Disgruntled Autoworker
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Disgruntled Autoworkers #3
December 2000

A Gypsy's Tale - & - I Want Pride in My Union Back

I was working in a sweatshop when I heard General Motors in Bristol, Connecticut was hiring. Everyone I knew was trying to get a job there, because they offered the best pay and benefits around. At the time they were hiring veterans, since the conflict in Vietnam had just ended. I didn't go to Nam, but I was a Vietnam era veteran, and being a vet with a lot of persistence at the company's employment office finally paid off. It took me over a year with many lay-offs before I could consider myself a full time employee and a member of the UAW. I had it made; it may have been a dirty, smelly and noisy place to work (ball bearing factory), but I loved it.

Our union, Local 626 was one of the best, east of the Hudson River. I was a material handler with a battery-powered truck that allowed me the freedom to travel around the plant in the performance of my job. In the five years I did that job, I can't count how many times in my travels I witnessed a committeeman and a supervisor going toe-to-toe and nose-to-nose. I have no idea what they were arguing about, but it was a common occurrence. You could literally see the spittle flying between them and you knew eight out of ten times the committeeman would be the victor. It was a situation to behold and it made you feel proud to be a union man.

As with all good things, it came to an end. Japan was making ball bearings cheaper than we could, and five years after I began with the corporation, they (Japan) put us out of business. It was great while it lasted. I thought that was the end of my career with the corporation and went back to work in a small sweatshop. About three years later, in the spring of 84, I received a letter offering me a job in a Louisiana assembly plant. That's pretty far from my Connecticut roots, so I decided to wait awhile and see if I got any other offers.

A month later I heard from a former coworker that a plant in Framingham, Massachusetts was hiring, so I got on the phone and was told I could start as soon as I got there. Accepting that transfer labeled me a Document 28 employee or a Gypsy, as we've become known in the corporation. At first there was some resentment from the locals, because they felt we (Gypsy's) were taking jobs from their family and friends. Once they realized their plants future wasn't so bright they toned it down, knowing they could become Gypsies at any time also.

Framingham's union, Local 422, wasn't as strong as the one I left behind in Bristol, but they weren't weak either. In the four years I worked in the Massachusetts assembly plant, I never once saw or heard of a committeeperson and a supervisor so much as yell at each other, never mind spray each other with spittle. Locals told me their union officials used to be like that a few years ago, but they seemed to have mellowed as time passed. What I did notice about the union is that the committeeperson would fight harder for the lazy shiftless worker than they would for the hard working dedicated one. Unlike in Connecticut where everyone was treated fairly, at least as far as I remember, in Massachusetts I witnessed favoritism for the first time by union reps.

Again, as with all good things, yada, yada, yada. In the spring of 88, the Massachusetts plant laid off second shift and a year later closed the doors, because two other plants (Mexico and Oklahoma) were making the same product. At the time there were no transfers available, so most of us took advantage of our educational benefits, and became nurse's aids, chefs, butchers, truck drivers and a wide range of other skills that were available. Then in the spring of 89, options for transfers to Buffalo and Baltimore arrived in the mail.

On Memorial Day weekend of 89, a buddy and I loaded up our trucks and put our two-man caravan on the road to Baltimore where our families would join us later. We weren't alone. Baltimore was already home to a couple hundred Gypsies from all over the country and more would be transferring in as time went on. Most of the locals treated us as one of their own; since it wasn't long ago many of them transferred to other plants and back again. So they sympathized with what we were going through.

Baltimore's union, Local 239 was self-serving; right from the start you couldn't help notice favoritism. In my first month, I witnessed one occasion where a committeeman approved of a move where work was to be taken from one workers job, an ex-committeeman whose job was under worked to begin with, and put that work on another who was overworked already. All you could do was shake your head and be thankful the work wasn't added to your job.

That was the modus operandi of the local union. Their quarterly schedule for meetings kept the members in a docile mode, thus limiting their involvement in union affairs, and the membership accepted this as the natural order of business. During the course of the 90's, my fellow Gypsies and I were telling the locals about how strong the unions were in our plants, and we were opening their eyes to the way our unions conducted business as opposed to theirs. Towards the end of the 90's, the Gypsies' influence was starting to take root. Union officials were beginning to become agitated with their Gypsies, now numbered at about 400, or 15% of the work force.

