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Mike Downey

Meanwhile, Some of Us Have to Keep Working for a Living

September 23, 1987|Mike Downey

George M. Cohan, the composer and Yankee Doodle Dandy, was livid in 1913 when the Actors Equity Assn. was organized. The thought of working with a union infuriated him so, Cohan took out an ad in the newspapers that read: "Before I ever do business with the Actors Equity, I will lose every dollar I have, even if I have to run an elevator for a living."

At the union shop where I once worked, when our contract had expired and our negotiations for a new one had failed, when our picket-line assignments had been issued and we came within minutes of picking up our placards, we caved in on several demands and went back to work.

Although we felt relief that our paychecks would keep arriving on schedule, we also felt betrayed, because union assurances and great expectations had convinced us that all of the leverage was ours. We were certain that our company leaders would crumple at the mere idea of making do without us. Some of us even assumed, naively, that we would shut the whole place down.

The more realistic laborers among us understood that the show would go on. We knew that management figures would take our places, the same way some paper-pusher with a key to the executive washroom had once pinch-hit for Walter Cronkite on the evening news. Our fantasy, of course, was that a public rebellion at the quality of this amateur-hour production would commence forthwith, until the bosses begged us, pretty please with sugar on it, to come back.

The ultimate disappointment for most of us, and the factor that killed our momentum, was our discovery that members of brother guilds would refuse to honor our strike. Their unions, far more powerful than ours, had no intention of ordering workers to stop pouring the ink in the printers' trays or to stop loading the bundles on the trucks. They would keep putting out the newspaper, with or without us.

So, we were finished. We sat there wondering how many bricks would be bouncing off our foreheads if we ever dared crossing that union's picket lines but, for some reason, our brothers and sisters would not be sharing vacuum bottles with us and lugging Magic-Markered signs that read: "Management Unfair."

Later on, some of us concluded that their reasons were probably among the best reasons in the world to avoid any strike: These people wanted to keep eating. They wanted to keep buying groceries for their table and shoes for their children, and they wanted to look their landlords straight in the eye on the first of the month, rather than ducking across the street when they saw him coming.

We all need reasons to keep on working. Some of us, though, have principles that we cannot push aside, no matter what the cost. Others of us have principles thrust upon us. We do not want to walk away from our jobs any more than we want a brick in the head, but the people who run our unions, the people we entrusted to look out for us, have called us together and told us to gather up our belongings, to be gone and be strong.

Such was the lot of the American pro football player Tuesday, when he awoke to find himself unemployed. He knew this day was coming, and he dreaded it. The guy at the locker next to him had been assuring him such a thing would never happen, but the guy at the opposite locker had been there five years ago, and recognized the danger signals.

Since these men, 45 to a team, 28 teams in all, come equipped with different minds as well as different bodies, there was not unanimous agreement. Some wanted no part of a strike. Mark Gastineau, perhaps the most powerful and popular of the New York Jets, originally said he would defy the National Football League Players Assn.'s picket lines, as did Mickey Marvin, an injured offensive lineman from the Raiders. However,

"Coming from those two parties, that's nothing new," said Vann McElroy, one of Marvin's teammates, in a television interview Monday night.

What he meant was, he understood where those gentlemen stood, from past experience. That hardly meant, though, that McElroy would be joining them among the NFL's scabs. If his union brothers were walking out, then he was walking out right beside them. He was a union man, after all, even if he did grant this TV interview to a station owned by NBC, a network being struck by technicians who have not seen a paycheck for weeks.

It is difficult to know what to do at times, whether it entails hiring non-union labor or boycotting grapes. The owners of professional football teams have decided to play without their players. They are eager to fight fire with fire and to show no alarm, as Actors Equity did, seven decades ago, when it responded the next day by posting a job notice at union headquarters that read: "Wanted: Elevator Operator. George M. Cohan Preferred."

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