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More about union contracts.  Seniority is an important concept.  There has to be a standard system to consistently treat employees.  I think seniority is the best system.  The longer a person has worked for a company, the more rights he has earned.  This means when a job opening becomes available anyone in the union can bid on it , but the job is awarded to the most senior employee who bid.  To prevent a person from hopping from job to job, a time limit can be placed on if you are awarded a new job how soon you can bid on another.  The standard was 6 months.  If you are awarded a job and discover you don’t like it, you can’t be considered for another opening until after 6 months.  That seems reasonable.  It takes time to learn a new skill, and while you are learning you are not very productive.

Seniority also determines which shift you work on.  Most people prefer first shift.  So the first shift positions go to the most senior employees.  When a person on first shift quits, is fired, or retires, then the most senior employee in the same department can transfer from second or third to take his place on first.  Then a new employee can be hired to take the place of the one who just transferred.  That way a new employee is not hired onto first shift while a senior employee wanting first shift is stuck on second or third.  The exception to this is for training.  A new employee can be hired onto first shift to be trained.  After the training is completed, he goes to whatever shift needed, while the senior employee wanting first shift takes his place.  Also, a senior employee may want to work on second or third shift for whatever reason.  Maybe his wife works on second shift, so he works second shift so they can spend their time off from work together.  Suppose his wife gets on first shift.  Now he wants first, also.  If he has more seniority than another employee in his department, he should be allowed to bump that employee and take his place on first.  To be fair to the employee being bumped, because he has built his life and schedule around being on first shift, the bumping can’t happen arbitrarily.  In our contract we had a Sadie Hawkins Day.  Once a year any employee with enough seniority could displace another employee in his department for the shift he desired, which was usually first.  That way the senior employee could exercise his seniority rights, while the less senior employee knew he was secure on his shift except for that one day.

Seniority also determined who was laid off when work slowed down.  Lay-offs went strictly by seniority by department.  Not much argument about that.  On the other end, the most-senior employees were called back first when they were needed as work picked back up.  Here is where there are difficulties.  We retain call-back rights for 1 year.  Anytime during that first year of being laid-off, the company must call back employees by seniority.  But after a year, a laid-off employee is considered dismissed.  That means if you are called back to work, it is as a new hire; you lose all of the seniority you had built up and start anew.  Say there was an employee the company didn’t like, for whatever reason, say he missed a lot, had a lousy attitude, did shoddy work, whatever.  They don’t want him back.  But there is a laid-off employee with less seniority they do want back.  They can’t bring him back without bringing back the guy they don’t want.  And the demand for his work is urgent, or they wouldn’t consider calling him back.  Also, if he is such a good worker it’s likely someone else will hire him in the year he must wait for the lousy worker to lose his seniority rights.  So he might not come back if he likes his new job better.  What to do?

The company has found a way around this by stressing ‘skill and ability’ in the contract.  Later contracts have stated that seniority rights prevail as long as all other considerations are equal.  And the ‘all other considerations’ are skill and ability.  If the company can show through work and attendance records that the less senior employee is a much better worker than the one with more seniority, then the company can call back the less senior employee first.  This is tricky.  As long as the company uses this option sparingly, and as long as the union agrees there is a glaring disparency between the two workers, its doable.  The worker the company doesn’t want still has call-back rights for a year.  The company can’t hire a new employee for his department without calling him back first.  It’s just by using ‘skill and ability’ the company can keep its best employees.  The best solution is not to lay anybody off and fire the bad workers.  But firing someone is not so easily done nowadays.

I’ll continue discussing the contract in the next post.

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I’ve mentioned contracts a lot, without explaining much about them.  I’ve dealt with labor contracts most of my life, so I forget most people never encounter them.  The first issue is recognition.  The company recognizes the union and agrees to deduct dues from the employees’ paychecks.  The union agrees provisions not covered in the contract or Federal labor laws is to be set by the company.  In other words, as long as the company abides by the contract and by law, it is allowed to set any rules it deems necessary.  An example would be the company rule that anyone caught steeling will be dismissed.  The penalty for theft of company property is not covered in the contract or set by Federal labor law, so this is a company rule.

