"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Thursday, November 21, 2013

I have no time for union vs. management

I recently wrote that the 1994 baseball strike had a permanent effect on my interest in baseball. Major league sports aren't a model for everything, of course, but I think we see lots of skepticism about the traditional organized labor model.
Labor benefits public employees disproportionately. And if any public employee should happen to read this - I have more followers than you might guess - that individual would gnash his/her teeth and feel antagonism toward me permanently. Which would just go toward underscoring my point.
Unionism encourages too much enmity. I have viewed it firsthand.
I once read an excellently penned piece by a veteran of journalism, who suggested there was one topic about which it was impossible, literally impossible, to submit "objective" news stories. That topic was labor vs. management conflict. No matter how delicately you tried to put an article together, one side would vociferously cry "foul." And, the sense of conflict would turn so bitter.
I was close to two such situations in my print media career. What a curse it was to get close to this stuff.
Put any group of people in a situation where they can unionize and get the power to strike, and surely they will end up striking, screaming that the other side was "unfair," and that they were "only asking for fairness," and that "we don't want to strike, but if we have to, we will."
Maybe my experiences around such situations explain how I came to be so cynical. Cynicism is the belief that people overwhelmingly act out of self-interest.
I covered the prospect of a teachers strike in Morris way back when, sometime in the 1980s. I got drawn in by the teachers' side on that one. I didn't want to behave unfeeling toward them. I interviewed their spokesmen and I'm sure I tried getting quotes from the other side. But it was the teachers who seemed to have their glare fixated on me.
Mind you, none of the posturing from either side had to do with what was best for education. Although, of course, the teachers would put up a big cloud of rhetoric about how it was "all about the kids."
No one cares about the kids more than the board of education. This is why the board exists. This is why they have a superintendent.
A labor action is simply a strategic move by school district employees to get an optimal contract for themselves. After all these years, I think we all realize that now. That's why the public seems to be turning the screws on extreme labor advantages. A strike is disgusting.
A scene to make you frown
Remember when, not long ago, we saw UMM employees grouped around various entries to the campus, with their picket signs?
How many of us "community people" would entertain the thought, for even a moment, that U of M employees are persecuted and being treated unfairly? I had to laugh about how many community people acted as if they were sympathetic to the strikers, driving by these little clusters of malcontents, honking their horns, waving, smiling, when in the back of their minds they probably were all thinking: "Get back to work, you disgusting SOBs."
The problem is that we're a small town. We all feel a very strong instinct of wanting to get along with each other. That's why the traditional labor model can be so damaging for a small town. Teacher strikes in the 1980s caused harm and permanent scars in many small Minnesota communities. In Morris, although a strike never materialized, there was a core of very union-conscious and union-motivated teachers who I felt caused the same kind of damage.
These were teachers who locked in contract negotiations that were very time-consuming and got into way too much minutiae. Morris legend has it that the superintendent made a sort of Faustian bargain with one of these individuals, setting him up in a "soft" job if he'd back off on all that stuff.
Our superintendent during those times of troubled waters was Fred Switzer.
The nature of union vs. management conflict is that people can get attacked on the most harsh of terms. Supt. Switzer was very sharp and was here for a long time. I'm sure he respected the teaching profession highly. But the teachers had their own parochial aims, and management stood in the way sometimes. So it wasn't unusual for some teachers to be heard out and around the town talking about Fred like he was the Cyclops character in Homer's "The Odyssey."
It was very discouraging, as a community member, listening to all this. This kind of thing was probably going on all over Minnesota.
Worse yet, the Morris extracurricular programs began to tumble, because extracurricular has always existed with a bit of gray area about the exact expectations of coaches, who are doing the job partly out of passion and not because of a strict sense of what the compensation will be. In other words, coaches are tempted to do a few little extra things - perhaps some trips for scouting purposes - and they don't mind putting in the time to do this.
Extracurricular might also call on some volunteers to help around the fringes, at least. People who are union-centered in their thoughts would absolutely scorn volunteers. Volunteers are doing work which, in theory, could bring compensation on union-negotiated terms.
Morris had a nucleus of teachers in the '80s who were the strict type of union-centered people. Let's go on to consider that these individuals all had personal friends around the community who would go to bat for them, and all join together in describing me as a Cyclops too.
You see, if I disagreed with them, that meant I was stupid, right? This network of people, some of whom I felt were gullible, got together at house parties to cement this relationship and marginalize people like me. All I wanted was for the school district to perform well. On many occasions I would track down a coach for interviewing purposes by phone, and he'd be at a house party, with loud house party noises in the background. (I'd have better things to do with my time.)
The house party might be hosted by an athlete's parent. That's a conflict of interest. By 1987 there was a loud chorus beginning to emanate from aggrieved parents who could see there was clearly something wrong in the school system. It was never a matter of wins and losses per se. There was a cancer in the system. A substantial number of parents drew up a "statement of concern." How unfortunately ugly.
A winter sports banquet/program degenerated into a cesspool of politics, with no one in authority standing up to get control over it. They probably wanted to, but they knew what they were up against.
Is there a sociologist in the house?
In any community there is a loose network of sports-oriented people - you know, the kind of people who umpire town team baseball games. Had this element in the community decided to join in with the aggrieved parents, matters would have been taken care of much more quickly. But they did not. They themselves had been at too many house parties. And they couldn't see clearly what was happening to the programs and the student athletes.
Meanwhile the insurgents included a man, now deceased, who would later show that he could win a write-in campaign for mayor. So, these were not "fringe" people. But they were still insurgents. They could not bring a common consensus, much as a consensus would have been a salve for the town.
Thus we had a classic small-town conflict, the scars of which remain evident today at least with a few people. New people in the community would probably think that what I'm writing here is some odd fantasy. Oh no it wasn't. Certain businesses were boycotted.
At the base of all this strife was union-centered activism which disrupted the proper focus of the school district. Superintendent Switzer was not the Cyclops.
I think if you were to look around Minnesota at all the people who served as superintendents in the '70s and early '80s, I think very few of them came away with a lionized reputation. They were involved with conflict so much, the best they could do was survive. They spent immense time on matters with no direct connection to the welfare of the students.
We don't hear about teacher strikes anymore. Teachers today seem to want to put on a happy and idealistic face for the community. I'm so cynical, sometimes I think it's a charade, but I don't think it is.
No more need for Faustian bargains. No picket signs. No cries of "unfair." No more disingenuous remarks like "we don't want to strike, but we will if we have to."
It was all about power and self-interest, and nothing else. We're more enlightened now. And I'll bet we'll never again see strikers with picket signs at the entries to the University of Minnesota-Morris.
We haven't had a major league baseball strike since 1994. I think we as a society have had it with strikes. We believe in fairness, absolutely. This needs to be pursued by mechanisms other than strikes and the inherently adversarial and ugly model of "labor vs. management." I assert this as a progressive politically.
On to the medical profession
Another episode in my career was when the hospital LPNs were forming a union and the administration was screaming bloody murder about this. The hospital administration really got ahold of me and sought to use me as their mouthpiece. I remember it all so vividly.
I did interview a couple nurses. But I ended up with deference toward management just because of the clout they appeared to have. The administration was literally trying to stop unionization.
Later, a hospital employee would tell me that the administration would have been better served just accepting the union and working with it. A whole lot of needless conflict developed.
I have no time for union vs. management. Workers can be protected by other means, legislative or whatever. All that strife affected the course of my own print media career. A member of that local "jock fraternity" told me off to my face in the harshest personal terms from his office at the WCROC (not called the WCROC then). Our family had to change dentists.
I will never forget any of this stuff. To hell with house parties.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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