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Adventures in Unionism

“Perhaps the rare and simple pleasure of being seen for what one is compensates for the misery of being it.”

—Margaret Drabble

While it’s been pointed out before, it bears repeating—especially now, in the midst of the banking crisis, with everybody and his brother blithely mentioning the word “billion” as if it were merely a “thousand” on steroids. The conventional wisdom seems to be that a billion dollars is a sum which tax-payers (even those earning a modest $50,000 a year) can readily wrap their minds around.

But consider:  If a person were given a million dollars, and told to spend $1,000 a day until he ran out of money, he’d run out of money in about 3 years.  If he were given a billion dollars, and told to spend $1,000 a day, he’d run out of money in about 3,000 years.

In short—and contrary to conventional wisdom—a billion dollars is a staggering, almost incomprehensible amount of money.  And now, of course, we’re hearing financial analysts glibly talking about a trillion dollars—which is a thousand billion—as if hearing the word roll smoothly off their tongues makes it somehow less preposterous.

Another bit of goofy conventional wisdom that bears re-examination is the notion that America’s loss of jobs, loss of key industries, loss of its manufacturing base, is, at root, the result of America’s labor force not being competent or committed enough.

While politicians still pay lip service, patriotically referring to the American worker as “the best damn worker in the world,” there’s an undercurrent of skepticism, a nagging belief that, perhaps, the American worker has gotten a bit too complacent, too soft, and that foreign workers are simply “hungrier” than we are.  And no sector of the American workforce has come under more scrutiny than union members.

Here’s a true story, a union story, that happened some years ago in the Materials Handling department of the Kimberly-Clark Corporation’s Fullerton, California, paper mill.  Arguably, it’s emblematic of what takes place in work sites all over the country.  To fully appreciate it, a little background information is required.

Like a thousand other companies during the 1990s, Kimberly-Clark was eagerly trawling for ways to maximize its profits by increasing productivity while, simultaneously, downsizing its workforce.  The mantra of the day for American businesses, from government jobs to private industry to academic institutions, was “Lower the headcount.”  Companies gleefully rubbed their hands together at the prospect of cutting their unit-labor costs by decimating the workforce, ushering in that other toxic mantra of the decade:  “More with less.”

Because the Kimberly-Clark plant had already lost approximately 25% of its workers, both salaried and hourly, through a series of layoffs, buyouts and natural attrition, everyone except the most senior employees in the facility were understandably nervous.  Equally demoralizing, with the work environment now so frigid and hostile, no one was having any fun on their jobs; and if you can’t have any fun on your job (unless you’re busy saving lives in the ER of big city hospital), you’ve chosen the wrong line of work.

Encouraged by the union’s concessionary posture, and interpreting its willingness to join the “team” as evidence of weakness, the company was now taking previously inconceivable liberties.  They’d become arrogant and imperiously demanding.

In fact, they’d turned into bullies.  Coffee breaks were drastically shortened; time spent in the restroom was now being “timed” (by computer); people were being reprimanded for minor infractions; safety concerns were being subordinated to production goals; and people were putting in a ridiculous number of hours (And why not?  They were being asked to do the work of two people).

And no one in the facility was having less fun than the Materials Handling department.  The MH warehouse was where all the paper products manufactured by Kimberly-Clark (Huggie diapers, Kleenex, Kotex, Scott Towels, etc.) were loaded on to trucks and shipped to retail and wholesale outlets across the United States.  Having heard for years (decades, really) the rumors of its imminent demise, the MH department was finally starting to believe those rumors, and it was messing with their heads.

After all, warehouses throughout the industry were being shutdown, co-opted or run by skeleton crews.  All one had to do was look around and see the writing on the wall.  Radically scaling back the operation of Fullerton’s 1,000,000 square foot warehouse seemed like a viable option, especially considering that union forklift drivers were earning $20 per hour, and could be replaced by satellite warehouse drivers earning barely half that rate.

To put the skids to this runaway, lower-the-headcount-at-any-cost mentality, and also stop the company from treating employees like plantation slaves, one of the union’s shop stewards suggested resorting to a time-honored device—one that goes all the way back to the late 19th century—known as the “work to rule” strategy.

Used originally by miners and early textile workers to resist being worked to death, the strategy consisted of getting all the hourly employees to do precisely what their job descriptions specified—no more, no less—and, most importantly, to follow the department safety manual to the letter.

The idea was to get the company to back off, to force management to abandon its downsizing frenzy by having the workforce demonstrate that more people were required to get the jobs done than the company wished, and to get the company to recognize that workers weren’t going to stand idly by and watch their numbers dwindle while management flogged them to produce more.

The work-to-rule strategy was originally adopted because it was infinitely less aggressive (and risky) than going on strike.  As a “legal” form of worker disobedience, it made eminent sense.

Despite what some people believe about union members, the overwhelming majority of them not only want to perform their jobs with distinction, they want management to acknowledge that performance.  Call it “needy” or “insecure” or whatever, but it’s an undeniable fact.  People want to be acknowledged as valuable workers.  And that circumstance turned out to be the fly in the ointment.

Kimberly-Clark’s warehouse drivers had not only gotten into the habit of straining to surpass their shipping quotas (even though those quotas had already been significantly raised, and the extra work had resulted in zero additional compensation) but, alarmingly, had also taken to ignoring many of the safety regulations laid out in the department safety manual.  They were taking shortcuts.

Employee safety was, in principle, a huge concern to the company.  Any driver observed violating a vehicle safety rule was subject to a formal reprimand; moreover, any driver who continued violating written safety rules was subject to discharge.  While safety write-ups were rare, they weren’t unheard of.  Therefore, getting the department’s crews to join in the “safety slowdown” had a legal and defensible basis.

But here’s the punchline.  Even in the face of arduous, increasingly demanding workloads which, as a matter of simple arithmetic, could eventually lead to people working themselves right out of a job, the crews refused to join in the coordinated slowdown.

The department shop stewards who fanned out among the crews and tried to foment this minor “mutiny” found they couldn’t get any takers.  In fact, many employees reacted angrily to the suggestion that they purposely depict themselves as substandard workers, even as an alternative to facing a layoff somewhere down the line.

“Aren’t you furious with the squeeze they’re putting on us?” they were asked.  Yes, they answered.  “Aren’t you afraid of losing your job?” they were asked.  Yes, they answered.  “Will you help us fight back?”  No, they said . . . not if it means looking like a deadbeat.

This response was in no way the result of fear of company retaliation.  In addition to being assured by union leadership that so long as they didn’t cross the line from “slow and steady” to outright “insubordination” they were totally within their rights to work at a more relaxed pace, these drivers were hard-nosed union members.  They were some of the toughest union members in the plant.

Indeed, the Materials Handling guys (the department was composed almost entirely of men) were a famously prickly and recalcitrant group of workers, regularly leading the plant in management-union confrontations and in the number of formal grievances filed by the union.  But hard-nosed and confrontational as they were, the crews drew the line at “embarrassing” themselves as workers.  As angry and disillusioned with the company as they may have been, they still had enormous pride in their work.  And that’s why the union’s attempt to foment a grassroots revolt failed.

In truth, I would argue that this snapshot is more or less representative of union workers everywhere.  Because union jobs generally offer significantly better working conditions, wages and benefits than non-union jobs, these jobs attract a higher caliber worker.  It makes sense.  The better the job perks, the better worker they’re going to attract.

When one considers how committed the typical American worker is, and given what’s happened in the country—with jobs being shipped abroad, and workers being driven mercilessly to increase the value of company stock—it’s heart-breaking, really, to see how disrespectfully working people have been treated by Corporate America.

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

 

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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

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