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My Love/Hate Affair With Unions

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I am the granddaughter of two Jewish socialists from the Bronx via the  Lower East Side of Manhattan via Lublin, Poland. Sol and Paula Sheiner voted for Norman Thomas every time he ran for President of the United States. My grandfather delivered milk in a horse-drawn carriage, and my grandmother cleaned and cooked, all the while muttering things like “Don’t call me Mrs., Mister! I am not your slave! I paid my own fare!!” She was referring to her steamboat passage, at the age of 15, from Poland to Ellis Island.

These are my credentials as a labor union supporter, flimsy and indirect though they are. My actual experience with unions is a whole other story that tested my principles, not to mention family loyalty. While I can’t imagine not supporting workers’ unions – which means, after all, supporting workers’ rights – my position is based on principle, and comes entirely from my head, not my heart.

I’ve worked as a secretary roughly half my life – starting in the days when a secretary was called one, and later when we graduated (in lip service only) to administrative assistants. As a committed, compulsive writer, I was indifferent to most of my jobs, and was always quitting or getting fired. An honest resume, if I had one, would list upwards of 70 employers. Of these, only three were union jobs – it seems that office workers, gifted at organizing other people’s lives, tend not to do the same for their own.

A radical lawyer friend got me my first union position, at a law firm that defended the rural poor (to which I belonged prior to getting the job). I was one of four secretaries; the lawyers dropped work off in a communal basket from which we were supposed to begin with the oldest. There wasn’t all that much work, yet the papers would languish for two or three days while the secretaries chatted, did their nails, and drank coffee. My lawyer friend, I soon realized, had fabricated employment for me where none existed.

Along with socialist leanings, my family had also passed down a super strong work ethic: no matter how much I despise a job, I work like a dog at it, and deliver the goods. Thus, whenever a lawyer deposited work into our communal basket, I would wait a decent interval to see if anyone else planned to do it – but after an hour or two I could restrain myself no longer. By the second week one of the secretaries took me aside. “You’re making us look bad,” she hissed. “Stop working so fast.”

Have I mentioned that a unionized worker cannot be easily discharged? In our union, she was entitled three warnings, and even after that it took an internal judge and jury to oust her. No wonder these gals got away with murder! Yet they were busy bees compared to my next union job, years later, when I moved to San Francisco. I worked for a law firm that, of all things, defended unions – that is, they defended union management against members who filed complaints or sued them. The office was unionized, yet even here they’d had to fight like tigers for it.

I had unknowingly stumbled into a dysfunctional situation, to put it kindly. I was the only Jewish clerk (my union classification). Every other secretary was Christian, while every lawyer, with the exception of one or two Chinese guys, was Jewish. One of my tribal brothers had a favorite routine: when he passed me in the hall he’d shake his head sadly and whisper, “A Jewish secretary – such a shanda! (shame).”

My direct supervisor, who was Hispanic, tortured me from the minute I walked through the door, sending me on hour-long chases after files that didn’t exist; intentionally botching instructions for the archaic Wang computer; and assigning me low-level tasks, like copying thousand-page legal documents. It took awhile to figure out why she was on a vendetta, but all was soon revealed by the secretaries I befriended. She had recently married the boss’s son, and the Orthodox Jewish patriarch was less than pleased. Shiksa that she was, she desperately craved his approval, and would never get it. From her perspective I had what she needed simply by the accident of my birth.

It must have been delicious for her to wield power over me. She wasn’t terribly bright to begin with, and never examined her blind animosity but reveled in it. This is not just paranoia on my part: the other secretaries confirmed that the shiksa indeed had it in for me. They told me she already had two warnings in her file, so if I were to complain I might very well get her fired. But when I spoke to one of the lawyers, he said nothing the shiksa had done to me was tangible or provable. It was obvious that none of the lawyers would dare try to fire the boss’s daughter-in-law, even if said boss did hate her. Nine months and several breakdowns later, I quit.

My third and final experience with union life was as Office Manager for the Bay Area branch of the National Writers Union. I worked independently most of the time, had a great deal of autonomy, and liked the variety of characters I met. Nobody condemned me for working too fast; nobody tortured me. In fact, I had a pretty good time for nearly five years here, and it ranks as one of my four or five favorites. Still, anyone with even a brief acquaintance with progressive groups knows the craziness that goes on inside them. As someone once said, organizing writers is like herding chickens. Someone even smarter said,

Writers Unite: you have nothing to lose but your brains!”

My point is, it’s possible to stick to one’s principles even in the face of evidence to the contrary. The case for unionism is too strong; what’s at stake is too crucial to discount unions just because some workers use them to slack off or to abuse their piddling power. So while you won’t catch me joining one again, I remain an avid union supporter.

After all, I want Sol and Pauline to be able to Rest In Peace.


One response »

  1. Unions yes.

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