The Union Label

When I was growing up, my perception of a worker who belonged to a union was mostly a positive one. It conjured up images of skilled or semi-skilled blue-collar laborers learning a trade at the side of a master journeyman through a graduated apprenticeship system. This apprenticeship could be of similar duration to obtaining a university degree but was not the same, as the training you received was generally much more directly related to the job you would eventually be performing. While remaining ignorant of such subjects as philosophy or literature unless taking them up on their own time, you could be reasonably sure that anyone producing something under the auspices of the “Union Label” was producing something with a measurable level of competency. Unions were not just an entity for collective bargaining of benefits but were in a real sense providers of an education for those unable or unsuited to pursue what might be called “higher” learning.

This perception mostly held until fresh out of high school, I took a job for the summer in which membership in the Teamsters Union was mandatory. It was factory work in an ice cream manufacturing plant and the job mostly consisted of standing by an enormous contraption that made ice cream bars, occasionally refilling the rolls of paper that wrapped the bars as they came off of the assembly line. It wasn’t difficult work, the ins and outs of the job could be mastered in a couple of weeks, but it was noisy and remarkably boring. Amazingly, for a young kid just out of high school who had been taught that college was the path to success and financial security, the pay and benefits were equal or superior to that of my father who had graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 1956 with a degree in mechanical engineering and a minor in mathematics, and had been employed by The Boeing Company as an aerospace engineer for twenty years. With each paycheck I received, the job I had taken for the summer to make some money prior to starting my real life took on more permanence. Sixteen dollars an hour with full medical and dental insurance coverage in 1976 was all the reason I needed to put college off… just for a little while.

In 1984, after having gone on strike for better wages and benefits twice since I had hired on, management had become determined to scale back labor costs that now included 100% coverage of medical, dental, orthodonture, ophthalmology, you name it you were covered, and a wage north of eighteen dollars an hour. They locked us out, hiring replacement workers in a down economy who were happy to work for a fraction of what we were receiving. We of course were not happy about this and responded in the time-honored union fashion of baracading the entrances and exits to the plant and hurling rocks and threats of violence, some carried through with after work hours, at the scabs who had the gall to undermine that which our union had negotiated and that we so obviously, to us anyway, deserved. After about three months of bitter battle, management caved and granted a new contract with nearly everything we had demanded. We returned to work jubilant and more sure than ever that by getting nasty with those fat cats who ran the company, we would get what was coming to us. Six months later after having come to the conclusion that the new contracts were economically unfeasible the owners sold the hundred year old family business to an over seas corporation, the plant was closed and all the equipment auctioned off while 300 of us stood in the parking lot with our final paychecks and a form letter from the new owners that began “we regret to inform you”. Turning to our union representatives for redress as we had always done, they said they were sure sorry and that while we had been dealt an injustice, their responsibility was now with the union members at other plants who still had a paycheck coming in. Times were changing. They wished us all good luck and that was that. The sense of entitlement for more, always more, that they had convinced us through fiery rhetoric and bitter strike was our due turned out to be unsustainable, a word that while in common use today was not well understood by us union men and women at the time.

The only advice I would have for the teachers protesting the modest concessions being asked of them by the people of Wisconsin through their duly elected representatives, is that while we all have respect for educators and the difficult jobs they perform for often unappreciative parents and administrators, what can’t continue, won’t. Not always pleasant or pretty but a fact of life none the less when the money runs out.


8 responses to “The Union Label

  1. Nothing like the “no-job gang bang” where the union is the second in line.

  2. The ferocity with which my union brothers at the time believed they were owed these exorbitant wages and benefits for what was semi-skilled labor at best left a deep impression. An early and lasting lesson in the power of the entitlement mind set.

  3. $18 an hour in 1984 works out to about $36 an hour in 2011 money. Throw in the benefits, and that works out to about $55-60 an hour in total compensation. That’s $110,000+ a year, for (at best) semi-skilled work. I’m sure you guys were the kings of the local economy.

    And I’m sure a lot of local people were mentally rubbing their index fingers against their thumbs when your plant was shut down, wishing they could find some tactful way to tell you that the sound coming from their fingers was the sound of the world’s smallest violins.

    I know I would be doing that if I were a Wisconsinite, and Governor Walker were to pull a “PATCO” (as he should) on those protesting teachers.

    And yes, I have a dim view of unions– I had the misfortune to be junior-level management at Conrail, circa 1990. It just blew my mind that the more senior guys on the labor side of the house were still fighting the Red-Green war (the Pennsylvania – New York Central merger) of 1968. [shakes head in disbelief at the memory]

  4. When the plant closed Hale, the workers were genuinely shocked. They had been told for so long by their union that the gravy train would continue rolling that most had no contingency plans. I was lucky in that I was young enough to start over but I really felt for some of the older guys.

  5. Delta and Eastern airlines were pretty much mirror images of each other.
    Eastern had unionized labor, one third greater than Delta.
    Delta was and is nonunion, except ALPA .
    In the end, Eastern was posting nearly 100% load-factor ( butts in seats) because of give-away ticket prices. Still loosing money.
    It became impossible to meet unions demands, operations ceased.

  6. Sorry if I sounded mean-spirited, Westsound Modern. I have to sympathize with the older guys too– if I had to start from nothing at age 55, I’d be terrified, too.

    It’s just that one can get so stuck in a groove that you can’t think outside of it– those “old heads” that I knew at Conrail had seniority dates going back to 1948 or 1950. Some of them still thought of themselves as New York Central men, and would curse “the goddamn boat-people from Fort Wayne” (an ex-Pennsylvania yard being shut down) for coming in and bumping their fellow ex-NYC men down the roster or even off the active list.


    Never mind that their wages made them the kings of the local economy. Never mind that if they would have taken a smaller wage-and-benefits package, the company could have kept more of them working. (God knows I could have used the extra manpower on some shifts! Woe unto the general car foreman who lets the receiving yard “go down” for lack of manpower– a “down” R-yard means the hump shuts down, delaying trains bound for all over the system. Lord, I used to dread that 7 AM call from Dearborn, even if the night *had*gone all right……) Nope, they wouldn’t do that, and the “youngest” guy working had a seniority date of 1976.

    And labor-management relations were bad enough that I often couldn’t get anybody to come in for overtime, and I had one guy who would often fake on-the-job injuries– we knew he was faking it, the union knew he was faking it, but we all went through the motions because that was what the rules of the “game” said to do. Oh, how my boss wanted to fire that man.

    To make a long story short– if you like railroads, NEVER work for one. It’s the best way I know of to come to hate them, at least for a while.

  7. So, will the attack on unions succeed? I don’t know, but anyone who cares about retaining government of the people, by the people should hope that it doesn’t. On paper, we’re a one-person-one vote nation: in reality, we’re more than a bit of an oligarchy, in which a handful of wealthy people dominate. Given this reality, it’s important to have institutions that can act as counterweights to the power of big money. And unions are among the most important of these institutions.

  8. I have an issue with:
    “The only advice I would have for the teachers protesting the modest concessions being asked of them by the people of Wisconsin through their duly elected representatives, is that while we all have respect for educators and the difficult jobs they perform for often unappreciative parents and administrators, what can’t continue, won’t. Not always pleasant or pretty but a fact of life none the less when the money runs out.”

    The union DID make a concession of 8%. The sticking point in Wisconsin is collective bargaining. The gov wants to get rid of it. The concession was done through collective bargaining. Seems like it works. The retirement fund is fully funded. Seems like you are running on an agenda rather than the facts. :o)

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