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July 1985: Comments on the Boston Typographical Union Printer Friendly Version

[Prefatory Note, April, 2007:  I distributed this document at a huge meeting of the union, maybe 200 people. I was not laughed out of the hall. I was even invited to give a short speech introducing it. Several people commented on it during the meeting, none favorably however. Basically, it was ignored. It dropped like a lead balloon. I don't think they knew what to do with it. It was probably the first radical document any of them had ever seen.]

Comments on the Boston Typographical Union

(An analysis of the contract (basic PINE version), and the general functioning of the union,
plus some suggestions for reform and for the coming contract negotiations)

James Herod
July 1985

I believe the union is in serious trouble. Membership is declining. A majority of people in many shops have minimal interest in the union, sometimes even outright hostility, and few successes are being made in organizing new shops. Newspaper employment, the backbone of the union for decades, has drastically declined but corresponding gains have not been made in Book & Job shops, the expanding sector of the industry. The usual excuses given for this demise - a reactionary union-busting administration in Washington, changing technology, hard times, and the anti-union bias in the media - while obviously relevant in part, do not get to the root of the problem, which is the internal weaknesses of the union itself. Management is strong only to the extent that labor is weak. The outlook and orientation of the elected and salaried officers, as well as of the majority of activists and members participating in the Sunday meetings, is rooted in a world that no longer exists. These members cannot seem to come to grips with the fact that the majority of the American working class hates unions, or to bring themselves to seek an understanding of this fact and its implications for their own policies. Unless extensive changes are made in both the functioning of the union and the demands it tries to negotiate with management, I believe the union is doomed. In what follows I discuss these many weaknesses, especially as they are reflected in the contract (and to a lesser extent the bylaws and constitution) and formulate new proposals in the form of concrete demands to be negotiated with employers in the coming contract negotiations. I also suggest necessary changes in the structure and functioning of the union itself.

Chapel Meetings

Nothing expresses the wrong orientation of the union any more clearly than its attitudes toward chapel meetings. And by union I do not mean merely the officers, but also the activists, and even the majority of members themselves. Basically, chapel meetings are not used, except rarely, and mostly for emergencies. This is a disastrous mistake. What should be the central institution of the union is allowed to atrophy on the back shelf. Instead, the monthly Sunday meeting is elevated to central place in union affairs. Officers and activists constantly belittle those who do not attend these monthly meetings, saying that they are uninterested in the union, in democracy, and that by not attending the meetings they practically forfeit their right to a voice in union affairs. This attitude is entirely wrong. It loses sight of the fact that for the vast majority of workers work is a hated oppression, to be eliminated as far as possible and in every way possible. The union, as an institution thrown up by workers to deal with the oppression of work, is necessarily a part of work. It has absolutely no place in the nonwork hours. Who wants to give up precious free time, won at such great cost, to return once again to struggle with the problems of work? Virtually no one. Work already consumes an inordinate part of one's life, far in excess of what is actually needed, except for the insanities of the business mentality and the historic failures of the labor movement. The problems of work must be dealt with at work, not at Sunday meetings, and this includes the work of the union to deal with the problems of work. I therefore strongly urge that the union adopt as a general principle that all union business be handled at the place of work during work hours. Sunday meetings should be abandoned, and weekly chapel meetings instituted in their place. (There might be a yearly conference if a larger plenary is needed for certain problems.) This brings me to the first demand.

Negotiating Demand No. 1: There will be a one-half hour weekly chapel meeting, per shift, on company time, at the place of work, which will be free from interruption, harassment, or intimidation by management.

This is a central demand. It would have immediate and far reaching consequences. Since there would be no reason not to attend the meetings there would be an immediate and dramatic increase in participation in union affairs. This in turn would dramatically increase solidarity among workers and thus increase the power of the union on the shop floor and in general. It would also provide a vehicle for a completely revamped and more effective grievance procedure. (See the discussion below on grievance procedures.) Real union democracy, as opposed to the existing fantasy version, would be another consequence.

This is a reasonable and feasible demand. It is hard to understand why it has not been part of the labor movement all along. It is also, I should point out, a minimal step toward democracy, both in the union and in the shop, and falls far short of the campaigns for workplace democracy now emerging in many sectors of the labor movement.

Demands about Time: How Much? When? Intensity of Work.

