The following is an account of a minor incident that took place at Local 672’s union hall in Fullerton, California. It’s a true story. Although it happened many years ago, it’s stayed with me all this time partly because I tend to obsess about such things, and partly because I’ve come to regard it as a metaphor for all politics.
I’d been president for barely seven weeks, so new to the job that I still had to ask the veteran Recording Secretary for help with routine paperwork, where to find office supplies, and explanations of certain portions of Roberts Rules of Order. While we waited for the start of our regular monthly membership meeting, a member—a maintenance man named “Vince”—approached me with a question.
Vince’s mother had passed away a couple of weeks earlier and, following normal procedure, Local 672 had sent his family a modest floral arrangement (we had a long-standing tab with a neighborhood florist). After politely thanking us for the flowers, Vince asked his question: When had the union discontinued the practice of sending a Bible to the bereaved family?
It caught me off-guard. I’d never heard of Bibles being sent out. Even though I was new to the Executive Board and no expert on union policy, I liked to think I knew a thing or two about Local 672 history; and based on everything I’d seen and heard, I was almost positive we’d never sent Bibles. “Actually, Vince,” I said, “I’m pretty sure we’ve never sent Bibles. We’ve always sent flowers.”
Vince was adamant. “No, they used to send Bibles,” he insisted. “And I need to know when you guys stopped doing it and why you stopped doing it.” At this point I made a critical error, a rookie mistake. Instead of sensing that this was a vitally important and sensitive issue to him, one that required a light, gingerly touch, I answered peremptorily. “Nope,” I said, “you’re wrong. Bibles were never part of the deal.”
His reaction floored me. He raised his voice, and I saw that tears had begun forming in his eyes. I couldn’t believe it. “They did send Bibles!” he said shrilly. He said it so forcefully that others in the room turned toward us, startled. “Damn it,” he shouted, “I need you to tell me when the union stopped sending them!” And then he dropped the democracy hammer. “Shouldn’t we have voted on it?!”
I’d known Vince, a journeyman pipefitter, for several years and had never—not one time—seen him get angry or even rattled. A short, well-groomed man in his mid-fifties, a Roman Catholic originally from Pennsylvania, Vince was one of the gentlest, most courteous, most level-headed guys in the plant. Had he been a chronic complainer or known hothead, it would have been another story.
Yet, here he was, his mother having just died, making one of his rare visits to the union hall in order to get a straight answer to a fair question, only to have some union politician either expose just how ignorant of the facts he was, or, worse, have the nerve to stand there and lie to his face, attempting to revise history.
Clearly, that’s how he saw it.
It was a bad moment. Stunned by his outburst and acutely aware that this spectacle was being played out in full view of my own E-Board, I mumbled something about looking into the matter and promising to get back to him. Vince shook his head in what was either disgust or resignation, and left the hall in silence, not bothering to stick around for the meeting, which was about to begin.
During the next few days I asked several people—former union officers and various old-timers—if there had ever been a time when the Local sent Bibles instead of floral arrangements. They all looked at me as if I were crazy. Of course there wasn’t. The Local had never sent Bibles. They’d been sending flowers ever since the breakaway year of 1964, almost 15 years before Vince hired into the facility.
Obviously, what had happened was that some well-meaning but woefully misinformed guys in the shop had shot off their mouths about stuff they knew nothing about and, unfortunately, had managed to convince a gullible mechanic that Bibles used to be sent instead of flowers. The information was pure fiction.
Still, given that Vince was convinced that union honchos had arbitrarily changed the Bible policy to suit themselves without allowing the membership to vote, coupled with his ignorance of how things worked at the Local (not to mention the strain of his mother’s death), his reaction was not totally out of line. People were known to flip out. Vince wasn’t the first and wouldn’t be the last.
But now that I had a definitive answer, I made a point of looking him up and reporting my findings. Once again, Vince’s response floored me. He dismissed my news as either more of the same bullshit, or, worse, as evidence that some bizarre conspiracy was taking place, as if the people I had quoted about the Bibles were in collusion with me. In short, he didn’t believe a word I said.
And that’s how it ended. Our paths crossed a couple times after that, but it was apparent he no longer respected or trusted me. On a personal level, I was sorry he felt that way because he was a solid guy, a good man, and I considered him a friend. On a political level, I realized I’d lost a vote.
I also wondered how indicative this episode was of all politics—of misinformed people reaching faulty conclusions based on bad input or flawed logic, but never budging from those conclusions. When former House Speaker Tip O’Neil famously said, “All politics are local,” maybe he meant all politics are loco.