• authored by Members for Democracy
  • published Sat, Feb 22, 2003

Solidarity Whenever: Down and Dirty in the Backroom

Important decisions affecting the lives of thousands of workers are made in secret by small groups of men who have disturbingly similar views about the roles of workers in our society. In hotel rooms, restaurants, on golf courses and inside corporate offices around North America, backroom dealing between union and management officials has gone on for decades and is commonplace within certain industries.

This is a dimension of North American labour relations that you aren't going to read about on any official union web site or study in a labour relations course. It's one that we need to understand and explode if we are ever to take back our unions and engage the future.

That was the prologue to The Backroom Chronicles, a fictionalized account of the adventures of a corporate executive and his union partners. For different motives, all of them worked together to put down a successful grassroots organizing campaign by several thousand underpaid, over-exploited service industry workers and to lock those workers into miserable concessionary contracts.

If you found the events described in this story disturbing, that's good - they are. If you found the characters in this story offensive, that's good too - they're offensive as all hell. Here's something that you ought to find both disturbing and offensive: The kind of sell out described in the Chronicles series happens a lot and it hurts a lot of people. The people who perpetrate these offensive deals are, more often than not, respected members of the mainstream labour community. They are guys who march in the Labour Day parade and make strident speeches about the sad plight of working people. They are a bunch of lameass hypocrites and need to be exposed for what they are. Until this objectionable trading in humans (which is what it is once you strip away all the pathetic excuses) stops, few people inside or outside the labour movement will take the labour movement seriously and that includes the millions of workers who don't currently belong to unions.

Understanding what's in the backroom is important. Our aim was to take you there, introduce you to the players, show you what they're like, how they behave, how they relate to each other and what motivates them.

The Backroom is an ugly place. It works well for those who go there, however, because of the secrecy that it affords. Workers can't object to what they don't know about. Those in the know are a small circle. Only a select number of people in labour relations ever get to go into the backroom. Those that go in, have lots of reasons to not talk about what goes on there.

Breaking the silence is an important first step when taking on cultures that thrive on secrecy.

Backroom dealing is to organized labour what incest once was to the family: The dirty secret that nobody wants to talk about because it will hurt a lot of powerful sonsofbitches and help a lot of marginalized victims. It has to stop. Everybody knows it goes on. Voluntary rec deals that trade workers power for steady streams of new members, secret pacts that deprive workers of the right to choose their representatives are all examples of the people-trading that goes on in secret places. Mainstream labour leaders refuse to acknowledge it for what it is. Maybe if it's rubbed in their faces long enough they will no longer be able to stand the smell. Or maybe if working people are aware of it, they will choose their representatives more selectively and boot those who do these kinds of deals to the curb.

The Chronicles series tells a story filled with messages for workers and unions about what's getting in the way of movement in labour movement and, more generally, what's getting n the way of a better life for working people. Organized labour's woes have certainly been exacerbated over the past three decades by employers who play hardball and legislation doesn't do much to protect workers but there are a lot of barriers that union leaders have created themselves and a lot of missed opportunities. Some very unhealthy organizational cultures have taken root within unions. Union leaders have left themselves wide open to manipulation by corporate bosses and they do get manipulated. The backroom dealing that has become so common in some unions is a manifestation of the manipulation that goes on.

The manipulated and manipulators aren't always as coarse as the characters in our Chronicles story but their motives and methods are similar and their desired outcomes are the same: Depriving working people of their power is the name of the game.

The standard excuses offered up by union leaders in defense of backroom dealing are that it's necessary. Secrecy is just something that is required. Corporate officials won't talk publicly about sensitive things so we must speak privately. We live in a world where the powerful often do business behind closed doors. It's just the way it is. Besides, there's nothing to fear little people. Your representatives enter the backroom with your interests uppermost in their minds. Sometimes they go into the backroom to keep things from getting worse. You don't want things to get worse do you? Sometimes going into the backroom is a good thing: We get the lowdown on what the company is doing and hear things we wouldn't otherwise get to hear. So don't worry - be happy.

