Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Please Support CounterPunch’s Annual Fund Drive
We don’t run corporate ads. We don’t shake our readers down for money every month or every quarter like some other sites out there. We only ask you once a year, but when we ask we mean it. So, please, help as much as you can. We provide our site for free to all, but the bandwidth we pay to do so doesn’t come cheap. All contributions are tax-deductible.
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

My Kind of Blue

Some years ago the manager of the Infant Care Department at Kimberly-Clark’s Fullerton, California, paper mill invited me to his office.  I was in my fourth term as president of the union, AWPPW Local 672, and he (I’ll call him “Kyle”) ran the department that produced K-C’s biggest money-maker: Huggies disposable diapers.

“We’ve decided to paint the breakroom during the Labor Day holiday,” he announced dramatically.  It was good news.  The breakroom was a foul, dingy place, its gray walls badly chipped and faded, the ceiling stained a tartar-brown by the smoke of 10,000 cigarettes.  People had been griping about the room for years.  “I’d like your help in setting up a painting committee,” he said.

A painting committee?  I had no idea what he was talking about.  Obviously, Local 672 members wouldn’t be painting on Labor Day.  Contractually, the holiday was designated as a “cold down,” meaning that all equipment in the plant was shut off and no one worked.  Clearly, outside contractors would be brought in for the job.  So what was he talking about?  “What’s a painting committee?” I asked, genuinely curious.

“I want the crews to vote on what color to paint it,” Kyle said proudly and decisively.  “It’s their breakroom.  I want them to be happy with the color.”

My heart sank as I instantly realized two things:  One, that this was a really bad, poorly conceived idea, and two, that Kyle thought it was a great idea.   “I’d like you to form a committee,” he said, “and have them survey the folks on the floor….get an idea what they think….how they feel.”

While this will sound autocratic and selfish, I learned long time ago as a union rep that you never let people vote unless it’s absolutely necessary.  This is especially true when trivial matters are involved.  Voting on trivial issues causes people to think too much and care too much.  It warps their sense of proportion.

Unfortunately, we’d tried it ourselves several years earlier, when we asked people to vote on what kind of refreshments they wanted served at the monthly membership meetings.  The union hall’s refrigerator was stocked with Coke and Pepsi, regular and diet, and two kinds of beer—Budweiser and Millers, regular and lite.  Snacks consisted of potato chips and peanuts.  This modest arrangement had worked for 25 years—long before I got there—with very few complaints.

But during my first term as president, the Executive Board talked me into asking the membership for their thoughts on refreshments.  After all, it was their dues that paid for everything, so why not get their input?  Using that perverse logic, we asked the members what kinds of foods and beverages they preferred.  It was a debacle.

Although the people who regularly attended membership meetings were some of the toughest, most union-loyal folks in the mill, they behaved differently when given this open-ended assignment.  They composed what amounted to “Dear Santa” lists.   They requested lemon-lime, grape, strawberry, and orange soda, ginger ale, root beer, lemonade, fruit juice, Gatorade and Hawaiian Punch.  Some of the men wanted imported beer and blended whiskey, and some of the women asked for wine coolers.

Among the snacks requested were:  Funyuns, Cheetos, Fritos, Doritos, Triscuits, Wheat Thins, Ritz crackers, saltine crackers and cheese, popcorn, pork rinds, beef jerky, Vienna sausages, string cheese, trail mix, cashew nuts, Hershey’s kisses, peanut butter and jelly, and, God help us, tortilla strips with guacamole dip.

Had these demands been institutionalized, they would’ve transformed our spartan union meetings into lively buffets, and turned our master-at-arms, the E-Board officer in charge of refreshments, into a full-time shopper.  It was ridiculous.  Fortunately, we were able to reel in the membership and restore sanity, but not without some bruised feelings.

Back to Kyle.  When I tried to tell him, as tactfully as I could, that forming a painting committee was one of the worst ideas I’d ever heard, he surprised me by going on the offensive.  He came at me defiantly.  “Oh, really??” he sneered.  “Then who do you think should choose the color?” he asked sharply. “You??”

Whoa.  This was a side of Kyle I hadn’t seen.  Not that we hadn’t locked horns before (disputes, large and small, were common), but this show of belligerence was something I hadn’t witnessed, not from the affable Kyle.  Yet, here he was….trying to score cheap points by portraying the union as imperious and dictatorial.

What annoyed me more than the outburst was the hypocrisy—his phony embrace of “democracy.”  Kyle knew how things worked as well as I did.  Over the years our membership had asked to vote on a dozen rules and policies—everything from the dress code to hours of work—and had always been denied.  Democracy was alien to the facility.  We never voted on anything.

Kyle’s “Power to the people” charade was condescending and insulting.  Moreover, if the crews had actually taken a vote and decided to paint the room an unusual color—say, black or hot pink—the company would have pounced.  They would have immediately vetoed it, ending this little exercise in pocket democracy then and there.

