Which Side Are They On? 

Forget what you know about unions: the organizers I met were a bunch of snobs.

I'd realized this wasn't going to be a simple procedure where you send in a resume, sit for an interview, and wait for a response. We spent three days at the O'Hare Ramada for training at the AFL-CIO organizing institute, and now I and two other trainees, Nicole and Mary, were comparing notes as we drove into town on I-94.

"This might sound completely paranoid," Mary said, "but I think even the social hours were an inspection." Mary had passed the training and was about to move from Minnesota to Chicago, leaving behind her boyfriend and family. This was part of the job: we'd been warned that we'd be working 12-hour days and living out of suitcases. If we were going to convince others to risk their livelihoods and disrupt their lives, we had to be willing to do the same.

"All of it was scrutiny. They wanted to see how we did cooped up with a bunch of strangers," said Nicole, who'd only been offered the chance to be "salted"--meaning she'd get a job in a nonunion shop and feed information to organizers. She'd opted to stay in Michigan City and finish college.

I'd been offered a spot training in Ohio and West Virginia as a field organizer for Service Employees International Union district 1199, a local representing certified nursing assistants, hospital employees, registered nurses, and mental health workers. The job involved tracking down workers, interviewing them, and convincing them that the devil they knew wasn't safer than the devil they didn't: they could improve their workplaces and lives through collective bargaining.

I had three weeks to get my life in order and head out to meet with the 1199 field organizing team. I sold my books and CDs and passed my apartment on to my ex-girlfriend. I bought a car--something I'd done without since I was 20. I didn't leave myself any options for backing out. If I cut it I was looking at two weeks of paid training, three months as an apprentice, and then I'd be a full-blown union organizer.

Refusing to add a dime to the royalties, I'd bought a used copy of Confessions of a Union Buster. The author, Martin Jay Levitt, spent nearly 25 years of his life waging what he saw as war: "The enemy was the collective spirit," he writes. "I got hold of that spirit while it was a seedling; I poisoned it, choked it, bludgeoned it if I had to, anything to be sure it would never blossom into a united workforce." The local that had recruited me earned a special mention: "1199 was known as one of the most ferocious labor unions in the country." The author begrudgingly noted they fought as hard and as dirty as he did.

I couldn't wait to jump into this. I grew up in a union household. My dad worked as a lineman for Commonwealth Edison for 30 years. The Trib wasn't allowed in the house.

And I'd be sticking it to some crappy bosses, of whom I'd known plenty. I'd spent years moving furniture and hanging drywall, with stints as a press secretary for a long-shot state congressional candidate, a porn writer, a census taker supervised by ODB's mother, a floor walker in a juvie facility, and a writing teacher in a women's prison.

On one of my last days in Chicago I ran into an old buddy and former coworker, Jerry, who's been a mover for the same company for nearly 20 years. Jerry's carried pianos and sofas up and down back stairs so long his center of gravity's his lower back and his shoulders roll forward as if he's perpetually waiting for someone to put a box in his arms.

Jerry had torn a tendon in his shoulder the previous summer, and the company doctor signed him out with an allowance to lift 12 pounds. The office gave Jerry the option of sweeping the warehouse for a month. He's a proud man; he'd rather sit home than sweep floors. So Jerry went home, receiving no workman's comp since he'd "refused work," and when he returned a month later immediately tore his shoulder again. Now that he knew the routine he bypassed the doctor and worked part-time, every other day, to let his arm rest.

When I told Jerry about my new job he snapped,"Oh, man. Fucking unions! Those guys bug me all the time. They come up to me on jobs: 'Why don't you want to be in one?' Because I don't. I'll take care of myself and keep my money. Bunch of lazy fuckers."

I couldn't say much with six other guys running boxes from the truck to the house, but I wanted to ask Jerry if after 20-some years he'd end up with anything more than a hearty handshake from the company when his joints were finally ground beyond repair.

We wished each other well and he told me to be careful in West Virginia. "Deliverance, man. Watch out."

The morning of the SEIU district 1199 strategic planning conference in Columbus, I dressed for work having been warned beforehand of the dress code--shirt, tie, and dress pants. Downstairs, I learned from a cursory glance the dress code wasn't enforced until we were out in the field. We spent most of the morning sitting through a PowerPoint presentation from the district president, who repeatedly emphasized the significance of battleground states like Ohio and West Virginia in this year's presidential election. SEIU was fully behind Howard Dean--this was in January, pre-Tarzan yell--and Dean "house parties" were strongly encouraged, along with contributions to the union's presidential PAC.

