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.

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