Why Are Union Leaders So F#!@ing Stupid?

Can you think of a more embarrassing sight than what passes for a union leader these days? These guys are the most pathetic bunch of losers I've seen since my ninth-grade remedial metal shop class.

I am convinced that, hundreds of years from now, when anthropologists dig up the remnants of our culture and study our behavior, they will not be able to figure out why most of the leaders of our major labor unions rolled over and let the company bosses destroy the lives of their members.

"Just how friggin' stupid were these guys?" the social scientists of the twenty-third century will wonder in amazement. Should future Americans run across a copy of this book, allow me to explain just how stupid.

Douglas Fraser of the United Auto Workers was so stupid that, when he was president of the union in the early eighties, he accepted a seat on the Chrysler board of directors so he could be a "watchdog on the board." While Fraser was watchdogging on behalf of his union, Chrysler closed twenty factories and three parts depots, eventually firing more than 50,000 people! Remind me never to ask this guy to watch my house while I'm away.

The next president of the UAW, Owen Bieber, was so stupid that, in 1987, he signed an "attrition agreement" with General Motors. For every two people who retired, died, or quit, GM would only have to replace one of them. Bieber decided it was better to decrease the membership of his union and then have the remaining members working faster, harder, and longer than ever before. The year he agreed to this, GM was already making a profit of $3.6 billion.

The leadership of the Communications Workers of America was so stupid that, in 1992, they agreed to let AT&T start a "Workplace of the Future" program in which labor and management would work "more closely together" in teams, instead of in the traditional "confrontational" mode. The next year, AT&T closed forty regional centers and eliminated 4,000 jobs. After six more months of "cooperation," AT&T cut 15,000 more jobs. The union still didn't want to dissolve the "team" and so, a year later, AT&T announced it was firing another 40,000 employees! Only then did it dawn on the union leaders that AT&T was up to something.

Other union leaders have also stupidly fallen for this trend of "cooperation" with management called "Quality of Work Life." It is nothing more than an effort to find new ways to eliminate jobs and bust unions.

In another blast of official union stupidity, Lane Kirkland, the recently dethroned head of the AFL-CIO, decided that the best way to oppose the North American Free Trade Agreement was to do so by quietly lobbying Congress. So along came Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan to fill his void and spearhead a very public movement against NAFTA. By stupidly surrendering the issue to these two nutcases, Kirkland allowed Clinton to appear rational, and the President was able to get NAFTA passed.

Union leaders are so stupid that, since the late seventies, they have continually agreed to cut their members' wages and benefits simply because the company asked them to! The companies have taken the newfound savings, and instead of creating more jobs in the United States, they've built new plants overseas, resulting in the firing of the very American workers who gave them that money!

In my hometown of Flint, Michigan, the UAW leadership was so stupid that they actively lobbied the city council to grant General Motors tax abatements that, over the last twenty years, have given them tax breaks on $1.8 billion worth of property. They did so because they believed GM would create new jobs if given the tax breaks. Instead, GM eliminated more than 40,000 jobs in that period in Flint and hasn't given a dime of its tax savings back to the city.

The list of Union Leadership Stupidity could fill the rest of this book. It is sad for me, on a personal level, even to have to write this chapter. My uncle Laverne participated in the Great Flint Sit Down Strike of 193637, which resulted in the first contract for the United Auto Workers and was, as historians have written, the beginning of the modern-day labor movement across America. Because of what my uncle and others fought for over the years, families like mine were able to live in homes that we owned, go to a doctor whenever we were sick, get our teeth fixed whenever they needed it, or go to college if we chose to, all thanks to the union.

This progress all came to an end on August 5, 1981, when President Ronald Reagan fired 11,400 striking air traffic control workers and permanently replaced them, an event unheard of in U.S. history. From that day on, the union movement has been on a downward slide to oblivion. Labor union leaders, in the stupidest moment in their history, refused to call for a general, nationwide strike that would have shut the country down until Reagan rehired the controllers. Union members crossed picket lines and continued to fly. I remember refusing to get on a plane for the next eight months and having a hard time persuading others to do likewise. Boy, walking from Michigan to L.A. was a bitch! So I gave up and started to fly.

