He was at his desk when I walked into the office. It was August 1973 and I did not realize it at the time this was to be the first day of my career for the next 30 years.
Big Al was on the phone. When he saw me come in he covered the mouth piece and yelled, Hey, Johns-stone, come in here! He was to call me that for the next three years.
I stood awkwardly as he lit a cigarette and finished his call. His cowboy boots thumped heavy as he swung his feet on to the battered desktop. Taking a long drag on his cigarette, he asked, So you want to be a Union Rep?
Well, yeah, I answered . He took another deep drag and exhaled long and slow. What are ya nuts or something? So began my many years and many unique experiences as a Union Representative. A job at times of extraordinary satisfaction, occasional accomplishment often followed by long periods of frustration and melancholy. Once even leading me to total job burn out.
Over the years I worked for five unions. I held more titles than anyone I know I quit and returned to one union 6 times. A record standing to this day!
I grew to love my job with the Retail Clerks Union, Local 240. I got up each morning with optimistic anticipation. I worked long hours and became a workaholic and I loved it!
We had successes. Shortly after going to work, the local ran a highly visible strike against a major national corporation and won. Al had been elected President of the Union as a reform candidate and was dealing with problems long overlooked. I was organizing new members something not done for years. Our membership grew by 25% in a year while most unions languished.
There was no particular moment or event I can identify when I sensed the void. A lack of conclusiveness in everything we did. There was just something missing. It wasnt what was happening but rather what wasnt happening. The entire staff worked hard. Al worked hard as well and probably invested more emotional energy into the union than the rest of us. But we had no organizational plan and it wasnt only our local. There were not plans for the local, the region or at the national level.
It began to dawn on me American Labor Unions had no plan for anything. Only a kind of day-to-day reaction to what the employers hit us with. I came to call it the Brush Wars. The Brush Wars kept us pinned down with grievances created by hostile managers, intentional violations of the contracts and the labor laws. The rights of workers on the job were violated daily. We had no alternative but to respond. On the local level there was little time to deal with any grand design.
The environment wears you down. As Al put it, I feel like Ive been shot at and missed and s**t at and hit! Al and I had both come to work in the labor movement to serve our fellow workers not to become bogged down in a legalistic daily energy sapping quagmire frustrating us and our membership as well. Then there was the money grievances cost money, lawyers cost money, arbitration cost money and the courts break you! Our original goal of improving the work life of the membership became just try to hold on to what you have!
Looking back nearly 40 years I realize Al had strengths I did not have and I had abilities he needed. We both had weaknesses we refused to see in ourselves. We were the living personification of what I have now come to recognize as a major weakness of organized labor in the United States.
Neither one of us knew how to manage the kind of organization we worked for and were expected to direct. Unfortunately, neither did the people who administered the district, regional or national offices above us because they had come to their positions in the same way we had with no preparation in planning or management skills. Like most union staff Al and I were stuck in the morass of a system inherited from the 1930s and 40s frozen in time.
Unfortunately, 40 years later nothing has changed. I went to our state labor council convention last month. As a retiree it was mainly to observe. The young inexperienced organizers about to be fed to the anti-union attorneys are still there. The supercilious ego-driven leadership still confident its all about me! And the hangers-on those who the union is a social network rather than a cause no BBQ, golf game or point-less rally to be missed!
All of them up against a system more brutal and nasty than the one I faced in 1973. Yet, like a deer in the headlights of an on-coming truck, there is no plan to avoid disaster and time stands still.
Bill Johnston is a retired staff organizer of the United Food and Commercial Workers. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
From The Progressive Populist, September 15, 2011
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