After the opening meeting the organizing team gathered in a smaller conference room, led by the field director, Scott, a compact man with frosted blond hair, and Pam, a thin, angular woman from the international. Scott started off by reminding us that district 1199 had a reputation to uphold: last year they'd set a goal to organize 2,000 workers, 10 percent of their membership. They'd finished with 2,600 new members. The local had run more than one union vote every two weeks, winning 27 out of 31 elections.

Scott came across as a no-nonsense, straight-talking guy already bored with the conference and itching to get back to his campaign at a Cleveland hospital where the nuns were leading prayer vigils to keep the union out. He told us how at one service a couple of pro-union nurses had led a prayer asking the Lord to enlighten management so they'd quit fighting the union. In response it had been decreed that all subsequent vigils be silent.

"OK. We usually wait until we're in the bar for this," Scott said, "but new organizers have to testify. Just say something about yourself and why you're here. And do it standing on your chair." When my turn came I mentioned the union household where I grew up and explained that I'd worked all sorts of jobs with low pay and no benefits. Organizing unions, putting a little more money in a family's pocket, helping them fight for some autonomy would be a few more steps along the path toward, at the very least, education and health care reform.

We returned to the conference for dinner, and then everybody ran for the hotel bar. I quit drinking nearly four years ago, so I had to field a few questions about my club soda as everybody made small talk.

When Fidel Castro popped up on the bar's TV one shaggy young guy wearing a knit cap a la Radar O'Reilly said to me, "They do take care of the people, at least. They have the best health care."

"They have no food," I said. "Meat and milk once a week is a luxury for some."

"Oh, they have food," he told me. "Some people are poor, but they have food. Everything is taken care of by the government."

"So why are people willing to float over here on oil drums?" I asked. "Because they want to pay a deductible?"

Radar shrugged and looked around for other people to talk to. I met my roommate, Kevin, a baby-faced Bronx boy in his early 20s with tattoos in gothic script covering his neck and forearms. He'd never been out of New York except for some time in Florida with his grandmother. He was drinking Long Island iced teas.

Senior organizers told a couple of stories at the bar. They asked us new folks questions. Everybody seemed pleasant enough. I saw some organizers with SEIU 1199 shirts: "SEIU 1199--Tear the Motherfucking Roof Off...". Another shirt, depicting a work boot with flames sparking from the heels, announced "SEIU 1199--Kicking Ass for the Working Class." I wanted to correct the sentiment--I thought we were the working class. Being the new guy, though, I knew better than to say so.

After two days of the planning conference we headed to the SEIU office to work the phone banks in the basement. We each sat at a cubicle with a computer and headset. We were to say we were conducting a survey for an "independent group" doing a "study on the nursing home industry."

I put the headset on and the computer dialed through a list of certified nursing assistants in Ohio. If the person on the other end didn't hang up, I read from a list of questions and typed the answers into the input boxes. The survey led the interviewee through her work conditions, job satisfaction, pay and benefits, and view of management before reaching the subject of unions.

From the interviews we vacuumed leads for the upcoming union campaign: people who said they'd join a union if given the chance were put on a list at the end of each day. The work didn't seem so much like drudgery when I considered it as the first step in an organizing drive.

At least once a day I got a husband who announced that he'd speak for his wife.

"OK," I said. "How long have you been working as a certified nursing assistant?"

"I'm not a nurse."

"Then put your wife on the phone."

Usually the guy would hang up.

During a smoke break the West Virginia organizers walked past, a couple of them pulling Kevin by the sleeve. "We're gonna show him a map," said one of them, a woman named Dee. When she was a CNA involved in her own nursing home's union fight Dee had allegedly threatened an antiunion coworker with a baseball bat. If we had any sort of immediate superior, she was it.

"Dude," Kevin said as they dragged him through the door, "did you know West Virginia's a state?"

"Yeah, I caught that."

"Shit. I thought they were talking about the west side of Virginia. It's a state."

We hung out as a team every night, deciding where to eat, where to go drinking. The rift between Kevin and the rest of the organizers began as good-natured ragging about the "borough of Virginia," but soon escalated. Bolstered by Long Island iced teas, the more Kevin found people disagreed with him the more argumentative he became.

"I don't care," he announced during one debate. "If a woman's beautiful and smart and she's got money, cool. But if she's got hairy armpits--nuh-uh, not for me." The guys chuckled, the women jumped down his throat.

We kept phone banking every day. I interviewed women long past retirement age who loved their jobs and their bosses, even though they admitted the pay and benefits sucked. I talked to 18-year-old girls who hated the job, the pay, the benefits, and their bosses but distrusted unions more. Some women had axes to grind and were champing at the bit to talk to a union. Most of the CNAs were making less than eight bucks an hour and couldn't afford their company's health care plan.

