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Unions, Lenin, and the American Way (Part II)

I have a friend who prices contracts for a construction company in Queens, New York. He uses a computer program that includes an option of cutting costs by decreasing the number of union workers. He applies this option when all the other factors have been computed and the bid needs to go down a notch. If that price wins him the contract, the next step is to bribe the union shop steward at the site. The "shoppie" pockets the money and turns a blind eye to the presence of a few lower-wage non-union workers.

On the construction site at Columbus Circle in Manhattan, an outside freight elevator was built to lift crews and materials. It was operated by an "elevator engineer" who pushed floor buttons at the rate of $37 per hour, competing for the title of world's most expensive bellhop. Two union goons, armed with crowbars, sat at the foot of the elevator all day in lawn chairs, sipping coffee, reading newspapers, or listening to the Howard Stern Show on the radio. Their job was to tell the crews that the elevator was unavailable -- at least that's what they told my friend when he needed to lift his workers. But after his boss arrived from Queens with $500 in cash for the goons, the elevator became readily available to their crew for the duration of one week. Thus my college-educated friend learned a new rule of union mechanics: the wheels of a freight elevator needed to be greased for it to appear. This know-how wasn't taught in school, but it appears to be common knowledge on construction sites in New York.

A New York businesswoman once hired me to design a display booth to be shipped to a conference in Chicago. I also designed her presentations, which we finished on Saturday in her office as she simultaneously did a million other things, impressing me with her ability for multitasking. Her plan was to fly to Chicago on Sunday, set up the booth on the conference floor, hook it up, test the lighting, and show up Monday morning to reap the rewards of meticulous preparation and precise planning. But Monday morning she called me in tears to say that our booth had been vandalized. At the start of the conference she discovered that all the electrical wiring had been ripped out of the panels. A union electrician on the floor half-admitted to his vandalism, proudly noting that this was a union site and she had no right to plug anything into the wall without hiring a union electrician and paying him the prevailing wage. He shrugged off her argument that she hadn't seen him on Sunday; he didn't work weekends. A union-compliant course of action for her would have been to arrive on a Friday. In other words, she had to waste two days of her busy schedule stranded in a strange city and pay extra hundreds of dollars in weekend hotel rates, so that a union guy could charge her $50 for inserting a plug into the wall on a Friday. That certainly made a dent in my prior confidence in the efficiency of the American workforce.

I myself was once threatened by a union agent when I worked for a small Brooklyn-based business involved in reconstruction of New York City public schools. The man called our office demanding $500 to cover the loss in wages for his union. It appeared that our workers had made an opening in the wall for an air duct, then patched it and cleaned up after themselves by collecting the debris into a bucket. Apparently, cleaning up after themselves was a crime; it was supposed to be a union job paid at a higher rate. Our workers broke a sacred rule: no work was allowed unless the unions could use it to squeeze the most out of the employer. I listened as he made his case, then told him to stop being ridiculous and hung up. That triggered a series of angry calls that lasted for several days.

Using expressions that I, a recent immigrant, hadn't yet heard before, the man told me not to mess with the unions and that I didn't know what I was getting into by taking it lightly. I answered that, on the contrary, I realized that anyone charging $500 for a bucket of trash had to be a very important man. But I didn't understand why, instead of spending more time carrying buckets, he wasted his valuable minutes on the phone trashing me -- a man so unimportant that he took out his own trash free of charge. Every three minutes of the conversation I kept reminding him that he had just lost another $500 in potential wages simply by talking to me. I must have convinced him because the calls eventually stopped.