Wages, of course, are set by the contract.  Medical benefits are defined, also.  When I first started all of my medical expenses were covered.  That was very good.  But as medical expenses have gone up, the employees’ have paid more and more of their own expenses, and what is covered has been more and more restricted, and which doctors and hospitals we can use has also been more and more restricted.  There seems no end to this spiral.  When Obomacare first started, there was fear all medical coverage obtained through employers would be dropped.  That hasn’t happened because companies still need to attract quality employees, and one way of doing that is by offering good medical coverage.  Now medical coverage was different than other items in the contract.  Everything was set in stone three years at a time with each contract – except our contributions for our medical insurance.  The company had no way of knowing how much the cost of medical insurance was likely to go up each year, so although the coverage couldn’t be changed during the life of the contract, how much the employees had to contribute for that coverage could.  So every January 1st we learned how much more we were going to have to pay for our medical insurance.  You never heard such moaning and groaning, as if it was the company’s fault hospitals were charging $500 for a visit to the emergency room.  So we have gotten less and less medical coverage for more and more money.  Fact of life.

Vacations and holidays are set in each contract.  With Brighton the employees who had worked there the longest were elligeable for 6 weeks vacation – I’m not sure what the required years were, I think it was 25.  Trinity did away with this.  The most vacation you could have were 4 weeks.  Holidays have basically remained the same:  Good Friday, Memorial Day, 4th of July, Labor Day, two days off for Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Day, New Years Eve and Day.  There have been some additions and subtractions.  We had President’s Day off for a while.  We also have our birthdays off with Enerfab.

We have strict rules concerning overtime.  The company can assign overtime as needed.  That is agreed upon in the contract.  But the company has abided by self-imposed rules.  It won’t schedule more than 12 hours a day.  And it won’t schedule work on Sunday.  Or on holiday weekends.  That doesn’t mean it won’t ask for more overtime.  But if anyone works more than 12 hours a day or on Sunday, it is strictly voluntary.  The scheduling of overtime probably has caused more problems than anything else in the contract.  Some people will work as much as possible.  So arguments spring up on who is scheduled or asked for overtime and who is not.  I don’t even understand all the rules about this.  But basically, if you are performing a task during the week that needs to also be done on Saturday and Sunday, then you must be the person scheduled for Saturday and the first person asked to volunteer for Sunday.  Everyone agrees that is fair.  But in practice it gets thorny.  What if the machine an operator is brought in to operate on overtime breaks down?  Does the company send him home?  Not fair to the employee.  Does the company assign him busy-work that it doesn’t really need done, such as sweeping the floor, and pay him time and a half, or double-time for Sundays.  Not fair to the company.  The logical solution would be to assign him to another task that needs to be done, only the need wasn’t so dire as to require overtime.  That way the employee gets to work the hours he was expecting and had planned for, while the company gets something worthwhile done for their overtime expense.  But what of the employee who had performed that job all week and was not scheduled or asked to work overtime?  Is it fair to him?  That’s just a hint of all the complications that can arise from the assignment of overtime.  Money is life, and life should be fair.

Discussing contracts has become more involved than I thought, so I’ll continue on another post.

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The workers at Brighton had mixed feelings about the union.  The older workers who were here at the local’s inception, who remembered how the plant had been like before the union, who knew how difficult it had been to get recognized by the Hocks, and who had endured the first two strikes were solidly behind the union.  But that time was fading into the distant past.  More and more of them were quitting or retiring, and the ones hired since that time had no knowledge of how bad it could be without a union.  Many of the younger employees only saw how high their union dues were, and that our local seemed feeble against a large company like Trinity.  So a tension was building between the older employees and the younger.  At first the older held sway, they impressed on the younger ones how bad the work environment had been before the union.  But as the years went by there were fewer and fewer of them, and more and more young men.

Also, union dues were going up.  The reason was that more and more locals were closing down.  This was the 80’s and 90’s, when so much manufacturing was moved off-shore.  To make up the loss in revenue, the International Steelworkers increased the dues of the remaining locals.  At the same time, the International cut back on services.  The biggest evidence of this were the International reps.  The International reduced their number, giving them more locals to take care of.  Which meant less time for them to devote to each.  Also, their quality went down.  This was when the alcoholic was assigned to our local, and he was terrible.  He rarely showed up at our union meetings or at our grievance meetings with the company, and when he did he often was drunk.  And he was terrible at negotiations with the company at contract time.