“I could pick the color,” I said tentatively.  He glared at me. “Or,” I added, “you could pick one yourself, if you like.”  I was serious.  Having Kyle pick the color would’ve been fine with us (Didn’t the union have more pressing things on its agenda than what to paint the goddamn breakroom??)  Instead, he bristled and said petulantly,  “Well, I have no intention of picking it.  The crews should decide.”

Demoralized but aware that management hated conflict on the floor (bad for morale and all that), I gave it one more try.  I explained that if it came to a vote, you’d have the light-pink people disappointed that light-yellow was chosen, or the pro-beige boosters grumbling about the off-white, or the bright color advocates ridiculing the timidity of the pastel lovers.  Etc.

It was just plain dumb to vote on something as inconsequential as this.  “Trust me,” I implored.  “Pick a color, paint it, and forget about it.”

Finally, reluctantly, he agreed to let me pick a color.  I immediately—instantaneously—chose light blue, fearing if I hesitated even a moment he’d change his mind and we’d be back to the painting committee.  Light blue was a good color.  Blue was supposed to be soothing.  Besides, blue and white were the union’s colors, so what the hell.

To the surprise of no one, when the crews reported to work after the holiday, they were generally pleased.  Our members were tough-minded folks.  They weren’t finicky.  “Hey, look,” one of the machine operators said, smiling appreciatively.  “They painted the breakroom.”

And that’s how the breakroom got painted blue, that’s how the union came away looking dictatorial, and that’s how democracy ultimately triumphed….by not being wasted on the silly stuff.

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor”), was a former union rep.  He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net

 

WORDS THAT STICK

 

More articles by:

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

October 15, 2018
Rob Urie
Climate Crisis is Upon Us
Conn Hallinan
Syria’s Chessboard
Patrick Cockburn
The Saudi Atrocities in Yemen are a Worse Story Than the Disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi
Sheldon Richman
Trump’s Middle East Delusions Persist
Justin T. McPhee
Uberrima Fides? Witness K, East Timor and the Economy of Espionage
Tom Gill
Spain’s Left Turn?
Jeff Cohen
Few Democrats Offer Alternatives to War-Weary Voters
Dean Baker
Corporate Debt Scares
Gary Leupp
The Khashoggi Affair and and the Anti-Iran Axis
Russell Mokhiber
Sarah Chayes Calls on West Virginians to Write In No More Manchins
Clark T. Scott
Acclimated Behaviorisms
Kary Love
Evolution of Religion
Colin Todhunter
From GM Potatoes to Glyphosate: Regulatory Delinquency and Toxic Agriculture
Binoy Kampmark
Evacuating Nauru: Médecins Sans Frontières and Australia’s Refugee Dilemma
Marvin Kitman
The Kitman Plan for Peace in the Middle East: Two Proposals
Weekend Edition
October 12, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Becky Grant
My History with Alexander Cockburn and The Financial Future of CounterPunch
Paul Street
For Popular Sovereignty, Beyond Absurdity
Nick Pemberton
The Colonial Pantsuit: What We Didn’t Want to Know About Africa
Jeffrey St. Clair
The Summer of No Return
Jeff Halper
Choices Made: From Zionist Settler Colonialism to Decolonization
Gary Leupp
The Khashoggi Incident: Trump’s Special Relationship With the Saudi Monarchy
Andrew Levine
Democrats: Boost, Knock, Enthuse
Barbara Kantz
The Deportation Crisis: Report From Long Island
Doug Johnson
Nate Silver and 538’s Measurable 3.5% Democratic Bias and the 2018 House Race
Gwen Carr
This Stops Today: Seeking Justice for My Son Eric Garner
Robert Hunziker
Peak Carbon Emissions By 2020, or Else!
Arshad Khan
Is There Hope on a World Warming at 1.5 Degrees Celsius?
David Rosen
Packing the Supreme Court in the 21stCentury
Brian Cloughley
Trump’s Threats of Death and Destruction
Joel A. Harrison
The Case for a Non-Profit Single-Payer Healthcare System
Ramzy Baroud
That Single Line of Blood: Nassir al-Mosabeh and Mohammed al-Durrah
Zhivko Illeieff
Addiction and Microtargeting: How “Social” Networks Expose us to Manipulation
ADRIAN KUZMINSKI
What is Truth?
Michael Doliner
Were the Constitution and the Bill of Rights a Mistake?
Victor Grossman
Cassandra Calls
Ralph E. Shaffer
Could Kavanaugh’s Confirmation Hearing Ended Differently?
Vanessa Cid
Our Everyday Family Separations
Walaa Al Ghussein
The Risks of Being a Journalist in Gaza
Ron Jacobs
Betrayal and Treachery—The Extremism of Moderates
James Munson
Identity Politics and the Ruling Class
P. Sainath
The Floods of Kerala: the Bank That Went Under…Almost
Ariel Dorfman
How We Roasted Donald Duck, Disney’s Agent of Imperialism
Joe Emersberger
Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno’s Assault on Human Rights and Judicial Independence
Ed Meek
White Victimhood: Brett Kavanaugh and the New GOP Brand
Andrew McLean, MD
A Call for “Open Space”
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail