25 Stories About Work – Unions in the Service Sector

I was recently on a plane doodling and thought of some funny / interesting stories from 25+ years of working and traveling. So I decided to write them up as short, random chapters of a non-book with the title of this post. Hope you enjoy them and / or find them interesting. Certainly the value will be at least equal to the marginal cost of the book (zero)…

The Midwest, early 1990s

When I was first starting out as an auditor I worked in Wisconsin at an electric utility. In your initial jobs as an auditor you were given the least interesting assignments, such as plant accounting. Assets like generating plants don’t usually change much in value from year to year so reconciling the plant assets was a job for the lowliest accountant.

At the time the records for this plant were kept on what we called “13 column” yellow paper. I never thought about it until today but 13 columns was obviously chosen so that you had 12 individual months plus a thirteenth column for totals. The client’s records were partially computerized but some items (such as the plants built in the ’70s) were done manually.

The guy who ran plant accounting was old, irascible, and disliked a young kid like myself who asked a lot of questions. They also were frustrated because ever year a new guy (or girl) took a look at the plant accounting records, since it was an entry level job, so they had no continuity and had to re-explain everything (badly) each year.

He did the records in pen for some reason and I kept finding mistakes. At the time you added up everything manually with a ten-key like this and I could just type in huge columns of numbers with the paper total in a flash without looking, which is a skill that hardly comes in handy today.

Since he did the records in pen, how he would fix mistakes is to put liquid paper over the errors and then re-enter the correct numbers on top of the flaky goop left behind. You need to realize that when you make a mistake in a row, the totals at the bottom are wrong, and the totals on the end are wrong. Pretty soon half the 13 column sheet was liquid paper with pen carved through it. Not only that, but at night you folded up the 13 column paper to fit it in a file, so there were crumbs everywhere and if it wasn’t fully dry that made an even bigger mess.

One time when we were going through the numbers (again) he just looked at me in mid-sentence and said

I’ve got to go take a sh&t

And got up and walked away. I was slightly astonished by that.

In parallel I noticed that around 3:30 every day, a lot of the accounting and finance people stood sullenly in line. They stood there, not talking much, until around 4pm. They stood right in front of a time clock punch out machine. I was making fun of them like an obnoxious 20 something would do and asked if they were in a union or something and my co-worker shushed me and said that they were in a union.

Oh, then it all made sense (to me at the time). The ancient, non-automated systems. The way in which questions were met with grunts and answers that were designed to make me go away instead of really answering the questions. But since I was so persistent and naive in assuming that they actually wanted accurate financial results they couldn’t get rid of me and I kept finding errors which likely made me even more hated.

One of the senior managers in the accounting practice for the firm I worked with said that in the ’80s or late ’70s there was a push to unionize accountants even at the Big Eight (now Big Four) firms. He said we were all wage drones and it made some amount of sense to him. I was astonished but didn’t have an answer for him.

Another time at a different utility in Washington State everyone complained about their cubes all day long. The cubes faced the wrong way, the layout was terrible, and of course they were some garish color out of the ’70s in beige and green. One of the managers (a really good and smart guy) was a farmer in addition to being an accountant, so one morning he got in super early (when a farmer probably wakes up), brought some custom wrenches he had, and just re-did all of the cubes before everyone got into work so the layout was way better. For a minute I was elated and then I knew it was going to be a problem. The union guys came down and said that no one is authorized to do anything like this without bringing in the union and it caused an uncomfortable situation. I don’t think you could carry or move anything anywhere in the building without the union guys doing it.

Since utilities are and were heavily regulated and basically a tax on consumers, these sorts of practices were OK back then because they just passed on all the costs to the consumer and then earned a profit based on what they spent (capital). The utilities have long since deregulated and been passed into more rigorous hands (Warren Buffet owns a lot of them) and merged many times over so I’d assume that many or most of these sorts of practices are long gone.

But back in the day it was wise to just put up with the union guys since they weren’t going anywhere and as auditors we were only onsite for a few weeks at a time and then it was time to pick up and move to the next client. I was not wowed by the service sector union productivity that I saw in these sorts of clerical and basic analyst jobs, and this was borne out for me in subsequent work in the governmental sector.