All of this is bullshit. The backroom is a corporate creation and it serves corporate interests. If there's some advantage to union members to having their leaders make secret deals with management, we've yet to see it. A union's strength is its members. Every scheming, conniving, ruthless corporate labour relations big shot knows that. It's the members who have the power because the members can impact the bottom line. In the current set-up, the members need their leaders to use their power. Separate the leaders from the members and the likelihood of them using their power drops like a rock. That's the beauty of the backroom. You can use it to achieve that separation. Drawing union leaders into secret discussions makes them feel important. The backroom is comfortable. It allows management and union to make decisions quickly, without having to involve the unrealistic masses. The more important and comfortable they feel, the more the union leaders will keep coming back. The backroom also co-opts union leaders as allies of management. The more deals they do, the more management has on them. Pretty soon they're in too deep and can't get out. Pretty soon union leaders need the comfort and security of the backroom. It's a matter of survival.

For the corporate guys, the backroom is a good thing. Their objective is to control the workers and the backroom allows them to do just that. For the union guys, it's deadly. Once they get hooked on the backroom, they will never meet their organization's objectives - advancing the interests of their members. They stop being a union and become... a bunch of guys looking out for themselves.

Here are some examples of a bunch of guys looking out for themselves and a corporate guy taking advantage of them, from our Chronicles series:

I'm OK, he's an asshole

As the story opens, the leaders of two unions have decided to end a raid. There may be some merit in doing that but notice the presence of the corporate Boss in their discussions? Not only is he present but he's calling the shots. Why are they allowing him to do this? Between the two of them, they are in a position of tremendous power over the company. They have all the company's workers organized. If they worked cooperatively, they could have the company over a barrel. The Boss knows this too but he's not sweating about it.

"Do you ever think that they might gang up on us?" the Boss's apprentice asks him in the first episode and he confidently replies:

"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... 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."

The Boss knows that the two union's leaders don't trust each other and that neither is all that concerned about members. Ferret is interested in protecting his turf. Piggy wants to derail the organizing campaign of his rival. Both have a certain respect for the Boss. By injecting himself into their discussions, he's said to them - a la Eric Cartman - "Respect my authoritah!" and they do!

For the love of turf

The Boss knows the union guys really well. He understands how competitive they are with each other. He also understands the respect for turf that is fundamental to the union leaders' values. As the tripartite negotiations begin, Ferret (the leader of the raided union) cozies up to the Boss because they both have the same agenda - the Boss wants Ferret's union to have most of the disputed turf and so does Ferret. Solidarity... Whenever.

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 union 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.

Activism? No. Opportunism? Yes!

For all the media releases, speeches and calls to action, many union leaders frown upon activism. Activists have certain limited uses when it comes to scheduled noisemaking or filling seats at meetings but they're difficult to control and don't understand the realities of labour relations. Left to their own devices they often aspire to leadership positions and can make for dangerous rivals. Activism, except on a shallow level, is discouraged and company guys know there's no easier way to co-opt a union leader than by helping him trounce a hated rival. Activists represent a potent threat to a way of life that many union leaders are especially attached.

"That fucking guy is a sanctimonious crusade", union leader Ferret says of the renegade who started the raid. "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."

Myths and realities

The mythology of the labour relations system is powerful stimulant or an effective sedative depending on what one wants to achieve. The "system" promotes cooperation and encourages trust among labour and management officials. Corporate guys expect trust from their union partners. Good union partners work hard to trust management guys. Of course, as the Boss explains, the whole thing is a crock intended to obscure the real nature of the relationship.

"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."

It's all a game. Labour relations is not about harmony or peace or keeping the economy healthy. It's a no-man's land where competitive guys can earn a good living, have some fun and play games.

"I think it's a guy thing." The Boss explains to his apprentice at one point. "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?"

Once dirty, always dirty

The Boss recognizes the true value of the backroom. It's a great place to manipulate people. Once they cross the threshold, it's hard to leave. There are a lot of things that keep them there. There's a certain momentum that builds with the wheeling and dealing. It also compromises the union guys because they aren't supposed to be there to begin with and if the members ever found out what really went on... well, there's no telling what might happen.

