A Walk in the Dark
"Ferret, you old fuck, welcome to my world. How ya doin'?" the Boss welcomed his guest warmly. The coarse greeting caught the nattily dressed backroom diplomat a little off guard. The #2 man of a large North American union was accustomed to more deferential treatment, but he recovered quickly. "Not bad for an old fuck, how's yourself big guy?" he responded, cutting through the fog of cigar smoke and slapping the Boss on the back. "Good to see ya". Drinks were ordered and the ritual exchange of pleasantries - heavily laced with profanity - began.
Ferret would be in the driver's seat among the union players at this evening's backroom event. It was his union that was being raided by a bunch of Renegades from - of all places - another large North American labor union. He and his International President were righteously indignant. The invaded turf was theirs. There was no question about that. They had come by it fairly, through a merger, a few years ago. There was no question as to the rightfulness of their jurisdiction claim over the ten thousand or so workers that came with it. Now they would need to cede a portion of it to the Renegades just to put an end to their campaign.
On one level it pained Ferret to have to deal his property with these interlopers but on another level he was a pragmatic man. Like the Boss, he wanted control over the disposition of the property. With a representation vote coming up, he'd rather have some say over who represented whom and you didn't get that kind of input at an LRB polling station.
Including the company guy in the discussions was a complication he could live without, but a guy had to do what a guy had to do. He had the Boss to thank for his big piece of turf. The Boss giveth and the Boss can taketh away too. If he left the Boss out of the picture, a decert' campaign was inevitable and that was to be avoided. He knew the members could be persuaded to dump his union. On a good day, there wasn't much keeping them in his union and that wasn't about to change any time soon. Like himself, the Boss wanted a say in how the pie got sliced. Fair enough, it was his pie too. That was why Ferret had stopped by for this unofficial meeting. He needed to know what kind of deal the Boss could live with.
In an hour or so he would meet with the representatives of the raiding union. He would sit down with Pidgin who, like himself was a #2 man to his General President, and the Renegade Leaders. Pidgin had been dispatched by his General President to make peace. He needed to get the Renegade Leaders to agree to a deal - whatever deal he and Ferret and the corporate Boss put together.
Pidgin would have his hands full, Ferret knew. That's what happens when you wait too long before intervening in your locals' business. Things get way out of hand - he knew - having put down an upstart rebellion or two in his day. You've got to act fast. The more they get away with, the more emboldened they become.
Pidgin had been meeting with the Renegade leaders since the morning to soften them up for the deal that had already been scoped out in principle between their two HQ's. Ferret would join them to emphasize the need for the deal and to ensure they understood the consequences if there wasn't going to be one. If they were prepared to play, he would signal his best offer to Pidgin and let Pidgin do the sell job on them.
But first he wanted to test the waters with the Boss. He knew the Boss had some strong views about what Pidgin's union would and wouldn't get and he wanted to be clear about those. No sense hammering out a deal with Pidgin and having the Boss veto the whole thing.
In the normal order of things, the two unions could have settled this turf war quickly and quietly a long time ago, but the whole thing had become such a mess. The Renegades in Pidgin's union were out of control. Against all the rules of union officialdom, they marched right in an organized a bunch of workers who belonged to someone else. They were totally out of control. Pidgin's General Pres didn't have the balls to wheel them in while there was still time. Once the certification docs went into the LRB it was too late. Now the workers' wishes were on the record. They had the law on their side and that created problems for everybody.
Joining him was his local lieutenant, a craggy-faced older gent with large pie-shaped eyes who lurked, swaying just a little, behind him. "Stinky, fancy meeting you here," the Boss was genuinely delighted to see him.
Stinky had come by his handle honestly. He had a love of gutter tactics when it came to organizing workers and keeping them and on side. Tire slashing, window breaking and stink bomb planting were among his favorites. In some communities, Stinky was a legend. He'd worked with a number of different unions over the course of his career. His enthusiasm for violence proved too much for most but a few years back he finally found a home in Ferret's union. He was brought on board as an organizer and, when there was no one to organize, took on duties as a fixer; a shadowy guy who would be dispatched to patch up problems at various locals and keep things - and people - from getting out of hand.
Mostly he roamed around the country scouting for easy organizing prospects: Companies looking for a reasonable union and independent unions with the urge to merge. He was getting on in years and losing his edge when the Boss presented him with an enormous local to call his very own. He thought he'd died and gone to heaven. The deal was not without its strings and he'd had a hell of a time convincing Ferret to go along a couple of them, but in the end he had his retirement plan: The presidency of a 10,000 member local of mostly girls.
The raid by Pidgin's Renegades was especially galling for Stinky. He was too old and too drunk to go back to organizing. Ferret was pissed with him about the raid. He should have kept a tighter hold on the members. On top of that, Ferret's union would be stuck with "the strings" he agreed to (commitments to stay away workers in other parts of the company's operations), whether it hung on to Stinky's local or not.
