The first time I came face to face with the strength of organized labor was in the parking lot of Small Arms Manufacturing, a machine shop that made gun barrels near Pittsburgh. The night before, I had worked my first solo shift running the drills. The daytime driller met me in the parking lot with a scrapped gun barrel in one hand and my tally sheet in the other. I wasn’t sure how he got the tally sheet; I had dropped it into a locked box. He informed me that I had drilled too many barrels, pointing to the corrected count with the end of the gun barrel – “this is how many you will drill tonight!”
I complied that night, but the next day I asked my father what I should do. He explained it pretty simply:
“If you were battling him for this job, I’d say go for it, but you’re going to work here for 4 more months and then leave for college. Why make trouble for him? Besides, I don’t think the gun barrel was just for effect.”
Two years later, I was working as an “89-day wonder” for the Post Office. If you worked 90 days, you had to be treated like the union employees. If you worked fewer days, even by one, they could bust your butt. I didn’t care, the money was very good. The thing the Postmaster liked most about my situation was that he could schedule me for any hours during a day. A union employee could be made to work a split shift, but the endpoints had to fall within a 12-hour period. I was frequently made to start at 3:00 am, work until 6:30 am and then return at 3:30 pm and work until 9:00. The union guys accepted us into their ranks pretty well; they gave us some crap, laughed at our mistakes, but the 89 days passed pretty easily. That was good since there was no complaining to dad on this one, he was one of the union guys.
My mail route was referred to as “Auxiliary” which meant that I delivered mail to all the major businesses in town that didn’t have boxes in the lobby. One of the places on my route was Mayview State Mental Hospital where my mother worked. She was the switchboard supervisor, and when the union employees went on strike, she basically lived at her job for about a week. I stuffed a bunch of clothes and a few snacks into a mail bag, and threw it into my truck. I drove through the picket line to a chorus of jeers and expletives, but nobody actually tried to stop the U.S. Mail.
Later that summer, the workers at a Universal Cyclops Specialty Steel went on strike. I drove up to a point where I had to cross a small bridge to get into the mill complex, and a large man with a bar of steel in one hand stepped in front of my truck. Another man came to my window and asked me what I was planning to do. The large man quietly slapped the steel bar into his other hand while I decided. When I told him that I was supposed to deliver the mail, he suggested that I call the office from the guard shack. That sounded like a good idea to me. The man in the office complained that “they have no right to stop the mail” but he wasn’t looking at the human stop sign. Mailmen aren’t required to go anywhere that might be dangerous – I waited at the bridge.
After I graduated from college, I ended up working for Airborne Freight as a Methods Analyst. My job was to design automated systems and to try to think of new ways to make those systems improve productivity. One of my first assignments was to perform a post-implementation review on a Driver Manifest system. Since we had implemented the system, our computing capacity had grown to the point where the manifest could be sorted in the order of the driver’s route. I thought that printing the manifest in that order would help the drivers load their trucks. Any time we had an idea that would affect station operations, we had to run it past three station managers – Seattle (where we were located), one other medium-sized station (I usually chose Phoenix) and one of the big-3 (NY, Chicago or LA). I called the station managers and explained my idea. Seattle and Phoenix were impressed, less so the guy in NY.
“So tell me college boy, are you going to come to New York and explain to my drivers that you know how to load their truck better than they do? ’Cause I’d like to see that!”
I tried explaining that I had some experience loading a truck and driving a delivery route, but that only served to beg the comparison between mailmen and Teamsters – not a pretty verbal picture.
I have a great deal of respect for union workers and their cause in general. The machine shop that I worked in wasn’t actually a union shop, and the working conditions were awful. I think there is room for and a need for labor and management to work together to craft an approach to the 21st century workforce, but I don’t think a return to the 19th century standard is the way to go. Happy Labor Day America!