About 20 years ago, our union began giving free Thanksgiving turkeys to its members. Even though neither the Local nor the company had ever done such a thing, myself and another executive board member (he was master-at-arms, I was president) decided the time had come not only to make history, but to make a splashy display of just how miserly this Fortune 500 company was.
At the next E-board meeting we explained the plan. Because we’d done exceptionally well with mutual fund investments, we were now in the position to give everyone in the plant (approximately 700 members) a free turkey without having to cut into the treasury. We could purchase the turkeys by using only the interest we had accrued. What’s not to like?
Alas, there was plenty. While everyone applauded the gesture, several E-board members questioned whether it was wise to “set a precedent” like this, fearing that if we did it this year, the membership would expect free turkeys every year—even in those years when we were saving up for a strike fund and didn’t have the extra money.
Another gripe was that this was nothing but “showing off.” Because no one had ever received a turkey, no one expected one. Indeed, no one even knew we were discussing it. In other words, if we chose NOT to provide this gift, there would be no disappointed people. Life would go on as normal. But if we handed out free turkeys this year, and then didn’t hand them out next year, we would create ill-will.
And then there was the question of logistics. Do we store the turkeys in a rented meat locker, and pass them out at the union hall? With 700 turkeys, how large a storage locker would we need? And with people working all three shifts, how would we organize the hand-offs? And what about people on vacation, medical leave or scheduled days off? Would we be required to hunt them down, schlepping frozen turkeys?
Even with the valid concerns, the pro-turkey faction was able to convince the anti-turkey faction that, in the spirit of solidarity and fraternalism, it was worth a try. We also decided that, for this thing to work as painlessly as possible, we would mail out gift certificates, and let them buy their own turkeys.
We checked out prices and found that you could buy a good-sized bird for $15.00. So we announced on the union bulletin board that we’d be mailing a $15 gift certificate to everyone’s home. Happy Thanksgiving! I contacted Von’s market and placed the order.
The customer service rep asked if I wanted to specify that these gift certificates could be used only for food and not for either tobacco or alcohol. I was stunned. Why would we do that? I asked. She said it was a very common request. I told her we didn’t care what they bought with it—a frozen turkey or Wild Turkey.
The union announced that the gift certificates could be expected to arrive roughly 5-7 days before Thanksgiving. At the bottom of the posting, we added that “If you don’t receive your gift certificate in the mail, please contact me, and I will personally give you one.”
That addendum drew some fire. Oddly, it came mainly from management people who warned us that saying something this stupid was practically an “invitation to lie”—a way for everyone to receive two gift certificates. They regarded the E-board with a mixture of pity and disdain, as if we were a bunch of country rubes. “You guys better buy a couple hundred extras,” an engineer smirked, “because you’re going to need them.”
As it turned out, two people—a man and woman—said they didn’t receive their gifts. I told the woman to wait a couple days, just in case the mail was late, and come back if it didn’t arrive. A day later she told me it had come, no problem. The man’s never came, so we handed him one. Months later we learned he was going through an ugly divorce, and that his wife had been vindictively destroying all the mail addressed to him.
Of course, the union couldn’t wait to rub it in. We looked up these management people and smugly told them that, while we could understand why it “made sense” to assume that their salaried peers would naturally “lie and steal,” we hourly folks never had any doubts about the honesty and integrity of the union membership. Burn!
We continued the “tradition” for three more years, after which we announced we couldn’t afford it, not with contract negotiations coming up. People took the news in stride. The way they saw it, they’d gotten free turkeys four Thanksgivings in a row, which was a real treat. The membership of Local 672 couldn’t have made us any prouder.
David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book, “Nightshift: 270 Factory Stories,” will be published in June. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org