Saturday, April 30, 2011

Union Steward (part five)

The airlines seemed intent on firing my co-worker.

Things went back and forth for a week or so. When the Airlines agreed to allow a grievance hearing I thought we had them on their knees. We still didn’t have a contract, but management had agreed to negotiate and things seemed to be moving. Raises were coming soon, we were assured. The crew was happy—morale was high. I remember some great parties during that period.

We met with Ernie and the lawyer at a Marriot in Century City. Went over strategy—that the clocking in rule was a form of intimidation and that employees tried in good faith to show up on time. I was to argue the case but Ernie and the lawyer would be there to watch my back. Were they grooming me, or throwing me to the wolves? I’ll never decide.

The rules regarding the grievance process are pretty ambiguous, at least with regard to transportation workers. Common sense would call for an arbiter, or at least a referee. This was backroom stuff—a couple of union reps, management, the accused, maybe a witness. No rules of order—you scream it out. And management makes the final decision, or at least they did at that point since we had no contract. I blew up when Ernie sketched out the “rules” a few minutes before the meeting, but I calmed down. What could I do? The accused just shook his head, leaned over to me, said, “I’m getting out of this bloody fucking country”.

That ride out from the terminal to the office in the blue and white tram then into a conference room that seemed too big for the occasion. We waited, then someone came in and said that the plans had been changed and that the meeting would be in Mr. Harlen’s office. Down a hall and up one flight of stairs. Big window facing the Pacific. The beach, the ocean, big planes heading off toward Asia. Very nice. We waited awhile—such an obvious strategy but the obviousness makes it more effective. Something like, “this guy is fucking with me because he can.” And the psych worked on me—I remember thinking, “we’re dead”. But Ernie chuckled and smiled that horizontal smile, said, “this is so fucking bush league”.

Harlen came in looking like The President of the United States. I’d never seen an expensive suit close up but I knew he was wearing one. Tall, with graying temples. A Skycap had told me that he was once a ticket agent and that he’d worked his way up the ladder. I’ve learned since that they’re the worst kind. Scab mentality. Think and grow rich, win friends and influence people. We all shook hands. I caught an eye roll from my defendant.

I mapped out my case and made my argument. Ernie backed me up but it seemed that his heart wasn’t in it. Harlen didn’t present any kind of argument. There was lots of sage-like nodding, ahems and uh-hums. At times he’d look out the window and nod, or follow the flight of a 747. I wanted to ask him what he was thinking but I didn’t, I just kept talking. First, I tried to show that a superhuman attempt was made to comply with the rules. I asked the accused a few questions, got the answers I expected, but there was no attempt to cross-examine, or whatever you’d call it in this situation. Then I questioned the rule itself. Harlen leaned forward, slowly, half-smiled, said, “but we make the rules Mr. Hill.” I got a blank look from Ernie. Instinctively I put a hand on my comrade’s shoulder. I figured he’d blow soon. But he didn’t. We’d been hung out to dry. I quickly reached that kind of anger where you feel steely and calm. This must be where people start shooting, I thought. Harlen straight at me, said, “Do you think I’m wrong, Mr. Hill?” and I felt, still feel, the ramifications. Morally wrong, destructive, evil, but correct in his statement. They made the rules. But I looked back at him, said, “yes, you’re wrong” and started a speech. Ernie cut me off with a look that could kill. Harlen said he’d “reach his decision” in a day or two.

The tram was usually a quiet place. I mean, it was noisy on the runway but people didn’t talk much. They were on their way to or from work, that funny transitional time. Lean back, rest your head against the window and enjoy a few minutes of freedom . We probably made that tram pretty uncomfortable for the others—yelling at Ernie Mogg. A double tirade—me calling him a trader and my friend bringing Kropotkin into the fight. Ernie waited it out, rope-a-doping us until we were out of insults. The word that seemed to wake him up was “scab.” I don’t remember who said it. He shook his head. No. He was big to begin with and he seemed to get bigger, and the lawyer, who had been playing the “I don’t know these people” game, joined the fray. They’d both been through hell for the union, really, and they lets us know it. Lost jobs and fistfights and jail time. The phrase I remember is “this is how we survive”. They hated the game too but they knew how to play, and if we’d just shut up and listen…

A few days later Ernie called me at home. “Harlen’s going to tell you that nobody will be fired over the rule, that he’d ease up on it. There will be a two week suspension without pay. When you talk to him, thank him. “ And he hung up. The call came and I did what I was told. My friend went back to England but his sister stayed on. She said she liked the states despite the sorry politics.