Reagan broke the air traffic controllers' union, which, in their own stupidity, had endorsed him in the election, thinking they would get the best deal with Ronnie in the Oval Office! Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Reagan became a hero to big business which then went on a tear throughout the rest of the decade, smashing unions, making record profits, copping huge tax breaks, and tripling the national deficit. Reagan and company were able to get away with this because they knew labor would not challenge them on any of it.

And that's exactly what happened. Our labor leaders all should have changed their names to Neville Chamberlain (the Brit who gave Hitler whatever he asked for in 1938). Instead of fighting back hard, our union leaders let the right wing and corporate honchos take our country away from us, without a peep from anyone in labor.

Here, in essence, was labor's response to Corporate America's downsizing:

"Yes, sir, General Motors, you want to close these factories and move them to Mexico? No problem! How can we help you? You say you don't want to pay your corporate taxes? No problem! You don't have to pay any! So you want five of us workers to do the same exact jobs it used to take ten workers to do? Happy to oblige! No, we don't mind working seven days a week! Why give jobs to the unemployed when we can just work longer hours ourselves? We don't need to see our kids! You want us to blame the Japanese for taking our jobs? Hey, that's easy! Gimme a sledgehammer and a foreign car to bash! Heck, just give me a foreigner to bash! I'll have no trouble venting my anger against the enemy you've created for me! Better them than you!"

Our labor leaders seem to have forgotten an important lesson we learned in elementary school: if you give the bully what the bully wants, the bully doesn't become your friend, he just wants more because he knows he can get it! The only way you stopped the bully back in school was to stand up to him and face him down. Even if he did end up kicking your ass, he suddenly had a newfound respect for you that he didn't have for the others who appeased him. He would generally leave you alone after that, because it was too much trouble to have to wrestle you down and wash your face in the snow. It was easier just to move on to the others who would give him what he wanted.

Life in the work world is not that much different. When the early unionists stood up to the companies, it resulted in a higher standard of living for all of us, even for those who didn't belong to a union. Thanks to labor unions, we have social security, Medicare and Medicaid, child labor laws, safety standards, and wages that allow even the most unskilled worker to purchase many products, which, in turn, gives more people jobs.

Those of you who like to say nasty things about unions should look around and see how much better your life is because somebody else in a union fought for those things. Businesses will never do the right thing unless they are forced to.

So what happened to our union leaders? Why did they go soft? Did they get too accustomed to their $100,000-a-year jobs and plush offices, forgetting where they came from? Or did we, as union members, forget our responsibility to remain vigilant? Decades ago, monthly meetings at the union halls were packed. By the mid-1980s, you could barely get a quorum. Union people were too busy being stupid and voting for Reagan and Bush. Or maybe we were just enjoying all those creature comforts that our union paychecks bought that we forgot to put down the remote control to our big-screen TV, get off the couch, and get down to the union meeting.

How many of us even know who our union leaders are? As I sit here today, a member of three different unions (the Writers Guild, the Directors Guild, and AFTRA), I cannot tell you the name of the president of any of my unions. If yours truly, Mr. Big Time Pro-Labor Guy, doesn't even know that simple information, it isn't hard to understand how we have all fallen asleep at the wheel.

I've come to the conclusion that, instead of carping about the jerks who run our unions, maybe I should do something myself to help save the labor movement in my own small way.

While producing the hardcover edition of this book, I discovered it to be a nonunion affair. Crown Publishers, Inc., and its parent, Random House, were (and are) nonunion. The people who edited the hardcover edition of this book were not represented by a union. The guy who designed the jacket had no union affiliation. The printers Random House used were also nonunion, as was the warehouse that distributed the books. I spoke with many of these individuals in an attempt to get them to join a union. They were at least polite as they tried not to roll their eyes. Only the paper that was milled for the pages and the cover of the book was produced by union labor.

I, myself, have hired two individuals who are doing research for me on this book. Their names are Gillian Aldrich and Tia Lessin. Neither belongs to a union. Now, I know, you're saying, "Hey, Mike, your workers don't need a union! I'll bet your office is a really cool place to work, a nonstop rock-'n'-roll party for the proletariat!"

Right, except for one thing: they do not own this book, will not share in its potential profits, must work long hours, and can be let go at any time. They have no protection, and no matter what a nice guy I've convinced myself that I am, they are at my mercy. Unless they are true equity owners in this project, I have the up position, and their work lives are controlled by my whims.

