Monday, May 4, 2009

A Union Memoir

The Borders Books WTC store UFCW contract committee, March 6, 1998
I'm holding the blue UFCW folder 3rd from left. David Kaplan is on the far right. Jason Chappell is to my left. The tall charming man 3rd from the right is Aron Phillips, our first shop steward. The others are Emily Winkelstein on the far left. Tashima Washington is 2nd from the right. The charming young woman in the red coat in the center is Chevon Daniels.

I had dinner with my friend David Kaplan to celebrate his birthday. He turns 60 on May 6th. We ate East European comfort food at the Ukrainian National Home restaurant in the East Village. That was the first time I had eaten there in 16 years, since I was last in art school. When I last ate there, tables full of little old Ukrainians sat next to tables of punk rockers with flaming mohawks and shiny boots. The crowd there today is a lot less colorful.
Over stroganoff and cabbage rolls, we entertained the idea that the age of ideological politics might be coming to an end.

I met David Kaplan while working at Borders Books in the World Trade Center almost 12 years ago. We became friends during a campaign to organize store employees led by our mutual friend Jason Chappell.

Jason led the union fight at the old World Trade Center Borders Books almost 12 years ago. He started out as a true believing member of the ISO (International Socialist Organization). His leadership of the Borders organizing campaign was a great success with the union winning the vote by an almost 2 to 1 margin. He was great at getting all kinds of people to pull together and stay together. We had hippies, radicals, unemployed academics, punk rockers, the lesbians were all solid union, the gay boys were evenly split, writers, actors, sci-fi geeks, even a few conservative Republicans on board with the union. A small group of African American evangelicals produced some of our best union leaders and our first shop steward. It was a great success for a Trotskyite from Kansas City MO with a Republican brother.
The ISO raked Jason over the coals for it. They hated that whole inclusive business. They wanted ideological purity and conversions (does this sound familiar to any of you Christians out there?). They accused him of diluting ideology in the name of expediency. Jason figured out that the ISO needed him more than he needed them. Besides, none of them in his chapter had done a day's worth of real organizing in their lives. So he left them.
The union drive was one of the most intense emotional experiences in my life. All these years later, I'm still sorting it all out with things I'm proud of and things I regret. Our friendships became very tight during that drive, and not all of managment was hostile. We tried with some success to maintain good relations with the assistant managers despite the company's efforts to turn them against us. We wanted the store to succeed. As David noted with bitter irony, the only one who really cared about customer service and how the store looked and functioned was Jason.

Last I heard, Jason is studying labor law and economics with the intention of becoming an academic (another successful left wing political organizer wasted on academia as far as I'm concerned).

Alas, the Borders union got squashed long before Osama destroyed the World Trade Center. Our success in the union vote was matched by our failure in contract negotiations. How could we not fail? We were one unionized store trying to bargain with a big international company. All they had to do was the minimum necessary for the legal requirement to bargain in "good faith" and sit back and wait us out. They conceded nothing to us, no wage increase, no benefits, no working condition improvements, nothing. I was on the contract committee and had a front row seat at the whole thing. The nail in the union coffin was when we found out that the president of the UFCW local (United Food and Commercial Workers) was secretly negotiating with management behind our backs. Jason left Borders when he found that out. David and I left soon after, and the union died a painful death. I deeply regret not being able to deliver much needed improvements and benefits to our fellow workers (including those who opposed the union), especially those with children, who needed them so desperately. But, we tried our best.

It was a valuable lesson in politics, what works and what doesn't. We found out that an awful lot of law and raw power were stacked against us. The Reagan post-PATCO strike labor laws limiting labor actions really hurt us. The company was a huge elephant and we were one brave little mouse. The ideologues in the ISO and IWW were no help. My heart is with the Wobblies, but my head does not want them representing me at contract negotiations. I wanted that contract, not a glorious lost cause. Our best politics was building relationships with each other and with the community beyond. We had a lot of support from our customers. The WTC cops (all union) were secretly with us. We had some support in the local press (especially in the Village Voice and Newsday). One of my fellow employees said it best when he said politics is not about ideology, it's about getting concrete things done for real people.


JCF said...

Great testimony, Doug.

Aren't you glad you're an (actual Jesus-following) Christian, where no "noble lost cause" is ever truly lost? [I honestly don't know how the atheist lefties last a minute---though I'm glad they do]

Counterlight said...

I certainly treasure that Holy Hope in the Resurrection, but I have to give a lot of credit to my atheist colleagues, like Jason. That passion for justice always burns bright, with or without the hope of victory.