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The establishment of labor unions was predicated upon the time-honored belief that without some form of unified resistance—without the “strength in numbers” leverage that only collectivism can provide—workers would remain at the mercy of management’s self-serving definitions of “fair wages” and “adequate working conditions.” Simple as that.
When Douglas MacArthur was placed in charge of “reconstructing” Japan after World War II, he insisted that the Japanese establish labor unions (which they never had), fearing that, without them, management would become too powerful. And General MacArthur was no “We shall overcome” liberal. He was a rightwing Republican.
But unions continue to draw fire, and, surprisingly, one of the biggest complaints involves their handling of discipline. People are confused by the distinction between a union “representing” its members and “defending” them. Accordingly, these observers tend to judge organized labor harshly (and unfairly), believing (wrongly) that a union’s main purpose is defending bad employees—lazy workers, incompetent workers, pilferers, vandals, and malcontents.
As the former president of an industrial union, I would like a shot at clarifying that distinction. I shall use as an example a long-term employee who was fired by the company for theft. The man was accused of walking out with stuff that obviously didn’t belong to him—stuff hidden in his lunchbox. A 17-year employee being deprived of his livelihood will always be a big deal. Innocent or guilty, the union wasn’t going to let a dues-paying member twist slowly in the wind.
Something needs to be made clear. There’s no way in hell anyone is going to “defend” theft. Other than a case of a desperate father stealing food in order to feed his starving babies, how does one go about defending one’s right to knowingly and deliberately steal merchandise, particularly from one’s long-time employer?
What I did was “represent” this individual. And by representing him, all I really did was make sure all the bases were covered: Make sure that the facts were accurate, that the man wasn’t under duress, that he understood what he was doing, that his rights hadn’t been violated, and that the punishment (in this case termination) fit the crime.
Pilfering was pretty much a non-issue in that plant. In fact, employee theft didn’t even move the needle. Therefore, sitting in on a theft discharge was a fairly unique experience for us; there wasn’t much of a road map from which to work. The chief reason people were fired in that facility was chronic absenteeism tied to substance abuse.
As it happened, even though this guy was guilty, it was tough seeing him get clobbered. He stole $35 worth of maintenance equipment (some grinding stones, duct tape, and a clamp), and for that he had kissed off a $50,000 a year job with full benefits and pension. Making it even tougher, you could see he was genuinely contrite. He wept. Not only at having lost his job, but at having disgraced himself so abjectly.
Again, while no one is going to defend a man’s right to steal, there are forms of punishment other than economic homicide available. Nowhere was it written that this man had to be fired. Indeed, in everyday life, thieves don’t get the death penalty; they get put in jail. But our request that his 17 years of good service be taken into account, and that he be suspended for 30 days without pay, was denied.
The plant manager argued that it would send the wrong message, that it would be tantamount to telling people that everyone was entitled to one “freebie”—one occasion where you could be caught stealing and not have to worry about being terminated, only suspended. While I found that to be a bizarre interpretation, he wouldn’t budge.
Afterward, people on the floor were annoyed to learn the union had “defended” this man. People were ticked off that the local had “wasted the membership’s dues” on a thief. “How could you defend that guy?” a woman asked me angrily. I tried telling her that I had represented him, not defended him. “Bullshit,” she said. “You’re just playing with words.”
David Macaray, a playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor,” 2nd edition), was a former labor union rep. He can be reached at email@example.com