"Oh yeah, if I want a deal tonight I'll get one tonight," the Boss replied. "I've got 'em all where I want 'em".

"Where's that?" the apprentice asked.

"In a verrry compromising position", the Boss replied with a sly look. "When they are meeting you on the sly you have an immediate advantage. If the members ever got wise, or if his enemies ever got wise, it's curtains. The minute you walk into the back room with me, your ass is grass and I'm the lawnmower." They laughed.

You can't own people but you can come pretty damn close

The workers? Oh them. There wasn't a lot said about them in the Chronicles was there? That's because they really didn't count. As soon as Piggy pissed on their organizing campaign, they became insignificant. Notice that all of the leaders saw them more as a nuisance than anything else - something to be managed, put down and put in their places. During the long negotiation that takes place in the bar, the bargaining is over stores. There is not a single mention of what the members in those stores might want. There is concern about possible flack from outraged members but the leaders are quick to assure the Boss that they're in control and there will be no trouble. In the end, the only thing that matters in relation to the members is who owns them. Even before the deal is inked Ferret and Stinky are already planning to get back their ceded turf.

"Hey, in any war some soldiers have to go down. Besides, it's just a short term thing," Stinky explained. "I don't know what your plans are for bargaining", he said with a wink, "but after a few months of strikes, lockouts or maybe a shitty contract or two, d'you really think those broads will be rallying behind Pidgin's union? Shit no. They'll be passing the petition around and lining up at our office to sign up. Hell, we're already getting calls from some of the poor girls who want to come back to papa. I'm tellin' ya, in a year's time you'll see that last of Pidgin and his mighty union". Stinky staggered out to relieve himself.

The notion of workers-as-property is reinforced when, once the deal is done, they are told about it. The deal determined who will represent them at work - possibly forever - but they had to inkling this deal was being made, no input into it at all and are given the lowdown in a bland, perfunctory manner. Here is their lead organizer on property management:

In the days that followed, Unocogleone and his organizers broke the news to the members. Among the hundreds who had backed his union for well over a year now, there was shock and incredulity. The vast majority would be returned, without a fight, without a vote, to the union they had struggled so hard to leave. If the news itself wasn't bad enough, the bland, dispassionate way in which it was delivered was worse. "It was for the best", Unocogleone and his organizers told them. The International had decided it was better this way and the International knew what was best. It was hard to understand these things, but sometimes it just had to be this way. There was no point in the two unions fighting when they should be supporting each other in their fight against the company. Those who were being handed back to the union they'd tried to escape were told, sanctimoniously, that it was their duty now to support their union and to work patiently with its leaders for the greater good of all. End of story.

Working hard - for ourselves

The motives of our cast of characters were entirely self-serving. The union leaders were not motivated by a desire to help working people nor was the Boss motivated by any commitment to keeping making his company profitable. The Boss promised his CEO that he would negotiate a wage rollback. The company didn't need one but the Boss wanted to get one to make himself look good at the corporate headquarters. Piggy had ambitions of taking control of the union. Stinky wanted a comfortable retirement post. Ferret wanted to keep the dues rolling in. Nobody was in this for any ideological reason. No one was even in it for the greater good of their organization. These guys were in it for themselves.

One hand squeezing the other

Contrary to the mythology about the backroom, it's not a place where one hand washes the other. When union leaders compromise they only compromise themselves and their members. There's no quid pro quo. Management doesn't return the favor because it doesn't see the union rep's acquiescence as a favor - they see it as an objective for them to meet. Once they've met their objective, it's time to celebrate or ask for a bonus In the Chronicles, union leader Piggy is the Boss's old friend. They go back many years and have a longstanding relationship. Piggy treats the Boss with great respect and does him a very big favor. The Boss, however, doesn't see it as a favor. Piggy is just another union guy for him to manipulate. As Piggy bends over backwards to help him, the Boss squeezes him even harder and his disrespect for Piggy becomes more palpable.

