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Breathing new fire into the union cause

The first thing you notice in Neil Burnside’s office are the animal heads covering the walls: a water buffalo, African antelopes and the bleached skull of a rather large warthog.
The stuffed lion–52nd largest in the world to be dropped by a hunter’s bullet, one fired by Burnside–also is hard to miss.
The same goes for Burnside himself, business manager of the 1,250-member International Union of Operating Engineers Local 832.
Big, yet compactly muscled, expensively suited with shaven skull shining, he resembles no one so much as the comic-book version of Lex Luther, arch rival to Superman.
But unlike Luther, Burnside believes himself to be fighting for truth, justice and the American way.
One of a cadre of Rochester labor leaders who have sworn to reignite organized labor’s lost fire, he represents a new, activist breed. The group includes most of the leadership of the local Allied Building Trades Council, which Burnside heads.
Paradoxically, this new breed sees itself as both leading a last-ditch struggle to save the American middle class from the depredations of corporate America, and as potential partners of that same corporate hierarchy.
In the role of fiery labor activist, Burnside a few weeks ago drew front-page headlines by accusing Rochester Gas and Electric Corp. of deliberately forcing union contractors off pipeline jobs.
At the same time, he comfortably praises the firm in the phraseology of total quality management as his union’s “ultimate best customer.”
Burnside says he is acutely aware of the contradiction.
“It’s a conundrum,” he concedes.
The anti-RG&E campaign, joined by Rochester Teamsters union and Laborers’ union locals, is styled by the labor organizations as a “long hot summer” of union action.
Such activism comes after years of labor decline, a period in which unions have seen themselves conceding position to management and steadily losing share in the work force.
Labor’s decline came after the movement peaked in the prosperity that followed World War II and became securely entrenched in the manufacturing and building-trade segments, says Herbert Ratner, director of Cornell University’s Rochester division of the New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
Unions, resting easy in a seemingly unassailable position of strength, were unprepared to cope with the setbacks of the 1980s and early 1990s as American manufacturing declined and construction stalled in the recession, he says.
“When we were fat and happy, we slacked off,” Burnside concedes.
The recent actions, he says, take labor back to its roots but also tread new ground.
In the RG&E dispute, the unions’ main argument is that the company, through a subtle revision of its bidding practices on pipeline jobs, is shunting work to non-union firms at bargain-basement rates.
RG&E strenuously denies the charge, noting that its recently revised list includes an equal number of union and non-union contractors.
Following hard on the RG&E protest, Bricklayers union Local 11 and Carpenters union Local 85 launched campaigns leveling similar charges against other developers and contractors involved in Rochester projects.
In each case, the unions allege no violation of labor law. Their beef is with employers who, in Burnside’s words, “are only interested in the bottom line and don’t care if they create substandard (working) conditions.”
In tone and language, such actions hark back to an era of strikes, lockouts and other confrontations during the first half of this century in which American labor first flexed its muscle.
Burnside sees the present struggle as more than finger-pointing at individual firms. It is, he says, an exercise in consciousness-raising for the middle class.
Ultimately, he hopes, such actions will build to a populist campaign in which a middle class reeling under a decade of corporate downsizing and wage and benefit cutting will awaken to the truth as the labor movement sees it: that the comforts to which they have been accustomed are being sacrificed on the altar of corporate greed.
Over the last five years, workers’ wages, benefits and job opportunities have shriveled as corporate profits and CEO bonuses bloomed, Burnside maintains, and in that disjunction lies an opportunity for labor to reassert itself.
Burnside’s sentiments reflect a national trend among organized labor, Ratner says.
“What Neil and the others are talking about is a social contract,” he explains. “They want management to do the right thing by society.”
Indeed, Burnside himself frets: “If we keep downsizing, who will be left to buy anything?”
Against such born-again activism, Burnside displays equal enthusiasm for the Alliance, a Bechtel Corp. TQM program in which the Operating Engineers union is participating as part of Bechtel’s contract to redo generators at RG&E’s Ginna nuclear power plant.
As an Alliance participant, Burnside is an RG&E PR flack’s dream, sincerely enthusing about bringing the generator project to completion in record time, and making the plant the best run and most efficient in the land.
Indeed, despite Burnside’s allegations of his firm’s union busting, RG&E CEO Roger Kober speaks highly of the union leader.
