After four years of college, Mike Haentjens dropped out and became a ditch digger for PG&E.
“I wasn’t much in school,” he explains. “I liked eating and drinking and having some money rather than being a poor starving college student all the time.”
Nearly 40 years later Haentjens is retiring as an IBEW 1245 Assistant Business Manager, journeyman electrician, working class philosopher, poet laureate, and wisecracker-in-chief. He may not have been much in school but they’re going to remember him at the union for a long time—for his work and for his, well, his personality.
“He was a great rep,” said Assistant Business Manager Ken Ball, whose position on the Fact Finding Committee allowed him to see Haentjens’ use of the grievance procedure up close. “He had that very dry sense of humor. It was a gift of gab— he was very sharp, good on his feet. He could always come up with an argument.”
It was a quality, Ball acknowledges, that occasionally “drove the company crazy.”
Business Manager Tom Dalzell said Haentjens had “pretty close to an encyclopedic understanding of the collective bargaining agreement,” coupled with a keen understanding of how people operate.
“He had a tremendous eye for what the real issue was in any situation,” Dalzell said. “He could figure out, ‘This is what people are saying but this is what they are really worrying about.’”
Haentjens, 62, also had an enduring talent for, well, being Haentjens. No matter what the situation, you were unlikely to persuade him to be or act like anyone else. Smart people were reluctant to even try.
For example, in early 1995, when the union was protesting layoffs at PG&E, Haentjens wore his PG&E raingear during an IBEW march in downtown San Luis Obispo. A supervisor spotted the gear and went to the PG&E industrial relations rep and said, “What’s he doing marching in that rain gear? Tell him to take it off!”
The industrial relations rep, who knew Haentjens better than the supervisor did, replied, “You tell him to take it off.”
Or so the story goes. And there are others from which to pick, bearing in mind of course that this is a family newspaper. Later in 1995, after the IBEW had forced PG&E to cancel the ill-conceived layoffs, a large retreat was held in Santa Nella, where the union and PG&E management attempted to heal the rift and forge a new “partnership.” After some successful meetings and congenial meals during the day, Haentjens commandeered the floor at an evening meeting to rail against PG&E for its recent sins. The predominant color of the language he used was blue. To be there was to know how the porcelain felt when the bull was raging through the china shop.
Ken Ball had to hustle him out of that meeting. Twice.
Haentjens made journeyman electrician around 1980, became a shop steward in General Construction and then at Diablo Canyon Power Plant, and was elected to the Advisory Council in 1986. When his business rep came down with a medical issue in 1987, Haentjens says, “I volunteered to do his job for six months and that was 27 years ago.”
His first assignment included PG&E Los Padres Division, including General Construction, Morro Bay Power Plant, Sonic Cable TV and Arbor Tree. But he will mostly be remembered as the union’s representative at Diablo Canyon Power Plant. Dalzell said Haentjens “had a unique understanding of the demands and challenges coming out of Diablo Canyon Power Plant” and knew everyone there.
“He didn’t need to look up a name on a computer. If they were in his assignment he knew it,” Dalzell said.
Three of the people who served as shop stewards for Haentjens at Diablo Canyon went on to become business representatives at the plant themselves: the late Dan Lockwood, Mark Taylor, and most recently Pat Duffy.
Poet and Philosopher
At staff meetings Haentjens was the consummate wisecracker, the balding guy with the ponytail who could dismember your long-winded remarks with a single quip. But he had another talent that he kept mostly hidden. If IBEW 1245 had a poet laureate, Haentjens would be it.
His poetic fire was first lit in the 1960s by listening to Bob Dylan singing about “Masters of War” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.” At first he just wrote down Dylan’s words. But in time he started to write his own.
One poem won him a lunch date with John Wooden, famed head coach of the UCLA basketball team. Other poems incorporated union themes, including a poetic farewell when he quit the Advisory Council, a poem on drug testing, and a poem on the threat posed by Proposition 32 in 2012.
Haentjens jokes that whiskey fuels his poetry. But there’s a serious side to Haentjens that comes out when he writes verse. He becomes a political philosopher, writing about the rich attacking the poor, about the struggle of unions to set things right. In his poetry you can see a guy who really believes in something.
Stripped of rhyme, this is how he puts it: “Unencumbered capitalism breeds greed, and greed breeds hate and discontent. The only way to counteract unencumbered capitalism is the union movement.”
“He was a character no matter who he was talking to—one of a dwindling number of baby boomers who have worked for and then led the union over the past 30 years,” said Dalzell.
As of Dec. 31, Haentjens will be IBEW 1245 history. But it’s been a colorful history, and most likely they’ll be telling stories about Haentjens at the union hall for some time to come. Like the one where Ken Ball and Kit Stice couldn’t get him into a cab, so they had to—well, maybe not that one.
“There’s one where he woke up with- out his pony tail one morning, but I wasn’t part of that one,” said Ball.
Making worker justice rhyme
A sampling of Mike Haentjens’ poetic turn of phrase over the years:
On a funeral leave grievance:
When the arrangements are such that you’re totally involved
Is a day enough to get the issues resolved?
It’s a time for the family, a time of many friends, Not a time to be hassled by market-driven trends
On employee drug-testing:
Let’s drug test everybody and not just a few,
Let’s drug test the House, the Senate and President Bush too!
On IBEW 1245 members:
Through earthquakes, floods and fires they keep the turbines turning
All over this great state of ours they keep the lights burning