Life is like a game of chess, especially if you're a pawn. The chess analogy was presented to me by someone who knows a lot about negotiations of a certain kind, but not from the pawn's point of view. More like a king; although I hope he proves to be my knight.

It was 1999 following a different kind of negotiating, when I found myself in a rented meeting room to vote on provisions of our labor contract, a contract that would govern every aspect of our working conditions--including pay and benefits, raises, and work rules-- for the next three years. It would affect over 300 workers in a seafood processing plant, owned by one of the world's top three food producers.

In the room, signing off on this final proposal that would eventually impact hundreds of lives, were maybe a dozen people. Three or four union stewards, their relatives who worked in the same plant, and the agent for the union who had negotiated this contract with the company.

Of all the shop stewards, I was the newest, a rookie. I had only recently been "appointed" a steward. It was later that I found out how wrong that was. And how irregular. A shop steward who represents the union members should always be elected by those members. And should always be accountable to them, and subject to recall by those members and no one else. But the way things were done in that particular union shop was like this: the stewards were appointed by one union official. And, if he so decided, unappointed.

On this day, everyone present had pretty much thrown in the towel, conceded their positions of strength. First of all, our greatest strength--our numbers--was not represented here. At the time of this meeting, scheduled on a week day at the end of day shift and beginning of night shift, the majority of the rank and file members were at work, either finishing up or preparing to start their shifts. They were not in the meeting room because there was no free pass for late attendance due to a union meeting, either implied or stated. Plant supervisors did not take kindly to workers who left early or arrived late. Fear was probably the biggest reason for the low attendance.

There were various aspects to this fear. Fear of being fired, and of losing pay were in the top ten. For the immigrants, fear of losing their jobs and their right to stay in this country. Distrust of the union was a reason that some stayed away. Inadequate transportation was another. A lousy bus system. A union that could have--and should have--rented or borrowed a couple of vans to ferry the union members to vote on their contract, or held the vote in the plant, or by mail in ballot. Why none of these options was used, I can't say. I wasn't in charge. I was only a pawn. An appointed pawn.

I looked at the proposed contract, offering 40 cents the first year, 20 in the second and third years, and said, "I feel like a sellout voting for this." The chief steward, with a lot more years at this than I, said: "You better take that 40 cents before they change their minds." The vote was over in about a minute. Unanimous. I'm ashamed to admit I voted with the crowd. It wouldn't have changed the majority if I'd voted no. But I voted for something I did not believe in, and seven years later I still remember this.

I returned to the plant, got reprimanded for being five minutes late. A co worker met me in the hallway, anxious to know what had happened. I told her what I'd asked for during talks, and I told her what we got. When the raises showed up in our checks, some people accepted the 4o cents, but that 20 cents the second and third years...it didn't go down as well. There was dissent in the air. Talk of revolt.

There are truths that are universal. They apply anywhere. One is this: if you let fear dictate your choices, you will lose. Even if there's an immediate payoff. Decide what's right and do it. If you can't wake up with something for the rest of your life, don't get into bed with it tonight.

2. If you go into battle without a strong backup, you're more likely to get shot full of holes. So, if you don't have an army behind you, prepare yourself; get a bulletproof vest and the baddest ass weapon you can find. Sometimes the best weapon is the truth.

3. Try not to be a pawn. It's good to be king, and much easier. If you're a pawn, you can't retreat. You can only move forward.

4. Don't let anyone appoint you to a position that serves their agenda. Be self appointed.

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