Wednesday, January 28, 2009

"Any group of men that can steal me into becoming a multi-millionaire are OK by me..." SAG vs The AMPTA

My grandfather was part of the Railroad workers strikes in California in 1916-1917 and 1922. My father, 7 during the first strike and 12 during the second, remembered vividly the boxcars full of scab workers...the beatings and deaths of his father's co-workers and friends...the joy of victory in 1916-1917 with the winning of the 8 hour day...and the tragic defeat in 1922...that defeat was laid at the feet of the operator's unions; representing the engineers, trainmen, firemen, and conductors, who did not join in the strike, by the striking shop workers. The operator's union represented the superstars of their day, and the impending wage cut didn't effect them. That lack of solidarity, by supposed union brothers, was not lost on my father later in his life and career as both a head stillman in an oil refinery, and as a union organizer.

My father's wages, as a head stillman, were never really a point of contention during strike negotiations. The head stillman of a refinery is the top blue collar job...responsible for overseeing every aspect of the refining process. It takes many years of hard work and dedication to reach the position: it requires you to have worked at every job at the be able to not only direct the temperature of the "cracking" unit to tenths of a degree while monitoring the output of the various distilled also requires you to be able to step in, at a moments notice, into any job within the refinery...from common laborer on up. Men like my father were few and far between, and commanded the top wage. Most, unlike my father, didn't remain in the position for very long. It was to each company's benefit to have, in their non-union management staff, a former head stillman. The reasoning behind this was obvious at each and every could immediately send someone over to insure the proper running of the refinery with scab workers, thereby ensuring product output during the other words, they wouldn't lose money from lost production while a strike was on-going. This was a huge advantage for the owners...and an enormous detriment to the strikers.

My father was offered a top white collar management job in 1946...almost immediately after his return from the War. The pay was three times his wage as head stillman. The caveat, of course, was leaving the union. He refused. My father had brought the union into that refinery. He had organized the men. Stood on the picket lines with them. He was their shop steward. He had protected them from harassment and physical attacks. He would not turn his back on them now. He remained head stillman at that refinery for the next 29 years...refusing the offer of management from the owner, a man he admired and respected, every year.

My father told me hundreds of stories about his days in the union. Two stand out in my mind, at the moment, as being pertinent to the ongoing problems between SAG and AMPTP.

My father was walking out into the refinery, late one night, at the beginning of his shift. His board man, "Mouse", walked by him in a huff. My Dad was the only person "Mouse" really got along with, so my Dad was used to seeing him in a foul mood.

The board man at a refinery is responsible for monitoring the temperatures in the "cracking" unit, the brain of the refinery. The raw crude is brought in and heated, separating it into layers which are siphoned off and heated to produce the various fuels. The temperatures have to be watched very to the slightest degree in either direction and the fuels don't separate properly. This results in inferior fuel products which can't be sold according to government regulations.

The board operator was not allowed to leave the "cracking" unit without a proper replacement. The only two people on site at the time who could were my Dad, and my Uncle "Dub". You can imagine my father's surprise when he saw "Dub" standing outside of the "cracker."

"I just saw Mouse storming off, so what the hell are you doing out here, Dub?"

"Management sent over some efficiency experts from Stanford...they're getting ready to raise the reactor temperature four and a half degrees."

"They can't do will shut down the whole plant...didn't Mouse tell them that?"

"Yeah...he told'm...they told him he didn't even have a high school diploma, and they had PHDs in engineering form Stanford...that's when he told them to go...well, you know Mouse...and stomped out."

My Dad stormed into the unit just as one of the efficiency experts was about to turn turn up the temperature on the reactor.

"Get your hands off of that board right now...what the hell do you think you're doing?"

"Raising the reactor temperature four and one half degrees."

"Did my board man tell you what would happen if you did that?"

"Yes...he said it would shut down the whole refinery...but..."

"But what, you idiot?"

"Our studies have shown that, in theory, the optimal temperature for..."

"Theory? Theory? Do you understand that I'm holding this place together with baling wire and spit...that I'm already running her three degrees higher than she should go? That it's only the skill and knowledge of these men that allow me to do that?"

"As I stated...our theories show..."

"Get Wiley over here...right now."

Wiley was the top white collar manager for the refinery. A former head stillman, he had taken the promotion to management when my Dad brought the union in because he thought it would put him in good with the owner. Then he married the owner's sister. He hated my father...with a passion. The feeling was mutual.

It didn't take Wiley long to take the walk across the street from corporate into the refinery.

"What's the problem, Charlie?"

"You know what the problem is, Wiley...your experts here are about to shut down the plant. Tell them to back off. Now."

"I'm going to tell you the same thing I told Mouse when he..."

"Mouse already called you?"