I was an assembler on the line in trim, and later the paint department (sealer line) for about six years on night shift, and had an opportunity to transfer to daylight trim. I eventually transferred my way back to the paint department, slightly ahead of the chaos and confusion that was about to hit the assembly line on a plant wide scale. Being a floater in paint was a good job; I had no complaints compared to the horror stories I was hearing from coworkers in trim, chassis and the body shop. It seems the corporation was in a lean and mean downsizing mode again, and were eliminating more good jobs and adding the work to already overworked jobs.

While most of us on the line were working harder, our union officials were in bed with the company (bathing each other in spittle) and working less. They wouldn't allow us to write up our jobs, there was borderline discrimination when it came to their treatment of Gypsies, and our elections results were questionable, especially when they said we approved a new type of non-expiring contract so they could secure a new plant down the street. The final straw was their blatant abuse of nepotism and favoritism, both here and at the new plant.

We complained to the high heavens; first to our union officials, with no results, and later to officials of the International in the form of a petition. Their response was that our President was within his rights, without hearing the member's side of the issue. In July, a disgruntled member complaining not only about our President's abuses but the Internationals blatant abuse of nepotism and favoritism as well sent a letter to the Detroit Free Press. That finally got the International involved. Although not in the way we had hoped. The International stepped in and promoted our President to a local regional position, hoping the issues would go away.

The issues didn't go away; if anything, the membership was more furious with our now ex-President for deserting us without resolving the situation he created. We're also equally furious with the International for not disciplining our President for his abuse of our trust and for selling us out. The International's total lack of concern for the members of our local, and the situation our President put us in, was a very rude wake up call for us. The International threw what dignity we had to the curb like yesterday's garbage, and all for a good old boy who sold us down the river. Reminds me of a Star Trek line, "The needs of the one, out weigh the needs of the many." What a shame.

Anyway, our current Vice President, lacking any leadership qualities, slides into the vacant President's slot creating an opening for Vice. We have a run-off election between a seasoned experienced union man who is a member of the clique, and a feisty new member who wrote, circulated and sent the petition to the international. She is a puppy going up against a big dog who wouldn't think twice about biting her head off.

Before the election, rumors were rampant about the union's plan. They wanted the seasoned union man to win so they could appoint our new under qualified President to a do nothing International position, and move the union man up to President, thus still maintaining control over the membership. Our resident disgruntled member who helped fan the flames with newsletters about our leadership's abuses, put out a letter detailing events that took place at a recent union meeting about how our officials railroaded the members. They radically changed a proposal submitted by our feisty new member that would have benefited the entire membership. The letter exposed yet again our leader's total disregard for the membership, and encouraged members to vote outside the clique.

We held our elections on 10-25-00, and our feisty new member won. Much to the satisfaction of the majority of the membership, that election victory delivered a message to our clique, "We will no longer tolerate self-serving officials." It's a safe bet to say the rest of our good old boys will get their comeuppance in our next elections. If all goes well, control of our union will belong to the members, as it should.

We got satisfaction from electing her Vice President, and in doing so, threw a wrench into the works of our union's clique. I think she will be a thorn in their side and rightly so. They deserve it and a whole lot more. We put our trust in our officials when we elected them, and they let us down when they sold us out for their family and friends. At least now we have someone in office to keep an eye on things.

They weren't like that when we elected them. Or were they? Could it be our officials saw corruption at the International (Local 594) and decided, "What's good for one is good for the other?" Or is there truth to the saying that power corrupts? I don't know. Whatever happened, the bottom line is we were the victims of our so-called elected official's selfishness and greed. Our pleas for help to the International were a waste of time; all they did was rub salt in our wounds.

The very institution (UAW) we've been paying dues to for all these years and thought was supposed to be there to look out for us, was treating us like the scum on the bottom of their shoes. They were the same as a dead-beat dad to us, and we will never again be able to turn to them for help. Their rewarding our corrupt President sent us a very strong message that corruption must be the natural order of business at the International as well.

I didn't want to see the Bristol or Framingham plants close because I had pride in their unions and liked working in both places. Many officials here say, "That's why your plants closed, because the unions were too strong." Maybe so, but at least they went down with their backbones intact. The future of the Baltimore plant is still questionable; in spite of our union officials shamelessly promising to eat whatever is put on their plates. If you ask a fellow Gypsy, they'll tell you pride in the union is gone. Transferring is not an option, we're tired of moving, but in the back of our minds we wish this place would close, in the meantime we're going to ride it out.

