All of the discussion in the Catholic blogosphere, and the wider public square, about unions (and public employee unions in particular) has given me cause to think a bit about my attitude towards organized labor. There are a lot of rational political, economic and moral reasons I can give for why I don’t like labor unions as they exist in the US, but as is so often the case with deeply held opinions, my most basic reaction to unions has a lot to do with my personal experiences relation to work and to unions. As such, it seemed like a good way to address the issue is through the lens of the experiences which have helped shape my opinion of unionization.
1. Most of my exposure to unions was through my father, who held a staff position at a community college for twenty-five years, retiring just a month before losing a multi-year battle with cancer. (In a state college, the major divide is between staff — which includes basically everyone who is neither an instructor nor a manager — and faculty, who are the actual instructors. Since he only had a bachelor’s degree, Dad’s position was classified as staff, and staff positions were represented by a state school employees union which is a member of the AFL-CIO.) The college was not unionized when Dad got his job, but it became a union shop half-way through his time there, via an election which he always wondered about the validity of. (Union members and non-union members were given different colored ballots, so it certainly would have been easy to cheat if someone had wanted to.) Not only were the union’s politics diametrically opposed to my father’s (he always used their “state issues” political mailing to decide how not to vote) but the union supported people for the college board of directors who hired a college president who eventually drove the college into the financial ditch, resulting in constant fear and occasional layoffs. His more daily frustration, however, was the effect of the union’s vigorous protection of people who did not do their jobs well.
Key among these was the department secretary, who was supposed to support his department as well as another one. She was unquestionably a sweet and kind lady (and a loyal and enthusiastic union member) but she steadfastly refused to learn how to use a computer for anything other than her hour of reading the LA Times in her office every morning over coffee. She diligently went to the campus mail room, and occasionally did xeroxing, but the work of typing and formatting department schedules, announcements, tests, maintaining the mailing list — in short, anything she could not do well with her electric typewriter and file drawers — she simply insisted she could not do. The department could not get funding for another secretary, for the fairly logical reason that they already had her. And when attempts were made to pressure her to actually do her work, she successfully filed union grievances to the effect that she was being given a hostile work environment and unrealistic expectations.
So since Dad was the other person in the department who was staff rather than faculty, and because he wanted to see the department running successfully, most of the work the secretary should have been doing devolved on him. And since he already had a full work load running the planetarium, much of that work ended up happening on nights and weekend. (Unpaid, of course.)
Now, it’s certainly true that if Dad too had filed union grievances, the union would have been happy to insist that he didn’t have to do the department admin work either. But what they had no interest in was actually seeing that someone did do the work — that things got done and the department functioned smoothly. Their job was the protect the person who wasn’t doing the work, not to make sure the work got done. And so, since Dad cared about things working well, he got stuck with the extra work.
These other examples are briefer and much more minor, but this theme of caring about rules and rights over work continues.
2. As a teenager, when I was completing my Eagle Project for the Boy Scouts, I had to go down to a Park Service office in order to make a number of trail signs. The first task was to take a notebook full of text which had been approved by the naturalist who had planned the trail I was organizing the building of, and turn that text into a series of signs. There was an engraving machine that cut the text into sheets of plastic, which could then be mounted on poles, but my task was entirely non-mechanical: sitting at a computer and typing all of the text into a computer program which would then run the engraver. I showed up at 9:00 AM when the office opened, and one of the park rangers showed me into an office where the computer was and went off to do other things. And hour and a half later, he stuck his head in and announced, “Smoke break.”
“I don’t smoke,” I said. “I’ll just keep going.” I hadn’t seen anyone for the last hour-and-a-half, so it hardly seemed to matter if people were on break or not, and I wanted to get done so I could move on to the next thing.
“We fought for these breaks, everyone takes them,” announced the ranger. “Come on. If you don’t smoke, you can just sit around.”
So I obediently went outside and sat around while one of two of the rangers smoked, and the rest stood around outside the building. After fifteen minutes, I was told we could go back in, and I returned to work.) An hour and a half later, I was called out for another smoke break. About an hour after that I was finished and told the rangers I had the file ready to go to the engraver. They looked at the clock.
“Well, it’s only fifteen minutes till lunch, and the engraver will take longer to run than that. How about you wait till after lunch before we start the run.”
So I waited. Breaks are sacred, it seems.
3. Early married life found MrsDarwin and I back in California, where she, with her fresh theater degree, was trying to get backstage work at a theater. MrsDarwin found an internship at a regional theater for the summer season (one of their plays, perhaps appropriately, was a revival of a 1930s piece of union propaganda called “Cradle will Rock”). The union which deals with theater jobs is called Equity, and like all unions they look after their own. Members of Equity have to be paid a certain amount per hour. A theater which is an Equity house can hire non-equity people, but they have to be unpaid interns (often, as in this case, paid a little under the table via audience tips or money from the director’s pocket.)
But what struck me even more than the irony of an entity supposedly around to ensure just wages mandating that other workers not be paid was the rigidity of union rules. I recall one night when I was hanging around, waiting to watch the show from the light booth, and MrsDarwin was bustling around stage to re-set after the rehearsal and before the show.
“Hey, are you going backstage?” she asked an actor who was ambling by.
“Do you mind taking your prop” (it was on the stage right next to him) “back to the props table while you’re going by.”
“Can’t. Equity rules.”
(MrsDarwin would like the record to show that being new at the time, and not knowing all the Equity rules, she hadn’t realized that actors are, by contract, not supposed to move props or scenery under any conditions. Coming from college and amateur theater where everyone works together on everything, this hadn’t occurred to her. — Myself, however, I’ve never been in a work environment where it would be unreasonable to ask someone to drop something off somewhere where he was going anyway. I thought he came off seeming like a total jerk.)
The theme which all of these (and many other anecdotes and experiences I’ve heard from others) seem to me to underline is one of putting rules above desire to actually see things get done and done right. My approach to work (probably learned from my father, as the first anecdote illustrates) has always been that everyone should pitch in out of a desire to see things get done and come out right. This has led me to usually be the one who’s willing to stay late, to take on extra tasks outside my normal responsibilities, and to volunteer to learn new skills. It’s a tendency that’s served me well. Sure, it sometimes means giving your boss more than he’s paying for — for a while. But it also allows you to build skills and experience for free. This approach to learning on the job and expanding my skills is a lot of what I credit by career advancement over the last ten years to, and it’s served me very well.
But more than that, at some deep and emotional level, if I’m going to put the work in to do something, I always want to see it done right. It’s never just a, “They pay me to be here for a set number of hours with the clock punched, and after that, who cares,” kind of thing. And so the idea of bargaining so that you can do less, or protecting workers who don’t work, just feels very wrong to me. I won’t work because I want to follow set rules and never be asked to do anything beyond those. I work for a paycheck, yes, but I also work for the satisfaction of seeing things done. And that always seems to mean thinking like an owner — not thinking like a union member.