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.

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