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Real-Life Politics, Union Style

Years ago, when I was president of a fairly militant labor union that represented 700 industrial workers at a Fortune 500 facility, our Executive Board was faced with a classic dilemma: Whether to do what we clearly recognized as the “right” thing, or to open ourselves to charges of cynicism and hypocrisy by doing the “political” thing.

The facts: A very talented journeyman electrician, who’d been employed for 14 years, and to whom I will assign the Biblical name “Jeremiah,” had been discharged for “stealing money” from the company. He did it via time-card falsification.

On a Sunday morning—with only a skeleton crew scheduled to work—he sneaked out, went to a nearby bar, became inebriated, sneaked back in four hours later, and then filed out with everyone else at quitting time. On his time card, in the space marked “hours of work,” he wrote “8 hours.” Once he attached his signature to this document, it became theft.

While his exit was relatively smooth—two security guards (“professional snitches” in the eyes of the union) saw him leave but, not knowing what his business was outside the facility or how long he’d be gone, made no attempt to stop him—his return was clumsy and self-incriminating.

Not only was his absence noticed by men on the crew, but according to witnesses who later came forward, he appeared conspicuously drunk when he showed up. But worst of all, the two guards who watched him leave, were the same two who saw him sneak back in. Accordingly, the following morning, they reported it to management.

When confronted by his boss, Jeremiah blew his one glorious chance of coming out of this thing with minimum damage. After hearing the guards’ report, his boss, a born-again Christian and former maintenance man himself, generously gave Jeremiah an opportunity to fix it. All he had to do was admit that he’d forgotten to note on his timecard that he had left the premises.

Of course, walking off the job without permission was a serious offence, one he would have to answer for. Still, it was an infraction that would likely have resulted in a 7-day suspension rather than termination. But leaving work without permission, being gone for half a shift, lying about it, and then trying to get paid for the time missed was a whole other deal.

The boss very deliberately asked Jeremiah if his timecard was accurate. Indeed, he practically begged him to say that he had made an error. Apparently, Jeremiah thought he could bluff his way out of this thing because after carefully examining the timecard, he stated that all the information was correct.

Which left the boss with no choice but to begin disciplinary proceedings. Once confronted with the accusations and formidable evidence—the guards’ testimony, surveillance cameras showing him leaving—Jeremiah made the egregious error of changing his story several times in the span of 30 minutes, which more or less sealed his fate.

First, he denied leaving. Then he accused the guards of lying. Then he admitted leaving but insisted he was gone only a few minutes. Then he said he had tended to an emergency at his home that was “too personal” to discuss.” And then he finally confessed to being at the bar but swore he was there only to play pool, and that he hadn’t consumed any alcohol.

So the company fired him. As was standard procedure when anyone was suspended or fired, the union automatically filed a grievance, mainly to insure due process. And after a grievance had navigated its way through all the in-house steps, the Executive Board could either drop it, or send it to arbitration.

What made this case even more gruesome was that, unbeknownst to the union, Jeremiah had been caught doing the same thing twice before. Why hadn’t the boss fired him on those occasions? We later learned there were three reasons: (1) The boss was too lazy to take on the paperwork of a termination; (2) he didn’t want to lose a talented electrician; and (3) he didn’t want to see a family man get fired.

As inexperienced as our E-Board was, we were nonetheless a clannish, self-righteous group, which is to say we saw ourselves as more idealistic than a typical union (whatever “typical” was).

Even though vandalism, fighting, horseplay, chronic absenteeism, DOJ (drunk on the job), etc., were serious offenses, we were more tolerant of them than we were of theft. We abhorred theft because when a union member was caught stealing (which was rare), it made us all look like thieves.

Therefore, we were ready to drop the grievance. While we would gladly represent any member charged with theft—examine the evidence, and file a grievance arguing that the termination be reduced to a suspension—the overriding “ethical principle” to which we adhered required that we not bleed for a thief.

But bleed we did. After much argument and heartburn, we concluded that support of the Maintenance Department was too vital to risk. Not that the Maintenance guys would have mutinied, but Local leadership still had much to prove to them. Though Maintenance was a large and influential department, there were no Maintenance men on the 9-person E-Board. The two mechanics who had run for election had both lost. They felt unrepresented.

By a margin of 6-3, with me leading the charge, we voted to send this shoddy grievance to arbitration. Essentially, the “political” had triumphed over the “principled.” To their credit, Maintenance saw the move for what it was—that despite their tribe not being represented on the Board, we were willing to go to the extra mile for them.

It was not altogether smooth. Some of our members went ape-shit when they realized we were “defending” a common thief, and others—the more fiscally minded—complained about wasting $2,500 in union dues on an arbitration that had no chance of winning. They weren’t wrong. We were crushed in the arbitration hearing.

Additionally, I was personally accused of “selling out,” and being a “politician.” Surprisingly, being labeled a “politician” not only didn’t bother me, it pleased me. Somehow, it made me feel like a grown-up. If sacrificing a valued but rigid principle for the sake of the greater good made me a sell-out, then so be it.

In 2010, Congressman Barney Frank noted that the “most principled” group in the U.S.—those who were the most unwilling to compromise, the most unwilling to bend, the most unwilling to back off, the most unwilling to do anything that might sully the purity of the Right Thing—were members of the Tea Party. Politics is nothing if not compromise.

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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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