As a very young man out of college in the early 1980s, I was put in charge of a power plant testing crew. We had developed a way to hook up two semi trucks worth of equipment to a power plant in a space of about 4 weeks and to run the signals from this equipment down to our Hewlett Packard 45 portable computers (they were the size of a small cow) through large multi-pin cables. We wrote sophisticated computer models using Basic computer language to determine operational problems of newly built power plants.
I would take a crew of a dozen technicians out to small and large towns across America and spend several weeks unloading our test equipment, carrying it up the dozens of stories of power plant grating, and installing it with our trusty tool bags strapped around our waists to then run real time analyses.
Well, I didn’t know the power of unions until I arrived in St. Louis. On one of the very first days of our set-up, I was busy kneeling down to fasten a pressure monitor to a railing with my crescent wrench when all of a sudden I felt two sets of arms, one on each side of me, pick me up still in my crouched position, and carry me to the elevator. Two union boys were sent to explain to me that all wrench tightening from here on out would be done by union employees.
The set-up, which normally took 4 weeks, took eight, and ran way over budget. They didn’t support us on weekends, and curiously, they had a tradition that the workweek ended on Fridays at noon even though we were to pay them until 4:30.
After several weeks of delays, for which of course I took the managerial heat, we were within hours of completion when noon Friday came around and the union walked off the job. I had pleaded with the union boss that the additional test crew of 40 people was now on a chartered plane coming to start the test on Saturday and that I needed his folks to just stay a couple of more hours to complete the eight weeks of work. He just kindly nodded in my direction on his way out of the plant.
I then rallied my crew; we grabbed our trusty tool kits and completed the job. This did not set well with the local union and the incident went immediately up their national headquarters, over to the CEO of Babcock and Wilcox, down through the division president to the project manager who had engaged our group for this job. He got on a plane Friday afternoon and met us that evening at our place of dinner.
My crew of a dozen and I met after 14 hours of hot, sweaty work completing our task to relax at dinner in a private room of a local steak house. We had just begun to chortle and kibitz when in popped this project manager. He demanded an explanation of my union intolerance.
I kindly explained to him that unless he intended to fire me on the spot that he should back down his rhetoric immediately. I calmly reminded him that because he was not a member of the union, he did not have jurisdiction over my jobsite, and that he should kindly explain to the CEO of Babcock and Wilcox what a farce our country’s union/management relationship had become. I then impressed upon him that if he had no further use for this conversation that he should either leave or take a seat at the table for I had a steak to attend to at mine.
Union distortions like housing distortions take years to correct and unfortunately, the height of union power paralleled the time that America’s cowardly management had other countries to escape to without having to face the hard work of balancing and co-opting our work force with the needs of American business.
Where multinational outlets have not been available, our union distortions have continued unabated and we now have the likes of government worker unions, teacher unions, and the powerful American Medical Association must be put in check for our country to right itself.