Cross posted at LITGM

18 thoughts on “25 Stories About Work – Unions in the Service Sector”

  1. This reminds me a bit of my brief experience with accounting at Sears in the late 50s. I was working at the Boyle Street Store, the biggest Sears building west of Chicago. It was a retail store on the first floor and about five more floors were catalog and business offices. At one office the warehouse inventory was kept by three old ladies. They used paper records like the ones in your illustration. They were long time Sears employees with lots of profit sharing. In those days, some elevator operators owned large blocks of stock and were serious owners of the company.

    Anyway, these ladies recorded sales on paper records from the cash registers and recorded shipments received by the warehouse across the street. They all had three weeks vacation as long term employees and, when they were gone on vacation, nobody took over their desks. Over the years, they had gotten progressively behind on inventory until they were about a year behind. The daily inventory corresponded to the actual physical inventory a year earlier. Nobody knew what was in the warehouse except in historical terms.

    It was a bit like the story in “Once an Eagle” when Sam Damon works for a relative for a couple of months in the 1920s and reorganizes his warehouse. Except Sam Damon never came along at Sears. That was before my experience at programming the IBM 650 and the implications were obvious.

  2. The sad part is I bet Sears actually had computers somewhere that they weren’t using for this task, at least in any practical way.

    Of course, punched card equipment from the 1930s & 1940s probably could have handled the inventory problem just fine, as could a properly organized manual system.

  3. The only incident I had with Unions were going to a trade show in Anaheim – the cost to set up my simple display ran into the 100s of dollars because I couldn’t even plug it in – had to call a union guy for $80 and put the electrical plug into the socket. Want it set up? Call a union guy. This of course is after the $1500 I had to pay just to be there. Plus the hotel of course.

    Mind you the whole thing could have been set up in 10 minutes by myself.

    Standing on my feet 12 hours a day on hard concrete, answering questions 100s of times and getting no sales – that was the last time.

    I took a tour of the Tesla plant in Fremont. This is the former GM plant that GM than ran with Toyota in the 1980s. Huge place and Tesla is using maybe 15% of it.

    But in the “heyday” of exclusive GM ownership, it was the worst plant in the corporation. Union members would deliberately sabotage production cars so they’d get overtime to “fix” them.

    Drug sales, booze, and even prostitution was rampant.


  4. I used to work in a petrochemical company. No professional staff were allowed even to pick up a tool, or the union men would strike. By some weird convention, this didn’t apply on night shift – I suppose most of the tradesmen had gone home, and the plant operators loathed the tradesmen and their obstructive ways. So if you wanted to wield a spanner, you could pop in in the evening, ask one of the operators for the tool you wanted (they all had illicit tools in their lockers), and set about it.

    I worked in the lab in a paper company over a university vacation. I was strictly forbidden to wire up a particular piece of equipment. The electrician who did it was so incompetent that I got an almighty shock and back-somersaulted over a bench.

    Trade unions are, by and large, a pox on society.

  5. The Auto Workers Union was just one example of the CIO approach to unionism that sabotaged the employers and, like Woody Allen’s stockbroker, kept reinvesting until the money was all gone.

    I am going to have to buy my youngest daughter a new car and I would not think of buying anything but a Honda or Toyota. Maybe a Ford truck for a boy but my boys are grown and on their own for years. One of them has a Ford truck I gave him.

    I was a Teamsters Union member as a teenager and went to a strike vote. It was fascinating. The young guys with no family wanted to stick it to the company and were ready to strike at any provocation. The older guys with kids in school were opposed. I never supported any but craft unions after that. We as a country suffer because craft unions here do not run apprenticeships like the German unions do. My nephew did an apprenticeship with the elevator repair and installation union after he graduated from college. His only problem now is that he wants to move to a warm state (from Chicago) and they don’t have tall buildings with elevators.

  6. My experience with trade unions at a big West Coast utility was mixed. On one hand, an engineer found with so much as a screw driver was subject to being fired as an affront to the union. On the other hand, the line men had very in-depth and effective training and safety standards. Imagine “bare handing” a live 500,000 volt transmission line while dangling from a helicopter. When an earthquake or other natural disaster struct these guys would put in 16 hour days to restore power to the customers.

