Working for a hypocritical business union

An account from a paid staffer of working for the AFL-CIO and dealing with petty management.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on September 5, 2014

Recently, I worked for a business union. I knew this was going to be a lousy job before I even started; it was slated to be a part-time temp job in the AFL-CIO’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. Before I started working there, two of my future bosses gave me three different answers on what my start time would be on my first day of work. I arbitrarily came up with a time that would work best for me. When I walked into work on my first day, my primary boss, Bonnie (one of five bosses), told me that we would use the “honor’s system” to keep track of my hours, which were not to exceed 20 per week. That was the moment I decided to start a workplace journal and to keep track of the hours myself, because this was not the first business union I had worked for, and it wasn’t the first time I’ve heard the “honor’s system” line.

Hours and scheduling were ongoing issues throughout my time working there. I spoke with a fellow worker from my local branch about these problems and she helped me determine that a large part of the problem at my job came from a lack of paper trail.

When I started this job, Bonnie told me to work nearly full-time hours during what was a particularly busy time in my life. Bonnie didn’t confirm the hours I worked, she did not even write them down, so as far as I knew I would only be paid for a 20-hour work-week even when I was working 30-plus hours. When I sent Bonnie emails about this to either confirm in writing that I would be paid for the overtime, or confirm in writing that I could work only the 20 hours she allotted, she responded by calling me. In fact, she called my personal cell phone when I was off the clock, and I knew I had to put a stop to this. I blocked her number, and she eventually stopped trying to call my cell phone.

The following week, again when Bonnie asked me to work nearly 30 hours, I again sent her an email telling her I could not work more than 20 hours that week and every week from that point forward. Through inside sources I saw that Bonnie immediately forwarded my message to her colleague and close friend, Julie (who also was another one of my bosses), with snarky commentary, as though I was not entitled to ask that I be able to work the hours I was slated to work.

Following this, Julie called me into her office for a closed-door meeting. She told me that Bonnie was taken “aback” by my email—not because of my scheduling request, that was fine, but she didn’t like the “tone” of my email. Julie then suggested that I send Bonnie a new email to apologize and ask for her permission to work these hours. Julie proceeded to give me a lecture on the difference in how old and “younger” people communicate—as though the problem was because of generational differences.

I did a little research and found that there was a union representing union staff members. I did not know if the workers in my workplace were covered by a contract. If we were then this union was the union to which we would belong. After frantic phone calls, I found the person who would have been my shop steward if we had a contract. She told me that the workplace was not represented. The last time they had a contract was 20 years ago, before the organization “let go” of everyone working there who was on the bargaining committee. I was not surprised to learn that another business union could not help resolve the problems with the business union that I worked for.

After persistently sending emails to Bonnie demanding part-time hours, I was able to secure a 20-hour work week. I secured this over email so that I had this agreement from my boss in writing. A few weeks later, after additional verbal abuse and other workplace issues which are too numerous to discuss here, I quit that terrible job.

Quitting that job was important for my sanity, but the underlying problems were not resolved. There remained the issue of the hypocrisy of working for a place which claims to fight for the things that they don’t provide for their own employees. Still, it is possible to gain a certain sense of victory for fighting for something that you deserve. We cannot solve the problems of business unions overnight. If we are union staff members or business union members it is important that we learn how to deal with business unions. Through organizing on the job for ourselves and our fellow workers, we can set powerful examples for the struggles ahead.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (September 2014)