Right to the head of my observations on the importance of symbols to an organization marches the International Association of Machinists, District 751. I’m not sure I could ever find a more perfect symbol of union’s gone wild than this one.
The IAM is the union that represents the bulk of the line labor at Boeing’s aircraft assembly plants. This union is a key reason why Boeing’s employment see-saws from year to year, and was probably a key cause of the infamous billboards that read: “will the last one who leaves Seattle please turn out the lights” in the 1970’s. This union is famous for its hardcore stances, and its strikes at the expense of everyone involved, including their members.
Their website is symbolism enough, with the top “Job Info” links on the page being about what to do if you’re the “victim” of a job action or being warned of a layoff. No, not about job training, or even joining the union, but rather “how did the company screw you today?” Yes, that’s pretty good symbolism in itself.
However, I had heard about the monuments in front of District 751 headquarters in Seattle for some time. I just had to check them out for myself. What I found was amazing. Yes, they have a sculpture garden in front of the headquarters (where are your union dues today?). And yes, one of them is of people actually working on an airplane. Even better, it’s a man and a woman working — probably a nod to Rosie the Riviter of WWII fame. Homage to a proud heritage of building some of the most amazing and world-changing machines to be sure.
But the union saves their biggest and most elaborate monument to show their true colors. The main monument on the site, the one with the American, state, and union flagpoles, and the one at center stage, it the most stunning. This monument is not an homage to the workers and the incredible machines they build. No, it is an homage to the striker.
The picture is hard to see, so let me guide you through the panels. At the center is a pair of large “751” symbols, above is a winged logo of the IAM, and behind are the three aforementioned flagpoles. This is all good.
No, it’s the four panels on either side that are the clearest symbols (although not the best of photographs here). The panels depict strikers carrying picket signs and gathered around a burn barrel. For example, the leftmost panel (shown) has people carrying signs that read: “COLA”, “Paid Holidays”, “Seniority”, and “Union Shop”. The second panel’s striker’s sign says “Hold the line 89”. It is the panel to the far right that has the group gathered around the burn barrel.
What does it say about this organization when the most important monument is dedicated not to the good things that they do, not to the hard work of their thousands of members, and not to a spirit of cooperation and working together, but rather to how defiant they can be? It’s like an homage to a six-year-old’s temper tantrum in the grocery store.
What it really speaks to is the mind set of the leaders of the union. Here is a group of people who truly believe their finest hours have been not wins, but rather impasses. They get their strength not as a group of leaders but rather as a mob. Their top priorities are not really the welfare of their members as people, but maintenace of their union as a group.
I have strong opinions about unions, and I will say a great deal more about them in the future. But I’m not sure I’ll ever say it as clearly as the IAM says it themself with this astounding monument.