Acting on behalf of a fictional surveying company might have been underhanded, but it compared pretty well to the opposition's tactics. In September 2000, Human Rights Watch published a report from an 18-month survey on workers' freedom to form unions and collectively bargain in the United States. The executive director, Kenneth Roth, summarized its findings as follows: "Loophole-ridden laws, paralyzing delays, and feeble enforcement have led to a culture of impunity in many areas of U.S. labor law and practice. Legal obstacles tilt the playing field so steeply against workers' freedom of association that the United States is in violation of international human rights standards for workers."

The 1935 National Labor Relations Act promised workers the "right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in mutual aid or protection." Now it's routinely negated by slap-on-the-wrist penalties. When a worker is illegally fired for union activities the only fine an employer faces is to render back pay due--minus any wages the employee has made since the firing. And that's only if a court orders that the employee be reinstated, a decision that usually comes only after a long legal battle. Lawyers' fees are considered the cost of doing business.

Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research for the New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University, performed an analysis of 400 union campaign elections in 1998 and 1999, focusing on the tactics used by employers during union campaigns. She found that 92 percent of private-sector employers held captive-audience meetings to discourage union activity during campaigns, 78 percent of employers used one-on-one meetings as a means to cajole, coerce, and threaten the employees, and 55 percent of employers forced workers to watch antiunion videos during election campaigns. Of course, all this happens on the clock.

In the March 2002 Federal Register, the Department of Labor provided this tip to employers: "To pay an hourly rate and time and one-half that rate for 5 hours of overtime in a 45-hour workweek and incur approximately the same total costs as the former $400 weekly salary, the regular hourly rate would compute to $8.42...." In other words, our government advised employers that if they hired someone for less than $8.50 an hour rather than $10, they could get five more hours of work at the same cost.

Phone banking wasn't such a dirty tactic. Just monotonous.

Reprieves from phone banking came in the form of training sessions that simulated the house visits we'd make during a campaign drive. When my turn came Dee took the role of the CNA I was to interview, while Pam from the international observed the drill with pen and notepad ready.

Throughout the session I pushed too hard in some places, too softly in others. Dee, playing the role of a woman supportive of the union but reluctant to join, told me that when one of her coworkers had once gone on strike in New York someone spit in her face. "That's New York," I said lightly. "Those people are different than us."

The conversation, about a half hour long, seemed to last for hours. At one point, growing frustrated, I told a still-hesitant Dee, "With that attitude, you're not going to have a union."

Pam, during the critique, told me this was a horrible thing to say. "And that comment you made about New York," she said, checking her notes. "Was that a joke?"

As Pam ran through her list of my missteps, I asked for corrections. This seemed to aggravate her, and I had to explain I wasn't being defensive, I wanted to know the proper responses.

"Go ask someone," Pam said. She also instructed me to smile more: "Do you ever smile in real life?"

"He does," Dee tried to help.

We continued phone banking through the weekend, counting the days until we were done. On our evenings out we'd catch glimpses of what was actually going on in the field.

One of SEIU's ongoing fights was with the president and CEO of a Head Start program in Columbus. Our local had learned that the CEO had allotted a $36,000 raise for herself while the teachers were still making less than eight bucks an hour and the kids in some of the almost 30 Head Start centers in the county were wearing winter coats in class because of poor heating. SEIU 1199 printed up flyers with this information--including the CEO's name--and slipped them under the doors of every house in her neighborhood. One of our guys was tracking down the CEO's route to work in order to post picketers at every stoplight she might catch.

On another campaign some organizers made late-night raids on Dumpsters in order to get updated employee lists. The shredded documents were brought back to the office and woven back together. "The worst are the double-sided Xeroxes that go through the cross shredder," one organizer said. "And you have to watch out for the bags of poo when you're in the Dumpster. Adult diapers."

One odd thing we new folks learned: the SEIU staff and organizing field team weren't yet in a union themselves. Apparently the field organizers had decided to vote against joining on the grounds that their being in the union would take power away from the workers, which sounded insane to me. Though the field team had been outvoted, SEIU 1199's administration and organizers were still working on a contract.

This was how new organizers got information--in dribs and drabs that seemed so unreliable we had to exchange and correlate our observations. By now we realized we weren't going to be let out in the field.

Three of us were still determined to stay. The fourth, a sour young woman, spent her free time setting up job interviews, and Kevin couldn't wait to leave Columbus.

"This is like the damn country," he griped. "There's nothing to do. I gotta walk everywhere, and there's nowhere to go."

