Not Every Labor Union Is Equal

In the late 1990s, the Human Resource rep at the paper mill where I used to work called me at home (I was the union president) and said she had something very serious to discuss.  When I asked for a hint as to what the problem was, so I wouldn’t be blind-sided, she demurred.  She said this was something she “wasn’t comfortable” discussing over the phone.  That alarmed me.

When I arrived, she told me that someone in the mill had stolen coupons out of several bags of Huggies disposable diapers.  What made it a serious offense (not that all incidences of theft weren’t “serious”) was that these Huggies were part of a new product line not scheduled to be introduced in the U.S. for another week.  They had been produced at another facility and shipped to our warehouse, awaiting launch of the national roll-out.

The HR rep and I had a decent relationship.  Although she viewed me as something of a radical (a decade earlier I’d shut the mill down on a 57-day strike), she saw me more or less as a truth-teller.  So she asked me point-blank if I knew anything about the theft.  This is where it got a bit complicated.  To make a long story short, because the mill was a sieve when it came to this sort of thing, I’d already heard a rumor that a woman I’ll call “Linda” had stolen the coupons.

Although theft was universally shunned by the crews, and Linda was, for a multitude of reasons, generally regarded as a “low-class” person, it wasn’t my job to act as union informer or security guard.  Irony of ironies, over the years, several security guards had been fired for theft (but that’s a story for another time).

Given what a sieve the mill was, her next comment shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did.  “We heard it was Linda X who did it,” she said.  “I know you guys have this thing about [air quotes] ‘snitching,’ but I can’t understand why you wouldn’t want to get rid of someone like this.”  I told her if she knew who did it, then by all means, they should follow up. And that was that.  I was a union man, not a company spy

But without an eye-witness coming forward or physical evidence implicating her, there was no way in hell Linda was going to get nailed for this.  Accordingly, the matter was dropped.  As angry and frustrated as they were, all the company could do was move the Huggies from the general warehouse to a more secure location.

However, the theft raised some provocative questions.  At the next Executive Board meeting a group of us discussed the ethical differences between “whistle-blowing” and “snitching.”  At that meeting we also learned that there had, indeed, been an eye-witness to the theft, and that it was he (a swing-shift forklift driver) who spawned the rumor.

My other reason for not ratting out Linda was simple compassion.  I knew the woman personally.  I knew her problems.  She wasn’t young; she was a grandmother whose daughter, the mother of Linda’s grandchildren, was a mess, a reckless single mother and a drug addict.  Her life was chaos.  The last thing Grandma Linda needed at this point in her life was to lose her well-paying job over a handful of pilfered coupons.

Which brings us to policemen and police unions.  This is where our E-Board parted company with the hope-to-die adherents of union “solidarity.”  The majority of us (it wasn’t unanimous) agreed that if we were cops, we’d “whistle-blow” every time we saw a fellow cop do anything unworthy of the profession—stealing money, planting evidence, beating a suspect, etc.

Union “brotherhood” aside, we’d blow the whistle on every dirty cop we saw, no exceptions.  We’d become well-oiled snitching machines.  Why?  Because when you carry a badge and a gun, and, literally, have the power of life and death, you need to be held to a higher standard than a pipe-fitter.  A policeman’s role transcends unionism.

Indeed, a union that knowingly protects sadistic cops is no better than one that knowingly protects child-molesting teachers.  Cops aren’t factory workers; they aren’t accountants or clerks or book editors.  There’s a qualitative and civil difference between policemen and other professions.

There’s also a profound difference between a union “representing” a member who’s been accused of something heinous, and a union knowingly “protecting” a guilty member.  Every union rep in America recognizes the difference.  And if you want to sanctimoniously pretend you can’t see that distinction, then shame on you.

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author (It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor), was a former union rep. He can be reached at: dmacaray@earthlink.net. Read other articles by David.