I Want Pride in My Union Back

I attended a New Directions Movement Conference and a UAW Solidarity Coalition Conference held in Flint, Michigan at the end of October 2000, and in the two days I spent there, I was appalled with the many stories I heard from all over the country. During the drive home, I couldn't help thinking that the problems we have in (Local 239) Baltimore, though significant to us, are minor in comparison to the injustices that other local unions and individuals have had to endure from their companies and/or unions.

Some members at Ford, (Local 136, Local 849 and Local 879) with the unions assistance, have been put out on a psychological medical for exercising their right to free speech, and for being a threat to their local leaders in elections. They are required to take a series of psyche evaluations to determine their sanity. Once a member's sanity has been established they are still not allowed to return to work until they sign a waver stating they will not file a grievance for one year and cease all dissident activities. This practice in itself is a strong indicator there are heads at Ford, in both management and union that need psyche evaluation, or shock treatments.

Members of Local 2036 in Henderson, Kentucky have been locked out for almost three years. Do officials of the International come to their aid? No, instead they order members to settle and go back to work. The members rejected the contract five times; the International puts them in receivership and denies the members strike pay and benefits for 14 months. It took a letter and e-mail campaign by union activists nationwide to convince the International to restore their strike pay (doubled to $350) and benefits; meanwhile, members are still locked out, replaced by scabs, and have not been reimbursed for the 14 months strike pay they lost.

Members of Local 594 in Pontiac, Michigan have a multi-million dollar suit pending against the UAW and GM for nepotism, favoritism and the misuse of funds. Their situation idled several workers because International officials wanted to sneak their family and friends into skilled trades positions without the proper credentials or qualifications. Members of Local 685 in Indiana are having problems with their union's leadership. Charges of corruption are rampant, and an International official (Thurman) comes to the rescue of a good old boy, dismissing the membership's concerns. This is the same official who denied strike pay and benefits to Local 2036 in Henderson, Kentucky.

How can International officials not see a pattern here? Have they buried their heads in the sand, hoping that when they pull them out all their (our) problems will be gone? Hello, reality check, Solidarity House is crumbling, corruption is rampant within its walls and it's like a cancer that is affecting local unions all across the country. The locals that aren't affected by corruption are crumbling under the weight of the corporation's demands for concessions. Our International leaders are oblivious to the carnage going on around them; they're allowing the membership to be buried in the rubble while they're busy turning the UAW into a corporation.

They're becoming CEO's, using member's hard-earned funds to invest in a business (UBN) that will further their own selfish needs. They've also become shoddy bankers, investing in a joint venture (Pro Air) without securing the loan, and stand to lose $14 million of our money, because the company filed for bankruptcy. Not to mention law suits being filed against them, which if successful will deplete half our funds. They're out of control. Our International leaders, who have been picking and choosing their own replacements for the last two decades, have become clones of clones. They are so infected by the corruption that has been festering in their genes for the last 20 plus years that their brains have turned to mush; they have the illusion they are the corporate big shots they used to sit across from during contract negotiations.

How long are we, the rank and file, going to put up with it? Our International leaders need to be reined in or they will surely be our downfall. Our ranks have already been reduced by a few hundred thousand while theirs has increased. If we lose any more we will be powerless to stop them. When our leaders are more self-serving than serving, we should replace them. The longer we wait the worse it will get. Since they sit at the head of the table and hold the keys to Solidarity House, there's not a whole lot we as members can do. In the meantime and until an opportunity does present itself to solve our problem, and it will eventually, we can be a pain in their butts. How?

Since the UAW's President doesn't like certified mail, all the more reason to make Solidarity House the most popular stop on the Post Office's list next to the North Pole at Christmas time. A Certified Letter Campaign by all members who receive this article. Write the president and mail your letter by Certified Letter to 8000 E. Jefferson Ave. Detroit, MI 48214. We the rank and file need to do this to illustrate to our "Good Ole Boys" just how many of us there are that's disgruntled with their leadership and it also tells them what needs to be done (as if they don't know) so that we the membership of the UAW can have pride in our unions back.

In Solidarity,
Doug Hanscom

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