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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Saturday, July 20

Gapers Block

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"When I was a kid, my dad told me: if you want to enjoy life, you have let yourself get hustled — a little." He held his index finger and thumb about an inch apart and smiled. Bill, a bartender downtown, was reminiscing about the unions of old, telling me stories about his experiences working in Chicago when the unions were king, despots of the not-quite-enlightened variety.

When he was a kid in the late 1960s, he worked at a restaurant on Wabash and Harrison called the Cart — a very popular restaurant at the time — and was a "proud member" of the union, although he disagreed with a lot of what they did.

"Most of it, actually."

"Hanley was the guy then," he told me, referring to the Hotel Employees-Restaurant Employees Local 1 boss Ed Hanley, a mobbed-up local boss and eventual union president who left the HERE in disastrous shape in 1998 after decades of mismanagement and favoritism.

"Hanley had this business agent, a guy named McCall — this guy was a real sonofabitch. He used to come by the bar and try to collect our dues in cash. I mean, like I said, let yourself get hustled a little — but jesus, these guys could wake the dead."

My friend's experience with Hanley's Local 1 may not be uniquely Chicagoan — ever seen On The Waterfront? — but it is quite American.

Only in America could the labor movement, which grew out of lunatics like the Wobblies and the Molly Maguires, turn into something entrepreneurial, a "market" that could be capitalized on and used to enrich the entrepreneur.

The bosses have plenty of money. As I've argued before, if the workers get together and unionize — tough luck. I hear that often enough. Credit cards raising rates, Comcast invalidating deals, tough luck, tough luck. That's the glory of capitalism. What is sad is when the unions turn into bosses.

Today we have the story of AMFA, the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association. AMFA recently went on strike against Northwest Airlines, after months and months of strike threats. During that time, Northwest went out and found scab mechanics, trained them, and had them at the ready when AMFA went ahead and made good on the strike. While AMFA mechanics walk the pickets, Northwest refuses to bargain in good faith and continues to train and hire scab workers.

But ask your typical United Airlines employee, and many refuse to shed crocodile tears for their AMFA brethren. AMFA was reputedly founded by an entrepreneurial consultant, O.V. Delle-Femine, who went around to the established locals in the different airlines and wooed away the mechanics. One former United worker told me, "AMFA went around and told the mechanics, 'Oh, you shouldn't be in a union with rampmen and the baggage guys. You're professionals. You're trained, you're specialists. They're just humps.' So the mechanics [de-ceritifed] IAM and went with AMFA and split us all up." But for the head of AMFA (so some say), it was a business strategy: screw the workers, he was making his.

But that's Chicago, isn't it? Who doesn't have the story like the one about the southwest suburban mall being built with with all union labor — skilled tradesmen and laborers. Visitors to the job site will remember to this day what seemed like acres of lawn chairs with reclining "laborers" bundled against the cold, reading Sports Illustrated or the Racing Forms and anxiously waiting for 3pm, when they could check out.

"What do those guys do?" one visitor asked.

"Odds. Odds and ends," the contractor answered, his eyebrows knitting into an entirely new formation, a unique Chicago expression where one brow flairs and then they both quickly hop, the tongue sticks out for just a moment. The meaning being, of course, "The exact opposite of what I just said."

The Chicago Eyebrow flashes across the face of one fellow who works for an HVAC company. He talks about his days in the 1970s working for a large janitorial firm, and the time he showed up at a bar where his union leaders were.

"We were getting screwed by the guy who owned the maintenance company, guy called Stein," he says, "and most of the guys hated Stein, because even though we were union, we made less than the non-union service guys. Some of the guys, mostly the immigrants, liked him because he always had us working, and there was always overtime, and we worked on the big buildings — the federal building, McCormick." But — like always, but, but, but — "But we were trying to get into a contract fight with the guy, try to get a better contract, and somehow I end up at this get-together for the top guys. Great spread, booze. And I talked to one of the guys, 'The union's picking up the tab on this?' He gave me this look" — I think we can guess the look — "and says, 'Yeah, the union's picking up the tab.' Later I find out from another guy, it was courtesy of Stein." The union bosses were throwing a party, courtesy of the boss. Did he stay? Did he march out in protest? Did he declare he wouldn't be bought off? "Did you hear what I said? Spread, booze. And the boss was picking up the tab."

Sometimes, life is a lot better if you let yourself get hustled — just a little.

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About the Author(s)

Ramsin Canon covers and works in politics in Chicago. If you have a tip, a borderline illegal leak, or a story that needs to be told, contact him at .

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