Adventures in Unionism

One of the more compelling reasons for belonging to a labor union (besides the wages, benefits, etc.) is the job security it offers. The following account of a woman — whom I’ll call “Gloria” — employed at Kimberly-Clark’s Fullerton paper mill illustrates just how important that job protection can be.

Gloria worked as a multi-folder console operator in the Folded Products department. Her job was to keep the machine loaded with KDFs (knocked-down-flat cartons), into which an endless stream of freshly made Kleenex was being stuffed at the rate of 300 cpm (clips per minute). Gloria worked non-stop, loading the machine with one 20-pound box of KDFs after another, lifting them off pallets supplied by a forklift driver.

When things were going smoothly, the spectacle of 300 shiny, pristine boxes of Kleenex being kicked out every minute or so was impressive. In fact, visitors who regularly toured the facility found high-speed packaging to be absolutely mind-boggling. But when things were going badly — when the synchronization was slightly off, or the clips of Kleenex were a bit too bulky — it was hellish.

By the time someone figured out that it was ergonomically unsound to have the console operator bend down hundreds of times a shift to lift cartons from the last two or three layers of the pallet, it was already too late for Gloria. The damage had been done. She had worked the console for years, had lifted, literally, tens of thousands of these 20-pound boxes, and had paid the price.

Indeed, by the time the company installed a pneumatic pallet-lifter, a device that constantly kept each layer of cartons at shoulder level, allowing the console operator to more or less swoop them off the pallet rather than lift them from floor-level, Gloria was in pretty bad shape. In truth, she was a mess. According to her doctor, her back, shoulders and elbows had “broken down” from all the lifting.

So far, it’s a standard industrial union story. Before the ergonomic revolution of the late seventies and early eighties — when safety concerns became prominent and manual labor began to be supplanted by automation — factory workers regularly took a beating. Even when the work wasn’t intrinsically unsafe, it was arduous. After a standard 8-hour shift, you were fatigued; after working a twelve or a double-shift, you went home whipped.

Oddly, there was little complaining. For one thing, everyone knew they were on the receiving end of good wages and benefits, and no one wanted to rock the boat. For another, they knew they were there by choice. Even Local 672 officials reminded people that the job wasn’t for everyone, and that if they were unhappy doing what they were doing, they were free to leave. “This ain’t the army,” one of the shop stewards liked to say. “No one drafted you.”

During the period that Gloria was having her physical problems (she went out on two or three medical leaves), Kimberly-Clark hired a brand new supervisor, a young man just out of the University of Illinois, named Randy, whose father was a ranking executive in K-C’s corporate office.

Besides being a bit arrogant and bossy — and carrying the additional burden of everyone knowing that he’d gotten his job through daddy’s connections — Randy was very short. He might have been five-feet, five inches tall. Upon his arrival, one of the women casepackers instantly nicknamed him “Tit-High,” and, alas, the unfortunate nickname stuck.

Randy and I crossed paths (I was union president) not long after Gloria had returned to work from one of her medical leaves, only to realize, once again, that she wasn’t physically able to handle the job — even with the new pneumatic pallet-lifter in place. With all the physical punishment her body had taken, running the console was simply too much for her.

I still recall Randy’s precise words. Cornering me outside the operations office, he said, with an air of decisiveness and utter certitude that drove me up the wall, “I don’t think we have a job for Gloria at Kimberly-Clark.” Those were his exact words. What my exact words were, I don’t recall, but after our brief conversation, I headed straight for Human Resources loaded for bear.

What happened next was straight out of a Labor Relations textbook. Recognizing that Mr. Tit-High had not only misspoken but had managed to provoke the union, the HR rep apologized for the misunderstanding and promised that the Gloria matter would be handled judiciously and in due course. She assured me that no one would be jumping the gun.

Although no one ever confirmed it (the company very rarely shared internal stuff like that) it was obvious that they had taken Randy out behind the woodshed and pounded on him. Not only did he never again bring up the Gloria matter — not even casually — but from that moment on he seemed tentative, almost shell-shocked.

The episode had a happy ending. With the union acting as broker, Gloria, who’d always been a hard worker, was administratively frozen down to a lower job, one that she could physically perform. At 55 years old, with a mother and grown son to support (from what we’d heard, her kid was a deadbeat, unable to hold a job, and in and out of jail), Gloria didn’t want to be farmed out on a permanent medical. She needed to work.