Despite the warm reception he accorded Ferret, the Boss was guarded. He was fascinated but less than comfortable with Ferret's organization. Ferret was by anyone's definition a powerful union guy. He looked the part and acted the part. He controlled a vast empire of low paid members and he controlled it well. There was never any worry about radical elements or internal politics getting out of hand. Ferret's union was a well-oiled machine and he was the guy who kept it running. He carried himself like an executive and rubbed elbows with the highest and the mightiest players - politicians, government guys, everybody who was anybody. He was a cut above the labour movement riffraff that lined up at the Boss's office looking for free lunches. The Boss found him refreshing and, in an odd way, empowering to be around. On the minus side, he was never too sure about the shadowy figures who circulated around the periphery of Ferret's union - except for Stinky. Nonetheless when decisions had to be made about union representation for the company's workers, Ferret's pragmatism and heavy-handedness with the members tipped the balance.
He knew Ferret would want most of the disputed turf and that was OK but he didn't want him to have too much. Pidgin must have enough turf to allow him to play the two unions off against each other when the time came to go after his rollbacks.
It was important also that ferret ends up with the strategic pieces of turf. Out of the company's 200 or so locations, there were those where the business absolutely, positively couldn't take a strike. Ferret's union was not an outfit that would have a strike just because the members wanted one. It was very pragmatic about how and where it spent its cash. It would not want to mount a strike on a scale that would be needed to hurt the company, he was reasonably sure about that. Pidgin's union, while similarly pragmatic, was too volatile, too political. They had botched up this organizing drive and let the Renegades do their thing. If bargaining went down the toilet, and the troops got sufficiently stirred, they might feel they have to throw the weight of the union behind them and hit the bricks whatever the cost.
As Stinky and Ferret ordered another round of drinks, the Boss got right to the point. "So what's going on?" He asked bluntly.
"Pidgin's in town, as you know," Ferret explained. "He and Pigman are meeting with the Renegade Leaders as we speak, trying to talk some sense to them. Pidgin is hoping they can be brought on side so that they support our settlement."
The Boss's eyes narrowed. "I'm not bargaining with those assholes I hope you understand." he told Ferret indignantly. "What the hell's going on? I thought you guys had this all in the bag. What the hell is the matter with Pidgin? Can't he show some leadership and tell his own people how it's gonna be?"
Everything was cool, Ferret assured him. Pigman, Pidgin's local lieutenant had laid the groundwork and done a good job of it with the International. Based on his quiet efforts, the leaders of the two unions decided there would be peace. They also scoped out well, the framework of a deal. But the International's leaders at Pidgin's union have a lot of political problems and need to be cautious. They can't be seen to be too heavy-handed right now and they can't get directly involved.
Everything would be fine, Ferret assured. Pidgin's union wanted to bury the hatchet and - very importantly - to make peace with the company. Some groundwork had already been laid at the senior levels of the two unions about a deal that would net Pidgin's union a little bit of the disputed turf. This wouldn't be a big problem in Ferret's view. It was a small sacrifice that his union was prepared to make for the sake of peace in the valley of labour. His union would keep Pidgin's in an underdog position. That would be good news for the company he said. With only a handful of stores, Pidgin's union would be powerless, no matter who was running their local. It could never do the company any real harm and it would put an end to the problems that they are creating now.
The Boss put on his best poker face. He was not keen on seeing the Pidgin's union gain any kind of foothold in the company's operations. "Those bastards put us through hell," he said flatly. "Do you have a clue what this has cost us? Why the hell should I roll out the red carpet now?" he asked.
Ferret was reassuring. He would see to it that they remained the underdogs. With the majority of the turf on his side of the fence, his union would always be in a better bargaining position. "We'll have clout with them and keep them from messing around" he said. "When it comes time to bargain, we'll call the shots and they'll follow our lead. You won't have to worry."
"Well, they'd better be prepared to follow my lead tonight." the Boss foamed. "I'm not spending a lot of time on this, I wanna be straight with you on that. It's not giving me a warm feeling knowing those radical freaks are being consulted by anybody. Make sure you tell the sons of bitches that I've got a big pile of dough to smother them in. I just got a half mil more into budget for legals and I'll use every dime to fight those bastards. They wanna have a vote? Let 'em have one. I don't care if they get in at every last damned place. That won't be the end of it. Those pricks had better know it!"
Ferret said he would carry the message.
"What the hell chance have you got of getting a deal?" the Boss asked Ferret.
"Look," Ferret explained, "Pidgin wants a deal but he's gonna have a rough go with the Renegades' leader. That fucking guy is a sanctimonious crusader. You can't reason with him. He thinks he's gonna clean up the labour movement! That's the kind of crazy bastard he is."
