THE BLOG
09/07/2014 04:34 pm ET Updated Nov 07, 2014

The Rich Get Richer

There's always been a double-standard for labor and management. When an hourly worker proves to be too incompetent to remain on the payroll, he gets booted out the door. When a CEO proves to be too incompetent to remain on the payroll, he's given a "golden parachute" worth millions of dollars. "Sir, you turned out to be a bum instead of a savior. You caused our stock price to plummet. Please accept this 10 million dollars. No hard feelings."

When it came to substance abuse rehab, the company I used to work for treated the salaried and hourly much differently. Where hourly alcoholics were given a few days of in-patient care, followed by a maximum of six weeks of out-patient care, the management alcoholics received blue-chip treatment. One of the corporation's sector vice presidents was given a year off at full pay to address his alcoholism. Not too shabby.

A true story. Our International union's most successful -- and glamorous -- business agent (whom I'll call "Barry") once tried to retroactively reclassify three weeks of vacation as medical leave. Of course, doing so would have been to his advantage as it would have allowed him to save those precious vacation weeks for another time.

But after giving due consideration to his request, the International flatly turned him down. He may have been the International's most successful business agent, but he would not be given preferential treatment, not for something as cut and dried as this. Those three weeks would remain classified as vacation leave.

By the time I became president of our local union, Barry was already a legend. I met this flamboyant man once at a convention and still remember his clothing. He was wearing a Crocodile Dundee hat, a belt buckle the size of a wallet, and imitation snakeskin cowboy boots. With only a high school education, Barry had earned a reputation as a brilliant courtroom debater, having thrice beaten highly paid company attorneys in head-to-head arbitration hearings.

There are lots of ways to win an arb hearing. Obviously, you can win by having a very strong case, but you can also win by having a smart rep, by having a sympathetic arbitrator, or by facing a weak opponent. The fact of the matter is, despite the big bucks, not every lawyer is going to be more effective than every business agent. In any event, Barry was famous up and down the West Coast.

While none of us at our local union in knew all the details, based on what we heard through the grapevine, Barry's attempt to reclassify his vacation as medical leave was fairly audacious. When the International asked what the nature of his medical problem was, he told them he had suffered a "nervous breakdown." When they asked why he hadn't reported it immediately, he said it was because "he wasn't aware he was having a nervous breakdown until afterward."

Upon hearing that account, our local's master-at-arms uttered a memorable line. He deadpanned, "Wow, can you imagine what a shitty time this guy must have been having if he couldn't tell whether he was on vacation, or having a nervous breakdown."

David Macaray, an LA playwright and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor," 2nd edition), is a former union rep.