Recovering union steward

My first job out of high school was at Giant Eagle grocery store. I started off a cart return guy, then grocery bagger and finally a stock clerk. As a non management employee I was required to join United Food and Commercial Workers Union. We went on strike once during the early 90’s. We focused on wages and benefits. We focused on retiree benefits and job security. We played by the rules and got just enough concessions after a month to save face and go back to work.

My next job was for AT&T long distance where I was required to join Communication Workers of America local 13500.
The atmosphere was very adversarial.
We needed vigilant union stewards to keep our site management accountable. Labor violations were numerous and consistent.

Things got worse when The Baby Bells: Bell South, Southwestern Bell merged with AT&T long distance (Ma Bell). The new company set about closing our office. We were all paid top rate with Cadillac health insurance.
In 2005 we received the closing announcement. Our union leaders joined forces with local democrats: the Pittsburgh mayor, Allegheny county executive and governor of Pennsylvania. The democrats waived substantial amount of money at AT&T.
We got our jobs back. No republicans were contacted.
I became a union steward for the same reason as everyone else – fight the managers who were breaking rules and mistreating my coworkers.
I quickly learned that the position of executive chief steward was a great deal if you could get it. Travel to conventions and a GET OUT OF WORK FREE card were great perks. Every single executive chief steward we had succumbed to the temptation. I remarked to a fellow union steward “it’s like they turn into small time politicians!”
Indeed there was a tremendous amount of cliques and office politics among the stewards and especially with executive.
The CWA didn’t just tell us to vote straight Democrat every election; they insisted on all stewards helping state politicians get elected. We were expected to support every piece of liberal legislation too. Almost none of this legislation affected our jobs directly.
I flatly refused to do phone banking or put up pro Democrat signs or anything else. I was a steward to secure the rights of my fellow coworkers in my company. I was not a steward in order to change immigration law or Cap & Trade etc. I finished my term and emphatically insisted that no one should ask me run for that position again.

I realize that unions vary at the national and local levels. Some are involved in racketeering, bullying their own members etc. Others seem to exist for no reason other than to funnel union dues into the Democratic party.
I chose to focus on the original purpose of helping safeguard the rights and privileges of my union brothers and sisters.

My office closed for good May 24, 2013
I don’t know who my next employer will be. I must confess I feel very ambivalent about working at another ‘union shop’ where one is required to join the union and pay dues.

Update: September 7th, 2015
I now work for a local power utility. The job required me to join IBEW. I needed the local stewards help a few times in the year I have been here. I pay an obscene amount of union dues. Help is grudging. The contract negotiations are poorly done. The disconnect between the Union leadership and the rank and file is striking. They only want to talk to us during elections (Hint: “vote straight Dems!”)

Still, the idealist in me sometimes wants to engage the Union leaders. Surprisingly, management has been more amenable to communicate and change than IBEW. And they pay me an excellent wage. Hmm.


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