A Union Story

Some years ago, the Kimberly-Clark Corporation hired an employee (I’ll call him “Lee”) into its paper mill in Fullerton, California.  A large, modern facility, the Fullerton mill manufactured tons of raw paper each shift and produced, among other things, Kleenex facial tissue and Huggies disposal diapers.  It employed 700 hourly workers, all of whom belonged to the AWPPW (Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers).

Lee was a man in his early thirties, married, with two young kids, who’d been out of work for several months.   He told everyone that the wages and benefits K-C offered were a godsend.  Lee’s wife had previously worked in an office but had slipped on the tile floor in the company’s bathroom and hurt her back so severely that she couldn’t continue working, and was in the process of taking her employer to court in a Workers Compensation dispute.

In those days, the training of new-hires was done by an hourly employee, usually a person in the same job classification, usually the person with the most seniority on that job.  Typically, training took two or three weeks.  At the completion of training the employee was placed on the progression ladder and scheduled for the shift and crew his seniority dictated, earning the same rate of pay as anyone else doing that particular job on that particular shift.

There was no extra compensation for length of service or experience.  You were either qualified or unqualified for a job, with no gradations or in-between status. “Equal pay for equal work” was the union mantra.  No games were played, no one received extra money for being “more qualified,” no one jumped the seniority ladder or got a cushier job because he was buddies with the shift supervisor.

Union seniority guaranteed that no matter what your age, gender or ethnicity, once you were deemed qualified, you were scheduled where your seniority put you and you received the pay of the job you worked.  Just one of the many virtues of union membership.

The probationary period for new employees was 60 days.  That meant that during your first two months on the job, you could be fired at will, instantly, for any reason (or no reason), without appeal and without access to union representation.  After 60 days it was a different story.  After 60 days you were a full-fledged union member, entitled to the same representation as any other member in good standing.

Lee’s problem wasn’t obvious to everyone, at least not at first.  There was no question he could do the job; he could do it better than average when he felt like it.  The problem was, the only time he seemed to feel like it was when he was trying to impress someone or when a supervisor happened to be in the area.  On those occasions he performed heroically.  However, on other occasions, which was most of the time, he was looking for ways to get out of work or just going through the motions, pretending to appear busy.

Not everyone who walks through the front door of a manufacturing plant is production worker material.  The place operates 24-hours a day.  The job can be demanding.  While the union pay and benefits are decent, and the overtime plentiful, the work can be arduous or monotonous, the hours are crazy (nights and graveyard, back-end and front-end 12-hour shifts, double-shifts), and advancement comes via seniority rather than “merit.”  It’s not for everyone.

The person who trained Lee (we’ll call her “Mary”) was a woman who’d worked in the mill for 12 years.  She’d once served as an elected department shop steward and was respected by her crew.  With Lee only a week or two short of finishing his 60-day trial, Mary approached a union rep, the vice-president of Local 672, and told him that, in her opinion and in the opinion of people on the floor, Lee shouldn’t be allowed to complete his probation.  He should be let go immediately.

The union rep could see that “betraying” a fellow employee gave Mary no pleasure.  In fact, it was obvious she was very uncomfortable being the bearer of such treacherous news and had struggled with her decision.  But she felt compelled to do it for the good of the department.

Mary told the rep that not only was Lee a goof-off and opportunist, he’d been asking everyone about K-C’s medical leave and Workers Comp policies, sniffing around for information on how one collected money on a job-related injury (e.g., asking how long people typically stayed out on medicals, asking if they had a “light duty” policy for injured employees, etc.).  The view on the floor was that if Lee were to be hired permanently, he’d be a lousy partner, an unreliable relief, and a chronic system abuser.

Of course, the obvious question was:  What had K-C management been doing all this time?  What were the bosses looking for during this Lee’s probationary period?  How closely were they monitoring him?  How concerned were they by what they’d observed?

The answer is that management had paid virtually no attention to Lee.  Because he hadn’t caused any obvious trouble and had maintained acceptable attendance, as far as they were concerned the guy was good to go.  While one would think the company would place an enormous premium on insuring that only “quality” workers were hired in, that wasn’t the case.

