Conversational Grenades

Mike McGough
February 2018

It was a large industrial plant with several unions representing different groups of workers in the plant. At times there was subtle competition between the unions over representation, but generally they respected their individual spheres of traditional representation. However, based on one union shop steward’s careless comments, those spheres became blurred, and ultimately one disappeared.

The shop steward was a vocal supporter of his members. He was also an oft outspoken critic of the local president as well as the state, national, and international union leadership. His comments were often caustic, and at times they were also something less than accurate. He had a way of taking a molehill and turning it into a mountain, and he could do it with ease. Nonetheless he had his followers. They seemed to accept as fact his every thought, and they hung on his every word as though it were gospel. In his heart of hearts, he always believed that he was doing his best to represent the members and support the union’s mission and goals. In that belief, he was somewhat short sighted.

An issue related to an international trade agreement became a particularly troubling matter to him. Through some intense research he learned that a few recent union actions and agreements had actually supported the trade deal and in effect weakened the union stance on several critical labor relations issues. He immediately went on the attack. He was relentless in his efforts to expose what he saw as the shortcomings of the current union leadership. His attacks were strong and relentless. He’d speak to a group or an individual any time or any place. Over a short period of time, he garnered a great deal of attention among the rank and file of the union members in his plant.

As it became clearer and clearer to more and more members that the upper echelons of the union had indeed made some decisions that did not represent the best interests of the members, something unexpected happened. The members in large numbers began to question the union that represented them. Their questions were so serious that one of the other unions in the plant made it known that they would welcome anyone who wanted to change their union membership. As it turned out, the union shop steward had done such a good job of pointing out the errors of his union, that the migration of his members to the other union was all but unanimous. In effect he had destroyed the very organization he thought he was representing.

Devastated by the unintended consequences of his actions, he sought the counsel of one of the other shop stewards in the plant. The older, more experienced steward shared a metaphorical lesson with his less experienced counterpart.

“Information is power, and some information is so powerful that it’s downright explosive. Think of it like a grenade. You had the information about the trade deal, it was explosive to your union, and you held that proverbial grenade in your hand. You felt the need to throw it, and you did. I’m sure what has happened to your union in our plant was not your intention.”

The younger steward dropped his head. It was tough to hear what he was being told, but it was spot on and he knew it.

“You see,” the more experienced steward continued, “the trade deal was the problem and the issue, but you focused on your union’s management. You made them the focus and thus the problem. Your local members listened to you, believed you, and reacted accordingly. Your words had explosive power, but the impact of the explosion was here in the plant. I’d suggest that the next time you find yourself with such powerful information in hand, that you be a bit more prudent about how you choose to use it. Think of it like a proverbial grenade. Then ask yourself two very important questions before you pull the pin. Ask yourself if you know your intended target, and more importantly ask yourself if you a can throw it far enough to avoid making yourself or those you represent part of the resulting damages.”

Obviously, the right of free speech is a constitutional protection that is a large part of the unshakable bedrock upon which a free society is based. However, that right is best respected and utilized when it’s driven by prudent, productive, and effective expression. Such use isn’t a guarantee, and in many instances it’s not even a requirement. It’s instead a matter of personal choice powered by careful forethought, cautious consideration, and thoughtful attention to potential collateral damage and unintended consequences.

In short, respect the right of free speech by thinking before you pull the proverbial pin on conversational grenades!