Contract negotiations dragged on for months but the intimidation eased off. Ernie would call occasionally and asked what I thought of this or that point. Mostly I agreed with him—happily surprised by some of the accommodations. They hadn’t gotten around to flight benefits but the proposed raise was substantial, also more sick and vacation pay and a more structured grievance procedure. Finally I got the call that a contract could be signed. The union rented a large suite at the Marriot, really swank, and called staggered meetings so that the whole crew could show. I was given a sick day to stay all day. The contract was good, solid. It included back pay dating from the day we signed our cards. The flight discounts were small and hard to obtain. Still everybody, even the “scabs”, voted yes. Money talks.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Union Steward (part four)

I feel bad that his name escapes me. Thirtyish, working class Brit accent—a young Michael Caine would play him in the movie. He had moved to LA with his sister. I don’t remember what brought them over. The first anarchists I’d met—this was a couple of years before my punk period. Together they were a terror. Calling the bosses on their games, disgusted with us for being such wimps. Management put up with them, I think because of their accents. Gave the place some class. And they were white and I may as well say it—you could get away with more if you were. It was all about presenting at the airlines. Still is, but it was clunkier then. You could see the strings. The Corps are smoother now. They know how to use tokenism and when to cover their tracks.

He’d clocked in late after missing the tram. The Op Manager had taken a lot of shit from him, had had it. His paycheck had been stamped Termination. But not mine, this week. I gathered up my quarters and called Denver. Funny how memory works—I still remember the phone booth, graffiti’d and stuffy in the LA heat. Ernie wasn’t in but a woman on the phone gave me the rote instructions. Stay cool, send him home, wait it out. But my anarchist friend didn’t want to stay cool. He wanted to take the tram out to the office and bust some heads. I couldn’t physically restrain him, he was tougher than me. I suggested we go out and get a drink, cool off and make plans. I risked going home early. The shift supervisor was on the clock, pro union so I could get away with playing sick.

We knew an unlicensed limo driver. Nice guy—we’d steer people to his car and get a five buck kickback. He drove us to a Hyatt that had a nice hotel bar. We needed to get out of LAX. My comrade was livid. I was pretty scared. I don’t think “going postal” was a term we knew yet, but I feared that. I decided on a dubious strategy: I’d get him settled into the bar and feed him drinks. Of course alcohol can have any number of effects—I prayed that it would work as a sedative. He raved on and I bought the drinks. It must have cost me a week’s pay, and, get this: a few weeks later Ernie had the BRAC pay me back for those drinks. I’d done the right thing.

I was trying to protect what we’d put together. I knew if we got to the office we’d rip it up, probably get arrested. Me too, because I would have felt obligated to stand with my co-worker. No questions, either. I think, once, it was in people’s blood to feel loyal to co-workers. Well, many people. And I think that’s a lost value now. God, I hate this—sounding like an old fart, complaining that the world has gone to hell in a hand basket, but as I try to wrestle with the decline of organized labor I keep coming up with this, that it’s a character issue and something is missing, at least in the USA.

We were drinking well drinks, whatever they put in the gin and tonics. They started to do the trick. We reached that point where alcohol is a truth serum and we told our life stories. I wish I could remember the details but I think it was all pretty hardscrabble. I do remember him telling me that he liked animals better than people. He had a couple of dogs. He did have a passion for politics that came out of some love, or lost love, of humanity. I’m from a blue collar background myself so I’m loath to romanticize the “working class”. But this guy was the real thing. Perhaps we should have gone in there, torn up an office, knocked some heads…
We moved beyond the confessional phase and into something sloppier. He agreed to try things my way, to let the union pull him out of the fire. They’d done it for me. I trusted them.

I called our limo friend. He took us home for the cost of a tank of gas. Dropped of my co-worker first, in Inglewood, then took me southeast on the freeway to my house in Gardena. I was feeling that elated type of drunkenness, top of the world. I’d headed off a nasty situation and here I was, back seat of a big black Lincoln Continental, a labor leader.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Union Steward (part three)

They threw out their nets—that is, they enforced every rule and wrote new ones. We were ordered to clock in ten minutes early for every shift. Difficult, because the trams didn’t run that often. I’d either clock in a couple of minutes late or come in half an hour early and hang around. Doesn’t seem like much but if you work five days a week you don’t want to waste that much time. People would try taking the later tram and running to clock in. They’d miss by a couple of minutes and find themselves on suspension, or fired. We were still negotiating a contract and it was tough to defend people while we were in that gray area. A couple of our best people just gave up, quit, and of course that played into management strategy.