But it did matter to the union.  Because the last thing Local 672 needed was another bad apple in the barrel, the vice-president took it upon himself to get this problem fixed.  After all, the union’s reputation and continued prosperity depended upon its members performing efficiently, earning their keep.  The Kimberly-Clark mill was a for-profit enterprise, competing in the open market.  No one wanted another game-player or deadbeat added to the crew . . . no one, not even the other deadbeats already on the payroll.

The rep met privately with a department supervisor and relayed exactly what Mary had reported.  He told him everything, making certain not to leave out any of the alarming details.  What happened next was unfortunate but, given the company’s history, no big surprise.

The supervisor thanked him for coming forward and promised to take the “necessary steps.”  And that was the end of it.  Nothing more was done.  Two weeks later, Lee cleared probation and became a union member in good standing.  The crews were disappointed.  Once again, management had not only disregarded the union’s sincerity and expertise, but had, in fact, resented what they saw as union poaching on company turf.  It was management arrogance and laziness, plain and simple, that kept Lee from being cut loose.

All of which brings us to California’s public school teachers.  For the last several years Governor Arnold Schwarzeneggar, along with Republican members of the state assembly and the state’s school administrators, have been trying to blame the teachers’ union for California’s low test scores.

Rather than identifying such factors as a dramatic shift in the state’s demographics, or a drop in per capita funds for education, or chronic absenteeism, or language handicaps, or the breakdown of the American family, or the “politicization” of the curriculum, etc., they tried to pin the blame on the same union teachers who, for decades, had contributed to California being routinely regarded as one of the best school systems in the country.

Think about that.  When California was regularly ranked in the top two or three states in the country, these very same union teachers were running the classrooms, getting sterling results, winning awards, and, in the eyes of the administrators, doing everything right.  But now, with the public schools plagued by a staggering array of problems, it’s suddenly the union’s fault.  The bosses are pretending that California’s teachers are no longer competent to teach.

Arguably, not everyone who walks through the front door of a school is cut out for teaching, despite having a valid teaching credential.  Under the current contract, new teachers remain on probation for 2 years.  And during that time they can be fired without cause, for any reason, and without recourse to union representation or the grievance procedure.

During the last contract negotiations with the LAUSD (Los Angeles Unified School District) Schwarzeneggar and company attempted to get the probation period extended to 5 years.  The union successfully resisted, arguing that, if management did the job they were supposed to do, 2 years was more than long enough.

While a sub-standard worker can, conceivably, fool his bosses for 60 days, no one—school teacher, production worker, medical doctor or policeman—can pass himself off as a good employee for 2 full years, not if the bosses are halfway diligent in their scrutiny.  It can’t be done.  Two years is simply too long to “fake” it.

The Kimberly-Clark and LAUSD instances are two examples of the same management defect: a reluctance to make difficult personnel decisions, coupled with a willingness to blame a convenient third party—in this case, a labor union.  The level of gutlessness and self-satisfaction displayed in this version of “management” is startling.  That it is endemic to the business community makes it no less pathetic.

As for Lee, he worked at the mill for several years before surprising everyone by abruptly quitting after getting divorced.  He remained a marginal worker the whole time he was there.  He goofed off, ducked out of tough assignments, began missing work, and took questionable medical leaves.  Mary’s initial assessment couldn’t have been more accurate.

Instead of moving against him (reprimanding him, hounding him, instilling him with the fear of God), K-C management preferred to overlook his shortcomings.  They either ignored him or, when on the war path, threw up their hands in despair and blamed the union contract for “protecting” him.

As for Lee’s fellow employees, they had no choice.  Because the jobs needed to get done despite having a marginal worker on the crew, they did what good people regularly do in any work setting, union or non-union.

Without an additional nickel in compensation or so much as a word of gratitude from the company, they picked up the slack.  They carried him the whole time.

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright and writer, was a former labor union rep.  He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net







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