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50 Shades of Union Dignity

Besides superior wages and benefits, one of the advantages of belonging to a union is that you can perform your job with dignity. Under a union contract, the boss can’t harass you, he can’t arbitrarily mess with your hours, and he can’t alter your pay. After fighting with his wife, your boss can’t show up for work and make you the unfair target of his foul mood. Your rights are laid out in the contract, and when those rights are violated, you have the means to fight back.

In the 1990s, I had a friend who was a low-level executive at the Boeing Corporation. Although he made decent money and had a fantastic stock-purchase plan, he admitted to being scared and worried most of the time—scared of displeasing his boss, scared of getting a new boss, scared of being laid-off, scared of restructuring, scared of irrational demands, scared of change, etc. He lived and worked in fear.

This guy loved my union stories. I was president of the union at the time, and, knowing how much he liked my anecdotes, went out of my way to regale him with tales of union assertiveness and mischief. No, he wouldn’t have swapped jobs with unionized industrial workers. After all, he knew his white-collar career was the more potentially rewarding. Still, it was obvious how much he envied the union’s freedom.

Some of my stories:

* We published a union newspaper that regularly mocked the latest seminar-generated, team-building jargon that had infiltrated the workplace. Management was furious, not only because we were ridiculing their existence, but because copies of the newspaper regularly reached the hands of salaried employees who agreed with us.

* When machine crews set a corporation production record, they often declined to join in the cornball celebration, demonstrating to the company that they were cranking out quality product not to gain Brownie points or please management, but to please themselves.

* We could say anything, with zero fear of reprisal. It was like having immunity on the Senate floor. You could tell top management that you didn’t believe one word of the hideous propaganda they were spouting. Salaried employees approached us privately and told us how much they wished they had that same freedom to express themselves.

* We went on strike after being warned that if we shut it down, they wouldn’t start it back up. Instead, they vowed to lay off the entire workforce and relocate elsewhere. We assured them that the only thing those empty threats were doing was pissing us off. We stayed out 57 days. That was more than 20 years ago. The plant is still there, still cranking out product, still generating profits.

* They once invited me and another officer to a presentation conducted by a paid ($1,200 per day) consultant. Either this consultant had never encountered union resistance before or we caught him off-guard, because we made a shambles of the Q&A segment, mercilessly challenging every platitude he uttered. Although a couple of engineers privately praised us for saying what they couldn’t say, an HR rep told me she had been “mortified” by our remarks. Fine, I said. Don’t invite us back.

I should mention that one of my friend’s misapprehensions was the belief that union members were, by and large, crappy workers. Unfortunately, that toxic myth has leaked into the public’s consciousness. He’d heard all his life that union workers were lazy, defiant and sullen, and that even the worst of them couldn’t be fired because unions were so powerful they wouldn’t allow it

Two points eased my friend’s mind: (1) Facilities with the best wages and benefits (union facilities) will always attract the best workers in a community. Simple as that. (2) Union members get fired all the time. During my tenure, probably 20 people were fired for everything from job performance to chronic absenteeism. Do people honestly believe employees get to tell their bosses what to do? That’s plain nutty.

I shared with my friend the true story of how the union executive board once tried to implement a work “slow-down” among the warehouse drivers to protest a new company policy. The proposed slow-down failed utterly. Why? Because none of these “lazy, sullen and defiant” warehouse drivers were willing to do anything that made them look bad as workers.

It’s true. These drivers were simply too proud to pretend they couldn’t perform their jobs adequately. Not that they weren’t rebellious enough to defy the company. Indeed, they begged us to come up with an alternative plan—anything except forcing them to look incompetent. And fear of management reprisal never entered into it. The slow-down would’ve been by the book and entirely “legal.”

In truth, the average American not only wants to work, but strives to do a good job. People don’t want 20 hours a week; they want a real job—a full-time, 40-hour a week job. And it’s more than just the money. They want a destination, a place to go when they get up in the morning, something productive to give their lives structure. Such a pity that even so modest a goal as having a full-time job is now considered a “luxury.”

David Macaray, an LA playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor”), was a former union rep.

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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

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