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The Turning Point

05 Feb

By: Ricardo Torres

Confessions of a union organizer

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The Art of Manipulation

The location could be anywhere with any union. There are rules that even a top-level union official cannot control. After reading previous “Confessions”, and though it may be hard for you to believe, I did find some lines I didn’t want to cross. In some way I believe that what you are about to read was a turning point in my extensive career on the union side, and possibly even one of the most influential reason for my confessions.

Ricardo Torres – President & CEO

At first, the members never actually wanted to strike. If the union doesn’t get what it wants or if the agreement didn’t meet the guidelines imposed by the International Union then we know the worker’s situation is not acceptable. If we wanted to prove a point as an overallorganizing strategy, then it was our job to manipulate members to believe they will have more leverage at the bargaining table if they do strike the company. It was always looming there. We would STRIKE. A Strike means no pay, no benefits at all, and sometimes, most importantly, no medical coverage.

As an international Strike Coordinator, my job was to make sure all aspects of the strike plan from company product boycotts, community support and keeping members from crossing the picket line were tightly adhered to. I never took a pay cut when we took workers on strike and insome cases the union constitution , as in the Teamsters, required the members to continue paying union dues while on strike if they wanted their strike pay. This was required to maintain “member in good standing” status.

We made sure all strikers reported for duty at their assigned locations and in big strikes that might be 4,000, 5,000, more than 10,000 strikers or maybe just a few hundred.

Imagine how a striker might feel to the sole provider for a family of four. You are a member of a union that has just announced their plans for a strike for demands that haven’t been met. The company you work for has taken a hard stance and you know they aren’t backing down or accepting the union demands. Imagine that a strike is imminent.

Your first obligation as a member is to the union. As a striker you are now working at night in front of you managers home, or are spending time driving by his/her grocery stores and church. Instead of being home with your family, you are now busy waking up your manager’s family at midnight with loud horns and sirens or standing on a picket line.

Perhaps you even know the family that you now need to torment, but this is work and very personal. In small cities, the employer’s kidsand union employee’s kids usually go to the same schools. This needs tobe separated. Your kids are home, and you’ve paid for a babysitter to watch them so you could stand outside in inclement weather to hold up signs for your cause, which may or may not have been as important to youpersonally, but it has now become your life’s mission.

Your babysitter is charging $10 per hour and you are no longer receiving a paycheck. If your strike duty is at 8pm then you show up at 7:59….no matter what! Even if you truly believe in your cause, you realize at some point that your children are still home waiting for you.They don’t understand the cause.

One occurrence I will always remember as a Strike Coordinator andwas a true eye-opener for me began with one union striking member who was never terrified of a strike that became imminent. After about a yearinto the strike he became sick and was battling cancer. He was trying to raise money for treatments while still trying to fulfill his strike obligations. So he, like all the rest of the strikers, was out on the picket line. Only now he went out without his much needed medical coverage. He never deviated, he never asked a question. His family called me in despair. They couldn’t afford his treatments, and asked me if I could help. We tried to help him through our community resource outreach but they were restricted to the “one time assistance” rule which never had the type of resources required to help him.

During this strike, there were six unions with seven locals (Two IBT locals) and they held weekly council meetings to discuss the overallstrike plan. As an international strike director I was not allowed to interfere with local issues but never thought there would be a problem addressing this issue with them.

I couldn’t have been more off base on my assumption. I was told by the head of the council that this striker was an inspiration to otherstrikers who were thinking of crossing the picket line and he had a moral obligation to stay out on strike and if he did not then he would be treated like any other SCAB. I was outraged and in front of the council leaders I offered to drive him across myself, he said no and at that point I was reminded of my limitations when dealing with local union business. They were going to make sure I was fired and barred fromany further union dealings, this was later denied because we were in a closed meeting and no members besides the cancer stricken gentleman was in attendance.

When we left the meeting he thanked me on his behalf and on behalf of his family but said that he would never cross the picket line without the union counsels blessing. When I asked him why he wasn’t putting his family first he told me, “I would rather die a man then to live as a scab.” At this moment I realized how much influence we had over our membership and how we used these strong emotions to our benefitwhether it is on strikes or union organizing campaigns. The stronger the emotions and the more angry the employees are, the easier it was forus to manipulate them.

What happened next still haunts me! He didn’t cross that picket line, and he died of cancer. Maybe those treatments would have made the difference, maybe not. But that question still lives with me today. The union used him as a pawn. In a moment of clarity, I made one of the first moral decisions to TRULY stand up for a worker. This was the turning point. This is when I began to see the unions for what they really are, big business caring for the dollar more than the lives of the workers and their families. Maybe not, I would need more time to see.

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