Congressional Detail

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

“Hear, my son, your father’s instruction,
and forsake not your mother’s teaching . . .
My son, if sinners entice you, do not consent.”
(Prov 1:8-10)

Congressional Detail

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In the spring of 1984 I took a one-month detail with the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA)[1] which was interested in my dissertation research on technological and structural changes in beef packing and retailing (Hiemstra 1985a). OTA’s offices were located in rented space in Adam’s Morgan, a popular but sketchy neighborhood in Southeast Washington where walking even during the day required a touch of courage. But it did not matter—I loved the recognition that this assignment entailed for my dissertation[2] and I hoped that a permanent position would quickly follow my detail.

In discussions with my new supervisor, we decided that I would spend the first two weeks of my assignment catching up on interviews around Washington with industry and union leaders that I missed during my field work on the dissertation. The second two weeks of my assignment would then focus on writing a short report to be published by OTA (Hiemstra 1984). Because of the short turnaround time of this work, a key contact for me was the staff of the Joint Labor-Management Committee (JLMC) in Washington who knew all the players in the meat industry.

A particularly acute shortcoming of my field work came in trying to understand the dynamics of union contracts outside of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), who represented most of the workers in the beef pack and retailing industries. New, highly efficient boxed beef processing plants constructed on the high plains in those days were opening with contracts with other unions, like the Teamsters or the National Maritime Union. These new contracts offered fewer restrictions on management discretion and lower wages, which caused a lot of heartburn for the UFCW, and helped make boxed beef highly competitive with traditional carcass beef.[3] Older plants specialized in carcass beef were shuttering their doors all over the Eastern corn-belt, which is why Congress and the OTA were interested in my research.

In visiting with the JLMC, I learned that the Teamsters Union[4] employed an economist; I was given his contact information; and he agreed to meet with me.

The Teamsters, who normally represent truckers, were important players in the boxed beef story.[5] In conversations with the UFCW, the Teamsters continued to play an important role in representing workers in boxed beef plants both directly through organizing construction workers before the plants opened and indirectly by providing sample contracts for other non-UFCW unions to organize plants not represented by the Teamsters. What I hoped to accomplish by visiting with the Teamster’s economist was to hear the Teamster’s version of these stories.

In the interview, I spoke for about 15 minutes before I perceived that the economist was stonewalling me. I tested the stonewalling for another 15 minutes before I started to gather my things to leave. At this point, the economist waved me back over to my seat and proceeded to offer me a job with about a third increase in salary. The offer got my attention because it would have meant that Maryam and I could afford finally to buy a house of our own, but he cautioned me that I would not be able to ask for a further increase in pay—the Teamsters did not offer step-increases like the government. After treating me to a steak dinner in the executive dinning room, I asked if I might think it over and get back to him. He said okay, but he again cautioned me that I would need to get back to him promptly because the Teamsters would soon be going into contract negotiations and he needed the help.

Wow. How could I turn down a big pay increase at a time when I really needed the money? My conscience bothered me about working for the Teamsters, but my usual mentors simply congratulated me on the raise. The exception was Grandpa Frank who asked: “Why do you want to work for them bosses?” Frank was right; I knew in my heart that I could not accept this job, but how could I turn down “an offer you cannot refuse?” I resolved to ask for even more money, figuring that greed would induce them to withdraw the offer.

The economist took my salary request seriously, because he had cautioned me not to ask for a raise once I accepted the position. However, my proposal shocked the Teamster president, who turned me down much to my relief.[5]

References

Chandler, Jr. Alfred D. 1977. The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business. Cambridge: Harvard University Press; Belknap Press.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Office_of_Technology_Assessment.

[2] A reporter for the Wall Street Journal interviewed me about my dissertation research but to my knowledge never published the interview.

[3] The food demands after the Civil War led to cattle being slaughtered in places like Chicago and shipped as a side of beef by refrigerated rail (and later trucks) to East Coast markets where retail butchers completed the processing (Chandler 1977, 300). Boxed beef further broke down these sides of beef into sub-prime units which were vacuum packed in plants closer to cattle lots. The additional processing lowered the cost of transportation, improved shelf-life, and allowed unusuable byproducts (like bone and fat) to be processed and sold more profitability.

[4] https://teamster.org.

[5] Boxed beef was reportedly introduced into Michigan years before after a trucker’s strike cut off shipments of locally slaughtered, carcass beef while boxed beef was trucked in from out-of-state packing plants on the Great Plains, which constituted a breech of the National Labor Relations Act (1935). I say reportedly in this case because business history is often hard to document and stories like this one are normally passed around by word-of-mouth, which is, of course, totally deniable should someone uncharacteristically decide to enforce the law.

[6] About a year later this president was indicted by a federal grand jury in an effort to clean up the union, but he was never convicted (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jackie_Presser).

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