    I’ve found that the construction trade unions did seem to offer some value-added. The unions acted as hiring halls and accreditation authority. There was a bit of competition between unions as a result so they strove to meet demands with real product. The unions did sometimes get into juristiditional strikes which put the employer in a bad spot.

  7. I worked three union jobs. The last was the best paying and the most dysfunctional. I could type for an hour with anecdotes but won’t. After being told repeatedly to “slow down” by numerous people, the shop steward (an ex-con who had done a ten year bid upstate) had a meeting with me. This was in a hospital, and the stuff that went on was dreadful, deadly, I would argue. I finally just resigned. Watch yourself in big city public hospitals.

  8. “The unions did sometimes get into juristiditional strikes which put the employer in a bad spot.”

    The longshoremen’s union is screwing up west coast ports and has been doing so for 20 years. One strike a few years ago was because the shippers and the port wanted to use GPS locators on containers. The union clerks had made good money climbing over containers to look at serial numbers. It was no contest in the common sense department but they struck for weeks while truckers, most of whom owned their tricks and were independent contractors, starved.

  9. I absolutely think that unions in service sector jobs are different from unions in the physical trades.

    The union guys who fixed poles in utilities went out in the most horrible weather conditions and worked in difficult and dangerous circumstances. I am not an expert in the physical trades but am able to comment intelligently on the service sector areas, particularly with regards to accounting / data processing and the like.

  10. I’d agree. One of those union jobs I had was at a shipyard. Almost all of the men I worked with there did their jobs, with a very few exceptions. But those individuals were of a different stripe than the drones at the hospital or the civil service lifers at the State office.

  11. I can’t feel too sorry for such people when they lose their jobs.

    I can defend them from The Great Predation however, because they don’t need to be wiped off the earth, in progress now.

    All of the above is a betrayal by leadership, for all the Americans leaders to the least of the Tribunes has betrayed them. All.

    Truly the wretches above were only doing what their leaders told them.

  12. I recollect (and sorry – can’t go and find the links, it’s almost supper-time) to an account by small Texas bidness enterprises who were invited (IIRC) as part of one of the Bush inaugurals, to come to Washington and display their wares in some convention center venue. Which they were happy enough to do – to pay their own way to Washington DC – and to set up and show off their products.

    It’s one of those things, being a member of the gypsy retail market fraternity – to have your pop-up, your tables, your booth-dressing and racks and all, and be accustomed to setting them up yourself – and these dear enterprising small-market vendors went all the way to DC … and then discovered (practically after having spent all they could afford and then some!) that they had further to pay a bomb of money to local union members to set up their booths. Work which was fairly simple and which they had been long-used to doing themselves as a matter of course.

    Yet – they came to Washington DC – and discovered that to do this event, they now had to pay a bomb of money (which they could ill-afford) to local union labor to set up their booths and plug in their lights.

    This is just another small reason why entrenched union labor unions are not terribly popular. If such rules were in force for local markets in Texas, there wouldn’t hardly be any exhibitors at all.

  13. Sgt Mom – if their booths were like mine it was beyond easy – fold it out – put on table – plug in. To do that cost me $200-$300.

    I viewed the union rules as more extortion than convenience.

  14. Wow, at the large company for which I toil, the payroll professionals below a certain hallowed ‘level’, though not unionized, are still required to punch a clock.
    Except for our line people, mechanics, storekeepers and such, these are the only employees mandated to ‘punch in no more than x minutes prior to start time’, and ‘punch no more than x minutes beyond end of day’, unless authorized in advance.
    Some middle mgrs refuse to cede any authority, or show any flexibility.
    We’ll discuss the convoluted work union work rules and pay categories my payroll partners have to deal with another time. Suffice to say that though this is a private sector company, the unions call the tune.

  15. I used to work at a union steel mill. I could also type for an hour with anecdotes. I won’t, either.

    But I will type long enough to tell my, uhm, favorite anecdotes.

    A while before I left, I worked briefly at a shop responsible for supporting a certain very important process for that integrated mill. I won’t type on too long about it, because it would likely take more than an hour of typing to explain fully. But I will state, briefly, that this particular shop had responsibilities that, if not fulfilled, would shut down the entire multi-billion dollar facility, which was large enough to be seen from orbit.