"Let me be straight with you", the boss responded. "Crazy or not, there's only a handful of stores that I'm prepared to give those guys. Twenty, that's it - just like we've talked about before. No company stores, no high volume stores and nothing here in Metro. And I get final veto whatever you guys work out. Got it?"
"I hear you Boss. I'll tell you, if we can come up with something reasonable, the General President is gonna go for it and force it on the crazy bastards, whether they like it or not. That's what I believe. But it's gotta be a reasonable deal, one that he can say he'd be stupid not to take. The guy has political problems. That's why he is not getting directly involved in this. Sit tight, we'll make it happen. We'll be back in an hour or so."
Ferret drank up and he and Stinky left for their meeting with Pidgin and the Renegade leaders.
The Boss butted out his cigar and looked over at his apprentice. "Let's get some air", he said.
They strolled out into the warm spring evening and followed the boulevard to one of the city's more notorious red light districts. "Feel like walkin' some more?" he asked. "You're the boss," the apprentice replied.
Whenever the Boss was stressed or uncertain, he felt an urge to be among those less fortunate. There was something therapeutic about it. Injecting himself among the disadvantaged made him more conscious of his superiority. "It's like taking a mud bath," he would say. "It looks disgusting, but you feel better for some reason." Seedy bars, strip joints, back alleys and smoky billiard halls were favourite destinations and he visited them frequently. At least once a week, he and the apprentice would haul off at the end of the day to do some - as he called it - serious "diving". They would have dinner somewhere nice and then head for the other side of the tracks where they would drink and talk and talk and drink the night away. But tonight he was a busy exec on the go. A leisurely stroll down the track would be all the therapy he could squeeze into his schedule.
They made their way down several blocks of whores and derelicts. "Just like being at work", he joked. He would make eye contact with some of them; even stop to chat with others. He was still anxious somehow.
"Eyeballing the prosties isn't making you feel better, Boss," the apprentice commented. "What's on your mind?"
"Ah crap", he said shaking his head, "Pidgin's gonna negotiate with the Renegades. This isn't good. The Renegades are at the table and everybody at the table has power. Shit, those bastards are powerful players in this game. If they ever figure that out, we're done for."
"How can they have power", the apprentice asked. "Their HQ calls the shots. Pidgin can shove a deal down their throats can't he?"
"They don't have to do a damned thing their HQ tells them and that's the long and short of it." the Boss explained. "In order to do the kind of deal I want, the Renegades are going to have to withdraw most of their certification apps and all that unfair labour practice crap they've filed as well. It was their local that filed all the paperwork and the International can't just come along and withdraw it. The Renegade leader is an elected guy. What the hell are they going to do, if he doesn't go along, fire him? He can screw this whole thing up just by digging in his heels".
"Couldn't they just trustee the local? the apprentice asked. "That's what Ferret would do isn't it?"
"Oh yeah they could, but the time for that has long since past. These guys have 200 apps for cert pending? Fucking 200 applications in this industry! It's amazes me that the damned media isn't all over this thing. If Pidgin makes a move now, the Renegades will go ballistic and the whole thing will turn into a can of worms. He can't go there. He should've trusteed them at the very beginning. Before anything was official. Make no mistake, these rebel bastards are holding most of the cards right now."
"Don't they know they have the power?" the apprentice was curious.
"They're confused about it. Bullshit baffles brains. You've heard that old expression. You and I have good jobs keeping them confused. So do Pidgin and Piggy and Ferret and thousands of others just like them."
"We have the same objective, but we don't trust Pidgin or Ferret do we?" the apprentice continued. It was one of the more lucid discussions they'd had in a while.
"No, no", the Boss replied. "Trust doesn't enter the picture. Trust in labour relations exists only in theory. That's what they teach the college boys. Don't you go about believing it. What it's all about is screwing people. Who you can screw and who can screw you back and how much it'll hurt. That's what this whole scene is about."
"Why do you think that is Boss?"
"I dunno", he responded in a bemused kind of way. "I think it's a guy thing. There's a lotta guys in this trade with really big fuckin' egos and not much else goin' for them. Hey, I make no bones about it. I'm one. We play games with each other because - what the hell else is there to do?"
"You're not getting tired of it are you?"
"Oh yeah. I'm gettin' too old for this shit. After this deal is done and the contract is in the bag and the dust settles, I think I'm packin' it in. I'll take my package and head for Vegas. Write my memoirs maybe, or ball my brains out more likely", he laughed. "Then my son, all this will be yours". They both laughed.
The Boss felt better. As they turned the corner back to the hotel, Ferret and Stinky were piling out of a cab. It didn't look like the news was good.