The Labour Day Parade
In a booth in the back in the corner in the dark he sat smugly sipping a large vodka martini and puffing an enormous cigar as he waited for his guests to arrive. Licking his lips in anticipation he mused about the irony of it all: Here he was, a corporate vice president, presiding over a dispute two unions were having about who owned some working stiffs. Oh never mind "preside". He was going to decide -- who got what, where and how many. He felt good about that. He had a lot of labour relations accomplishments behind his belt but this would be a first even for him. He was the boss. He shifted awkwardly in his rumpled but expensive suit, impatient for the action to begin.
Behind the smoke of respectability he was wretched little man. Years ago, he'd escaped from the ranks of the working stiffs to the ranks of the business agents of a large North American union where he'd become known mainly for his coarseness and his womanizing.
At first he thought he'd died and gone to heaven. The freedom to do mostly as he pleased was a welcome change from the clock-punching life he'd resolved to put behind him and he took full advantage. But eventually the novelty wore off. As a union rep you had a lot more company butts to kiss than you ever had as an ordinary working stiff and they needed more frequent attention. He would have tolerated it if it was likely ever to get him anywhere but it never did. The management boys treated you like a doormat no matter how many times you puckered up.
Fed up with the union scene he took his labour relations expertise to the other side of the fence where life was more pleasurable and rewarding and there were fewer butts to kiss. He hung out his shingle as a consultant and offered up his considerable knowledge of unions to create sweethearts for business guys who wanted a union they could get along with. Within a couple of years he landed in the corner office with one of his clients. Joining the ranks of respectable labour relations practitioners at last, he continued to drink profusely, chase women and cultivate a growing circle of admiring union partners.
He didn't know much about working people, except that he'd once been one and that the whole experience had left him wanting. He knew that there were a lot of them and that they needed to be controlled. Without control, they'd wreck the business world and that would ruin our society. Mostly he knew that there was a pile of money to be made helping to save them from themselves.
He didn't know a lot about unions either except what he'd learned in the small office of the big North American union where he'd worked as a business agent. He knew how to set them up, get them certified, get them booted out and replaced. He knew that there were good unions and bad unions. Good unions played ball with the company. They got the guys at the plant a little something and kept the peace. Bad unions were full of communists and radicals. They were trying to destroy our society by going after women and immigrants and putting a lot of crazy ideas in their heads. The bad unions needed to be stopped and he was pretty good at keeping them out of places where they didn't belong. That was the extent of his knowledge of workers and organized labour and it was all he wanted or needed to know.
All that intellectual political crap was OK if it got you through the night. He didn't need it. To him the labour movement was a big party. A scene where you could hang out and live large for as long as you could stand the ass kissing that went with it.
What he knew best were union guys: the business agents, the local presidents, and the guys at the tops of the various heaps. It astounded him that few had cut their ties with him after he went into the sweetheart business. He thought they'd cross the street when they saw him coming but, to his surprise, most seemed quite impressed with his business acumen. Some even did a little subcontracting for him on different projects. The union guys weren't the only ones either. There were a few lawyers that he'd hitched to his wagon, and an LRB guy or two.
He knew what was in their heads, what they wanted most, what they could care less about and, most importantly, what buttons to press when you needed something from them. This was what it took to be a successful labour relations practitioner. He was fortunate, and he knew it, that he'd fallen into the only damned trade where you don't have to know anything in particular to get yourself ahead.
Funny the way things turned out. Just a few weeks ago, he thought it was all over. A bunch of rebellious working stiffs were about to boot his union into oblivion. Well it wasn't really his union, not technically anyway. It was a big North American service industry union with thousands of members in a broad range of industries yadda, yadda, yadda. "Kissing ass in a broad range of industries", the Boss snickered to himself. "These guys crack me up".
But it was the case that the large North American union at his company was there because he said it could be, for his good reasons and on his recommendation. After a great deal of thought and careful consideration he selected it. He and its leader, known in backroom circles as the Ferret (because he resembled one), went back. The Ferret was a reasonable guy and could be trusted to play ball, so to speak. They had some discussions and came to an understanding. The company would give the Ferret voluntary recognition for its new operations and the Ferret would be reasonable in his demands when it was time to negotiate. It was a sweet deal and for a while things went according to plan. But before long the damned employees were trying to screw it all up.
How it happened nobody really knew. It wasn't supposed to happen. The company's human resources saps said it was not going to happen. The company had been selective in its hiring. Immigrant women and lots of 'em: They work hard, don't complain and don't join unions. Their husbands wouldn't let 'em. But the bitches went and did it anyway. And what a union! The radical wing of another big International. Of all the miserable things. Ferret tried to put the brakes on the whole thing by doing the political thing with his counterpart in the other union. He came back dragging his ass though. The other honcho didn't have the balls to be the boss when it counted. He wouldn't step in and take charge. Too political, he'd said. Too many fucking land mines. These weren't your average union guys the big fella told him apologetically. Hell, they weren't even guys. They were women. Of all the shit, the goddamned lousy jerk didn't have the balls to deal with a bunch of lippy broads. The whole thing got way out of hand. The LRB was coming to hold votes in a few weeks time and the smart money was on the militant bastards - or bitches - getting in all over the place.
