A Response to Tactics or Coincidence
by Mark Lema
is very interesting, and in fact touches a sore spot within my heart.
In my days as a union organizing director and while serving as a high-ranking union official, my job was to win campaigns at any cost. “Victory by any means necessary!” There was no second place prize or promotions or almost winning. This meant doing things that went against my personal judgment. You see to get in my position, I had to throw my personal beliefs and values away and adopt the union’s principals.
I am a first generation United States citizen. My family is from Mexico and my interest in unions started when I was young while working in the fields in the summer to make extra spending money with my brothers. I was shocked to see the working conditions and lack of respect given to the immigrants and how they were treated like dirt during this time. I was never one to accept that “things are just what they are” I stood up to my bosses and was kicked off of many job sites. After awhile this was my intention, I started working with the union!
After I started working with the union, I thought I was continuing the fight to help others who couldn’t fight for themselves. I was on the fast track and I was very aggressively moving within the union system. After a few years, the only brotherhood I had was within the union system. Anyone who stood against us was quickly dealt with; it didn’t matter if they were members, officers or potential members in organizing drives. In the union system, if anyone (including union officials or local union officers) tried to challenge the system we stepped on them hard and fast. Blackballing these people became a sport for us, we enjoyed the power we had within our own organization so it was nothing to go after our arch enemy, which was management.
A well coordinated organizing drive always included making management look bad, not only the company we were organizing but management as an institution. Our goal was to paint them as inherently bad, setting the companies up to be vulnerable to OSHA charges, EEOC charges and if needed to ICE raids.
We became so blinded by our hatred of the company that we would use any trick to win, even if it destroyed innocent people who were just trying to make a living and take care of their families. What the heck, we were helping many more in the same situation or at least that’s what I was telling myself. The lines were becoming more and more blurred.
I remember when I had a joint campaign with the UAW in Detroit (where Bob King is from), we had been going after a company called Mexican Industries, which included 6 or 7 plants in Michigan and one in Arizona (about 3000 workers in total). There were many attempts to organize the company and ended up with two elections. The first election was starting to go bad for the union so a decision was made on the ground to get the employees so angry that they would stop trusting management. The original owner was Hank Aguirre who played professional baseball with the Detroit Tigers and was considered a hero in Southwest Detroit. Aguirre was dead at the time and his family was running the show, almost all the employees were Latinos (mostly from Mexico). The company made a point of promoting Latinos to management positions and was winning the trust of their employees. Something needed to be done to destroy that trust. Deportation was the answer to our problems. I went along with the plan but thinking back, I remember a series of sleepless nights. At the time, I passed it off as adrenaline. We were going to get our “victory by any means necessary” just as the union had wanted.
A call was made to report legal status of the employees to immigration. We blamed it on the company. What happened next burns through my heart and soul to this day! It was horrible. Employees were running and hiding behind machines while ICE officers came into the plant. Mothers and fathers were crying while being hauled away. Families were being split apart with no ability to prepare their children or care for them. This outcome was not what we expected! But again, I had union mentality. We were there to win.
The company stepped up and did everything they could to support the employees and their families. We couldn’t let them get the upper hand in this disaster. We continued to put a “union” spin on the incident. Who would they believe?
The union needed to start the next election process right away so we worked closely with Hispanic organizations and religious groups to put the blame directly on the company. This turned out to be a yearlong campaign. We infiltrated the companies by using State Representatives to promote the name change of a major street in southwest Detroit to Cesar Chavez Boulevard by getting signatures on petitions to support the change. I hired organizers from the Farm Workers Union who had a strong support base in the area. I also held meetings in Saint Ann Catholic church with Mexican Industries workers telling the horrors of what happen that day when ICE came into the plant with everyone of them putting the blame on the company. I was right there by their side, they believed every word I said and they spread my word just as I had planned.
The organizing blitz before the year waiting period ended with Cesar Chavez’s brother Richard coming into town for a 4 mile march through the heart of the Hispanic part of the city with every union and Hispanic group from the Detroit metropolitan area present. At the end of the march we presented the “people” with a festival.
The door to door visits started two days later with over 60 organizers from around the country helping us out. It was done quickly because we had over 90 percent of the address’s from the street name change petitions which we still had in our possession (Another dirty trick in the unions playbook).
The union won the 2nd election by a land slide and within a short amount of time the company went bankrupt.
Several years later, when I had a group of organizers in a poultry processing plant in Chattanooga Tennessee doing a card check drive, I was requested to threaten employees with the same tactic if they didn’t sign the cards and start paying dues to the union.
I began to have flashbacks of the men and women crying in the Detroit plant. I was physically and mentally aware of what I had become. I was raised differently, I allowed myself to become brainwashed by the union, I knew better. The day I told them I would not use deportation as a tool to win “by any means necessary” was my epiphany. That was my last day working for the union. I eloquently told them what I thought of them and simply walked away. This is why I turned away from the unions to help management find better positive employee relation solutions. This is why Mark’s article hit an emotional nerve with me but this is also the reality of the union mentality!