Saturday, August 13, 2005

Labor Politics

“Billy Jones passed away - a sudden heart attack, They took him to the hospital, but they didn't bring him back. A good strong union brother, who fought to help the meek And a very strong supporter of the thirty-five hour week. He stood at Heaven's Pearly Gates, he rang the tiny bell. Saint Peter looked out with a frown and said, ‘You can go to Hell; We don't need any union troubles or any union strife; I'm sorry but you'll have to pay for the things you've done in life!’”

“But Billy would have none of this, ‘You must be joking mate! If you won't let me come inside, I'll picket at your gate: I've always been an honest man,’ his chest filled up with pride. ‘If you won't let me through those gates, then no-one gets inside.’ Just then another soul arrived, greeted Billy with a grin, ‘What seems to be the trouble mate, won't they let you in?’ He listened to Bill's story and said, ‘I'm with you mate; There ain't no way that anyone will pass through this hallowed gate!’”

From “The Picket Line” by Michael Fanning ©1985

As I said in my previous post, I believe in the value of collective bargaining. For the working man it can be one of the most powerful tools at his disposal. But, the problem I’ve seen is in the application of this power, or, to be more accurate, the failure of labor’s representatives to apply this power for the collective good.

What do I mean by that?

I’m not a big fan of Thomas Frank, but in the process of reading his book “One Market Under God,” I’ve come across some things he’s said with which I heartily concur. Especially telling, in my mind, was this:

“According to Business Week magazine, CEO compensation during the decade went from 85 times more than what average blue-collar employees received in 1990 to some four hundred and seventy five times what blue-collar workers received in 1999.”

“And these were average number, remember. Some chief executives did far better. In 1997, Jack Welch, the much revered CEO of General Electric, was paid some 1,400 times the average wage earned by his blue-collar workers in the U.S.”

I haven’t read far enough to see where he’s going with all of this, but having read some of his work, I think I can take a pretty safe guess. In the end he’ll probably advocate some form of socialism with some notable exemptions – left wing authors, union executive management, and so forth.

But even given that I take his point. There’s no way I can be convinced that Jack Welch’s labor, or the day to day labor of any corporate executive, is worth fourteen hundred times more than the labor of a lathe operator plant maintenance worker. If, for example, a lathe operator earned twenty dollars per hour for his labor, it would mean that Welch’s labor was worth twenty eight thousand dollars an hour! It would mean that on an average work day Mr. Blue-Collar would earn a hundred and sixty bucks while Jack Welch or some other executive would earn close to a quarter of a million dollars!

Now I’m sure that Jack Welch’s defenders can cite reasons why this wage disparity is fair. People have defended stranger notions, and have done so based on some sort of logic. But, my point here is not to rail against the evils of capitalism. Frank and others do that quite well, and profit handsomely from doing so. My interest is, and has been, in looking at organized labor from the inside out and to find out how union leadership allowed this to happen and how the union movement in America has come upon such hard times.

There are reasons for this fall, and some of them have to do with the way in which labor has exercised power, especially since the sixties.

My experience in this area came from 1972 to 1975. I’d left my position with a large interstate trucking company to attend school. In seeking employment that would best suit my long term goals, I found a position with a company that produced flexible packaging for food, medical equipment, and so forth. My job as a machine operator was just about perfect for me. It didn’t pay a Jack Welch type salary, but I found that nine dollars an hour, combined with an academic scholarship and my GI Bill benefit, took care of my family’s needs. The great benefit to the job was that I didn’t have to take the office home with me at the end of the work day. All I had to do was to operate a machine (a slitter) and meet some very liberal standards of productivity. This left me free to put the bulk of my energy into getting an education. It was an ideal situation.

After thirty days on the job I became a member of the Printing and Photographic Specialties Union, which was part of the AFL-CIO. I was given, and read, a book of work rules, agreed to them, and set my sights on two things – supporting my family and getting a good education.

The relationship seemed to be going quite well for the first couple of years. I worked on a night shift from four in the evening till two o’clock the next morning and also worked an eight hour Saturday shift. While the schedule was difficult it left me with my days free to attend class and do my out of class work. Whatever difficulty the combined workloads meant in the short run, I reasoned, would be worth it in the long run.

Then, in late 1973 and early 1974, two things converged that were to give me an insider’s view of union politics. That view, to this day, stands out to me as the primary reason labor unions have failed their constituents.

