Organized Labor and the Big Con

When the axe came into the woods, many of the trees said, “At least the handle is one of us.”

— Turkish proverb

It’s not uncommon for union guys to express regret at not having been around in the bad old days — when labor activists regularly mixed it up with company goon squads, when Pinkertons armed with clubs whaled away on picket lines, cracking heads and causing havoc, when industrial riots, mass arrests and blood on the streets made all the front pages.

Mind you, no one misses the violence or the chaos.  What they miss is the clarity.

Organized labor’s biggest gains were made back when there was no doubt about which side you were on:  the workers’ or the owners’.  As soon as management made it clear they were refusing labor’s request for a larger slice of the pie — in the form of profit-sharing or decent wages and benefits — the lines were drawn; and it was across these clearly delineated boundaries that the battles, both figuratively and literally, were fought.

Then, roughly 30 years ago, everything changed.  Following Ronald Reagan’s firing of the Air Traffic Controllers, management announced that organized labor would no longer be regarded as an adversary, and requested that America’s unions do likewise — that they ennoble themselves by embracing management as their partner, not their foe.

And ever since that absurd proposal, working people have been on a downward spiral.

Indeed, as the middle-class continues to sink, the rich continue to edge toward the stratosphere.  In 1980, the CEOs of the country’s largest companies earned an average of 42 times as much as the average worker.  By 2001, they were making 531 times as much. From 1980 to 2005, more than four-fifths of the total increase in family income went to the richest 1 percent.

As president of a union I experienced this New Culture firsthand, in the early 1990s, when the company approached the union’s Executive Board with a startling proposition.  They asked that a group of union officers (whom they would appoint) assist in the hiring process by sitting in on their job interviews.

Because nothing like this had ever been offered before, we were suspicious.  We asked the HR manager why they wanted our help. “Because these new folks will be working with you guys, not us,” she answered.  “Doesn’t it make sense that you have a say in who gets hired?”  But that’s always been the case — why invite us in now?  “Because the world has changed,” she smiled. “Those adversarial days are behind us.”  As stunned as we were, her observation wasn’t totally wrong.  It did sort of make sense.

Admittedly, over the years the union had rolled its eyes in disbelief at some of the people the company had hired, and had marveled at some of the stories and assertions they’d apparently swallowed during the interview process.  We were a tough audience; behavior that impressed management didn’t necessarily impress us.  Often, where they saw a clear, open road, we saw danger signs.

In truth, while we never in our wildest dreams imagined being given a chance to put it into practice, we always assumed we could do a better job of hiring union workers than the seminar crowd could.  Maybe we were fooling ourselves, but we honestly believed we could smell a stinker a mile away.

So we decided to take the plunge … but on our terms.  We began by reconfirming the company’s premise.  Did they agree that we had more insight into the psyches of working men and women than they did?  Yes.  And when it came to interviewing these people, did they agree that we probably had the better bullshit detectors?  Yes.

And because they were the petitioning party, we felt we had some leverage.  First, even though we understood their concerns, we insisted that it be the union, not the company, who chose who attended.  They balked at first, but once we convinced them we wouldn’t be bringing in any Mau-Mau or anti-social types (why would we?), they agreed.

But our second demand turned out to be a deal breaker.  Remembering Douglas Fraser, the former president of the UAW who, in 1980, was named a token member of Chrysler’s Board of Directors, we told them that we wanted to be more than a hood ornament; we wanted to be the engine.  We wanted the final say on who got hired.

It wasn’t as radical as it sounded.  We weren’t looking to overthrow the regime or seize power.  This was still going to be entirely their show.  While they would do all the necessary vetting — checking backgrounds, confirming employment records, conducting preliminary interviews — once they were satisfied and prepared to offer them jobs, the candidates would be turned over to the union, and we would conduct our own interviews.

The company balked.  They wanted to know exactly what kind of interviews we had in mind.  All we could promise was that we wouldn’t ask anything illegal or grossly offensive, and that our sole aim would be to learn all we could about these applicants — what kind of relief they’d make, how they’d handle the stress of high-speed equipment, how agreeable they’d be, how diligent, how reliable, how trustworthy, etc.

We were confident that our knowledge of the environment, our style, our humor, the questions and scenarios we posed — all of it — would induce these applicants to drop their guard and allow us to pierce their defenses, especially once it was clear that there were no management people in the room to intimidate them.

Alas, this is where it all came to a screeching halt.  Which was unfortunate because some of us were excited at the prospect of putting such an experimental program to work.  While the company insisted they would “consider” our input, they refused to let us make the final call (to give us “veto power,” as they put it).  They reminded us that hiring employees was their job, not ours, and that wasn’t going to change any time soon.

Some of the E-Board’s more skeptical members had been opposed to the idea from the beginning.  They suspected that the company’s real aim was more symbolic (a la the UAW’s Doug Fraser) than practical, that they were more interested in showcasing their “New Culture” relationship with the union than in actually doing something innovative.

We declined their offer.

Understandably, the company was bitterly disappointed.  They accused the union of being “close-minded,” “stubborn” and “irrational,” and we accused them of being gutless swine.  Apparently, all it took for both sides to flee the New Culture and engage in the mutual recriminations so reminiscent of the pre-Reagan era was an old-fashioned labor-management dispute.

Following my early departure from the facility in 1999 (foolishly believing I could make a commensurate living as a playwright), I learned that the Local had agreed to serve as a “partner” in the hiring process, albeit in a very limited role.

Since the partnership the company has hired many average workers, some good workers, a few heroic workers, and some really crappy workers…just as they always had.  Which raises the question:  How would it have played out had the union been given the reins?

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. MylesH said on November 12th, 2010 at 4:03pm #

    It’s a shame how organized labor has gone from fighters to beggars. As an activist in teachers’ unions, I see how our leadership has actively worked against the very interest of the teachers and even the profession. As horrible as the ‘Superman’ syndrome is in our career, the unions should be there to stand up tall to them and not beg for crumbs, giving the public a sense that it’s only purpose is to grovel for acceptance.

  2. GLebowski said on November 12th, 2010 at 8:23pm #

    In my view, this entire scenario is —as is pointed out in the article— a child of the late 70s/early 80s. The notion behind the cooptation of union leadership into being management Twins is the “win-win” notion — a direct product of Werner Erhardt’s ‘est’ and, later, Landmark Forum. It’s the kind of thinking that comes out of that whole worldview, and the attitude that “anything can be accomplished if you think positive(ly)”. This worldview brainwashes you into thinking that adversaries are not adversaries! Well, you can massage your vocabulary all you want, but there is and always will be under our present legacy and condition of work/pay/livelihood the unalterable condition that the employer (no matter if a company or your personal client) is indeed in an adversarial role *all* the time, *every* time.