I was trained as a minister, not a profession highly represented by labor unions. For various reasons, in the mid-1980s I decided to spend a few years working with my hands while I raised my family and learned a little more about life.
I got a job with Eastern Airlines which had just expanded its hub in Kansas City, MO. A daily commute of about 40 miles each way made it possible to continue living in a small town without disrupting our children’s lives. I joined the union as a condition of employment. Missouri did not have regulations banning exclusive contracts. Harry Truman supported the rights of workers to organize and did not allow “right-to-work” laws to take root in his home state. By that time, my thinking had changed and I was in favor of belong to the union anyway.
The workforce I joined consisted of some old timers who had transferred from Philadelphia, Atlanta, Miami, and New York. Many of them represented the old style of union workers: they had bad attitudes and resented the company. But most of the workers were young, energetic, conscientious, and hard working. Most had college degrees. This was a time of high unemployment and they were smart enough to recognize an opportunity for a good job with good benefits.
Eastern had just entered a new phase of management and worker relations. A new contract based on cooperation between management and works had taken root and was working. Under the contract workers had agreed to concessions of about 18%. In return they would form teams working to find more efficient ways of getting the job done and enhancing revenue for the company. When the resulting savings could be demonstrated, an appropriate percentage of the concessions would be returned to the workers.
It worked beautifully. Everyone had a good attitude (well, the old-timers kept their attitude to themselves). Flights got in and out on time without luggage being lost or damaged. It turned out that the people who did the job knew how to do it best. Customer satisfaction was high and millions of dollars in savings were identified.
Then a new president was hired, a man who took pride in breaking unions. He didn’t like the new ways of cooperation and wanted to go back to the old ways of fighting. He demanded new, deeper, and permanent concessions–take it or leave it.
Overnight the workforce was demoralized. Company supervisors were required to use harsh tactics and fire so many people they clogged up the grievance process. I saw first hand how vicious and malicious corporate management could be in its attempt to control workers.
In particular, I remember the case of one man who had been appointed to the safety committee because he was so scrupulous. He made sure all of his coworkers followed safety rules to the letter, to the point of becoming a friendly nuisance. We would groan, but actually appreciate his concerns even in matters we thought trivial. During the apocalyptic last days of the company he was fired on the spot when equipment he was operating malfunctioned. The supervisor knew it wasn’t his fault, but he followed his orders.
The union felt it had been betrayed and vowed never to accept another concession. Like old Samson, they would rather pull the financial house down on top of them than be bullied into submission. And that’s what happened. The end result was a strike, bankruptcy, and the end of Eastern Airlines.
People don’t like being bullied or dictated to. They want to have a voice in their destiny, political or financial.
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