News & Events

Walk tall and carry a union card

From the Massachusetts Nurse Newsletter
October 2005 Edition

By Deb Rigiero, RN
Associate Director, Organizing

It is 10:55 p.m. and my husband and I are at our stations, waiting for our 17½ -year-old son Bill to come home. As we are waiting, I am wondering if we’ve prepared him for the life that lies ahead. I am also thinking about how our home lives mirror our work lives. (Stick with me, I promise you this will all make sense.) My husband is looking at the clock. "10:59 p.m. Bill’s cutting it close. I told him to be home for 11:00."

11:00 on the dot, the front door opens and in comes Bill with a smile on his face. He just made it. So I think that yes, Bill understands the importance of being on time and will be able to get to work on time (when he has a job). Although, I’m sure that Bill is not going to be the type to come in a few minutes early, I am confident that he will be able to meet deadlines and be reliable.

Next comes the "management" meeting and the drug screening. Bill knows the routine. First, there are two of us and one of him. This gives the advantage and intimidation factor to Mom and Dad. He gives me his usual hug and my nose immediately does the “sniff-test,” which he passes.

Next he hugs Dad, who looks into his eyes and does the pupil check. Then Bill takes the hot seat to tell us what he did for the last few hours. He handles himself well. No slurring or stuttering. He looks my husband straight in the eyes and can answer the questions rapidly thrown at him. Yes, Bill has the ability to meet with management and handle the intimidation of two against one.

In our house, Bill is a "child-at-will." He has no contract with us and we do not offer to let him have a representative with him during our meeting. There are no Weingarten rights in the Smith household—although, on occasion, we will allow Bill to have a representative with him (his brother or friend).

Next, comes the negotiating phase of our meeting:

Bill: "I’m going to Hampton Beach on Thursday."

Dad: "We haven’t decided on that yet. Why do you need to drive?"

Bill: "Ben can’t drive and I am the only one legal to drive. Don’t worry; they’re all chipping in for gas."

Dad: "I don’t want you driving fast, no fooling around in the car. 495 is a busy road. I want you to use your head."

Bill: (with a smile on face because he thinks he has won) "Don’t worry Dad, I’ll be careful."

Yada, yada, yada. The end result of the above negotiations is that Bill can go to Hampton, but only if his summer reading is done. Bill walks away from the negotiations thinking he has won. My husband and I know that we would have allowed him to go anyway—but now we have a few extra chores that Bill negotiated to do and a guarantee that his summer reading will be done or he won’t go.

Hopefully, the lesson Bill will take with him from this negotiating session as a "child-at-will" is that he really only got what we were willing to give him. We can take away the privilege at any time if we chose. Even though we allowed him to participate and have input in our discussions, the ultimate authority remains with management (Mom and Dad).

Throughout his short 17½ years, Bill has learned some other important lessons that will prepare him for employment. He has learned that:

  • There is no freedom of speech or right to privacy in the workplace (home). He can be disciplined without cause. He needs be considerate of others and to think before he speaks. Also, management (Mom and Dad) reserves the right to go through his room and car because they are our property.
  • There are some co-workers who take pleasure in reporting to management any real or perceived breaking of rules (this would be Bob, "the informer," Bill’s younger brother). Although, the "informer" has changed tactics and can now be called the "extortionist" because he has you pay for his silence. Because of this, Bill has learned that honesty is the best policy and on occasion he has even reported himself.
  • There is a grievance policy in place at Smith, Inc. Bill is allowed to argue his grievance, occasionally have a supporting witness (Bob) and sometimes this works. However, the final decision concerning the grievance is management’s. Our "child-at-will" has no right to call for a neutral third party to arbitrate the grievance—although Bill has attempted to have his grandparents represent him and argue his case.
  • Life is not fair. His co-worker, Bob, may get better benefits, more pay or special treatment. He can complain about the unreasonableness and unfairness of this, but that does not make management change its mind. Management can, and often does, show the door to the employee who complains or wants to make changes.
  • There is strength in numbers. Bill has a better chance of making changes when he and his co-worker provide a united front. Also, deep down, Bill cares about what happens to his co-worker. He realizes that what impacts his co-worker also impacts him.

What are the lessons Bill can learn from this?
He learns that being an employee-at-will is nothing more than an extension of a child-parent relationship. When you are an employee at-will, you are not treated as an adult. You don’t have the authority to make changes. You don’t have the right to arbitration. Without a union, you do not have the leverage to negotiate a fair and equitable contract. You do not have a "real" voice.

There are glaring differences between family and management. Often, we hear nurses say that work used to feel like being part of a big happy family. Management has changed that and in reality we were never a big, happy family. We were more of a family of obedient children and domineering parents.

As parents, our goal is to have our children grow up to be independent, productive adults who make a difference in the world. Management wants their employees to tow the company line. Management fights hard and spends lots of money to prevent their employees from unionizing and gaining a seat at the table. The last thing management wants is their employees to have a "real" voice through the power of being a union.

Bill and Bob have been on picket lines, strike lines, protests marches and rallies. They watch the news and the Daily Show and are knowledgeable about current world events. They join in with us when we debate about politics, Wal-Mart, what it means to be American, and what it means to be union member.

As they travel down the road of life, we hope they love, laugh, cry, fight for their beliefs, walk tall—and carry a union card.

Disclaimer: This article is a work of fiction. Names are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or persons is coincidental.