Why Belong to a Union?

One of the more compelling reasons for belonging to a union (besides the wages, benefits, etc.) is the job security it provides.  The following account of a woman—whom I’ll call “Gloria”—employed at Kimberly-Clark’s Fullerton paper mill illustrates how important that job protection is.

Gloria worked as a multifolder console operator in the Folded Products department.  Her job was to keep the machine loaded with KDFs (knocked-down-flat cartons), into which an endless stream of freshly made Kleenex was being stuffed at the rate of 300 cpm (clips per minute).  Gloria worked non-stop, loading the machine with one 20-pound box of KDFs after another, lifting them off pallets supplied by a forklift driver.

When things were going smoothly, watching 300 shiny, pristine boxes of Kleenex being kicked out every minute or so was impressive.  In fact, visitors who regularly toured the facility found the spectacle of high-speed packaging to be mind-boggling.  But when things were going badly—when the synchronization was slightly off, and plug-ups or skewed cartons were being spit out at that same ungodly 300 cpm speed—it was hellish.

By the time someone figured out that it was ergonomically disastrous to have the console operator bend down hundreds of times a shift to lift cartons from the last two or three layers of the pallet, the damage to Gloria had already been done.  She had worked the console for years, had lifted, literally, tens of thousands of these 20-pound boxes, and, unfortunately, had paid the price for it.

Indeed, by the time the company installed a pneumatic pallet-lifter, a device that constantly kept each layer of cartons at shoulder-level, allowing the console operator to more or less swoop them off the pallet rather than lift them from floor-level, she was in pretty bad shape.  In truth, she was a mess.  According to her doctor, her back, shoulders and elbows had “broken down” from all the lifting.

So far, it’s a standard industrial union story.  Before the ergonomic revolution of the late seventies and early eighties—when safety concerns became prominent and manual labor began to be supplanted by automation—factory workers regularly took a beating.  Even when the work wasn’t intrinsically unsafe, it was arduous.  After a standard 8-hour shift, you were fatigued; after working a twelve or a double-shift, you went home whipped.

Oddly, there was little complaining.  For one thing, everyone knew they were on the receiving end of good wages and benefits, and no one wanted to be seen as a whiner.  For another, they knew they were there by choice.  Even Local 672 officials reminded people that the job wasn’t for everyone, and that if they were unhappy doing what they were doing, theywere free to leave.  “This ain’t the army,” one of the shop stewards liked to say.  “No one drafted you.”

During the period that Gloria was having her physical problems (she went out on two or three medical leaves), Kimberly-Clark hired a brand new supervisor, a young man just out of the University of Illinois, named Randy, whose father was a ranking executive in K-C’s corporate office.

Besides being a bit arrogant and bossy, and carrying the additional burden of everyone knowing that he’d gotten his job through daddy’s connections, Randy was very short.  He might have been five-feet, five inches tall.  Upon his arrival, one of the women casepackers instantly nicknamed him “Tit-High,” and, alas, the nickname stuck.

Randy and I crossed paths (I was union president) not long after Gloria had returned to work from one of her medical leaves, only to realize, once again, that she wasn’t physically able to handle the job—even with the new pneumatic pallet-lifter in place.  With all the physical punishment her body had taken, running the console was simply too much for her.

I still recall Randy’s precise words.  Cornering me outside the operations office, he said, with an air of decisiveness and utter certitude, “I don’t think we have a job for Gloria at Kimberly-Clark.”  Those were his exact words.  What my exact words were, I don’t recall, but I probably mumbled something lame, like, “I wouldn’t be too sure about that.”  In any event, after our brief conversation, I headed straight for Human Resources.

What happened next was straight out of a Labor Relations textbook.  Recognizing that Mr. Tit-High had not only misspoken but had managed to provoke the union, the HR rep apologized and promised that the Gloria matter would be handled judiciously and in due course.  She assured me that no one would be jumping the gun.

Although no one ever confirmed it (the company very rarely shared internal stuff like that) it was obvious that they had taken Randy out behind the woodshed and pounded on him.  Not only did he never again bring up the Gloria matter—not even casually—but from that moment on he seemed tentative, almost shell-shocked.

The episode had a happy ending.  With the union acting as broker, Gloria, who’d always been a hard worker, was administratively frozen down to a lower job, one that she could physically perform.  At 55 years old, with a mother and grown son to support (from what we’d heard, her kid was a deadbeat, unable to hold a job, and in and out of jail), Gloria didn’t want to be farmed out on a permanent medical.  She needed to work.

But the important thing to take away from this isn’t that it had a happy ending.  The important thing to take away is a question:  What if this same set of circumstances—i.e., a timid, middle-aged woman, broken down by the physical demands of her job, falls prey to a young, aggressive management cat—had occurred in a non-union shop?

Even though K-C was a fair company, one wonders how they would have handled Gloria had there not been a union waiting in the wings—a union ready and willing to go to war to protect her rights.  Obviously, Randy’s first impulse was to put this woman on the street, to get rid of her, and that was scary.  But in a non-union shop, that’s very likely what would have happened.

Some will argue that even without a union, Gloria was entitled to contact the Labor Board and file an unlawful termination charge.  That’s true.  Even without a union (which would represent her for free), Gloria was entitled to pursue the matter on her own—to contact the local NLRB, maybe hire a lawyer, and plead her side of the case.

But Gloria’s chances of getting the Board to overturn her termination would have been slim.  As a former union rep, I am very familiar with the NLRB.  Not to pile on a beleaguered, well-meaning institution, but the Labor Board—even with Hilda Solis running the show—is overworked, understaffed, uninspired, and cynical.

We union officials used to joke that, if the Justice Department’s symbol is a blindfolded woman holding a pair of scales, the Labor Board’s should be a picture of a snowball in Hell.  When it comes to representing workers, it’s no contest.  Comparing the NLRB to a labor union is like comparing a musket to an AK-47.

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor”. He served 9 terms as president of AWPPW Local 672. 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