    A particular individual, who worked part time for the union, otherwise supposedly in that shop, was attempting to make sure that it was unable to fulfill those responsibilities, so that the company would have been forced to add another person to that shop, so that this particular individual would henceforth have been able to go and work for the union full time.

    I hope that’s not too obscure or too convoluted, but I said that I wasn’t going to type for an hour to explain all the tedious details. Anyway, I found out about this idiocy when- as an apprentice- I attempted to do work that would have made the chance of success for that particular shop more likely, and thus harmed that particular union imbecile’s moronic scheme to make it fail.

    That union imbecile attempted to get me fired, for doing that useful work. The icing on the cake was when I found out, later, that another apprentice- who happened to have been married to the union local president’s daughter- had faced no such objections from this particular union imbecile when he did the exact same thing I did, for the exact same reason. Typical yoonyun behavior, and I wasn’t surprised.

    Not soon after I departed- because I found another job, not because that imbecile had managed to get me fired- that company went bankrupt. While I worried about the fate of most of the people I’d worked with- that particular yoonyun imbecile, I hoped he was thrown out on his tuchus, to put it mildly.

    I suppose that was only one anecdote, but I’ve typed long enough.

  16. In the late 1970’s I participated in audits of several railroads in bankruptcy. There was a home office for the primary client railroad, and certain of the divested lines were by then part of the Conrail empire.

    In the home office’s eighth floor while examining a large dollar value entry, I asked the unionized railroad accounting clerk to explain the reason and support for the entry. He acted weary and peeved once more explaining his work to yet another young auditor, and it took at least half an hour to draw out from him the explanation of the credit side of the entry. After referring to some records that confirmed the details behind the amount, I asked for some explanation of the debit side of the transaction. I will never forget this clerk’s demeanor and loud, weary sigh of exasperation as he explained to this officious auditor, “I do the credits, the debits are on the sixth floor, I already told you that. Go ask them!” I’m pretty certain this fellow neither knew nor cared what the reason was for the other side of the entry, or what happened in the rail operations to require it.

    We needed to visit the Conrail offices in Philadelphia for some of the affiliate records. They were in a tall, depressingly soulless office building filled with cubicles, open desks, and offices around the periphery, staffed with unionized old-school railroad employees, many of whom had been employed in the old PRR days. We would drive to the city for these engagements, while most employees arrived in public transit for their daily drudgery. We would ask for a set of records, and three or four people would disappear for an hour or two looking through vast storage areas on other floors, returning with dusty books, usually just in time for a break or lunch time.

    We learned not to ask for any assistance after 4:00pm. At 4:15 every desk was cleared of paper, pencils aligned, and the clerks sat rigidly, looking straight ahead. Some would not respond at all if a question was posed, just a glassy-eyed stare. At exactly 4:45 a bell would ring, and there was a mad stampede for the elevators and stairwells. It would be truly dangerous to be caught between the desks and the exits as the crowded floors emptied out. Of course, most of them had to catch a particular SEPTA train or bus, or be stranded for an extra half hour waiting for the next one to depart.

    The bankrupt railroad assets were eventually disposed or abandoned, and Conrail struggled on for a while until CSX and Norfolk Southern eventually took over the active lines and shut down the Philadelphia center.

  17. The longshoremen’s union is screwing up west coast ports and has been doing so for 20 years

    Friends with a view of Commencement Bay in Tacoma were commenting yesterday about the fully-laden container ships they see just anchored out there waiting to be unloaded because of the current work slowdown. How many tens of thousands of dollars a day this is costing, is anybody’s guess. (Indeed, my estimate of the order-of-magnitude it itself just a SWAG.)

  18. “We learned not to ask for any assistance after 4:00pm.”

    This is like trying to schedule an emergency case close to 3 o’clock when the day shift nurses are going off. At many hospitals, there is no 3 to 11 shift and the on-call team has to be called in. That can take an hour or more. When I organized the trauma center, we set up a call schedule with nurses paid extra to be within 15 minutes when called. Eventually we got busy enough to have a second shift and the call schedule was for 11 PM to 7 AM. When the new administrator took over shortly before I retired, the first thing he did was end the extra call pay for nurses. He said, “They were getting away with murder and I stopped it.” A dozen experienced nurses left the OR in the next year. He didn’t care. To people like that employees are like ten pins and interchangeable.

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