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America’s Unions Have Been Consigned to Hell

All things considered, we are a forgiving people. While that may be less the result of compassion than a short attention span, we’re willing to forgive almost everything. We’ve forgiven Japan for Pearl Harbor, the Russians for Communism, the Republicans for Watergate, Bill Clinton for Monica, Pete Rose for gambling, and Motor Trend magazine for naming the 1971 Chevrolet Vega its “Car of the Year.”

We’ve even found it in our hearts to forgive Corporate America for millions of deceptive advertisements, thousands of fraudulent business practices, and hundreds of industrial shortcuts that resulted in serious workplace injury or death. Union Carbide, Johns Manville, and Massey Energy instantly come to mind. Indeed, we’ve pretty much forgiven everyone. Everyone but the Teamsters.

Consider: Although the IBT (International Brotherhood of Teamsters) has been a respectable, pristinely “clean,” and democratic organization for decades now, the public remains locked in a hostile time-warp—trapped in the belief that (1) the Teamsters are still the thuggish union it used to be, and far worse, that (2) the majority of America’s unions resemble what the Teamsters once were—autocratic, greedy and corrupt.

Alas, none of that bears the faintest relevance today. While it’s true that James R. Hoffa’s Teamsters were notoriously (almost ludicrously) crooked and rapacious, none of their sordid, long ago history has anything remotely to do with the current Teamsters or, more importantly, with today’s labor movement.

For one thing, if our beef is with Jimmy Hoffa, then let’s get real. He left union office in 1967. And even though his hand-picked successor, the rancid Frank Fitzsimmons, did all he could to perpetuate the Teamsters’ practice of kickbacks, deceit, intimidation and violence, the Justice Department continued to chip away—continued to win battle after battle—until the feds eventually won the war.

Even the Mob itself played an unwitting role in breaking the Teamsters’ chokehold on its membership. It’s been all of 40 years since Hoffa “disappeared” (he vanished on July 30, 1975), believed to have been murdered and his body placed in a wood chipper on orders of Anthony (“Tony Pro”) Provenzano, a New Jersey Teamster official. No one was ever charged.

The key part of the Teamsters’ legacy to remember is that virtually everyone involved in the treachery—from looting the Central States Pension Fund, to giving lucrative no-show jobs to relatives, to signing “sweetheart” contracts with management in return for kickbacks, to using racketeering tactics to coerce both management and recalcitrant members—either went to prison or died, or both.

Yet, to this day, people can’t think of labor unions without recalling the Teamsters of yesteryear—visualizing beefy union bosses (always “bosses,” never “leaders”) wearing silk suits, smirking, doing the perp walk. It’s absurd really. And of course, the beneficiary of this irrational fear of worker collectivism is America’s businesses.

The more that unions are mistrusted or despised, the less of a threat they pose to employers. Which is one reason private sector union membership has plummeted, profits have soared (they reached an all-time high in the third-quarter of 2011), and the vaunted American middle-class—once the envy of the world—has shrunk.

The VP of a west coast International shared this loathsome story with me. Whenever he attends social events, and people ask what he does for a living, he tells them he “represents working people.” When they ask him to elaborate, he says he helps with pensions, health insurance, pay raises, overtime, workers compensation, bullying and harassment on the job, etc.

Their typical response is one of “Wow, that’s really cool. I had no idea there were people out there who did that. We need more of those jobs.” But when he says he works for a labor union, these same people recoil in horror. He said it’s funny to see how quickly their show of respect turns to one of contempt and fear. Yeah, hilarious.

I have my own loathsome story. Barely two months after being elected union president, I was told there was a man in the lobby who wanted to see me. Because I was so new to the job, anytime I heard that someone—particularly a stranger in the lobby—needed to see me, I became extremely uptight.

This guy turned out to be the son of a journeyman mechanic who had retired a year earlier. He said he had come to “recover his dad’s union pension.” His father had already received his company pension and Social Security, but hadn’t put in for his union pension. The son was there to claim it.

His request would’ve have made eminent sense except for one problem. There were no union pensions. Unlike the Teamsters, we didn’t get pensions from the union. The only pensions we received were those we had hammered out at contract negotiations, which were fully funded by the company.

But when I tried explaining, I could instantly see he thought I was lying. It was obvious he saw me as a “union boss” who was attempting to screw over his old man, and that realization—that I was viewed as some sleazeball looking to steal money from working people—almost made me ill. But the more I explained, the less he believed.

The conversation ended badly. This earnest but confused son angrily promised that he’d be “contacting a lawyer,” and walked away. Thank you, Teamsters of old. You not only did irreparable damage to your own union, you fucked it up for the rest of us.

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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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