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Will Michigan Force a Change in Organized Labor?


When I was 25-years-old I moved to Los Angeles for the first time, to go to work for KCBS. I had come from WSVN, the influential independent station in Miami that was a regular target for both praise and criticism from industry people and viewers alike, and to say that the introduction to the culture at CBS's flagship station out west was like dropping through a sheet of ice into a frigid lake would've been an understatement. The management team at KCBS was largely made up of a cartoonish cast of sociopaths and incompetents who seemed to delight in toying with their subordinates; the record of consistent ratings failure hung like a toxic cloud over the entire place; and just about any of the rank-and-file would've had no trouble admitting that going to work each day felt like willingly submitting to waterboarding. The whole place was poisoned and cursed from the ground up, as if it had been constructed on an ancient Indian burial ground or something.


Put simply, working at KCBS in the mid 90s was an experience so life-draining, so soul-crushing, so humiliating and positively brutal on the human psyche that the few who managed to get out with their sanity intact, to say nothing of their careers, would go on to regard each other with the kind of reverent solidarity usually reserved for those who survived the same POW camp.

Among the toughest things for me to come to terms with in initially transitioning from the WSVN work environment to the one at KCBS was the sudden presence of unions. KCBS had them, a lot of them: the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians; the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers; and of course the WGA, the Writers Guild of America. WSVN, meanwhile, was a shop that wasn't simply non-union, it was the kind of place where the subject of unionization never even came up. Ever. This was a little surprising when you considered how hard everyone was forced to work at WSVN and how paltry the pay was in comparison to a lot of other local stations, but that's just the way things were and everyone accepted it. In many ways, it created a really impressive and rare ego-free environment. There were no rules, no labyrinths of contractual mandates or prohibitions to have to navigate, no shadow government at work telling you what you could and couldn't do -- there was just everybody working hard toward a single goal. The station was a pirate ship and the entire staff behaved as such. Your victories were sweet and required celebratory drinking; your defeats were painful and required even more, anesthetic, drinking. Either way, you were all in it together -- one big dysfunctional family.

A union shop, though, was different. So throughly different. And I freely admit that my early interactions with the labor unions that held sway over the KCBS news department tarnished my overall view of unions and the necessity of them for years. I say this knowing that the unionization of a television news operation is a much different thing than, say, the union experience within a police department or a car manufacturer. I get that a big company is a big company, and God knows there are very big companies now running America's TV news outlets, but TV people are generally still subjected to a lot less management malfeasance than workers in other industries. (Also, say what you will but when your job is to cover breaking news as quickly as possible, the fewer rules to slow you down, the better; union regulations often directly stand in the way of success, despite the fact that your average dedicated employee is willing to do whatever has to be done in a crunch situation since he or she still takes a lot of pride in that job.)

My biggest issue when it came to the unions at KCBS was always this: workers weren't really given a choice as to whether or not they wanted to be a part of them. I had been hired on as a "senior producer," a muscular-sounding title which belied the fact that the KCBS brain trust had basically just pulled it out of their asses. What they'd done, see, is label me a manager without actually giving me any of the authority of a manager -- and they'd done it for no other reason than to ensure that, as a manager-in-name, I wouldn't be obligated to join the Writers Guild of America, the union that oversaw the station's producer corps. They likely considered the idea a stroke of inspired genius, but, as expected, the Guild saw through this bit of juvenile misdirection and filed grievance upon grievance against the station for attempting to game the system while simultaneously trying to pressure me to join up and pay them the required union dues. The station management ignored the Guild's complaints; I threw the angry bi-weekly letters I got from it in the garbage.

Here's what it came down to: I didn't want to be forced into paying out part of my salary to a third-party. I had been hired by KCBS and as far as I was concerned, as shitty as it was, it was the only entity I had personally made an agreement with. I wanted the choice to not have any association whatsoever with the union.

Now before anybody starts screaming for blood, yes, my position has evolved and softened over the years -- and before anyone starts lecturing me, yes, I understand that the obvious argument against that early point of view is that employees in a union shop benefit from the work of unions whether they pay in or not, meaning that those who don't are essentially freeloading. Also, what power can unions have if they don't represent everyone? But I won't lie and say that I've always been a staunch supporter of labor unions in this country across the board because while I believe that they're an absolute necessity in many arenas, I can't pretend that there isn't a valid point made by those who claim that they shouldn't have to deal with a union just to have a job in their field.