Kober first felt the force of Burnside’s persuasive powers several years ago when the union leader agitated for the hiring of a union contractor at Ginna. On that occasion, the company relented.
While Kober promises not to similarly relent now, he says he bears Burnside no personal ill will.
“I met with Neil a lot during that period, and came to admire him. We’ve continued to meet occasionally, and I still have the greatest respect for him.”
Burnside likewise praises Kober as “an honorable man.”
This ability to revile corporate greed while simultaneously promoting corporate aims reflects a generally more business-savvy labor movement, Ratner says. Unlike their counterparts of 60 years ago, labor leaders such as Burnside, who themselves manage multimillion-dollar enterprises, are no strangers to a balance sheet.
Local 832’s assets total some $4 million including real estate, and the Operating Engineers union’s upstate pension-fund assets amount to $200 million.
Burnside, who was named the local’s business representative in 1972 and has served as business manager since 1985, reads the Wall Street Journal daily. Yet he downplays his abilities as a financial manager.
“I’m no expert. I know just enough to hire the right people,” he says.
Wryly, he adds: “I know enough not to invest in derivatives.”
“Neil is pretty sophisticated,” Ratner says. “I believe he is also pretty well-connected politically. He’s active for the Operating Engineers statewide, and I think he knows his way around Albany.”
Burnside’s private passions–hunting, gardening, and reading business and management tracts–reflect the same workingman-cum-CEO mixture as his public persona.
He lives on a 1.5-acre tract in Caledonia where he and his wife of 39 years, Virginia, tend a large garden and maintain a shooting range.
The couple has two grown sons–one a Monroe County sheriff’s deputy, the other a heavy-equipment operator.
An avid hunter, Burnside once told an acquaintance: “My idea of a good vacation is to go somewhere and kill something.”
The trip last year to Zimbabwe and South Africa on which he bagged the trophies that now grace his office was the “highlight” of a sport-hunting career that has taken him to Montana and Colorado after elk and other big game.
Burnside is untroubled that such pursuits are less than politically correct.
Plowing the garden with a tractor satisfies vestigial urges to run heavy equipment, he says.
In more than two decades on the business side of the union, he has had precious few opportunities to command a $60,000 piece of road-grading equipment. Burnside speaks wistfully of cutting the earth with the shining blade of Caterpillar D-9, scattering full-grown trees in its rumbling wake.
“It gets in your blood,” he sighs, comparing the sensation to the thrill of dropping a lion.
Gardening and a reading habit also are holdovers from his youth.
Burnside, 62, was the only child of an itinerant backhoe operator.
His father, a union man, was recruited to a widely scattered series of pipeline projects during World War II. The peripatetic profession put Burnside into 27 schools before he graduated from York Central High in Livingston County in 1951.
Such wanderings also made him leery of forming close friendships, so instead he buried himself in books, Burnside recalls.
In his junior year, the family settled on a 60-acre dairy farm in York. His father stayed for the spring planting, traveled to distant pipeline jobs in the summer and returned for the fall harvest, leaving the teenage Burnside to run the operation in the interim.
After high school, Burnside applied for a job with Eastman Kodak Co., but walked out on the interview.
“The interviewer asked me what I thought I could do for Kodak,” he says. “I thought about it a minute and told him, “Not a damn thing,’ and left.”
In 1952, Burnside signed up for a three-year hitch with the U.S. Marine Corps. When he mustered out of the corps, he first worked at farming jobs in Genesee County and later ran a horse-breeding farm in Livingston County.
By 1960, Burnside realized, “I was never going to make any money unless I owned a horse farm,” and he landed his first job as a heavy-equipment operator.
In contrast to his own steady rise to prosperity since then, Burnside sees the opportunities of today’s labor force as severely limited.
“People are working for less all the time. It’s painful,” he mourns.
At the same time, he concedes, many no longer see organized labor as possessing the muscle to do anything about it. The public-relations coups he and his Building Trades Council compatriots have scored this summer are but a bare beginning. And, Burnside also concedes, there is no guarantee the campaign will ever go further.
Nevertheless, Burnside concludes, brightening: “A 1,000-mile journey begins with the first step. I think it was Mao Tse-tung who said that.”


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