Thursday, August 11, 2005

Union Sundown?

“Well, the job that you used to have,
They gave it to somebody down in El Salvador.
The unions are big business, friend,
And they’re goin’ out like a dinosaur.
They used to grow food in Kansas
Now they want to grow it on the moon and eat it raw.
I can see the day coming when even your home garden
Is gonna’ be against the law.”

“Well, it’s sundown on the union
And what’s made in the U.S.A.
Sure was a good idea
“Til greed got in the way.”

- From “Union Sundown” by Bob Dylan (1983)

For those who been reading and commenting on the autobiographical posts I’ve been writing for the past couple of weeks I want to say thanks for your encouragement. There will be more. I’m in the process of getting as much of my story ready to present to a couple of editors and publishers who will be at a writer’s conference Nancy and I are attending in October. If all goes well I could have the project completed around Christmastime. If so, I hope to use my blog as a platform to market my literary journey. We’ll see.

At the same time I’m working on that project I intend to post occasional topical essays.

Within the past couple of weeks there has been a serious rift within the labor movement. The Service Employees and Teamsters unions withdrew from the AFL-CIO in protest over what dissident leaders viewed as tactical errors that the AFL-CIO has made in the last ten years or so.

This is what James Hoffa of the Teamsters had to say about the split:

“What John Sweeney has been doing has not been working and it's time to try something new," said Hoffa, general president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.”

“We have been disappointed over the last 10 years that we have seen a decline in membership," he said, referring to Sweeney's decade-long tenure as president.”

Though the union suggested “a number of changes,” including a $5 million rebate to help the Teamsters reorganize in their core industries, “they said no,” Hoffa said. “Their idea is to keep throwing money at politicians.”

There’s no doubt that this split is going to hurt the labor movement. Syndicated columnist Mark Shields had this to say about its devastating effect:

“With just 8 percent of private-sector workers now belonging to organized labor, the exit of two of the biggest unions -- with a handful of others expected to follow -- could qualify as the organizational equivalent of a civil war in the leper colony.”

The statistic cited by Shields came from a Bureau of Labor Statistics study released in January of this year. The eight percent number is even more alarming when you consider the fact that it is about “half of what it was in 1983.” With the total number of union members for the year the Bureau reported at about fifteen million, it is clear that the labor unions are hemorrhaging jobs by the millions.

About the only glimmer of current hope in the numbers came from the public sector, where 36% of workers in that area were union members.

The crux of the battle being waged within the labor movement, as demonstrated by this split in the AFL-CIO, is both tactical and strategic. For years now unions have poured enormous amounts of money into politics, with the overwhelming dollar flow going to the Democratic Party, its candidates, and to “get out the vote” efforts in support of those candidates. That strategy has been, according to James Hoffa of the Teamsters and Andy Stern of the Service Employees International, an abysmal failure. They have split from their mother ship so that they can employ what they believe is a more tried and true labor tactic – funding and supporting grass roots organizational efforts that will increase their dwindling ranks.

In addition to the tactical and strategic issues that led to the rift in the AFL-CIO, pundits are citing globalization as the major contributor to labor’s losses here in America. Jobs, they say, are being shipped overseas, where labor is a cheap commodity that American workers simply cannot compete with.

There’s more than a grain of truth in what the pundits are saying.

I’m no expert on the reasons for the decline in union membership. First of all, I’m retired, happily displaced from the labor pool, and even when I was in the ranks of working people I was only a worker bee, not an expert. Second, the issue all seems complex and mysterious as I hear one “expert” after another expound on some theory for why it’s all happening. I listen to them and find it hard to make sense of it all. Their convoluted talk reminds me of what Harry Truman said about economists. Once, when asked about what he knew about them, he wisely responded, “I know you could lay ten of ‘em on the floor end to end and you wouldn’t come up with a straight line.”

But I do feel quite comfortable in taking a few educated. layman’s guesses, based on my forty years of productive labor in the private sector. I’ll use three examples from that body of experience to illustrate.

