Wednesday, September 7, 2016

My Time As A Union Man

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I grew up on a farm. My paternal grandfather had been a rig-building contractor who’d remarked that “unions will be the ruination of this country.” My dad didn’t feel quite so strongly about it, but his feelings were similar. I must confess, due to their influence, my feelings were also similar. It didn’t help any that I saw unions on strike for wages and benefits far greater than anything we earned as farmers, even though we had to buy some of the high-priced products that they produced.

Times changed, though. My grandfather died when I was eight and my dad when I was 29. We’d given up regular farming by that time and concentrated on Christmas trees and sawmilling. Nine years after Dad passed away, lumber and Christmas tree prices both tanked, so I began looking for work off the farm. It took a year, but I finally was hired by O. Ames Company, then the world’s largest producer of lawn and garden tools. Lumber prices were back up by that time, but not Christmas trees, and I was playing catch-up so badly that I had no choice but to accept the job.

The main thing that I disliked was that it was a union shop. If you survived 90 days of work there (many quit), you automatically became a member of United Steel Workers of America Local 1651. I wasn’t all that pleased, but I had to work. Interestingly enough, I had already begun to see why the union existed. You had no protection from the union those first 90 days, so the company really took advantage of their new hires. People were asked to do things that wouldn’t have been allowed for a union man, and they worked us a ridiculous amount of overtime. All we could do was work, sleep, eat and go back to work. The first thing I did, once I was sworn into the union, was to turn down about half of the overtime that I was offered.

Now, I’ve always been one to take the bull by the horns, so I figured that if I had to be in a union, I wanted to know what was going on and I wanted to have my say. The first year, I don’t think that I missed a single monthly meeting. They had one meeting for first shift, and one for second (afternoons), which I worked. I only went to the one for afternoon shift, of course. At about the one year point, the president of the local came to me and asked me to be shop steward on second shift. Apparently, none of the older guys would accept the job. I guess they had better sense. It didn’t pay anything, involved a lot of paperwork and required a high tolerance for temperamental people on both sides. The president warned me that by the time that I left the position that I wouldn’t have any friends in the company OR the union. I laughed and told him that was okay, I didn’t have any friends the way it was.

The position was certainly an eye-opener. I would never have dreamed how petty, immature, hot tempered, and/or whiny some of my coworkers could be, especially the “veterans.” Nor could I believe all the stunts the company tried to pull, especially a couple of the foremen. It did keep me busier than I liked, but I certainly learned what was happening on second shift!

It wasn’t exactly true that I’d leave the position with no friends. I didn’t really do much to irritate the higher-ups. Plus, the second shift supervisor was a fellow Christian, so we didn’t give each other any unnecessary grief. A couple of the foremen thought I was a jerk, but they were always trying to do things that weren’t allowed in the contract. A handful of veterans considered me a company s_ck, since I would also remind them that they had to honor the contract the same as the company. Some folks always think they’re special.
Something that amused me was the union elections. The things that people would do to one another and the things that they would say about their coworkers amazed me. You would have thought that they were 
running for president of the United States, not for an office in a piddly little union local. There was corruption right in our own local. There was even more on the state and national levels. As we were losing our jobs, we had several thousand dollars in our local’s bank account that we wanted to donate to local charities, but the powers-that-be wouldn’t allow it. Interestingly enough, we could have had a big party and spent the money on booze and hookers and they wouldn’t have cared a bit. That was how they rolled.

Contracts were interesting, too. The first two years after a three year contract went into effect, the company would brag to the high heavens about how great our productivity was and how much money they were making. Contract year, though, they twisted and massaged the numbers to make it look like they were losing their shirts. Once the contract was settled, they returned to bragging all over again.

I remember in one of the meetings they had with the workers before contract negotiations, that one of the brass was whining about the fact that they paid us more than their non-union plant in Pennsylvania. I stood up and asked if their production per man-hour wasn’t only about 2/3 of ours, while their wages were ¾ of ours. He admitted that was true. So I asked if, based on man-hour production, were we not underpaid compared to the Pennsylvania plant. He hemmed and hawed and finally admitted that someone could look at it that way. As I sat down, I heard him whisper to the guy next to him, “Who was that man?”

I worked there 11 years and 9 months; I was a shop steward about ten of those years. What I learned was that nearly every company that had a union, DESERVED that union, due to the mistreatment of their employees. The local companies that treated their workers well managed to stay non-union. Ames had a history of conflict; their strikes in the old days were famous. By the time I got there, times were changing and the union couldn’t make the demands that it once did, even to keep up with inflation.

The chains in the basement where convict workers slept during WWII were still there. They probably volunteered to be there, but you can be sure that Ames profited immensely from their presence. I truly believe that had slavery still been legal, Ames would have had slaves, and color wouldn’t have mattered.

Had the company not sent their work to China (and to Pennsylvania, to be done by Mexicans, probably illegals), I would probably be working there yet. Still, I don’t miss the place, though I miss the paychecks. I really don’t miss the union, either, but I’m very thankful it was there. © 2016


Fredd said...

I, too, was a union guy in my youth (Teamsters). My wages were double what my non-union buddies got. I never had a problem with the Teamsters until I opened by first paycheck and saw how much they grabbed from my take home.

Then I started asking questions, and got way too many answers I didn't like.

My Teamster days were short lived.

Gorges Smythe said...

All unions are corrupt, as are most companies, but the Teamsters are reputed to be worse than average. I can't blame you for getting out.

Chickenmom said...

Back then if you wanted to keep working, you had to belong to the union. Now people are lucky to find any sort of job. Manufacturing is gone.

Gorges Smythe said...

You're right, Cm, first to China, now to India.

Joy said...

Your account was interesting and eye-opening. Thanks for telling it.

Gorges Smythe said...

You're welcome, Joy; I'm glad that you found it interesting.