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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 firstname.lastname@example.org