union

“Union Dues” is the title of a novel by the film maker John Sayles. I haven’t read it yet but people tell me its good. Its about a coal miner from West Virginia who is involved in union organizing and his relationship with his son, who runs away and becomes involved in Boston’s radical underground of the 60s and early 70s. There is a fictionalized version of Micheal Ansara. Ansara was for years a legend in Boston’s left activist scene. He was in  Harvard SDS (Students for A Democratic Society)  in the ’60s. Ansara was in jail twice. In the the late 60s he committed  stock market fraud as a way of financing the SDS and other radical activities. Later in the 90s he was jailed for his shenanigans in connection with the reform movement in the Teamsters union.  I am not familiar with all the details but people tell me he played a  very destructive role in that movement.

Ansara gravitated toward the “liberal/left” Democratic Party wing of the 60s/70s Movement. His politics are despised by leftists I know but he still remains something of a legend. In the 80s he started a company called MassFairShare which specialized in raising money for progressive causes. Since it started the company has split, been renamed, and morphed into something else. It became the company I worked for, Share, in the 90s. Ansarra eventually sold his “share” of Share. By the time I got there the only echo of the original radical ambiance were corny prints hung on the hallway walls of the 60s civil rights movements and the fact that  Share billed itself as a “progressive” company. There was a feisty union, which the company was trying very hard to destroy. This is the story , in part,of how this happened and of how Share became the reverse of Ansarra’s vision..


Someone told me that Micheal Ansara is now living in Toronto , Canada and is running a copy  machine business. He came into Share once and I met him briefly. Short hippyish looking guy with curly hair. He seemed friendly enough. Okay, the main story.

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I came in to Share for my first interview. The woman interviewing me asked me to make a mock demonstration fundraising call for something I felt strongly about. I’m good at thinking on  my feet. I did a spiel about ending the war in Iraq, which is something I certainly feel strongly about. Apparently I was good because I was hired right there. The woman who interviewed me told me that Share was an employee owned company and there was a lot of anger against the union. “Its a very tense situation,” she said. “You might see some of this when you work here”. Okay. I thought it odd that an employee owned company would be angry at their own union.

I started the training  and then they put me to work. This was heading up to the election of ’04. We called for the various Democratic Party candidates, as well as a zillion liberal groups. Nothing we called for of course, had anything to do with stopping the war in Iraq. I asked people about Share being an “employee owned company”. That wasn’t even remotely true. What the woman who interviewed me, (who shortly thereafter left) possibly meant was the fact that , for a time, the 401K pension plan which some people had  owned a small number of shares in the company that bought Share from Micheal Ansara. This was about 1% of the total investments of the pension fund. Of course that does not make for an employee owned company.

When I first got there I also didn’t notice any hostility connected to the union or labor unrest. Then, about a month and a half after I got there, the tension started. People became more and more agitated. I started going to union meetings, usually held in a conference room on company premises. The meetings I went to were essentially free form yelling matches. People, mostly in their 40s and 50s were yelling and sometimes screaming at each other, accusing one another of working for the company, or letting down their co-workers, or destroying the company. Personal attacks would flow like water.

No one ever explained what was going on. There were no memos from the union, no communication about the reason for the unrest whatsoever. I could sit though a whole union meeting and still not really know what the yelling and shouting was about. Other newcomers seemed to feel like I did. The consensus of the newbies seemed to be to just stay out of the whole thing. Of the group that was hired at the time I was  most only stayed a few months and then found something else. I was the only one who stayed over six months..

I eventually found out what was going on. The union contract was about to expire. To be without a contract would be a dangerous situation. Management could do anything they wanted and no one trusted management. What was going on basically was that the management was using delaying tactics, dragging out the negotiations as long as possible . It was like a game of chicken. Share at that time was the last of the unionized call centers. It was possibly the  only call center tin the US to also offer any benefits. In the new contract which management  wanted there would be a substantially  lower wage and benefits scale for new employees. A two tiered wage system, something which is (I found out much later) becoming increasingly common in the US.

At the time the union we were in was  the CWA (Communications Workers of America). They are the main union of Verizion employees. The head of our local (or rather our workplace branch of the local) was a guy win his 60s whom I’ll call “Irv” (not his real name) Irv seemed like a sweet, grandfatherly type of guy. Nobody there seemed to like or trust Irv  though  Several people told me to be very careful of what I said to him, he was assumed to be really working for management. (This was in spite of the fact that he had been elected as president of the union). I got along with him well but kept my distance.

Tension increased. There were several yelling matches near where I usually liked to sit between Irv and other callers. There were several times it almost came to blows. I stayed out of this as much as I could.

My view at this time? Well, I had mixed emotions. On principle I supported the union and their fight against the company. On the other hand though at the time I didn’t understand what people were so upset about. My thinking was something along the order of  “Its just a call center job. The company probably is exploitative and is trying to screw people and this should be resisted but then, its an unskilled or semi-skilled job. Employers at this level are always exploitive. Why don’t some of the people who were shouting their heads off about how crummy Share was (and I had to basically agree with them), take that energy and try to get something better? Now, I still think there’s some truth to this, many people did seem obsessed and irrational, but as far getting something else, I found that was better said than done. I didn’t think I’d be there that long. During the crisis I continually veered back and forth as to whether, or how much I should get involved.