Reduction of the length of the work day should be a top priority goal of unions. But it's not – another glaring proof that the labor movement has gone awry. Our grandparents were on the right track with their long, bitter, and costly struggle for the eight hour day. Unfortunately, this direction was abandoned in favor of a purely monetary focus. We are now beginning to pay the price for this folly, since even the material gains are being stripped away. The productivity of the average worker continues to double, triple, even quadruple, as it has periodically for the past century. But for the short sightedness of the labor movement, there is no reason why we couldn't be enjoying a 20-hour work week by now. Instead, there is pressure from owners to work longer. We must retaliate and go on the offensive. Now is the time to begin a new historic struggle, a fight for a 5-hour day, four day week. This is the solution to unemployment, not welfare dole. I strongly urge the BTU to adopt this as a long term goal over the next several contracts. It is insane to go on working this hard and this long, since it does not increase our wealth and does not improve the quality of our lives, but only lines the pockets of those already rich. We must begin now, during this contract negotiation, to work toward this goal. As a modest start, I suggest the following item for demand number two:

Negotiating Demand No. 2: Length of working day.

The working day will be reduced by one hour to 6 hours, not including lunch (with corresponding increase in wages to maintain existing levels of remuneration).

Negotiating Demand No. 3: Non compulsory overtime.

Employers must agree, accept, and declare that overtime work is completely and totally voluntary, and that no employee can be or ever will be fired for refusing overtime work, thus indicating the company's acceptance of and respect for the eight-hour day, one of the most important freedoms ever won by the American people.

The failure of the labor movement to get the eight-hour day written into law is truly incredible and mind-boggling. The eight-hour day never even existed, it turns out, for large sectors of the working class, because of overtime, and is now under serious and widespread attack, also through the practice of overtime, compulsory overtime. This must be stopped. The best way is through national legislation, but union contracts can point the way.

Negotiating Demand No. 4: Job sharing.

All employees have the right to share their jobs with another qualified person.

The principle is clear. The details may be a little sticky. Job sharing would greatly increase the flexibility and freedom of the employee. It should be clear though that this is an employee initiated option, not a company option. That is, a company cannot hire two part-time workers for reduced wages. But if an employee wants to work half-time for a year to be with their new born baby, build a room onto their house, or write a book, that should be an option. (A detailed study of job sharing plans will soon be published by Carmen Sirianni.)

Negotiating Demand No. 5: Sick Leave.

There will be five days a year sick leave with full pay.

Not having sick days works a hardship on employees. They end up working days when they really shouldn't and really don't feel like it (even aside from illnesses so bad that work is impossible). No one should be penalized for getting sick. Also, emergencies always arise which must be dealt with. It should be possible to do so without losing money. There is further need simply for an escape valve, a spontaneous way to escape the oppression of work when you simply can't stand it any longer. The absence of sick leave is a very oppressive policy and works entirely to the benefit of management (by tying workers more tightly to the job and thus allowing companies to operate with fewer employees than would otherwise be necessary). I'm very surprised that a union contract doesn't have this, which is after all a fairly standard benefit even in nonunion companies. Apparently the BTU has been so blindly focused on one thing – wages – that it has ignored many other aspects of work, as currently organized, that destroy the lives of working people.

Negotiating Demand No. 6: Abolition of night work.

The lobster shift will be abolished (midnight to 8 am). Work will be limited to two shifts, a day and an evening shift.

Night work, as has been proved by a multitude of studies, is extremely destructive. It injures physical health, emotional health, family ties, and social relations. No one should be subjected to it. Yet the BTU accepts it as a matter of course. This has led to a badly structured industry wherein customers have come to expect overnight service. This leads to the imposition of unrealistic deadlines and completely unwarranted pressure on workers. Considering the product being made there is no reason lead times couldn't be extended to allow for more planning, with consequently less crisis-ridden production schedules.

Negotiating Demand No. 7: Flexible schedules.

Experiments will be conducted during the coming contract period to see if it is feasible in the industry to get away from rigid shift schedules.

Flexible hours have proved possible in many industries, resulting in gains for employees as well as employers. Care must be taken that management does not twist the idea into yet another way to jerk workers around – that is, to try to adjust workers to the flow of work rather than the flow of work to workers.

Negotiating Demand No. 8: Forty-five minute lunch.

The lunch period will be 45 minutes long.