But the important thing to take away from this isn’t that it had a happy ending. The important thing to take away is a question: What if this same set of circumstances — i.e., a timid, middle-aged woman, broken down by the physical demands of her job, falls prey to a young, aggressive management cat — had occurred in a non-union shop?

Even though K-C was a fair company, one wonders how they would have handled Gloria had there not been a union waiting in the wings — a union ready and willing to go to war to protect her rights. Obviously, Randy’s first impulse was to put this woman on the street, to get rid of her, and that was scary. But in a non-union shop, that’s very likely what would have happened.

Some will argue that even without a union, Gloria was entitled to contact the Labor Board and file an unlawful termination charge. That’s true. Even without a union (which would represent her for free), Gloria was entitled to pursue the matter on her own — to contact the local NLRB, maybe hire a lawyer, and plead her side of the case.

But Gloria’s chances of getting the Board to overturn her termination would have been slim. As a former union rep, I am very familiar with the NLRB. Not to pile on a beleaguered, well-meaning institution, but the Labor Board — even with Hilda Solis running the show—is overworked, understaffed, uninspired, and cynical.

We union officials used to joke that if the Justice Department’s symbol is a blindfolded woman holding a pair of scales, the Labor Board’s should be a picture of a snowball in Hell.

David Macaray is a playwright and author, whose latest book is How to Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows: Weird Adventures in India: Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims When the Peace Corps was New. Everything you ever wanted to know about India but were afraid to ask. He can be reached at: Read other articles by David.

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  1. Charlie said on September 18th, 2010 at 3:59am #

    Mr. Macaray, there is another side to stories such as Gloria’s.

    I worked at a large facility that had about 3000 union employees spread across 7 or 8 different unions. Almost with exception, the union workers were highly paid and uniformly lazy. For instance, the cost of painting the 4 bare walls in my 10 X 10 office by a union painter was $5,000 and took 3 weeks of on-again/off-again $150/hr labor. That works out to about $15/sq. ft of wall for labor but not materials. It also does not include the costs of the union worker who ordered the paint, the union worker who unloaded the paint, the union worker who moved the paint inside the building, and the union worker who cleaned up after the painter. Moving 3 cans of paint from the unloading dock to my office, for instance, (a distance of about 50 ft) was billed as a 4-hour job at $75/hr.

    These were taxpayer dollars, by the way.

    I once carried a small box of books from my office back to the company library. A union worker threatened to file a grievance against me for being non-union but performing a union task (moving).

    I wanted to hang a picture in my office but had to call the carpenter’s union to drive one nail into my wall (for about $100).

    There was a time when I was a staunch advocate of strong unions because I am quite aware of the heartlessness and arrogance that some corporations can inflict on employees who are unprotected by unions. However, over the past few decades, unions began to shoot themselves in the foot by shielding incompetent, lazy workers from responsibility and by demanding exorbitant increases in salaries, overtime, and benefits. They foolishly handed corporate execs the kind of PR ammunition needed to make unions look like safe harbors for shiftless do-nothings. The execs began to portray themselves as the victims rather than victimizers, and the unions had given them plenty of ammo for that idea.

    In short, many unions don’t distinguish between the Glorias of the world and the painter in my office. They wrongly believe that they have to protect goof-offs and nitwits to protect their Glorias.

    You have written other articles here about union employees. Typically, you portray a union worker as a long-suffering martyr, a good-hearted soul brutalized by a big bad boss but stoically pressing on. Your writing relies on cartoonish stock characters of the Little Nell or Oliver Twist variety but without the talent of a Dickens to make them sympathetic. (I fully expected Gloria to ask for more porridge as Fagin enters stage left, possibly with a cape drawn up to his shifty eyes.) What best makes a character sympathetic, however, is an unadorned portrayal of his or her humanity recreated truthfully, not distractingly cluttered with the sentimentality of romantic melodrama.

    I think your heart is in the right place and I applaud you for speaking up for the workers who too often have no voice and no shield from the sometimes capricious and cruel actions of employers. But I would suggest that you take a more realistic view of all workers, both union and non-union. Not all employers are evil and not all union workers are victims.