In late October of 1973, when my probation was completed, I joined the United Steelworkers.
I attended the next union meeting to be sworn in. These monthly meetings were held in an Odd Fellows hall, in a large open room on the second floor that smelled of airless age. High-ceiling echoes off creaky hardwood floors, and low long windows with glass so old and wavy it would make you sea-sick if you looked at it too long. An array of flags at ease, while many framed proclamations adorned the wide pale walls. Several solid desks with heavy wooden chairs at the front of the room faced row upon row of empty folding chairs. The only people present were the officers – president, vice-president, financial secretary, treasurer, recording secretary, and committeemen – and several of us new employees. No one else ever came to the union meetings except at contract time. So I recited the oath, the other official business was quickly taken care of, then we adjourned.
To Al’s, an old-fashioned neighborhood bar across the street. Smoky and loud, with a jukebox and pool table and a sizzling grill. One small TV behind the bar, no paper coasters, and overflowing ashtrays scattered everywhere. The important union business was discussed over beers (no crafty creative indie stuff, just whatever was on tap). The union president at that time was Ollie B., a big balding bear of a man who could yell louder than most everybody else. Our local was 7629. There was a union rep from the southwest Ohio district office who helped us negotiate contracts. He also advised us on our grievances. A grievance is a written complaint filed by a union member against the company. The union president and committeemen attended monthly meetings in the company’s office to discuss them with the management people involved with the disputes. If the problem couldn’t be resolved, then it went to arbitration. But that rarely happened. It was expensive, and you never knew how the judge was going to decide. So most grievances were settled amicably at these meetings.
This was a new local. It had only been in existence for 3 years prior to my employment. The shop had tried to organize in 1969, but the company had threatened and cajoled everyone so much it was voted down. The following year the Steelworker organizers tried again, and union was voted in. The company refused to negotiate, so a strike was on. Some of the employees crossed the picket line and continued working. But not many. After 3 months the company gave in and recognized the union, and a contract was quickly negotiated. The scabs (what they are called) who had continued working were so badly ostracized by everyone else they all quit. Ostracized was probably the least of it. I wasn’t here at the time, but I heard some good stories. Acid splashed on cars, tires slashed, you know, the usual stuff that happens to scabs in a union shop. It was a 3 year contract, so it came up for renewal in February of 1973. Which resulted in another strike. This one lasted 2 months. And there were no scabs this time. The new contract was signed in April, and I was hired in July.
So now I could start paying union dues. I paid them gladly. I had worked at a non-union shop for 3 years, and appreciated that the work environment here was much better. There were rules the company had to go by, the language of the contract, so nothing was arbitrary. Much is made lately about ‘workplace freedom’ laws. What a joke. The freedom they are proclaiming is the freedom of companies to break unions. I can’t imagine what kind of work environment it would be if half the shop supported the union by paying dues and enforcing the contract, while the other half got a free ride. I’m sure it would be a toxic environment. I hope it never comes to that in Ohio.