The union reps, the people on the bargaining committee and the shop stewards, were paid for the union work . I’m not sure exactly how this was done. One of the most militant members of the union bargaining committee was a guy named Chris. Chris had worked at Share for 11 years. He was one of the few people who could state the issues well. I assumed he was a leftist, much later on I found out he was essentially a far right wing Republican. Well, in the middle of the unrest Chris allegedly pocketed the money due  the other union reps. People were livid. The reps put posters all over the call center denouncing Chris. Chris remained a fiery militant. A while after that he was fired (on an unrelated issue). He took it to court and was eventually offered his job back. He refused to take it. He felt Share owed him thousands of dollars in compensation due him from years of past grievances, I don’t know the details. People I talked to about this thought this was pretty much a figment of Chris’ imagination. Despite this he seems to have made getting compensation from Share his life’s work. Two years after he had been fired he still kept showing up at union meetings.

At that time the director of the call center was an African-American Muslim named Massoud. I didn’t have a lot to do with him but to me he seemed like a very kind, friendly person. The employees were divided in their opinion of him. Some people, (especially the black employees) liked him. He was a “much beloved” boss. Other people thought he was an incompetent who deliberately stayed holed up in his office all day so he wouldn’t have to do anything. I didn’t know enough to have an opinion about him either way (and it  wasn’t something I really cared about very much either) . Anyway one day Massoud abruptly resigned. He made a short speech at the beginning of the second shift. It was something like “Share is changing its direction and is going in a way I’m not comfortable with”. Apparently he was being pushed out. Share had offered him another position but he refused. He was leaving.

Shifts are divided into two parts, “before break”, and “after break”. Word quickly got out that there would be a walk out after the 15 minute break . The African-American employees were leading this. Everyone was urged to leave. I did. In the parking lot was an impromptu union meeting. People took turns making very militant sounding speeches. A lot of this sounded ridiculous. One guy,  (I’ll call him Dave) who seemed to enjoy being the center of attention, made a speech. “I’m going to boycott every single Saturday until a contract is sign. EVERY SINGLE SATURDAY!” He said this in pompous, stentorian tones. Someone in the crowd pointed out, “Dave, you don’t work Saturdays anyway”. There was a good laugh.

I don’t mean to belittle the anger and militancy people were feeling. By now I felt it myself. At Share though much of it was misdirected. If the union had been better organized it could have been a much different situation. I will elaborate as I proceed.

Share had, sometime earlier, been bought, or was partially owned, by a New York investment company. Both the intransigent position of Share management and the fact that Massoud was pushed out were thought to be the results of this.

There was a guy I quickly got to be friends with,. I’ll call him Gary .A hippyish looking guy in his fifties with shoulder length hair. I didn’t know his background, what he had done previously, but he was one of the most intelligent people I’ve known. He was literally a walking encyclopedia of foreign films, history and political theory, Though out my time at Share I learned a lot talking to Gary. For me was one of the few blessings of being there. I quickly found out that Gary was a Trotskyist. He gave me informal reading and film lists. Once he gave me his dog eared copy of Issac Deutscher’s famous biography of Trotsky (The Prophet Armed, Disarmed, In Exile.)  This was one of the most exciting books I’ve read.

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 Gary was also the most radically militant at the union meetings but his was a quiet, intelligent militancy. At one union meeting someone mentioned that if we did go on strike it would hurt the non-profits we were calling for. Gary then said that because of this now would be a good time for a strike. The Democratic Party got a lot of its funding from Share. The Kerry campaign needed us and the union had a great deal of leverage. No one agreed with Gary . People thought this would throw the election (as if one call center could determine a national election) People thought that it would be a tragedy if Kerry didn’t defeat Bush. Gary said Bush would win no matter what. If one is campaigning on a neo-liberal agenda, you can’t defeat Bush by being “Bush lite” .There was no essential difference between the candidates . No one agreed with Gary. I didn’t agree with him then. myself  I do now.

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It was getting very close to the deadline-the time when management had to agree on the terms for a contract.  The standoff was becoming increasingly tense . The union was preparing to go on strike. The union reps made a list of those pledging to honor the strike vote.  This was about 90% of all Share employees. It came out during this time that Share was using Jackson and Lewis, a famous (or infamous) union busting law firm to represent themselves. Jackson and Lewis actually brag on their website of their effectiveness in keeping workplaces “union free” (and hence low paid). Management circulated anti-strike propaganda, generally primitive and not well written. The gist of it was that striking employees will not be paid while union officials will continue to receive paychecks. Primitive but it did scare some people. About a dozen people refused the strike. One woman,a Hispanic lesbian, originally a militant, was openly advised callers to cross the picket lines, when the time came. There were yelling matches.

The head of the CWA local, a very macho guy named Don Tremantozzi, came in several times to explain what would happen if there was a strike. Employees would be assigned picket duty -you had to do picketing to receive strike pay. The strike pay itself would be very low. I was worried. I was hoping, if there was a strike, I could get another job, still do picketing, and be paid twice. I really needed the money. Irv  had fought hard against a strike vote. Now he
surprised people by very energetically organizing the picketing, once a strike vote had passed.
It was very close to the deadline.