Which brings us to what happened a couple of days ago in Michigan.

Make no mistake: the move by Republican governor Rick Snyder to fast-track legislation declaring Michigan a right-to-work state was the textbook definition of an underhanded political end-run, particularly after he'd specifically stated that he wouldn't touch his state's status as a union bedrock because it was such a divisive issue. And make no mistake as well: The move to take power away from unions in Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana -- with more states on the way -- has nothing at all to do with giving citizens a "right to work"; it's nothing more than a ploy to immediately benefit rich, corporate Republican benefactors and ultimately designed to crush the one entity large and wealthy enough to stand and fight the GOP political machine. Republicans have always seen unions as a threat -- and they'll do whatever they can to diminish their authority.

In keeping with recent Republican tradition, "right-to-work" is, of course, a laughably Orwellian phrase, a benign-sounding piece of ironic Newspeak that glosses over the complex issues it deals with -- and the dangerous implications it carries for the average employee -- in favor of going with a straightforward bullshit sales pitch. Conservative leaders and mouthpieces can parse this little crusade of theirs all they want, casting it in the noblest of terms, but they're full of crap and they know it. The goal isn't to help anyone but themselves and right-to-work exists only to fuel their insatiable quest for the political power they believe is their birthright.

That being said, I do, in fact, question the fairness of making workers submit, en masse, to the authority of a labor union. Again, the counter-argument against a willingness to debate this is generally of the "well, no one's forcing you to join, only to pay a diminished due" variety. Sorry, but that isn't much of a salve for those who literally want nothing at all to do with the union where he or she works or is going to work. Plus, as I know from my own experience and the experiences I've heard from many others, unions often don't settle for simply accepting that you don't much want to hear from them and therefore leaving you alone; they apply pressure. No, I'm not saying that they strong-arm -- not only is that for the most part horseshit, it feeds nicely into Republican demonization of union tactics -- but they can mercilessly needle because they want your money and the increased power that comes with a fully united front. As for a strike situation, let's face it: All bets are off if a walkout happens and an employee -- union or even personally and publicly avowed non-union -- dares to cross the picket line and work because he or she feels that it's a necessity for whatever reason. Try seeing how magnanimous many union faithful feel like being when they consider somebody a scab.

These were always my concerns when it came to allowing myself to be unionized. I supported a lot of the politics the unions do and I fully recognized that there was a need for them to defend against workers being taken advantage of. But at the same time I wondered, as many people did and some continue to, whether union reform was as necessary as the unions themselves. For a long time, I couldn't help but look upon any union with a slightly suspicious eye, fully believing that organized labor had itself been allowed to grow dangerously unchecked, that it by and large become the very thing it claimed to stand in defiance of: corrupt and unfettered bureaucracy that doesn't really give a crap about anything but the perpetuation of its own authority.

While I certainly don't want to see organized labor decimated -- absolutely not in the name of ensuring that corporate America and municipal management can engage in whatever kind of horrific behavior they feel like and sidestep accountability, and not to the benefit of underhanded GOP politics -- I do think that the battle it's now facing may actually have benefits for it in the long run. I think it might force it out of a position of complacency. It takes a serious threat to a sleeping beast to really wake it up and force it to fight, especially if it quickly finds that its enemy has gotten smarter and more cunning and is now in a place to cause the extinction of its kind. While unions have faced a danger from the right, they've never faced one quite like this -- one that may require them to evolve and to learn to rely on brains as well as brawn, smarts as well as size and strength.

I'm admittedly still precariously balanced on the fence when it comes to my own personal views on whether a union affiliation would be right for me. But organized labor serves a purpose for millions and shouldn't be put asunder. Let's hope it's up to what could be one of the greatest challenges it's ever faced. It just got its ass handed to it in the cradle of its power. But if there's one thing I learned in my past dealings with unionized labor, both as a rank-and-file worker and a manager -- it can be relentless when it wants something bad enough.

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