One-half hour is simply not enough to eat in and relax. At the very least employees who strongly feel a need for more lunch time should have an institutionalized option of adjusting their shifts to get the extra 15 minutes at lunch.

Negotiating Demand No. 9: Abolition of the `spy sheet'.

Workers in a union shop cannot be forced to keep a minute by minute record of their activities.

The notorious spy sheet at Typographic House is one of the most onerous and oppressive practices I have ever encountered in any workplace. It is used by the owner, Peter Brotman, to create an atmosphere of vicious intimidation and harassment of employees. This practice must be stopped. The fact that a union would ever allow such a thing to be instituted in the first place shows how little it is concerned about dignity, which is actually what the whole struggle is all about.

Other Demands

Negotiating Demand No. 10: Maternity Leave.

The paragraphs dealing with maternity leave in the draft contract for Serif and Sans should be adopted as union policy and negotiated in the coming contract talks.

Negotiating Demand No. 11: Typographical Assistants.

The TA category must be taken out of the contract. The one shop which uses it regularly, Typographic House, clearly abuses the intent of the clause in order to pay less than scale for labor. The category must be abolished.

Negotiating Demand No. 12: Apprentices.

The whole section on apprentices has to be rethought and rewrote. The apprentice tradition is dead. It is best to recognize this and redo the section in terms of on-the-job training. A limit of two years should be placed on such training. Four years is entirely too long.

Negotiating Demand No. 13: Harmonious relations.

Delete section 29-01. This has to go. It has absolutely no place in a union contract. It is hard to imagine what ever caused a union to accept such a clause. It is an outright lie. What's worse, it is management's lie. A union can only weaken itself by giving in to clauses like this.

Negotiating Demand No. 14: Strikes.

In section 6-01, delete the phrase ``authorized.'' With this phrase the union gives up its most powerful weapon, the wildcat strike. It practically gives up any strike in between contract negotiations, given the orientation of the elected officers. In other words, the union practically bargains away the right to strike for the duration of the contract. This is very mistaken, weakens the union, strengthens the companies, and leads to all sorts of defeats (like the ones now being suffered throughout the industry).

Negotiating Demand No. 15: Office Rules.

Delete section 11-02 on office rules.

This is an entirely gratuitous give away. Office rules should be among the most hotly contested items, and should be fought out point by point, on an on-going basis, between the chapel and the company. Only in this way can the constant intimidation and harassment of workers be stopped. To hand over a carte blanche to management in this area is ridiculous.

Negotiating Demand No. 16: Grievances.

The grievance procedure must be completely revamped. In the three years that I have been in the union I am not aware of a single grievance that has been settled in a satisfactory way to the employee's benefit. Most of the time the grievances are simply not dealt with, which is usually simply a way of handing victory to management. When they are dealt with it is usually in management's favor. Unless my copy is defective, `grievance' is not even listed in the index or contents of the bylaws or constitution. The standard practice, however, of calling the downtown office for a ruling from the President, with the possibility of appeals to the Executive Committee and then to the ITU is simply unacceptable. It drains all power away from the shop floor, leads to intolerable delays and to defeat. It basically turns the union into an arm of management. With strong chapels, grievances could be dealt with in the shop, within a reasonable time frame, and with a reasonable chance of victory for workers.

Negotiating Demand No. 17: Paid lunches.

Delete sections 17-02, 17-03. Paid lunches should be traded for something more useful, like sick leave. I feel that paid lunches are an unnecessary aggravation to employers and not worth the ill will they generate.


I am not optimistic about getting this program, or even getting a hearing for it. I have been told that I would be laughed out of the hall if I tried to present it. This is a union after all in which even the progressives and reformers are conservative. It is a union that has lost its way. It is a union in which the leaders and activists, let alone the members, have absolutely no idea of what unions are for, where they came from, or why they were created. It is a union that is in the forefront of exactly nothing important. It is not participating in the campaign for economic democracy. It is uninterested in workers control. It is not open to new ideas or new faces. It's members talk about one thing only - money, money, money. This puts them in the same boat as their employers, who also talk only about money, money, money. It is a union which is contributing nothing to the struggle for liberation, for the overthrow of wage-slavery. Just as every nation has the government it deserves, so also every union deserves the fate it has earned. It is not difficult to predict what will happen to this union. It is going to be smashed, knocked right out of the arena. In ten years time the BTU won't even exist. It might not even have ten years.