Saturday, August 17, 2013

Work and the Union: Great sacrifices---great rewards

The good old days: co-workers supporting my city council run 1996
by Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired

I was active for many years in my Union local, for most of the time in some sort of leadership capacity, not as a paid official but as an elected rank and filer. After contract negotiations in1997, myself and a few others that were on the negotiating team made the conscious decision to step down from leadership positions although we remained active as members

Part of the reason was to encourage others to take these positions, plus, we recommended a no vote on the contract.  We urged the members to vote no but made it clear that there was nothing more to be had at the table, that we could win more but they would have to be active in building a movement beyond our own local in to the rest of the Labor movement and the communities in which we live and work. The membership took the line of least resistance and voted the contract in.  It was a relatively good contract by most standards but we definitely could have gotten more had our approach been adopted by the membership. The membership being unwilling to adopt our strategy but willing to vote us in  to office convinced us that we needed to step down.

Not long after we stepped down, I was in a second step hearing for our grievance procedure with a steward who I have known for many years but who was new to the role.  He had filed a couple of grievances and some of us helped him with them.  The second step is the last internal step before arbitration. I was only there because of him.

I couldn't help looking at this guy in question, Phillip M, as he fought for this co-worker, learning to deal with the employer as he went along.  This particular grievance was over an important issue but the last one was a sure loser; still, I encouraged him to fight the case as best as he could and that it would be a great learning experience for him. Unlike the “professional” Union reps, the grievance procedure for me was also a way to have the grievant/co-worker get their day in court and have a go at the boss. It was also a way of building stronger links with the members one represents and helping other co-workers that were interested in becoming active. I always wanted to counter the business unionism model that we were lawyers and that there was not much point in filing a grievance if we couldn’t win it.

Most grievances are lost and the fact is that the bosses wouldn’t even talk to us if we didn’t have an organization and numbers.  But understanding and participating in the process is important as long as one understands that it is the organized and conscious activity of the ranks that wields the real power.

Phillip was about my age at the time, early 50's.  I first met him 17 years prior when he started as a temporary worker.  He is a solid guy and here he was defending workers on the job.  He has a real history though.  He spent five years or so in jail for bank robbery.  The gun he used had no bullets in it if I recall.  He's a sort of nice guy, wouldn't really want to hurt anyone.  He is a Latino guy but was adopted by a black family so he has an interesting style about him.  In the early eighties we were both having problems with cocaine abuse. 

He got really bad, started freebasing (I pretty much stayed with the nose candy). Cocaine was almost the fashionable thing to do here in the U.S. in the latter half of the seventies and early 80's.  Phil also came under some pressure because as a temporary worker he crossed the lines during our strike in 1985. Some guys always reminded him of this when they got mad at him but he was always a good union man.

I remember him waking me up at 6.00 am on a Saturday morning, said he wanted to borrow $40 for breakfast; $40 was about the price you could pay for a half gram of cocaine at the low end.  I peeked out the front door and Phil had a couple of women in the car; treating them to breakfast no doubt. Things got worse and our relationship became a little strained.  He wanted to borrow my car one time for a weekend, a red Maverick, two-door.  I couldn't get the damn thing back.  We almost got in to a fight in the hallway at work because I got so frustrated.  But I later found out that he was living in the car.  I was trying to take his home away.

He eventually got in to a program and kicked the coke and alcohol too. He had to or he would have lost his job. The union fought for him. I made him mad again when he came to the union to borrow the money for the cost of the program and I voted against it because I didn't believe the union was in the money lending business.  He brought his mum down there and got the money but was mad at me for a few years. He has been clean ever since. I should add that I fought for a program for our members but I was opposed to lending money as I thought it would lead to a whole lot of members coming to the union to borrow funds.

After he got clean, Phil had a young daughter and a girlfriend but she got in to the crack thing and he eventually moved her out taking the responsibility for the young girl who was around 3 or so.  He bought a house and came to union meetings although it was difficult having a 3 year old daughter to raise. Phil was always a hard worker, but like of lot of us that have spent our lives in blue collar work, and have never had a formal education, we lack certain skills and therefore confidence when it comes to an arena that requires more reading, note taking, researching contract language, dealing with the boss etc.  I explained to him that I was in the same position and that it was the union that helped me develop these skills.  Not only that, the intimidating way that things are set up is conscious on the part of the employer to give them the upper hand. 

They have secretaries, access to legal advice. They have hours of paid time to look at documents like contracts etc. I remember speaking to the board of directors in my early days as  an officer in the local.  Here I was in hip length boots covered in mud looking up at them on the podium.  I had come from a job and barely had time to clean up.  The other thing though, was that I wasn’t interested in impressing them.  I was not ashamed of my work of my friends and co-workers. I wasn’t looking to advance at their expense and took my role as a union rep seriously, and that’s what was one of Phillip’s great qualities, he had good class consciousness, wasn’t involved in the Union to use it as a stepping stone to management as some are inclined to do. We asked our co workers to vote for us and we felt a real obligation to follow through.

Phillip knew which side he was on. He had no love for the bosses, (I’m not talking about individuals here) isn't fooled by them for a minute. He became disappointed in the leadership of the union who he felt didn’t fight hard enough but compared to the struggle against the boss, the internal struggle inside the union over its direction and policies is much more difficult, but it is a struggle that has to be taken up. The time Phil spent in Jail and the drug and alcohol abuse are avenues that so many workers end up taking for want of an alternative, a way to fight back.

After a union meeting following the bombing of Afghanistan where I came under a bit of attack for introducing a resolution against it, Phillip called me the next morning before I left for work.  He wanted to cheer me up.  Told me not to quit that "we need you".  I thanked him and told him that we need him too; that I was grateful he was still around after all these years and our ups and downs. Phil has since retired.

Life is interesting that's for sure. We often don’t realize how important our work relationships are and how these relationships get us through the day.

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