"Don't worry about these things," everyone told me before my second role play. "They're not tests. Everybody screws them up." But if they weren't tests, then I had no clue how I was being evaluated for work as an organizer. By how well I did on the phone banking? Based on my social skills? I practiced my house-visit dialogue during breaks, determined to improve in between what I assumed--despite others' assurances--were two tests.

The second role play was to be videotaped and critiqued. Pam aimed the camera at me and sat with her notebook. Dee again played the CNA. After posing the standard questions about work, I found her main concern was not pay or benefits. New clients coming into the nursing home were teenagers, disabled kids who needed full-time care. The quiet home was turning into a hangout. One kid's friend slipped drugs into the facility; a fight broke out another afternoon, and the CNAs had had to jump in.

"Isn't there any security there?"

"No."

"So what did the supervisors do about it?" I asked.

"When we complained to them they told us to mind our own business."

"It is your business. You work in a nursing home--you're not a bouncer. You shouldn't have to strap on a piece to care for your residents."

Dee and I went back and forth, with me trying to convince her that the situation wouldn't improve until she and her coworkers did something about it. "Management," I told her, "has already shown you they're not going to defend you. Drugs and violence have come into this place where your job is to make people comfortable in the last years of their lives. And management is, literally, putting you and the residents at risk, then telling you too bad. If there was a fight in your supervisor's office I bet they'd do something about it, no?"

We bounced through the rest of the role play and Dee signed up, promising to take part in the union drive. The whole thing went much more smoothly than the first time.

We watched the role play on video and Pam informed me that I had made no mistakes, had had all the proper responses, and had done well agitating Dee. Her only criticism was that I should smile more.

With nine straight days of phone banking under our belts, we finally got a rest. We stopped for the executive board meeting for SEIU staff and elected representatives from every facility in the Ohio-West Virginia district, a total of nearly 300 people. Organizers who had been around a bit spoke of the three-day conference as a good time. At the end of each day there'd be an open bar.

We heard the same PowerPoint lecture from our president regarding the November election, now supplemented with an explanation of the little American flag stickers on some people's name tags, denoting a donation of $250 to the SEIU PAC. The president suggested that if you saw a name tag without the flag you should feel free to harass the wearer. If you didn't want to be harassed, you should ante up.

Scott, the field director, reappeared at the conference. He announced to the organizers that part of our job at the executive board meeting was to mingle with the rank and file: "Go to the party, have a good time, have some drinks. Just don't get falling-down drunk and make an ass of yourself. These are the people we represent. They pay our salaries."

For all the talk of us working for them, I caught a couple instances of a lack of connection--if not outright condescension--during the meeting. "The workers" was a phrase I heard repeated with a slighting tone, as if "they" were somehow different from the person using the term. Earlier in the afternoon I'd heard one field organizer exclaim as people were filing past: "Ooh, look! Those are my workers!" Another organizer, the guy who'd recruited me at the AFL-CIO training session in December, said of the rank and file waiting for a meeting, "Now I know how parents must feel." I wanted to ask these people what kind of jobs they'd had before coming to 1199. I wanted to ask them what their parents did for a living.

During the social hour field organizers circled in little cliques or hung at the bar with Scott. Kevin, of course having had a couple Long Islands beforehand, stood with the West Virginia organizers and explained, "In New York you don't have to go through all this polite shit--wearing a tie and all. You came to my door wearing a tie, I'd throw you out, dog. I figure you're some salesman. In New York you just go and say, 'Your boss is fucking you, dog.'"

"You try that in West Virginia," one young woman said, laughing, "they'll never find you."

"Dude," another West Virginian said, "you know why the murder rate is so low down there? 'Cause they hide the bodies."

"No, in New York, that's how it is: 'You're stupid, dog. Your boss is fucking you!'" Kevin began pumping his hips back and forth.

A couple hours later Kevin reappeared, squinty eyed and grinning, with a pitcher of beer in each hand. He jumped into a conversation on baseball, proclaiming the Yankees the best team ever, no matter who'd won the last World Series. Field organizers, following Scott's lead, ganged up on the Bronx boy for supporting the "boss's team." Eventually Scott was yelling that Kevin--if he admired George Steinbrenner so much--should go back to New York and suck his dick.

"No! There he is, sitting right there!" Scott pointed to an empty table across the room. "Climb under there and suck his dick, you love him so much! Go on!"

Hotel management was called when the screaming got out of hand. I tried to get Kevin out of the bar, but he wanted to continue fighting, so I let him and went to bed.

On the last day of the conference all the new organizers were scheduled for one-on-one meetings with Scott, just a chat to see how we liked the job so far. He'd been working on the hospital campaign in Cleveland, and if he knew anything about us it was secondhand. But the general impression I got from the other organizers was that if you wanted to come back you'd be coming back.

