A Bad Time for Unions

It’s a bad time for unions.  Not just for the most visible ones—like the UAW, which has been ravaged by the collapse of the domestic auto industry, or SAG, whose 120,000 members are being whip-sawed into signing an inferior contract by Hollywood’s producers (AMPTP)—but for unions everywhere: the miners, steelworkers, UBC, IAM, ILWU.  They’re all being squeezed.

There’s also been some unfortunate internecine action.  The big, bad SEIU is fighting a series of highly publicized jurisdictional battles with nursing groups all over the country.  Its president, Ivy-educated Andy Stern, is being characterized, contradictorily, as both a swaggering “union goon” and an obsequious “corporate lackey.”  Pick your poison.

And then there’s UNITE HERE—two independent unions that came together just a few years ago in what was believed to be a marriage made in Heaven—breaking apart rancorously, Hatfield-McCoy style, before our eyes.

But America’s workers haven’t given up.  Strikes are still occasionally called, and toxic contracts are still voted down.  The problem doesn’t lie with the workers; it lies with the national leadership.  Sadly, these nouveau riche union jackasses are behaving like businessmen instead of working people.

Those big salaries and that hobnobbing with corporate executives have caused them not only to forget what their mission was, but to lose sight of what was attainable.  Yes, things are bad.  Yes, membership rolls are down, and there’s a recession.  But when have things ever been “good” for labor?  When have unions ever not had to fight and scrape for every dime?

The following is a true story.  It’s an account of an employee (“Derek”) of a Fortune 100 company, who came out of nowhere to become president of a 750-member AWPPW local union, and take the membership on a spectacular two-year ride.

What Derek did, in a word, was reinvent union radicalism.  Although there was already a union in place, it had become complacent and predictable; management had figured out ways to pacify and circumvent it.  So how did young Derek reinvent the union?  He transformed a Model-T into a Trans-Am.

For one thing, he generated an inordinate number of grievances.  In one year alone the local filed a staggering 270 grievances, more than triple the usual number.  For another, he went outside the facility; he filed lawsuits and ULPs (Unfair Labor Practice charges); he took more cases to arbitration in one year than in the previous decade combined; he visited OSHA regularly, he made so many phone calls to the NLRB, he practically had an open line.

If there was ever a top-down arrangement that worked, this was it.  Because Derek was this gushing fountain of ideas and tactics, the Executive Board deferred to him, allowing him to morph from president to King.  Single-handedly, he re-energized the shop steward corps, aroused the membership, and “radicalized” what had been an apathetic, if not inert, Center.

As a consequence, he placed the company in the heretofore unheard of position of having to play defense.  No one—union or management—had ever seen anything like it.

I knew Derek.  I was there when he first streaked across the sky, and I was there when he burned out, which is to say I witnessed his breakdown.  While Derek’s legacy is a mixed bag, there’s no denying he temporarily reversed the roles, taking the whip out of management’s hand and placing it in the union’s.  Yes!

Predictably, management gave him no credit.  Despite having to hunker down under his merciless assault, management insisted that Derek’s audacious, wild-assed stunts had no effect.  That was their orthodox, buttoned-down response, and they were sticking to it.

Only one manager (“Clayton”) had the courage to admit he’d been “afraid” of Derek.  “He could come into my office and pretty much ruin my day,” Clayton confessed.  Because he knew the trouble Derek could stir up when he was on the warpath, Clayton, like every other manager, did what he could to accommodate him.

And that, in a nutshell, was Derek’s modus operandi—threaten to create such a mess, management didn’t dare ignore you.  The tactic’s simplicity was elegant.  The only difference between Clayton’s appraisal of Derek’s effectiveness and the other managers’ appraisal of it, was that Clayton was being honest.

When management tells you that radicalism doesn’t work—that calm, eminently rational discourse is what carries the day—they’re either lying or deluding themselves.  Indeed, the potency of a threat is inversely proportional to the intensity of the denial by those claiming it doesn’t work.

The lesson here is that unions should stop being so reasonable.  Union officials should start embarrassing themselves.  Maybe, instead of worrying about being “respected” by their corporate buddies, they should consider giving the ruling class a dose of what it means to go ape-shit.

After all, could getting down in the dirt be any less effective than what’s being done now?  What has organized labor gained by behaving like good little boys and girls?  It certainly hasn’t stopped workers from making concessions.  If labor can’t prevent further damage, the least it can do is make management uncomfortable.

Regrettably, Derek was unable to hang on.  Anyone who really knew him—anyone who saw how undisciplined and insecure he was—could have predicted the ending.  After running at full speed for almost two years, Derek more or less burst into flame.

The early signs were there.  He began forgetting things, important things, like appeal deadlines.  He began missing scheduled meetings.  Then it became difficult to reach him.  And for a man who was ridiculously accessible—who boasted of giving his home phone number to anyone who asked for it—this was a red flag.

Then he had his breakdown.  He took a six-week medical leave during which he couldn’t be contacted by anyone except his father.  Even his mom couldn’t reach him.  And because he was a one-man wrecking crew, a president who rarely delegated the simplest task, the local fell apart without him.  People didn’t know where to go or whom to ask.  It was chaos.

Had Derek been more stable, he could have had a huge and lasting impact on the union.  Still, as flawed as he was, he proved one very important thing:  He proved that a tiny local could move a giant corporation.

Management swears his tactics were ineffective.  An HR guy actually told me, ”Derek was your typical bully.  All bark and no bite.”  The irony was that I already knew this guy’s history; he’d been one of those management folks whom Derek had terrorized and left scared shitless.

So when a company insists that courtesy and rational discourse are what get the job done—that radicalism only makes things worse—they’re being dishonest.  Everyone dreads an ugly confrontation.  And American management is no exception.

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright (“Americana,” “Larva Boy”) 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