"Piggy one of us? Nah." The Boss chuckled. "Well, he is one of us in that he wants power, status, money, he wants people kissing his ass and jumping through hoops for him, because it's better to be the kissee than the kisser. So he's one of us to that extent. But he's not like us. He's down the food chain a few notches from us, he just doesn't know it. But he'll never be up here with us. Piggy never had the social graces to move in our kind of circles. I used to like to hang out with Piggy way back when. I liked getting drunk and disorderly with him but I never really liked Piggy. He was always a low class asshole and he talked too much when he got pissed. You had to be careful where you went with him. I like using him to get what I want. I'll make like I'm his pal because it gets me someplace but I don't like him. I don't trust him either, the weasel. He'd screw me in a minute if he had half a chance, or half a brain which he doesn't."

So union leaders, backroom deals are good? Backroom deals are necessary? Give your heads a shake.

A legacy of betrayal

And while you are shaking your heads, maybe you can mull on this: Apart from all the other reasons why backroom dealing hurts working people, do you think that this legacy of betrayal is hurting the labour movement in general? Thousands of workers were affected by the sellout in our Chronicles story and there are thousands of others who have been sold down the river in similar fashion and for the same reasons. How do you think they felt about being sold out? What do you think it was like for them? Do you really think that being told "some dickhead in a suit thinks this is good for you" makes it feel any better?

It's an awful thing to be betrayed. Even though it's not always apparent, most of us figure out sooner or later that we've been had. It's a terrible feeling being sold out by people in whom you've placed your trust. You feel deeply wounded and, at the same time, angry with yourself for letting it happen. Whatever you think and however you deal with it, one thing is for sure: You'll go to lengths to avoid repeating the experience and you'll do what you can to keep others from getting screwed as well. All those thousands of workers who have been betrayed by their unions, how do you think they feel about unions? What do you think they tell their friends, their neighbors, and their children about unions? Like it or not, they're not giving anyone a warm feeling.

Unions are not just a business. That is what we are told by union leaders. They are more than just a service that provides representation. They are something bigger and more important than that. They are a social movement. They give people a voice; they level a very uneven playing field. This is the essence of unionism we are told. There is a relationship between the union and the member that transcends the transactional. It's not just an exchange - money for representation - it's a relationship. The union is there to care, protect, nurture, and advance the interests of the worker. There's a bond between the union and the member. It's like a family. That's why raiding is wrong. That's why decertification is wrong. Solidarity is essential to labour movement.

When you make a bargain like that with people it means something to them. Like any relationship where there is a level of commitment. And like any relationship, where commitments are not honored, the effects are profound and lasting. How can you expect working people to have faith in a movement whose leaders are full of shit? How can you expected people to get excited about being treated like a bunch of things?

The Boss understands the power of the workers;

"... this radicalism is like a cancer. Once it gets into you, it never leaves. The more you shitdisturb, the more you want to shitdisturb. When working stiffs shitdisturb it makes them feel powerful and you know what? When you think you're powerful, you're on your way to being powerful. It's a prerequisite. All you need after that is some fuel".

"You mean a drink?" she said, hoisting hers.

"No, you need energy. Energy is fuel. Anger is good fuel. It keeps you going even when everybody thinks you're nuts", he said suddenly lost in thought. "These bitches are angry and they don't have any good anger suppressants like big mortgages or expensive lifestyles to make 'em think twice. I'm telling you, the worst thing you can ever let happen with a bunch of working stiffs is give 'em a sense of power. They got nothing to lose and nowhere to fall".

On this the Boss is not quite right. Anger isn't power, knowledge is power. Workers who get hawked around in backrooms will never accept the mainstream labour party-line about how this is somehow good for them. They know it's not good for them because they don't see any good coming out of it. Happy conforming is only possible when you get the privileges that come with it. There are no private jets and six figure salaries for the tradable masses. All that you have from them is their disdain and that maddening apathy that the leaders are always lamenting about. Get a grip on yourselves big shots. The masses are about to become even more knowledgeable.

© 2023 Members for Democracy