Wednesday, October 1, 2008

My Union Experiences

I have belonged to only one union, and that for less than four years, so am no expert regarding unions and union matters. Still, it would be not much of an exaggeration to say that the experiences I *did* have were uniformly bad, at least from my perspective.

All that follows occurred during the period June 1968 to February 1972, and at what was then the Record-American, a Hearst Corporation tabloid in Boston, the result of a merger beteen the Record and the American, two of what had once been seven daily newspapers in Boston. In 1968 there were still three: the Record-American, hereinafter the "Record," the Herald-Traveler, and the Globe.

Fresh from the Army and years of working in Army finance, I got a job as a payroll clerk at the Record, automatically becoming a member of the American Newspaper Guild. Dues were very small and for quite a while the Guild had no visible effect or influence on me or my situation.

In 1971 (I think) the Record acquired its first computer, an IBM System 360-20, a mainframe computer with 24k of memory and requiring its own room and environment - raised floor with the cables running beneath, air conditioning, and humidity control. Input was in the form of 80 column punched cards and output in the form of magnetic tapes and printouts. No CRT's, nothing interactive.

The Hearst Corporation sent a data processing manager and two programmers to oversee the installation and to write and put into production the first systems pertaining to the Record's business.

A few months later the company set about acquiring its own programming staff, with the intention of that staff replacing the Hearst programmers. All employees were given the opportunity to take an aptitude test and two would be selected for transfer and training.

The selections, of course, were not based on aptitude or merit, but simply on seniority within the list of those who had taken the test and not failed egregiously. I had scored highest among the applicants, but based on seniority there was little chance I would become a Record programmer in this lifetime.

But uneverno. One of the two selected, Gerry, disliked the work and did not do well at it. Eventually he requested and got a transfer back to the accounting work he had been doing. The company and the union went back to the list of applicants, their results, and their seniority.

By this time, the company had a pretty good investment in Gerry, what with off-site training courses, on the job training, and little in the way of results, and naturally they wanted to avoid a repeat of this experience. They negotiated some kind of deal with the union that allowed them to ignore seniority, and I was suddenly a programmer in training.

I don't know what deal they negotiated, but it couldn't have been much or the union would have gloated and all of us would have known about it. I wouldn't be surprised if the "deal" turned out to be nothing more than a statement along the lines of "We're not going through this again. Either you let us pick the highest applicant or we'll simply keep using the Hearst Corporation programmers as consultants and you'll have fewer union members."

After a one week course at the IBM center in Hartford, Connecticut, I was given responsibility for maintaining and enhancing some of the existing production programs. By any standard, the Record was not yet making much use of the computer. It was in use only from 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM. My own shift was from nine to five. I learned how to IPL (start) the machine and how to operate it, and how to shut it down, but there was little opportunity to apply this knowledge. Moreover, testing time for any code I wrote was limited because production was run during the day and the computer could run only one program at a time.

Now - the union.
  • Regarding the Hartford experience: I was put up in a nice hotel, and meals and transportation expenses were to be paid for. I returned to work on Monday morning and was immediately approached by a union representative who told me to be sure to include in my expense report any time outside the classroom during which I had worked on homework assignments. The union would see that I was paid overtime. This seemed excessive to me, but I did as I was told.

    That afternoon the Personnel Manager called me into his office, a little distressed by my expense report's claim for overtime. He said that the company simply would not train anyone else if this stood. I explained that it had never occurred to me to make that claim, that the union had instructed me to do so, and that I would not be the least bit distressed to receive only the lodging, food, and transportation expenses.

    Somehow it got worked out between the Record and the Guild, and neither payment nor further conversation about overtime occurred.

  • I now knew how to operate the machine and was a little frustrated by the small number of opportunities for testing. I did a deal with the DP manager which allowed me to come in a couple of hours early and leave a couple of hours early, thus having the machine all to myself from seven o'clock to nine o'clock. For several weeks things went swimmingly. I was learning more every day and more of my programming was getting into production - good for me and good for the company.

    And then . . . I was approached by a union rep who asked about the specifics of the deal and how the deal came into existence (I had proposed it to the DP manager). In short order the union filed a complaint with the company, taking the position that by beginning at seven o'clock I was starting during "night shift" hours and would have to be paid the ten percent differential.

    Immediately on hearing this I went to our chapter head to try to talk him into withdrawing this claim. I explained that it was good for *me*, a union member, but it was like talking to a brick wall. Eventually the deal was cancelled and I was back to nine to five. Thanks, guys.

  • Somehow I wound up on the Guild's negotiating team as our contract expiration approached. I don't know how this happened, exactly, but I am absolutely the wrong person to put in a situation like that, as it is my inclination to see both sides of a matter while everyone else is seeing only whatever interests they serve.

    In any case, the Herald had recently completed some union negotiations, making what were considered by newspaper people to be scandalous concessions, most particularly in wages.

    Our rep began trying to negotiate for those same rates for the Guild employees at the Record, and was told that those rates were "off the table." Our guy wanted to know why the Herald management had been so "reasonable" and the Record management was being so "unreasonable." He was told "If the Herald lives to pay those contracts then we will renegotiate."

    The Herald did not live to pay the contracts, and the Hearst Corporation bought the paper, did away with the Record, moved into the Herald's facilities, and began publishing the Herald-American. This all occurred shortly after I left the paper, and the surviving paper, which has changed hands a couple more times, is now called the Boston Herald.

  • A thought, not directly related to union membership: During these negotiations I incurred the wrath of a Hearst Corporation jerk who was sent in to participate with the Record management in these negotiations and to meddle in other matters. I would gladly give you his name - so you would know who he was and how incompetent he was - but it has escaped me.¹

    In any case, a few months later I accepted an offer to take a position at Blue Cross. The offer was made by Drew, then an acquaintance from the Board Room (bar) and later both my superior and a friend. Perhaps a month after I started at Blue Cross, Drew and I were having a drink at the Board Room and he said "You know, we almost didn't get to hire you."

    I learned that it was Blue Cross policy to solicit a recommendation from the current employer of anyone proposing to join Blue Cross. Spitefully, the Hearst jerk had directed the Record's Personnel Manager to answer "No" to the question "Would you rehire this individual?"

    And so the Personnel Manager did, but he was wiser than that. He knew that I had been praised in writing for my performance and added a handwritten note: "It is company policy to answer 'no' to this question but I would rehire this man."

    But for that, the Record would have been wide open to a law suit.

¹ February 11, 2009: It just popped into my mind - Bill Klouda

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