I was fired, repeatedly, and I’d have to call Ernie Mogg and take the tram out to the office. Next day I’d be back on the job, but the intimidation was eating at me, at all of us. Pay checks were “lost” or “delayed” and managers from the offices staged surprise “inspections”. Pro-management workers were taken out for pricey dinners and given extra vacation days for “work well done”.

I was outside of baggage service on my break, hot late summer LA night, beautiful, people rushing by to catch a midnight flight to Dallas. Just enjoying the urban-ness of it all, even the scent of gas and jet fuel held some romantic mystery. All that movement! A Sky Cap came by and gave me a signal that said Let’s walk and smoke and we went out to the restaurant that looks like a Disney vision of some future that will never come. He lit up a joint and after he passed it he looked me in the eye and said “now you really have to watch your ass because Harlen is coming in from Chicago. He has one job in the system. He breaks unions. Listen, man: That’s ALL he does. He flies around and crushes people like you. We’ll back you up where we can but we’re facing layoffs. We can barely keep our people. Same with the mechanics.” I was young and na├»ve and therefore shocked, but also pissed off and as I write this years later I’m still pissed off, and I can feel the tension that I felt and that my rank and file felt that summer and fall.

If you work for a living you’ve felt that tension.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Union Steward (part two)

We were contacted by the Brotherhood of Railway and Airline Clerks.

For some reason we were allowed to have a meeting at LAX. I think the union worked this out, possibly as a way of showing their influence. We sat at a conference table in the office building. There was a coffee urn and pitchers of water. That stagnant air and those funny acoustics. Everybody looked nervous. Our union rep had just flown in from Denver, Ernie Mogg. He was too big for his suit and had a horizontal smile—kind of Buddha-like. Next to him sat the union lawyer. Can’t remember his name but he was quite the stereotype. Unlit cigar, barrel chest, red-faced. I’m not making this up. They went through some set speeches and promised a few things—raises of course, and some sort of flight benefit. They were vague on that. I arrived at the meeting a little pissed off because the manager had been riding me, had threatened to “have my job”. I proposed that we not sign off on anything unless the BRAC promise to have the Operations Manager fired. To my surprise they readily agreed. I felt powerful—revenge is sweet.
Ernie and the lawyer collected our cards and just like that were in the Brotherhood (although there were more women than men in our rank and file). Ernie told us to elect a steward and three vice stewards, one from each shift. Everybody looked at everybody else then everybody looked at me. Ernie said, “just do it now since we have a quorum. You don’t need speeches. You all know each other.” One of the guys with a Muslim name nominated me. He said, “they’ll listen to Owen because he’s white and he doesn’t have a record. If I go in there we’re fucked.” A backhanded compliment if there ever was one but it was true.

And so I was elected. My deputies were plenty tough. A British anarchist for the day shift, a tough-as-nails dyke (haven’t seen her in years but I think she’d be pleased with that description). Her brother also worked the shift, and somehow they kicked the day people into line—by intimidation, mostly. Swing shift rep was a theology student at Loyola Marymount , my introduction to lefty Christianity. He was soft spoken but he was happy to fuck up management. I often wonder what happened to him. Graveyard shift belonged to my Muslim friend, who I can only remember as Gary because I met him before went for the skinny ties, shiny shoes, short hair and wrap-arounds.

The airlines stalled even though the law was on our side. A few weeks went by before the union called to say that negotiations had begun and that a meeting had been planned.

The day before the meeting we were fired. Me, the vice-stewards, one brother and a couple of fellow travelers.

The Op Manager approached me as I entered the locker room. Handed me a check. TERMINATED/LAST PAYMENT stamped across the front. I almost punched him—and as I write this I wonder how that would have changed my life. Another drop of adrenalin and I would have killed him without remorse. I had never felt the weight of that kind of power structure before—at least not in a personal way. And lashing out is, I think, a sane reaction. But I guess we don’t want to kill people…
He had me turn in my blazer and go home. I handed it over and boarded the employee tram back to the terminal, unemployed. I stopped in baggage service to inform my comrades. Borrowed a bunch of change, went to a phone booth and called the BRAC. Stay cool, go home, wait it out. Last thing I wanted to do but I went back in, took the tram out to the lot and drove home.

