BY BOB BEARDEN
There’s a memorable line from one of my favorite movies, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, starring Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt and Walter Huston, when the Mexican bandits confront Bogey and his donkeys laden down with gold and proceed to let the gold dust fly away in the wind. Bogey, trying to stop them, asks to see their badges. The bandit leader replies, “We don’t need no stinkin’ badges!”
And in a lot of unionized workplaces that line gets paraphrased a lot. We don’t need no stinkin’ union. We got all we need from the union and the boss will take care of us now. We don’t need the union at our work place.
Really and why is that? Because we have great bosses. That’s nice, but it has nothing to do with whether or not you have or need the presence of a union in your work place. I guess people who say that would not be part of the 58 million Americans who if they could would join a union.
Unions, it seems, work against themselves, because the more they get for their members, the less their members believe they need a union in their work place and having a great boss seems to dull the members’ senses and restrict their thought processes as to how they have what they have.
Good working conditions, good pay, great benefits and a safe and secure retirement. Union? Why do we need a stinkin’ union?
It’s always great to have great bosses at your work place. As long as you do, things will go well for you and the rest of the employees who work there. Things go better when the work climate includes a boss who gets it. But the problem with that is great bosses aren’t always going to be around. And when they’re gone – oops! – what do you do then? No stinkin’ union? Well then you step back and punt and hope for the best.
Management at whatever workplace there is, has a set of work rules to go by, and if you have a union at your workplace they can and will ensure that the work rules are followed. But when there is no union then management can follow their own work rules or they can ignore them and when they do it is always at the peril of the workers.
Individually a worker can’t do squat about correcting that situation, because management will only correct it if they want to and if they don’t, then tough.
It has been 49 years since I became a union member and I’ve been a union steward/officer for 43 years and it never ceases to amaze me how many union members will say, ‘Oh, we got everything we want and need so now we don’t need a union.’ Ah, yes, it might seem that way until you don’t have a union and then try to make things happen by individual osmosis. Doesn’t work too well. In fact it usually doesn’t work at all.
And just because you once had a union and a union contract or agreement, once you don’t have that, your bosses are under no obligation to honor any previous contract or agreement you might have had when there was a union presence. And unions do a lot more than just get you better pay, good benefits, a secure retirement and settle disputes.
The part unions do that most employees never seem to grasp is that they not only make sure management follows and enforces its own work rules, they also can and do negotiate work rules that make sense and help protect workers in the work place. Seldom will you find a company such as Texas Instruments that takes care of its employees, has employee committees and works to ensure its employees have a safe working environment. Laws are in place to make those things part of the workplace, but they are usually only enforced if the company does so or if there is a union in place to ensure that they do.
Yes, it is always great to have great bosses and they will take care of the people who work under them until, of course, they leave and are replaced. Then, you may get another great boss or you may not. I carried mail in the postal service for 26 years before I went to work full-time for my local. I had a lot of bosses and even had several great bosses, a few good ones, a few so-so ones and a number of stinkers.
With the great bosses, we worked together, settled our differences and everyone was happy. With the good bosses, we most of the time worked together, often settled our differences and, for the most part, everyone was happy. With the so-so bosses we worked together occasionally. We filed a lot of grievances and some of the workers were happy some of the time, some never were, and some only part of the time. With the stinkers most of the workers were unhappy, productivity was lousy. I spent almost as much time in the boss’s office as I did carrying mail and the grievances piled up. And downtown settled some of them and some of them went up the line and often made it to an arbitrator. We won some and we lost some.
Do you need a union when you have a great boss? Probably not – at least not on the surface. But wait, there’s more, as the old TV pitchman used to say. What happens when you no longer have a great boss who’s got your back and you have decided you don’t need a union because the boss is so good to you? Then they leave and you get a boss who doesn’t care about having your back, just about the numbers? Then, well, then you’re just fresh out of luck. Good luck with being able to have a work environment that doesn’t suck!
Unions are the most democratic of institutions in America. But unions are only as good as their members. Unless members realize that without unions they have only the say that management wants them to have, they will only be lucky and have a great place to work when they have a great boss. When that boss leaves or starts getting pushed around by those above them and they have a come-to-Jesus moment in which they have to decide it’s either you or their job, guess which scenario is likely?
When push comes to shove, even the best of bosses want to keep their job and will most likely do whatever it takes to keep it. If they push back, they are usually left with two choices: get with the program or get the hell out of Dodge.
Unions aren’t perfect, but then neither is there really a perfect boss. Unions are necessary because management won’t always do the right thing.
When you don’t think you need no stinkin’ union that’s when you need it the most!
– Bob Bearden is a trustee of the Central Oklahoma Labor Federation, secretary of the Oklahoma State Association of Letter Carriers, and a 49-year union member