That's why Tia and Gillian and all workers need representation. Think of it as an equalizer. We live in a country that's founded on the basic principle of fairness: that all people should be treated with dignity and should have a say in the matters that affect their lives. Why do we abandon this principle when we enter the office door? Isn't this America, too? Or is "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" not allowed from 9 to 5 (or 6, 7, or 8 pm)?

So I began a movement to organize this book. I encouraged Tia and Gillian to find a union they would want to join and told them I would recognize it and enter into a contract with them. They seemed excited by this prospect (some would say a little too excited) and began their organizing drive.

What they discovered during the next few months speaks volumes about everything that's wrong with organized labor these days.

First they called the Writers Guild, thinking, rightly, "Hey, this is a book." So a writers' union would be a natural. The Writers Guild told them, "Sorry, we don't represent workers in the book industry, only writers in radio, TV, and film." The receptionist suggested they call the Authors Guild.

So they called the Authors Guild. They were told that the Authors Guild isn't really a union "We just provide members with legal advice and stuff like that." They suggested Tia and Gillian call the Association of American Publishers.

Of course, the AAP is the anti-union, it's the group that represents management and owners in the publishing world.

A friend of Tia's suggested the National Writers Union. I had heard of them and they sounded like a good group of progressive folks. But when Tia called the office of the New York local, at two o'clock on a Monday afternoon, all she got was an answering machine. She left a message saying she urgently needed to join a union. Four months later she still hadn't heard from them.

Feeling exasperated, they decided to call the Brooklyn local of the seafarers' union. They explained that they both "loved the water," and each of them owned a blue striped T-shirt. They spoke with the "port agent," who told them they had to get "seaman's papers," and the only way to do that was to apply to the Coast Guard.

Tia called the Coast Guard, but there was no answer. So much for national security.

Next up was the longshoremen's union. The guy there told them to get papers first from the Waterfront Commission. But the man at the Waterfront Commission told them they don't issue papers anymore to anybody "not even [New York City Mayor] Giuliani himself." I guess that means nobody.

Their next call went to the machinists' union (Tia and Gillian have to keep fixing the fax machine here in the office, so we thought they would qualify as machinists). The union seemed interested, but said the women would have to fork over a $300 initiation fee. That's a month's worth of groceries.

So it was on to other unions. Tia called the sanitation workers' union. The representative asked her which trash company she worked for.

"Random House," she replied.

"That's not a trash company," he said.

"Yes, it is. They publish Joan Collins."

"Our rules are very specific. You have to pick up trash, not put it out."

He did refer her to Teamster locals 1034 and 840, the miscellaneous locals that cover hay-and-feed workers at the racetrack, cemetery groundskeepers, and needle workers at the blood bank. Finally she was getting somewhere.

The people at Teamster local 840 were more than happy to sign Tia and Gillian up. All that was left was for me to sit down and negotiate the contract.

But the process of finding a union had taken so long that I did not speak to the union rep until Tia and Gillian had finished working on the book. Hey, what's two less non-union workers when you got 108,800,000 of 'em!

But, in spite of all this, I remain hopeful. The more Corporate America destroys the average person's American Dream, the more they're doing the organizing for us. And some unions, lately, have elected better leaders. As labor historian Peter Rachleff pointed out recently in The Nation, back in the 1920s, unions went from representing nearly 20 percent of the country's workforce down to almost 10 percent. Unions looked like they were finished. At that time, like today, the wealthy 1 percent earned more than the entire combined income of the bottom 40 percent. Strikes had become a thing of the past, and labor leaders urged the rank and file to "act with caution and to cooperate with management." Wages became stagnant, the work week lengthened, and Wall Street was giddy with investors.

But eventually, the chickens came home to roost. The stock market crashed, and within ten years, millions of Americans had gone on strike and formed new and bigger unions. Life got better. It can again.

And this time, with so many white-collar workers and managers being downsized, we'll soon have the chance to see our former bosses marching with us in solidarity on the picket line. Whatever hardships we've all been going through lately, it will have been worth it just to see that day!

By the way, this paperback edition you're now reading is brought to you by the country's only unionized major publishing house, HarperCollins. One small step leads to one giant leap . . .

1996 Michael Moore. All Rights Reserved.