Getting fired sets up a strange psychology. Even if it’s management’s fault, a form of intimidation, whatever, you’re left with that kicked in the chest feeling. I shared an old house on the Torrance/Gardena border. We had a dog, a black lab mix and I remember walking the dog and feeling really low, then saying it’s not my fault then it is/it isn’t/it is. So strange, that we identify with our oppressors and give them all that power. But it happens, it’s a human trait.

The union acted, fast. I got an early morning phone call from Ernie Mogg, everything was fixed, we could report to work that evening. I guess they had some muscle, back then.

I got to work a little early and one of the mechanics met me as I entered the locker room. They had threatened to walk out, and so had the Sky Caps. The place was swarming with union reps. Coming from a union family I knew about strikes but I’d never encountered this—it certainly wouldn’t have happened at the Taco Bell in Redondo Beach. I clocked in and went out to baggage service and one of the Sky Caps—the union steward—shook my hand.
“ You may get your tires slashed and you shouldn’t take the tram alone. And record everything—write everything down!” and I have to admit that I was a little smug, didn’t believe him. And I was young and felt strong—could take care of myself.
But, just like he said, next morning, 3am I’m in the Employee lot changing a tire. At least they’d only slashed one. And I was scared and didn’t fell so young and strong.

From then on it was a war.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Union Steward (part one)


I was nineteen when I was elected union steward. Brotherhood of Railway and Airline Clerks. I had been hired out of high school to work in baggage service, checking claim stubs, tearing the tickets off bags, filling out lost luggage forms, taking guff from bagless passengers. After that first wave of hijackings—mid- seventies—the FAA had x-rays and metal detectors put in. The airlines needed cheap labor to run the operation. They hired fly-by-night security companies to handle things, then bought the companies and gutted them. For the cost of a few cheap blazers, some minimum wage workers and a couple of managers they could check bags well enough to satisfy the FAA. The old baggage service crew was laid off, but we were told that we could apply for jobs with the new company. Lower wage, cheaper suit, more work, no benefits. The latter cut was the hardest. We lost our flight discounts.

I wasn’t real employable, and needed something that fit with my school schedule—so I re-applied, picked up my cheap red blazer, and became a PSR (passenger service representative is what they called us). This meant spending half my shift in front of an x-ray machine, looking for weapons. I had never seen a real weapon, and the training session was an hour long joke. A bunch of us shared a joint before hand, hiding behind that stupid looking restaurant in the LAX parking lot. We were the first wave in the anti-terrorist army.

I reported for work at 6pm and worked ‘till 3am. An interesting time to be in an airport. It was tough work early in the shift. Lots of flights, lines of cranky tired people. After midnight there were two flights, outgoing to Dallas and incoming from JFK. A quiet airport is a strange and desolate place. I liked it, then, romanticizing everything like you do at that age.

A crew of about fifty covered all the shifts at Terminal 4. A ragtag group. I remember being shocked, and I have to say a little excited that there were so many ex-cons. Wasn’t there a screening process? I got along well with them. They were earnest, and, understandably, afraid of getting fired. Most of them were taking classes, nursing, business, the trades. They were surprisingly respectful of my literary pretensions—they loved poetry, or at least the idea of poetry. Odd that it was a place where I felt perfectly comfortable being a poet, unlike the office and retail jobs that followed. There was another faction on the staff—people who wanted to go up the ladder, become flight attendants and ticket agents, then move into management. They didn’t have a chance. It was like jumping from semi-pro softball to the major leagues. Management didn’t take us seriously—they saw us as a drain on profits, part of a boondoggle, a product of government regulation. Who needs the FAA? And they knew we were various brands of loser—Junior College students, ex cons, older folks who couldn’t afford retirement, artsy types. All the same to them.

If you do something every day you find a way to take pride. With no help from management, we got to know the x-ray machines. A dark bar at the bottom of the screen could possibly be a knife, especially if it showed lighter at one end. A co-worker with an interest in guns tutored me on the various types, shapes and sizes. We developed a system of signals, mostly to identify troublesome passengers. This wasn’t discussed, but over time I guess people decided that it was just better to do a decent job. I’ve seen it a lot in my working life—an esprit de corps that develops at the low end of the pay scale. Helps make things tolerable. Management tries to promote that, of course, with their pizza days and casual Fridays but when it’s fake it’s fake and everybody knows it. I didn’t, still don’t, like the idea of working in law enforcement but this seemed different. Who wants guns on an airplane? We moved the passengers through quickly and we confiscated some weapons, and at the end of the shift when we stopped at the Jolly Roger Coffee Shop we felt OK about the work.