First, I worked in the trucking business for about sixteen years. They were the years sandwiched between my eight and a half years in the Air Force and my sixteen years with FedEx, the company from which I retired close to two years ago. There are lots of examples I could cite from those post Air Force years, but the one that best illustrates one of the problems I see with labor happened in the late seventies. I’d taken a position with a trucking company which had relocated its corporate headquarters to the Kansas City area, where I was living at the time. My responsibility was for the eastern region operations, which encompassed an area from Ohio to New England. Like most trucking companies we competed with there were freight imbalances. For my region it meant that we had more freight moving out of New England than we had moving in. That, in turn, meant that in order to get the freight moved we had to frequently deadhead (run an empty trailer) from our closest terminal to Boston, which was in Buffalo, New York. In addition to the 450 empty miles incurred, the company had to pay a driver, his motel and meal costs, to pick up the load of freight waiting in Boston. It made it all a very costly venture.

The freight imbalance was so marked that we often ran three or four deadheads a night in order to get all the freight. Making that situation worse was a parallel problem we were having with meat haulers arriving in Boston from Sioux City, Iowa on a daily basis. There were usually three or four of them. They would empty their loads of beef, check in, only to find there was no load for them to backhaul. This was compounded even further by the fact that the dry freight drivers from Buffalo were members of one union and the meat haulers belonged to another. It had become a sort of inter-Nicene corporate conflict, with two “brotherhoods” competing for freight and work. It was a very complex situation.

For some time the company had adopted the position that we would deadhead the dry freight drivers from Buffalo to Boston, despite the fact that we had drivers from the meat haulers division of the company in Boston already. The union had taken the position that the “dry freight” belonged to the men in Buffalo and the company, rather than negotiate/fight the issue acceded to the union. What did this mean for the meat haulers? It meant that they went back to Sioux City with empty trailers, despite the fact that the Boston terminal loaded three or four trailers a day that went to Des Moines, Iowa and points west of Des Moines.

It was all, in a business sense, an existential nightmare. Sartre or Camus couldn’t have written a more senseless script for the operations.

The company was, of course, losing money. Our operating ratio, based on 1 being break even, was operating at 1.11. In other words, for every dollar in revenue received, we were spending a dollar and eleven cents. That, ladies and gentlemen, was an unprofitable venture.

The company kept trying to live with this arrangement, but recognized that it was not healthy and that it could not be sustained. Things finally came to a head when the company met with the union in Buffalo. I was present at the negotiations. My job was to plead the company’s case that there was a need for the meat haulers to move some of the dry freight from Boston. We realized that it was going to mean that fewer dry freight drivers were going to be moving from Buffalo. Our position was that the company needed to find some avenue of compromise that would satisfy both parties. Nothing worked. The business agents said that the dry freight in Boston belonged to the Buffalo local. In a fit of creativity I displayed a box of freight that had been moved from Boston to Buffalo. It was destined to a small company somewhere west of Des Moines. “Guys,” I pleaded, “This box of freight doesn’t belong to me or you. It belongs to a customer of ours who wants it moved as efficiently and as inexpensively as we can possibly do it.” It didn’t work. The drivers and their agents insisted – “The freight is ours.”

After two days a compromise, if you can call it that, was reached. The meat haulers would get some of the freight out of Boston. In return, the company would call the local terminal in Buffalo and instruct management there to call a driver to let him know that he was being paid for a trip from Buffalo to Boston, but that he was to remain at home in Buffalo. The rationale was that, given a terrible circumstance, the company was at least going to save wear and tear on the equipment that we didn’t have to move empty from Buffalo. The compromise created a very strange business reality. The best option that the company good get the union to agree to was to pay someone for doing nothing at all. Had they been at the bargaining table, Sartre and Camus would have been proud indeed.

For a period of time the drivers I communicated with let me know almost daily what fools I, and the company, had been to think that we could take work away from them. They believed they had won the battle.