The first great event was the expiration of the contract with our employer. Negotiations were beginning in earnest. As a member of the union I took the issue seriously. I’d been working as a machine operator for close to two years and had come to know men who had been working in the plant much longer than I. Many of them were close to retirement and the critical thing to them was negotiating for decent pension and health benefits. The more I listened to what they had to say, the more I came to believe that they were right. The negotiations needed to center on their need. They’d worked hard for many years and now, in the twilight of their working lives, they needed something to show for all their labor. Unfortunately, I came to see that their view, and mine, was a decided minority.

The bulk of the plant workers were young and their interest was in hourly pay. They were healthy and benefits to be accrued in the future were not nearly as important to them as a pay increase. A mantra began to circulate around the union ranks. “Two dollars more an hour or we’re gonna’ hit the bricks.” It was catchy and popular. But I believed it was short-sighted. As often as I could I would make the case for the older workers. It wasn’t that I didn’t support the idea of a pay increase for all of us, but I believed that we needed to present management with a package that would, when agreed upon, ensure that those who had worked hard and long had stable incomes and reliable benefits when they retired.

At the same time the negotiations with the company were going on the country was in the depths of a constitutional crisis. Day after day new revelations about Richard Nixon and his “band of brothers” were descending. The impeachment movement was gathering steam and I supported it. As far as I was concerned the Congress needed to throw the book at Nixon for what he was doing. While the evidence available at the time couldn’t quite prove that he was a crook, I knew that in time it would. I expressed my feelings during coffee or lunch breaks at work and was surprised to find that not everyone shared my feelings. About four out of ten felt that the impeachment movement needed to be stopped so that the country could concentrate on more important things. For the guys in the plant it meant the on-going contract negotiations with the company.

It was during this time that the AFL-CIO met in Miami and drafted a statement about Watergate. The draft was circulated to rank and file and when I read it I was surprised. The document concluded that the AFL-CIO, with a membership in the millions, supported the impeachment of Richard Nixon. I didn’t bother me that the union executives who drew up the draft felt that Richard Nixon should be impeached. I supported their position. But I was really bothered that they believed they should, or could, express the political opinions of millions of union members.

I thought about it for a while and wrote a letter to George Meany, expressing my belief that the union’s role was to act as a labor bargaining agent on behalf of its members, but that it had no right to act as labor’s political advisor. That right, the individual’s right to freedom of conscience, was something the union had no right to speak for.

I didn’t really believe that the letter would even make it close to George Meany. I figured that it would find its way into some business agent’s trash can and that would be the end of it. I was only half right.

About a month after I sent the letter our local held a meeting at the plant. The expressed purpose of the meeting was to go over our final inclusions into the contract negotiations. During the meeting I told the leadership that I still believed we needed to concentrate the bulk of our effort on obtaining marked improvements in the pension and health benefits plans. My proposal didn’t get far. The mantra still applied – “Two dollars more an hour or we’re gonna’ hit the bricks.” The meeting ended and while I was disappointed in the outcome I felt I’d done all I could. I was about to leave when I was stopped by someone who said that the union steward and one of the business agents wanted to talk to me. “What about?” I asked. “I dunno’,” he said.

It only took a few minutes to find out what they needed. The steward, who I’d known as long as I’d been working there, introduced me to the business agent. As soon as the introductions were made, the business agent pointed his finger at me and said, “Don’t you send no more of them letters to Mr. Meany.”

I don’t know how the business agent got the letter, but I got the point of what he was telling me. The AFL-CIO had determined that it was the political advisor to its membership and I needed to understand that.

In the end Richard Nixon was impeached and resigned in disgrace. The contract negotiations went on for while and finally ended with an agreement with the company. We settled for fifty cents an hour for the first year of the contract and twenty-five cents an hour for each of the last two years of the contract’s life. There were no enhancements to the pension plan.

That experience so long ago taught me the same lesson that Andy Stern and James Hoffa learned from the nineties. The AFL-CIO and the labor movement had become a political entity and had strayed from seeking the benefits its members had elected them to secure. They’d been elected to serve. Once elected, though, the primary interest they served was gaining political power.

While this was going on within the labor movement, some within management were becoming enlightened. They, more than union leadership, saw the need for policies that would benefit labor and began moving corporations in the right direction.

That story will come Monday in the final part of this series.


Gone Away said...

I think you have put your finger on the core of the problem. I saw the same thing happening in Britain.

Douglas said...

In his comedy album, "Richard Nixon: A Fantasy," David Frye was describing Nixon's execution and saying "The scalpers are going like crazy! George Meany went for $1500!" Funny the things people remember, ain't it?

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Allan said...

All I remember from that album Doug, is the doctor attending the birth of Nixon. On leaving the room (he was born at home) the doctor said, "I don't know what it is, but I just don't trust that baby."