If you work for a living you experience these clampdowns. A new middle-manager, a drop in profits, or just somebody bored at the top—the reasons are often a mystery to the working stiff. It’s like a stretch of bad weather, it passes but when it does things are a little worse than before. This guy had one of those typically ambiguous titles—call him Operations Manager. I imagine now that he had a military background—just back from Vietnam? The time would be about right. It wasn’t my first experience with the breed. In high school I worked frying tortillas at the local Taco Bell. My manager was a typical dumb-ass spit and polish type. One morning, after giving the prep crew some shit about shining fixtures, he had a war flashback fueled breakdown. Should have burned that draft card.
Our new Operations Manager was a little more polished on the surface but also kind of brittle. He fired a couple of people in his first month, picking off people who weren’t quite making the grade. Flexing his muscles. Then he hired a few people who seemed like old friends. Not really a strategy, just something that you expect out of a new boss. We complained amongst ourselves, and at first it didn’t go anywhere. Then things got closer to home. Good people were fired. People we counted on to show up and get the job done, friends. The airlines lost money and the company was fined a few hundred thousand for making illegal campaign donations—bad economy, bad publicity, nervous execs. Layoffs without notice or severance, increased work load, if you work you’ve been through it.

I’d like to say that my entry into union organizing came from some deep concern for the worker, or that I had worked out some sort of Marxist based philosophy, but, really I did It for love. The woman I was living with was in a car accident. Not too serious, but scary. I called in sick from the hospital, but I was too late. We were supposed to call in at least twenty-four hours in advance. Somebody in the personnel office transferred me to the operations manager, who gave me a good, military style dressing-down. I started to try and explain, then decided, what the fuck, and told him to go to hell. It felt pretty good so I elaborated a little and finished with a healthy fuck you. Didn’t wait to hear “you’re fired”, but I assumed it would be like that.

Next evening I showed up at work, thinking it would be my last day. Somehow word had gotten out—a hero’s welcome! Then a call from the office, and a ride on the employee tram out to the headquarters. I loved that ride, even if it meant going to some boring or painful meeting. The tram wound through the runways, under the wings of the big jets and the smell and the noise represented movement, world travel, escape. I felt afraid but also a little proud. An exciting job, and now I was getting fired. A true rebel.

But they didn’t fire me. I think I know why now—I was a workhorse, took on extra jobs, volunteered for overtime. Mostly to cut the boredom, but also because I was green. I thought it mattered, I guess. I think their idea was to break me, make me into a valuable asset. And I was a good candidate—the supervisor sensed this. So I got off with a lecture and some sort of demerit—don’t remember what system they used. Probably meant that I’d have to stay on the 3am shift, which didn’t bother me.
The guy who came in with the union cards was a student at The People’s Law School in LA. It really exists! He said I inspired him, but he was probably flattering me to get me on board. It worked—and it was easy to get my shift mates to sign up. The 3am shift was like the group W bench. A tough bunch. Cynical, too. They didn’t expect much to come of it but they appreciated the effort. Me either, at first, but I was pissed off beyond caring. They “elected” me to represent the shift at our early meetings.

The meetings were drinking and/or smoking sessions early AM, between graveyard and the morning shift. Lots of complaining, then, what do we do now? Followed by arguments and, sometimes, agreeing to disagree. The day crew was toughest. They were itching to move up in the world. But eventually, mostly, they came around. The Op Manager had made too many enemies, and maybe they sensed that there really wasn’t much for them to lose.

We didn’t have to hold elections. We just needed to get a majority of the employees to sign union cards. Old law—a nineteenth century victory by the porters’ union. They died for our sins—union elections are nasty affairs. Getting people to sign the cards was pretty easy. A little argument, a little bribery (free drinks), perhaps a little intimidation. Conditions were terrible and the boss was mean, so everybody was disgruntled. Still, there’s this anti-union sentiment that I believe is uniquely American. “I’m not a joiner.” Everybody’s John Wayne. I guess that’s our heritage—a blessing and a curse.

American Airlines was-is-known as anti-union in the extreme.