Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Working for a Union: Why I became a Salt and why I left

And resistance to the union officials' concessionary policies
   By Angelica Garcia

On a sunny day in the Fall of 2006 I sat at a café with two friends discussing the labor movement and the importance of organizing workers. The question of how we could and should become involved in reinvigorating the labor movement came up. One of my companions, Stan, suggested we join him in trying to unionize the hotel he worked at. My other friend Jack had quite a few reservations about this being that he had previously worked for a union that was trying to organize healthcare workers and had a bad experience. However, Stan reassured us that UNITE/HERE, the union he was working for, was different than other unions.

He explained the UNITE/HERE was dedicated to building unions where workers sat at the bargaining table and led their own campaigns. Well this sounded pretty good to me, especially since it seemed to me there weren’t many other options, at least not ones where there were already large groups of youth such as myself being trained and placed in work places where there was potential for organizing large numbers of workers. Stan who had been part of a salting program for three years now reassured me that where the union leadership fell short we could intervene by having meetings with workers where we could discuss larger political questions such as why workers share so little in the wealth that they produce and how we can organize ourselves to change this. So despite many reservations, I signed up.

Very briefly for those who may not be familiar with salting, it is a program where mostly youth work for a union on an underground campaign to organize a work place. We are trained on how to interact with our co-workers and get them to trust us and divulge personal information so that we may be able to use it later to get them to join the campaign once it goes public. I remember at one of these training sessions a woman was bragging about a salt that was so talented “she could get almost any worker to break down completely and share their darkest secrets.” They trained us to map out the work place, who hangs out with who, who is close to the boss, who has influence amongst other workers, who hates the boss, who is most likely to be pro-union, etc. We were to gather this sort of information and bring it to the higher-level union organizers so that they could begin to do house visits and bring workers into the campaign.

Well being the ambitious little organizer that I was, I got to work. I hung out with my co-workers in the cafeteria, outside of work anywhere where we could talk about the crummy work conditions and how it would be great if we had a union. Most of my co-workers agreed about the union. The older workers who had been there for five plus years would say “ya a union would be great but that is if the bosses don’t fire us first and even if we do have a union then it will be like having two bosses.” I would explain that although it is true that unions have had a history of leaving workers out of the decision making process when it came to contracts and various other aspects of mobilizing in the work place, this would be our opportunity to change that. In my first couple of months on the job I met a young worker who was also a social activist at his college campus. I was ecstatic! Much unlike most of my conversations with my other co-workers I felt comfortable talking more openly with him about the union. I never told him I was a salt as that was completely forbidden by the union leadership.

No matter how pro-union a worker was they were always left in the dark about other workers who also wanted a union and especially about the salts. We would have long conversations about how to start a union, how to talk to our co-workers about the union and how to be careful about not letting the boss find out that we wanted a union. We would also have discussions about the importance of having a militant working class movement in this country and how it could lead to a social transformation, where the working class would test its strength in battles against the boss that would hopefully lead to battles against the capitalist class. This was just what I had signed up for.

I went to Stan and Karla the union leader I had been assigned to report to with this news. I told them all about Eric and how he was down to organize for a union. I was not expecting their response. I was told to stay away from him that he would be assigned to someone else and that I should not discuss unions or politics with him. They said it was too dangerous that he might figure out I was a salt and we were not sure we could trust him. I was so confused I did not understand. Why would they not want me to work with him? He trusted me and we had such a good relationship. I did not care. I continued to meet with him and our conversations became more political I even began to bring him around my political group, LMV. After another month or so I could not stand being secretive about being a salt, what if he found out through some one else. My union leader had already found out through another salt that I was still meeting with Eric. Eric had told another salt that he had been meeting with a woman at the hotel who was really down for a union; that was me!

The union leaders were not pleased. I was told that I was endangering the whole union campaign that had been going on for three years now. I began to be left out of meetings and criticized for not doing my job, not bringing in more workers and not doing the pink sheets. The pink sheets were a list of workers personal information, not just names and addresses, but who they were, did they have families, what were some of their personal issues, weaknesses is what we were really looking for. Well that was what they were looking for. I was looking to build trusting relationships with my coworkers, so that we could be in solidarity with each other and fight for better conditions in our work place.

My relations with the union leadership became very tense. I felt like an outsider. I was not the sheep they were looking for. They certainly were not looking for independent thinkers who were committed to organizing the working class and would do so through their contributions in union campaigns like the one I had joined with UNITE/HERE. What they wanted was someone to gather information on the workers and the work place. Once they had what they needed our next task would be to carry out orders when the campaign went public.

This new and improved democratic bottom-up union Stan had sold to me was non-existent. The union leadership made all the decisions from what workers would be brought in, when the campaign would go public and under what terms a union contract would be negotiated to who would take part in that negotiation.

Organize From Below
I wrote this some years ago and while I am still totally pro-union, I agree with the position that this blog, Facts For Working People, has put forward. It is the rank and file of the unions that activists and socialists have to orient to. If an activist is brought on board by the present leadership it is impossible to change their concessionary polices and the relationship they have built with the boss based on cooperation and labor peace.

When we are in locals as part of the rank and file we have to help build strong, fighting opposition caucuses in the workplaces and at the local union level. The workplace is important as the bureaucracy does not have the same influence there.

The union leadership hires young students and youth as staffers or as SALT’s like myself because they have no base among the rank and file, they have no power in the organization and we can be let go as easily as we were hired.  Over time I have learned that my experience was not an isolated one.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Angelica for this very helpful and educational article. It will help all who are trying to organize unions, and organize against the false policies of the union leaders. You are a fighter. Sean O'Torain.