"Yes...and what I told him applies to you as well...if I am going to take the word of someone on heating temperatures between a bunch of Stanford PHDs and a bunch of illiterate high school dropouts, I know who I'm going to pick."

"That's your final word?"

"That's my final word."

My Dad turned to the experts.

"Knock yourselves out boys. Come on Dub, let's go home."

They were barely fifteen feet out of the door when the rattling of the equipment shook the ground. Within five minutes, the entire refinery was shut down. My Dad was in the changing room about an hour later, getting ready to go home, when Wiley ran in. The owner, Harry Rothschild, was across the street. He wanted them both...right now.

They arrived at the corporate offices to find The Old Man stomping and swearing.

"Jesus H Christ, Charlie...what the hell did your men do?"

"My men?"

"Wiley said something about Mouse and the board..."

"Why don't you ask Wiley about his efficiency experts."

"Wiley, what in God's name have you done now?"

My father recounted the nights events. In perfect detail.

"Wiley, if you weren't married to my sister, I swear...OK, Charlie...what's it going to take to get her up and running again?"

"Double shifts for everyone...for about two weeks."

"Do whatever you have to, Charlie...Wiley...just go home."

Two weeks later, the plant was up and running. All it had cost Old man Rothschild, was a couple of million dollars in lost product...a couple of million dollars in 1950s money. Adjust that for inflation. All because of petty personal animosity...and the belief that people who've never gotten their hands dirty know a machine better than the people who work with it everyday.

The second story took place just a few months later. Union negotiation time with management. It was my Father's job to take the demands to management...which in this case was Old man Rothschild, Wiley, and the corporate attorneys. Wiley, never one to let a grudge go, thought he had a way to sting my Dad, and the union, again.

Construction work on a refinery was done by the lowest level journeymen. The tools for their specific job were purchased for each man. It was, and had been for over fifty years, standard practice for these journeymen to be allowed to take the tools home at the completion of the specific job. One of the few perks for manual labor. New tools were then purchased for the start of the next assignment...and so on.

There was an ongoing construction project at the plant. Phase one was completed...but phase two was not only behind schedule, it hadn't been started. Why? No new tools. Wiley was sure he had the union, and my Dad, this time. The old man had to walk by the project on his way into the meeting.

"Charlie...why are we behind on the new project?"

"I'll tell you why Charlie's men are behind, Harry...they're thieves. They stole all of the tools, and now they stand around waiting everyday, doing nothing."

My Dad, of course, had been asking for new tools for the men for no avail. He was about to start in on Wiley, when Old Man Rothschild did it for him.

"Wiley, in the world does my sister stay married to you? I want you personally to go down to the hardware store right TWO sets of every tool that will be needed for every man in the plant, not just the journeymen, so we can get the project done."

"But, Harry...they stole..."

"'re too stupid to be let out alone...any group of men that can steal me into becoming a multi-millionaire are OK by get your ass over to the hardware store...what's next on the agenda, Charlie?"

And that was it. Wiley was forced to retire a few years later by the old man. Mr Rothschild thought so much of my father, he personally hosted his retirement party...and told me his version of both of those stories...which were far more colorful.

What points am I trying to make here?

1. Solidarity has been sadly lacking in our union's dealings with our brother unions. Collective bargaining between SAG, AFTRA, WGA, the directors, and the teamsters would be far more powerful and effective than the splintered approach that we have now. The main problem has been crossover...actors, writers, directors and others who fall into multiple categories, and are also producers. This presents a clear conflict which the AMPTA is only too happy to exploit. Divide and conquer is a mantra that has served management very well in its fight against unions in every field. We should never allow ourselves to be divided from a common, and mutually beneficial purpose.

2. I do not doubt the intelligence of those who have been negotiating on the union's behalf. I do doubt their hands on, practical app knowledge, of the "machinery" that they have been trying to improve. Those who work with it everyday are usually far better qualified to know when it might be reaching a breaking point.

3. Residuals are the "perk" tools that benefit the journeymen actor. They used to be the same for every job. But new tools are required now, as the jobs; IE different media streams, have changed. Even though everyone benefits from getting these tools, they're not a necessity for the head stillmen...let alone the former head stillmen now working for management. They are, however, a hard earned right, for those who are least able to protect themselves. All of the superstars in our field should remember from whence they came...and look out for those less fortunate.

I do not know if we should strike or not. I am no where close enough to the action to even venture an opinion. By I can observe, even from a distance, the process...and I believe it needs to change. If not, we may soon have a union in name only...or not at all. What a shame that would be...not only for us...but for those who fought and sacrificed for us to have this union, so many years ago.


abaddon911 said...

Very keen insight.
I love the stories about your dad the most.

Christopher Blake said...

He was the greatest man I've ever known...


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Christopher Blake is a loving husband...devoted father...minister...crippled more than a little rough around the edges...