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Wading Through the Grassroots

We all remember Caroline Kennedy’s aborted and somewhat embarrassing pursuit of that New York Senate seat—the one that was vacated by Hillary Clinton when she became Secretary of State, and ultimately filled by Kirsten Gillibrand.  Oddly, Caroline’s campaign reminded me of a couple of screwball election episodes that occurred some years ago in the labor union I used to work for.

It’s been widely speculated that the only reason she threw her hat in the ring in the first place was because Ted Kennedy had pressured her to do it.  According to reports, Senator Kennedy, the family’s revered patriarch, wanted to make sure there would be a “Kennedy” in the U.S. Senate when he retired, someone to carry on the family tradition.

Unfortunately, Caroline was naïve enough to believe that all she had to do was go on television, remind people of her ties to Camelot, and the gig was hers.  Alas, big-time politics don’t work that way (something Uncle Ted should have warned her about).  Instead, as we all witnessed, her “She Stoops to Conquer” routine didn’t play well in New York—not with the electorate and not with the state’s power brokers.

Personally, I was sympathetic.  I didn’t fault her for thinking the job was hers simply for the asking.  Given that the lightweight George W. Bush got elected and then re-elected to the highest office in the land, I can understand why Caroline would believe the only thing that mattered was the family name.  After all, isn’t that how political dynasties are born?

The first union incident occurred in the early 1990s, and involved choosing a department shop steward.  On the eve of the election, “Greg,” vice-president of Local 672 and the officer in charge of recruiting stewards, found himself without a candidate for swing-shift.  To everyone’s surprise, the incumbent steward had, at the last minute, chosen not to seek re-election, and no one had come forward to take his place.

Shop steward was an important and woefully underappreciated job. Each department—manufacturing, lab, materials handling, stores, infant care, converting, and maintenance—had a minimum of one steward per shift.  Not having one on swing-shift was going to be a problem, not only for the production crews who used their steward as a sounding-board and confidant, but for the shift-supervisor who regularly huddled with him when confronted with a knotty problem.

Union by-laws gave the Executive Board the choice of appointing stewards or holding an election, and, typically, the Local would hold an election if there were more than one candidate.  But since the early 1980s, the number of people interested in serving as steward had declined so sharply it was hard enough attract qualified volunteers, much less a full slate for an election.  Too much work, too much hassle, too little glory—those were the reasons given for the shortage of takers.

With no one willing to step up, Greg approached “Fred,” a swing-shift machine operator, and more or less begged him to take the job.  Fred was a good talker and cunning thinker, and, in fact, had been a department steward many years earlier, so he knew the job and was familiar with the union contract.  Fred’s only problem was popularity.

To put it bluntly, the crews didn’t care for him.  Some thought he was arrogant and condescending, others considered him too lazy and gutless to stand up to management, and others thought he was just “weird.”  Not to discount the crews’ opinions, but being shop steward, if done right, is a demanding and thankless job.  You’re constantly saying No to people who want to hear Yes.

Despite not having been active in the union for almost a decade, Fred agreed to take the assignment, but only on the condition that he be appointed.  In truth, he was an intensely proud man who feared losing an election and being publicly humiliated by having the results posted on the union’s Big Board.  He made it clear to Greg that he had no interest—none—in taking the job if it meant competing in an election. Greg agreed, and that was that.

But when word got out that Fred was going to be appointed steward, two people immediately came forward and insisted an election be held and that they be allowed to challenge him.  That’s how unpopular Fred was.  Regrettably, Fred’s vehement objections to competing in an election had somehow been lost on Greg, because the dumb bunny went ahead and placed Fred’s and the other two names on the official ballot.

The next day there was a vote, and what happened to Fred was what very likely would have happened to Caroline had she run in an open election: He got creamed.  He finished a distant third.  It was humiliating.

A few days later he sought me out, all furious and wounded and full of threats, insisting that he’d been “set up.”  While I agreed that Greg had screwed up royally and deserved a proper thrashing, there was nothing we could do about it now.  It was over and done with.  Fred stormed away, vowing that “he would never lift a finger to help this fucking union again,” and, true to his word, he never did.

The second episode also involved a steward election, but this one had a happier, if bittersweet, ending.  The Quality Assurance Lab was having its annual shop steward election, and the formidable, long-time incumbent, “Gloria,” was once again running.  An excellent, experienced steward—smart, reasonable, articulate—Gloria usually ran unopposed; and on those rare occasions when she did encounter a challenger, she trounced her.

This time around, a new arrival to the lab, an older woman named “Karen,” had decided, basically on a whim, to take Gloria on.  She contacted the union and requested that her name be placed on the ballot.  Because there were only 15 people working in the lab—all women, and all on day shift—the election was conducted on site, and done quickly.  The final tally was Gloria: 14, Karen: 0.

Yes, even Karen had not voted for Karen.

Of course, once word of the vote spread, Karen was needled mercilessly, with people coming up and complimenting her, sarcastically, for the fact that even she realized she wasn’t qualified for the job.

In her defense, Karen said it had been a mistake.  She honestly thought “you weren’t allowed to vote for yourself”—harking back to some silly rule she’d heard in elementary school.  Give the woman an “A” for integrity.  In any event, the Gloria vs. Karen election became part of union lore:  the only perfect shut-out in Local history.

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright (“Americana,” “Larva Boy”) and writer, was a former 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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