Sunday, January 17, 2010

wanted: one soapbox

This week has been significant, as it marks the date when I let my union membership expire. For about eight years, I have belonged to a maritime union. I have done well as a union member, but not that well.

I'm approaching the 11-month mark as an employee of my 'new' company. It is a non-union job in a different vein of the maritime world. As I often have to explain here "I come from ships," which, I think, makes me a more careful and well-rounded mariner than some of my associates. All the same, I work for a non-union company.
And you know what? Better insurance, no dues, and my pay is double what it was before. DOUBLE. No BS. Had I stayed in my union, advanced myself through studying and testing, in about 5 years I could be making what I make now, minus a couple of grand a year for union dues.

I've always been a pro-union guy. My dad was in a maritime union (reluctantly). My brother was in a laborer's union. Various friends are in the electricians, pipefitters, boilermakers, millwrights and carpenter's unions.
There's a place for maritime unions. There is a place for a lot of unions. There is a need in some places for them, in order to keep at least some craftsmen in the neighborhood of the middle class.
That being said, there's a reason why some places thrive despite their non-union workforce. Good companies have employees who don't need protection from management.

I'm going to go out on a limb here, so I'd appreciate it if no one goes bonkers when I talk about my employer, as they're a good solid example of a company with happy employees.
There are tugboat companies out there who are sacrificing safety in an effort to remain competitive- reduced manning, increased work hours, whatever... these companies survive parasitically- obeying laws on paper with the full knowledge that reality is quite different. These are the examples, publicized or not, that argue for the existence and necessity of unions in the maritime world.
Even among ships' officers, cost-conscious shipping companies will attempt to save money in labor cost rather than allow overhead to affect management costs (in some cases). Other companies attempt to treat their employees as a family, and, in doing so, to make more equitable changes to both office and afloat staff. This is neither here nor there in my opinion, as a deskbound employee still gets to kiss his kids goodnight even when staff in the office and at sea take a proportionate pay cut. All the same, at least it's something, but it's also extremely rare. More routinely we see contract renegotiations that simply start off sour.
Now, a couple of years ago, I took a job in New York harbor when I was home from my ship. I did this because I didn't have much money even after a 4-month voyage, but also because I wanted to see what tugboating was about. Within 2 hours of stowing my bags on my tugboat, I found myself being strong-armed by a union thug who told me that I had to join the union. This was a new experience for me, as the other maritime union I belonged to was staffed by retired officers, guys with shirts and ties on. This guy, in comparison, looked and talked like a panhandler, and, although it's unkind, had dental work that made him look like a jack o' lantern. Anyways, I gave the guy $100 to make him go away, and in return, I got a business card saying I was in the union.
Now, apparently, that union was a well-organized machine with a respectable track record... but my impression was NOT similar, and in the weeks that followed, conversation drifted continually to past achievements of the union, with little of substance regarding the present or future. When my tugboating experience was over, a few months later, my opinion hadn't changed much. The people I came in contact with would do just fine if they were selling fireworks out of the trunk of their car, but that's about the best I can say.
As I said before, I'm not making grand statements, nor am I an expert in the matter. I'm just giving my opinion as a man who was pro-union walking into the situation.

So, fast-forward two years, and here I am. My counterpart in New York harbor makes about $100 more a day than I do. But you know, that c-note is blood money. They have a union because at some point they needed one, but the costs are high, and I'm not talking about the dues. When I talked to the ashore staff in that job, I was a pain in their ass. When I called about my paycheck, phone calls weren't returned. When I... well, you get the idea. There was a disconnect between the organ-grinders and the monkeys, and for certain, that disconnect has roots in labor relations.

I'm aware that I work for an exceptional group, but damn me if I haven't earned my place, too. There's no strong-arming here, but there's respect and professionalism, especially when I require support services from the ashore staff. I'd rather be happy than stressed and a little wealthier. Not that it's perfect here, either, but the standards are higher, and there's a certain code of behavior that is absent, by all accounts, from the NY scene.


Professor said...

As a former organizer I can tell you that you can't organize happy employees- you'd be crazy to try. Unions are for people who've not been given a fair shake. My hat's off to your employers for treating people decently!

Ebb Tide said...

Hey Paul, Robert B Parker passed away Monday morning. They said he was at his desk working on his ten pages a day schedule, when he went to the big sleep. Guess he died doing what he liked best. We should all be so lucky. A great writer who filled many of our lonely hours at sea with his Spenser series.

Paul, Dammit! said...

I heard about that. He was the last of that group of writers- Parker and John D. McDonald were my favorite of that genre.

My favorite Parker novel was "All Our Yesterdays." It was a departure in style and content for him, but wonderfully written.

Anonymous said...

Oh lordy I have never laughed so hard in my life..You have so well described the unspeakable union so well. And you are so right. I can, after many years of working up there, guess who you work for.
I thank you for having the balls to say what so many others only think
When I was ask (told) to join that union I ask them where their training school was. They said that your company took care of that.
So I ask them how their health care benifits were? They said that your company took care of that.
Again I asked, So who handles your pension? And yep you guessed it. They said your company takes care of that.
Then I asked the final question. So what the hell do I need you for?
They hung up.

Keep the faith brother.

BMH said...

Welcome to the family. Congrats on your first year. I was in the same boat (pardon the Pun) Working in NYC for a company where i was told just to pay my dues and nobody will "bother" you. Well going on 3 years and I am a happy camper here in "Philly"