About two months after their “victory,” on a Wednesday morning, executive management sent a terse two or three line memorandum to all the employees in Buffalo, letting them know that as of Friday all operations in and out of Buffalo would be permanently suspended. The terminal was closing and all its employees, office, over-the-road, and management were going to be out of jobs. I got calls from two or three drivers who said what I’m sure all the drivers in Buffalo were thinking. “They can’t do this to us,” they said. I told them that “they” had. “What am I going to do?” they asked. I told them that I would provide the best references that I possibly could or that there might be a possibility that they could displace a fellow Teamster working somewhere else within the company. They expressed their anger and, to be honest with you, I shared it. We were just angry, from different points of view. The drivers felt they had been robbed of something that was theirs. I felt that, in refusing to compromise, they had cost not only themselves, but also twenty or thirty other employees. They railed against the evils of capitalism and I tried, as best I could, to bring them back to the reality of their situation.

I want to be clearly understood. I’m a firm believer in the labor movement and a firm believer in the right of collective bargaining. But, I’m also a firm believer in the idea that collective bargaining must be a reasoned right. My experience in that situation in Buffalo demonstrated to me the awful things that can happen when one party in a negotiation, whether it be labor or management, refuses to bargain in good faith. The marketplace does not look kindly on bad faith, and the result is all too often that more are hurt in the fallout produced by those staunchly clinging, either because of pride or power-lust, to their bargaining position than would have if avenues of compromise had been pursued.

There’s more to be told, but I’ve gone on for close to two thousand words now. It’s time finish up for the day. Tomorrow I’ll recount some my experience as a member of the AFL-CIO from 1972 to 1975 to support the contention that James Hoffa and Andy Stern put forth when they declared their unions were withdrawing from the AFL-CIO. Political power, as I shall write about, has been more toxic than beneficial to the labor movement.

Reason number two will be on the presses tomorrow.


James Fletcher Baxter said...

Santa Maria (CA) Times
3/9/03 Published 3/10/03

My 30-year service as a public school teacher began in 1957. In 1970, the Los Angeles teachers' union, UTLA, called a strike. Their attempt to close the schools met failure in view of the largely professional viewpoint of a great majority of the L.A. teachers at the time.

Through the following years, the several teachers' organizations continued to represent their members
before the school board on a proportional basis of membership as the Winton Act required. The union
continued an ongoing drumbeat to the teachers that they would have "more clout" if they would join the union. They had minor success.

By the late 1970's, State Senator Rhodda authored a bill before the Senate and Assembly that would
require all teachers in every public school district to choose a single teachers' organization to represent them. It worked! The majority of teachers had accepted the union ploy of "clout." The union won and the
voice of the professional teacher was silenced - without further representation. California public
schools went from No. 1 to No. 50, as statewide the story was repeated.

Nation-wide,the NEA and AFT
prevailed. As predicted, public school education went into the toilet.

Since the first priority of any union is the benefit of the union and its members, the students were given a backseat.

Today, the public-sector blockage of education reform (Koret Foundation) continues by the unions: private- sector organizations.

Ignoring the cause, politicians, parents, and teachers today do not have a clue as to a solution. The worker-mentality and lack of professional identity and values
grinds on while the children of each succeeding generation suffer ongoing classic mediocrity.

Parents who care will have to lead. Meanwhile, private, parochial, and home-schooling, are the only reliable 'student first' educational institutions available.

Unions in the public sector? The evidence is in: Guilty! OUT!

Gone Away said...

This sounds so familiar. I was employed within the British car industry in the late seventies and early eighties and I watched it commit suicide by union.

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Kn@ppster said...

Great post.

As a libertarian and a union man (former UFCW worker and steward, IWW now), my critique of the situation kind of naturally focuses on the role of the state -- depending on who's in office, the labor laws become tools for affecting the balance of bargaining power, allowing one side to be intransigent and get what it wants no matter the expense to the other party.

It all has to come out in the wash eventually, though, as your experience demonstrates quite well.