Monday, July 11, 2016

There are unions and there are unions. I guess I was in the latter. (Part 2)

As I had mentioned in part one of this post, learning how to make myself useful on a ship was easy and natural for me, which I credit to the working environment we had on the ships I was working on. We had  a union, and from top down, the entire crew was in one union. This is rarely the case, but that is how it happened.
       MMP's offshore engineers and offshore unlicenced unions were a bit of a joke. MMP is a deck officer's union, or at least it used to be. There are inshore and tugboat divisions now that include engineers and unlicensed now, but 15 years ago we were the red-headed stepchildren of the union, with a grand total of 2 companies to work for and 5 ships. But bills got paid, and while the pay was very low and the union's strength was laughable (the shipowners dictated the terms of the contract, the union agreed, and see you in 5 years for a repeat), there was some sketchy shit in the past between the union and the shipowners- the union financed the ships, originally, for the CEO of my company, (and got their pee-pees slapped by the SEC as a result, so I heard)... but on the pointy end of the stick, I had a ship to work on and a job, and that was enough. Plus, the benefits were very good, except for the pay.

    Thing is, I had never belonged to a union before, and I took advantage of the benefits, spending 2-4 weeks at the union's training school after each 4 month voyage, saving $8,000-12,000 in classes each time, and the union NEVER said no, and I was always encouraged by everyone I met to prep for and sit for an unlimited license.  I had no idea that this was unusual.

  Occasionally the union would be unable to fill a job for unlicensed AB's or QMED's, and for that we had a pass-through agreement with SIU, the other maritime union for unlicensed mariners. SIU is gigantic, having hundreds of times more men than my union's unlicensed offshore division with it's 100 or so guys. The SIU guys were uniformly the same, in my experience; they talked a lot about how much they knew their jobs, and were always adequate at them, but complained at each and every turn about everything, from the pay, to the living conditions, to the hours, to the work. And that's OK, everyone can deal with a sea-lawyer sometimes, but it was EVERY. DAMN. TIME. and that shit got old. A Sea-Lawyer can absolutely destroy morale, and does so almost universally. On the upside, they always left after a few weeks or a month.

 So it's obvious that I have a bias against SIU as an institution. There were men who left SIU and transferred to our union, or who quietly did so while still SIU members and double dipped, and often these guys were great to work with; self-selection meant that guys who did this often appreciated the lack of conflict and the collegial environment as the price to be paid for lower pay.
  SIU trains their men well, in my opinion, but was a standing joke on our ships. Everything I've seen to date cements my original opinion that I was VERY lucky to not need to join them.
      Where I learned my job by watching, asking questions and volunteering to help people, they have to attend a literal prison work camp, and when finally allowed to work on a ship for less than minimum wage, there is no sea-daddy appointed to teach you and keep you safe- rather, you have to do scut work in an environment where no one wants to teach you because they're afraid you're trying to take their job away- and if an officer sees you instructing a trainee, maybe that officer takes your pay away and gives it to the trainee instead, maybe not, because every moment is billable in SIU- there are rates of pay for work, for overtime (separated by type), for sailing and making fast, for every little thing, it's billable time at varying rates (dictated by contracts negotiated by appointed-for-life union officials whose 'families' mostly come from Sicily and whose names all end in a vowel) and wink wink nudge nudge, dis is a nice ship, shame if sumpin happens to it.

   So, in hearing universally the same horror stories about adversarial shipboard environments where many officers are a representative of the owner's interest first and an maritime officer second, and every SIU member is holding the line of an us-vs.-them tug of war, holy dogshit, did I get lucky. I do NOT have the personality type for that kind of work environment.

 And yes, there are many exceptions, and the SIU prison work camp attendees are a mix of motivated mariners in training and urban yoots avoiding jail time via second-chance programs, and I guess that's why they run it exactly like prison, but I admire the strength of character that it takes for nice people who volunteer to be there to get through it.

    I know a few people who went through their bullshit boot camp, and I swear some of them got PTSD from it. What kind of asshole makes it punishment to learn how to do a job? That sort of shit goes a long way to explaining why so many people find maritime unions a big scam.
       I wanted to learn how to do a job, I asked. The boatswain or mate or whoever handed me off to someone who showed me. End of story. I didn't need to secretly watch how someone did their job and pray that no one saw me learning and accused me of taking the food out of their kids' mouths. If that's the kind of environment that SIU encourages, or even tolerates, I should probably kiss the ass of the people who told me 'don't join SIU' when I was looking for my first job.

 I never made as much money as the guys in the better-paying unions did, when I was in that side of the industry, but I learned how to do my job and looked forward to doing it, for the most part, and the supervisors were often happy to teach me how to aspects of their jobs, often while they were learning the job above theirs.
      Feeling welcomed and part of a team was more than worth the difference in pay. For all that I didn't make a lot of money, and sometimes had to wait a couple of months to get a job, I was making consistent progress towards advancing myself through classes. There just weren't enough jobs available to me in that union, and when my employer went tits up after a funding crisis, I had already seen the writing on the wall- there weren't any other companies to work for in that union, and I had already left.

*                *                   *
         These days I'm in a different side of the industry. I'm not in a union at all, and I don't need to be. I work for a large company that started off as a small family business and tries very hard to maintain that atmosphere- I could join a union again and make more money, and fund the lifestyles of a bunch of legal gangsters in suits who are 'looking out for my best interests' but why would I? I keep what I make, pay no dues, and can look out for my best interests just fine.


My Take said...

Not a big fan of unions myself. But I am very surprised that a person in your position would not be compelled to join or else. I am always impressed at the various issues you explain as it pertains to your employment on a ship. Especially since you had a few people who took an interest in your curiosity and helped you progress along the way. I had the same experience in my own work life which afforded me a good living without having to have a lot of expensive education.

Will said...

I'm of the opinion that labor unions are one of the factors that got us to this piss poor situation the nation is facing. They may have been a force for good in their very early days, by getting the big businesses sorted out, but then they went straight down the crapper. They pretty much destroyed the auto industry with their outrageous wage demands, and not allowing them to respond to the Japanese and European imports. Drove away their own jobs. Idiots.

Unknown said...

I'm working my first union (SIU) job (after 25 years of employment), and it's a bit out of the mainstream in that we come to work for the company and then join the union, not vice-versa, and I have to say that after my experiences in the oil patch I'm pretty pleased.

I was raised in a right-to-work state (Texas) and was very active in conservative politics at an early age. The received wisdom was that unions were evil and hobbled American competitiveness, with the American auto industry being the poster child.

I've since come to think (well before landing here) that while autoworkers may have bid themselves out of jobs, and it's demonstrably true that many union officials have been as corrupt as any other group of people who make their livings off of the labor of others, there is a place for organized labor and that it is needed now more than ever before in our economic history.

Labor unions work as valued partners with management in many countries. Check out the story of VW's plant in (I think) Tennessee. The German automaker was actually going to pull the plug on the project -- and all those jobs -- if the workers did not organize.

All that said, many of the SIU-crewed ships I see (and I see a lot) are both an embarrassment and a pain-in-the-ass to work with. It's enough to make you rethink the Jones Act.