Elected officials need to quit playacting

Close to 50 years ago, I was on the union contract negotiating team at the Chicago newspaper where I worked. The negotiating sessions with management were contentious, even nasty at times.

I recall we wanted a new three-year contract, with raises at around 6% to 8% per year. Inflation had averaged better than 8.5% in the three years since our last contract, so we thought our request was reasonable, though we also knew we would have to settle for less.

The negotiations dragged on for so long that by the time the two sides finally settled — somewhere around 3% to 4%, I remember — that we had only six months before we would have to start all over again.

As a slightly immature 23-year-old (maybe 24) with a strange sense of humor, I figured someone at the negotiating table had to make the point: This was all theater. Whether a drama or comedy, I wasn’t sure. It was a two-year-long, multi-act play of demands, heartbreak, anger, threats and strike talk that ended just as we knew it would. Which was about halfway between what we wanted and the publisher’s opening offer, which was zero.

Any good actor comes in costume, and I rotated mine for the negotiating sessions. A cowboy hat and spurs, followed by a ceremonial sword and sash. I think even my friends on the union side of the table thought I was excessive, but I wanted to be just obnoxious enough so that maybe the negotiators would realize it was theater and reach a deal to end the performance.

What was particularly upsetting to the employees, however, was that the company’s business manager, a big guy with a nice car who lived in a nice suburb and made good money, referred to us as “bodies,” as in “how many bodies the company can afford.” He must have figured that being the nastiest person in the room was a winning strategy to save money.

He forgot that employees matter; he didn’t care about their history with the company; he only looked at profits.

Making people feel like they don’t matter is a lousy way to negotiate.

There’s a timely point to all this.

The United Auto Workers has made sizable contract demands of the Big 3 automakers in this year’s negotiations. The union started with a 40% pay raise over four years; a return to a guaranteed retirement system; a 32-hour work week; and other provisions to undo some of the givebacks that workers sacrificed during the industry recession 15 years ago.

Of course, the workers know they will not win all the arguments, but what makes it harder to reach a compromise is that the employees feel disrespected. The three companies made a collective profit of $250 billion in the past decade. Their three CEOs earned nearly $75 million in total compensation last year.

Taking in that much money but starting the contract talks with a total wage increase offer of as little as 9% over four years — when the country just went through double-digit inflation — is akin to calling employees “bodies.” It’s no way to build trust and success. It led to a strike.

The political moral to this workplace analogy should be a lesson for elected officials across the country, particularly in Congress. If they treat the other side like “bodies” to step over on their way to partisan agendas and if they behave like politics is a theater script for social media, don’t expect that anyone will be eager to compromise when it’s time to get something done.

Going to extremes might play well on social media, cable news and at pep rallies, but it hurts the country.

 

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