But at the last minute, an old union buddy saved his bacon - from the very union the militant broads were joining. The Boss could hardly believe his good fortune when he spotted him in an airport bar one day. He'd have known that pastel suit and those deep-set beady eyes anywhere.
Pigman and the Boss were old pals and the Boss knew him well. Pigman was a pragmatic union guy. A guy who realized the value of good relations. "One of us", the Boss would say whenever an introduction was in order. Over a few stiff ones they bemoaned the sad state of the labour movement, which had become overrun with radicals and crazies. The Boss sowed some seeds and suggested a little mutual back scratching. Within days, Pigman was on a plane to the International HQ imploring the General Pres to put those damned crazy broads and their militant subversive leaders in their place. The General Pres was impressed with the little pastel-colored sycophant and his ingenuity. The rebellious punks on both sides of the border were causing him a lot of anxiety these days. "Bring me a half-assed deal and I'll seal it with a kiss", he said. That was all Pigman needed. Things fell into place after that.
Tonight the deal would be done. The unpleasantness between Ferret's Union and Pigman's union would be settled. Between themselves they would carve up the group of workers like a big fat Thanksgiving Day turkey - or a Labour Day goose, the Boss snickered to himself. Peace and solidarity would return. High-ranking officials from both unions would meet and hammer out who would get how many of the workers. The Ferret himself was coming and so was a high-ranking exec from Pigman's union. Whatever they agree must to be acceptable to me, the Boss rhymed.
He couldn't quite understand why they were letting him call the shots. They didn't have to. They could tell him to go blow himself out his ass and he'd have been out of options. They could gang up on him and screw him completely, but he knew that the chances of that happening were slim. He insisted on being at the table because the company had an interest in the outcome of their dispute and they agreed! He told them that there'd be no deal without him at the table and they went along with that too. He told them that what kind of contract either one got depended on what kind of mood he was in when all was said and done and they each took that really seriously. Then he insisted on calling the shots because the company had an interest and they agreed! What a world. His snickering gave way to loud guffaws.
"What's so funny boss?" asked his apprentice.
"Oh, just enjoying the moment," he responded, looking admiringly at the young up and comer who sat cool and expressionless across from him. Like all the corporate executives back at the office, he took succession planning seriously. While his peers were busy bringing up the next generation of sales managers, operations guys and bean counters, he was grooming the next generation of union handlers. It was a part of his job that he enjoyed. It was dangerous all the crap they were teaching labour relations types these days. A proper education meant understanding how to manipulate, dominate and always, always have the upper hand. Nobody was more of an expert at all that crap than he.
He enjoyed imparting his wisdom to the understudies in his department and often had at least one in tow wherever the day's business took him. It was not that often that he would bring one to the backroom though. Spectators made the union boys nervous. But the young protégé with him tonight was his favourite and the action tonight was so special, that he just couldn't resist. At the last minute he'd picked up the phone and extended an invitation. "You've just gotta come down to the Courtyard. There's a deal going down and I want you to be there." It wasn't everyday that you get to be in on something like this. What an education.
"I think you're going to get a lot out of this meeting", he said in a fatherly sort of way. "Any questions?"
"What's going down tonight," the apprentice responded.
"Well, these union guys - they're going to patch up their differences and end this raid thing. I expect they'll be splitting up the turf between them. I'm going to make sure their deal is one that doesn't hurt the company. I want Ferret's Union to get most of it because I know him and I can run him. Piggy gets the crumbs."
"Why do we have to give the Pigman anything?" asked the apprentice.
"Well, he's gotta get something out of this. He can't just walk away. He'll look like a loser. His International needs to say to all these whining bitches, 'Hey we got something. It could have been worse. Those radical shitheads fucked things up so bad, there's no telling how bad it could have been.'. The radical element is going to get their votes soon. We know they'll get something. Better that we decide what they get. Plus, I like having two unions around. I can play them off against each other. With Piggy's union in a weak position, and him owing me big time, there's a lot of leverage for the company. My plan is to get Piggy to agree to some rollbacks. Then, when it's time to bargain with Ferret, I'll say 'Hey Ferret, here's what your brother agreed to. I'd have to be an asshole to give you more.'. That's how you get rollbacks in this industry. It's called pattern bargaining". He laughed and the apprentice laughed with him.
"Do you ever think that they might gang up on us?" asked the apprentice.
"Oh not to worry. That solidarity crap is just for the little people. For the big boys it's all about the power, who's got the biggest union, the biggest treasury, the biggest dick." They laughed. "These guys can't stand each other. We get more cooperation around our fuckin' office than you'll ever find around the labour movement," he joked. "Oh yeah, that's what's just killin' me about this whole thing. All I did was tell them both there's no deal without my seal of approval and they went along with it! Bless their little hearts."
"Well I'm really grateful that you invited me tonight boss", said the apprentice admiringly. "Is there anything I should be concentrating on?"
"After we're all done, make some notes of what went on OK? I don't trust any of these pricks farther than I can throw them. If they start reneging on the deal, I want to have a few reminders I can send their way. Write down any stuff that could be embarrassing, OK?"
"You're the boss", said the apprentice.
"Oh look", said the Boss, his eyes lighting up, "Here comes the labour day parade".