Scott informed me he had gotten a good report: I worked hard, did well. He said he wanted to make sure I was up for the job. "You don't really have time for a life or a girlfriend outside of this," he said. "You might have noticed people just pair up."

I dismissed the drawbacks and told him I realized I'd be living in hotels and working long, rigorous days. Scott nodded sternly. "We'd like to have you back, but it depends on the budget," he said. "Why don't you call the office on Tuesday? We'll know something by then. Ask for Jessica."

This wasn't the answer I'd wanted or expected. By Tuesday I'd be back in Chicago. I wanted to ask how, at the end of January, they still didn't have the year's budget set.

Leaving the hotel I said good-bye to a couple organizers who assured me that the budget comment meant nothing. The two others who'd wanted to stay with 1199 sounded more confident that they'd return.

I sat around Chicago for a few days and watched the SEIU horse, Howard Dean, whoop and holler a bunch of $250 campaign donations down the toilet.

On Tuesday I called the office and asked for Jessica. She informed me the budget wouldn't allow the 1199 to take me on. She couldn't answer any of my questions. No one else was available at the moment. I didn't see any point in asking for a return call.

I contacted the placement director at the AFL-CIO organizing institute to see if I could sign on with another local. He called back after speaking to Scott.

"Now," he asked me, "what did they tell you?"

"That because of the budget they couldn't keep me."

"I heard something similar. So what I'm going to do is try to set up an interview for you with another local here in Chicago."

"OK. Would I be doing my two weeks again?" I asked.

"The problem is that you did your two weeks out there and they didn't take you. So anyone else is going to wonder about that."

"Well, if it was the budget that doesn't reflect on me, right?"

"Bottom line is they didn't take you. I was told you were a hard worker, did your job, but for whatever reason your personality didn't fit the team."

For all the chest-thumping and tear-the-motherfucking-roof-off bravado, they couldn't have told me that to my face? In the past I'd walked away from jobs, been fired, let go, written up--all in far less cowardly ways than this. I told myself it should be a compliment that my personality didn't fit in with such behavior, but that wasn't much comfort. Weren't these the kind of arbitrary employment policies we were supposed to help people protect themselves from?

The placement director said he'd see what he could do about getting me an interview somewhere else.

I drove down to the Midway Extended Stay America to meet with Mary, the trainee who'd been shipped from Minnesota to Chicago. She'd e-mailed to see how the training went. I told her I was let go.

Mary had run my situation past one of her senior organizers. "They told me 1199 is weird like that," she said. "The 1199 is like a cult."

We compared notes while driving around aimlessly. Her training sounded quite different. If she had questions they got answered. She was out working in the field, knocking on doors, and partnered with different senior staff so they could gauge her work. I'd spent two weeks cold-calling CNAs. I could tell she was embarrassed for me.

I didn't expect the AFL-CIO placement director to make good on his offer, but I got a message on my machine from someone at SEIU local 73 in Chicago. This guy, also named Zack, told me to come by the office for an interview.

For some reason, Zack gave me the wrong address, five blocks away. Now suspicious of the whole organization, I wondered if this was a test of my common sense or a method of weeding out poor prospects--"He never showed up for the interview."

Zack was surprised to find me a couple minutes early. "Oh, you're here," he said. "I think I gave you the wrong address."

"Yeah, you did. No big deal."

"I must have given the wrong address to the other guy too. He never showed up."

We sat down and went over my scattered employment record. Zack noted the years of manual labor: "Wow. So, you've done real work."

Hearing that, I figured I was sunk. We shook hands to conclude the interview and Zack told me he had to call district 1199 to see what they thought before he could hire me.

Apparently my personality problems were extensive enough to keep me from being employed at local 73 also.

A month later I received an e-mail from a former cotrainee. "Right now I'm in southernmost West Virginia working on a hospital campaign," she wrote. "It's really challenging. I've been here a little over a week, and I have yet to speak to a nurse by myself." Even if I hadn't been stellar at the house-visit role plays I imagined a month of observing senior staff could have straightened out the kinks.

I checked SEIU 1199's Web site. They're still hiring new organizers.

Somewhat settled back home again and looking for work, I called a buddy of mine who started his own moving company a few years back; he puts me on a truck when I'm short of money. My pal had looked into unionizing the company himself, but since he has at most four employees at any given time, it wasn't worth the bother--the work was sporadic and no one stayed for long. Every so often some other moving crews would give us grief for being nonunion, but we shrugged it off. Sometimes it's easier to tell people to mind their own fucking business.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Robert Meganck.

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