It was as if corporate America was just waiting for the right moment to wage open war against organized labor, and the president of the United States supplied it.

Still, as damaging as these anti-union initiatives were, they never succeeded in breaking down the one component management most fears: union solidarity. Through all the disappointments, layoffs, assaults, takeaways, restructures, false hopes and broken promises, the membership, by and large, has remained loyal to the Movement. Happily, nothing is more galvanizing than being systematically brutalized by a powerful authority figure.

But something emerged in the late-1980s that has the potential to be even more damaging to a union shop than anything that came before it. Having concluded that they couldn’t destroy solidarity by attacking, isolating or starving it, management seized upon an alternative tactic, one that no one (or few) saw coming. Companies discovered that union solidarity could be broken down from the inside, by corrupting it.

This was done by introducing something called “special assignments.” A special assignment is an arrangement where hourly workers are taken off their regular jobs and assigned to non-bargaining, non-supervisory tasks for periods ranging from one week to, literally, several years.

Initially, special assignments were confined to safety and training projects, preparing production manuals, helping decorate the lobby for Christmas, etc. However, as things progressed, as the shift-supervisor and certain clerical positions were phased out, hourly workers began taking over many of the day-to-day administrative duties. As long as a special assignment doesn’t involve bargaining unit work, or spill over into what the NLRB defines as “supervisory roles” (issuing work directives, reprimands, etc.), there are no restrictions.

The money was good. While the union contract requires employees on special assignment to be paid their regular hourly rate, it doesn’t address the distribution of non-unit overtime (paid at time-and-a-half). As a consequence, management permitted, even encouraged, special assignment people to work as much or as little overtime as they wanted, no questions asked. An hourly worker being allowed to write his own ticket was tantamount to being given double-0 clearance, the license to kill.

Management’s argument for establishing special assignments came in three parts. First, they acknowledged that there were production workers with hidden talents who, because of the limitations of their jobs, had no way to display or develop them; second, they quoted studies showing that when you take people off a forklift or prod line and give them a chance to “spread their wings,” their outlook improves dramatically; third, they noted that more and more companies were eliminating salaried positions for cost reasons, and looking to the hourly to pick up the slack

With production codes and crew sizes varying from week to week, and hourly employees vastly outnumbering salaried, it was obvious, even to skeptics, that the hourly group offered the necessary flexibility. The management argument made sense. Not wanting to appear obstructionist or stand in the way of improving the membership’s mental health, the union gave the plan its tentative blessing. And that’s how the Trojan horse entered the city.

Two types of people typically get offered these assignments: the smart, hard-working ones (often the de facto leaders on a crew) who feel they’ve been “over-qualified” for the drudge jobs they’ve been doing for years and are eager to improve their lot; and those who are technically proficient but fall into the “whiner, nitpicker, jailhouse lawyer” category.

Incredibly, not only does management turn these former trouble-makers (often the brightest people on the crew and the union’s most reliable supporters) into model citizens, they do it almost instantly, and with few props: a computer, a coffee-maker, a swivel chair. Human nature does the rest. Pull them off the floor, put them in an air-conditioned office, and voila!-they forget they ever belonged to a labor union. Not to overstate it, but what’s that cliché about giving someone a gun and a badge?

It’s bizarre. Barely three weeks into a cushy job and these “radicals” (guys who once wanted to raise the black flag and begin slitting throats) already have photos of their wives and kids on their desk. They take coffee breaks with management folks, eat management food, laugh at management jokes, use management-speak to express themselves (e.g., refer to monumental screw-ups as “opportunities”). It’s corporate America’s version of the Stepford Wives. The Stockholm Syndrome on steroids.

Of course, the effect on those stuck doing their regular jobs is predictable. Morale plummets. People on the floor resent having their peers being placed “above” them-doing bullshit work and making more money-and they blame the union, not the company, for letting it happen. But even the “have nots,” the resentful ones who weren’t picked in the first round, begin plotting how to get those plum positions for themselves. And who can blame them? Those jobs are better.

Seeing the writing on the wall, the union tried to negotiate these spots into the progression ladder, make them straight-up union jobs, open to everyone, via seniority. Although the proposal was brought up at every subsequent contract bargain, the company wouldn’t budge. They argued that the nature of special assignments required people to be hand-picked. The union had the right to veto a choice, but that was the extent of it.

Moreover, because these assignments fell outside the union’s province to provide, the membership now looked to the company as its benefactor. Members saw their union not only as stodgy and ineffective, but in some ways (like when it began filing grievances to scale back the program) as an impediment. Disclosure: Local union officers have accepted these assignments as well. While this is a disappointment, it’s not a total surprise. When the gravy train rolls by, everyone is tempted to jump on.

Special assignments are now epidemic in America. As more union workers run day-to-day operations, and the membrane separating labor and management grows thinner, rank-and-file holdouts are uncertain whom to “fight” and where to go for help when a dispute breaks out. It’s a mess. And this isn’t just a case of a union spouting its usual pieties, or having its feelings hurt over losing a turf war. It’s about the welfare of working people.

Despite the slap-happy job assignments and “team-building” seminars, workers continue to fall further behind. Pensions, health insurance and wages continue to erode, and union members continue to be asked to make monumental concessions. Yet, somehow, management still has these employees eating out of their hand, trying so hard to please their masters-even when many of the perks have been eliminated.

Not unexpectedly, the special assignment overtime that was once so plentiful has been drastically reduced. With “factory apes” (an HR term for them) having been fully domesticated and given a taste of office work, and nobody wanting to go back to their mundane jobs (why would they?), it was now safe to withdraw some of the early inducements. Inevitably, management began taking steps to recoup their investment.

The union was more or less co-opted. When corporations found they couldn’t beat the union, couldn’t penetrate its core, they infiltrated it. They infiltrated it, found their way to the hallowed place, and extinguished the flame.

Looking back on it, few appreciated or understood just how valuable, how sustaining, that Us. vs. Them, class warfare mentality really was. Not until we lost it. They used to rent us; now they own us.

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright and writer, was president and chief contract negotiator of the Assn. of Western Pulp and Paper Workers, Local 672, from 1989 to 2000. He can be reached at:


David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at