Another problem was our ineffectiveness in dealing with Trinity.  As I said, when a contract was up their lawyers merely told us what they were willing to offer and left it up to us to accept of reject it.  Their argument was there was a finite pile of money.  How it was split up could be negotiated.  Whether we wanted the money in wages, or retirement benefits, or medical benefits.  Before negotiations began the union took a strike vote.  This authorized the negotiating committee to call a strike if negotiations stalled.  The local always received this authorization from the members, until late in the 90’s.  By then there was so much distrust of the union that it was difficult even to win that vote.

Another problem was the social discord that developed during this time.  The best example of this is the ongoing abortion wars.  The Steelworkers Union has always contributed to and campaigned for the Democrats.  This was because the Democrats have historically supported the labor movement.  But the Democrats supported abortion rights and other social issues conservatives were against.  And most of the people I’ve worked with have been conservative.  They objected, some strenuously, against their union dues  being used to promote social issues they were vehemently opposed to.  It’s a valid concern.  I don’t know the answer.  But passing laws allowing workers to opt out of having their union dues deducted from their paychecks isn’t the answer.  These badly-misnamed ‘right to work’ laws would be the end of unions.  Why would anybody choose to pay union dues, while others got a free ride, enjoying all the benefits and protections a union provided without having to pay for it?  Like I said, I don’t know the answer to the problem, but this definitely isn’t it.

I’ve heard it said the unions are a victim of their own success.  Much of what unions have fought so hard to gain has been adopted by the Federal government and codified into labor laws.  Many of the things unions fought hard to achieve, such as a forty-hour work week and time and a half overtime pay for anything over that, is now taken for granted by most employees in non-union industries.  So many of these young people decry and mock the union movement while enjoying their hard-won benefits.

I realize unions are in decline, perhaps fatally.  Many of the young workers at Brighton don’t appreciate what the unions have done and are continuing to do.  Even though I was hired after the struggle to organize the shop at Brighton, I have always supported the unions.  The three years I worked in a non-union shop like Deerfield Mfg. was enough to convince me unions were a blessing.  For example, there were no seniority rights at all at Deerfield.  Whatever shift you were hired onto, that’s where you stayed.  So I fully realize what a great thing it is to work in a union shop.

 

 

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I had a brief career as a committeeman.  Harry S. asked me to take over his position.  He resigned in order to prepare for becoming president.  And he wanted me to be a committeeman once he became president.  But I didn’t last long.  You hear a lot of griping as a committeeman.  Everybody brings every little problem to you.  On top of that, I was hearing complaints from people about their union dues not being deducted correctly.  When Trinity first took over a lot of mistakes were made on paychecks.  Nothing malicious on Trinity’s part, just simple bookkeeping errors.  If people were paid too much, you never heard about that.  But if people were paid too little, they howled.  It took about half a year to work all the problems out.  In the meantime, when there was a problem with their wages, they came to me since I was a committeeman.  If there was a problem with their union dues being deducted, they came to me since I was financial secretary.  I burned out quickly.

Every problem had to be written up as a grievance.  This was a legal document that had to be correctly processed, or it could be discarded on a technicality.  Imagine the fury if a person had a legitimate grievance which was thrown out because I didn’t cross a ‘t’.  I had no training at this, I learned on the job.  Once a month a grievance meeting was held with management.  The president and committeemen (there were usually two) were present on the union side, occasionally joined by our regional rep (more about him later).  On the company side were the plant manager, the assistant plant manager, the personnel manager, and whatever foreman was involved.  We presented the written grievances to the management.  They could either agree to take action, reject it and do nothing, or take it under consideration.  There was a time frame for resolving the ones they took under consideration, but I forget what it was.  The point is, they couldn’t postpone a decision on a grievance forever.  If we couldn’t resolve the problem ourselves, it went to arbitration.  This hardly ever happened.  It was expensive and time-consuming and unpredictable.  The company and the union shared the cost of the proceedings fifty-fifty.  The union nominated several arbitrators who had a history of ruling in favor of labor, the company nominated several who they preferred, and the list was whittled down until the two sides could agree on one.  Then whatever the arbitrator decided about the grievance was law, it couldn’t be appealed, it was settled.  This was a long drawn-out expensive process, so it didn’t happen very often.  On some simple grievances the company gave in right away.  These usually involved little money, or would set no bothersome precedent, or was merely an admission they had made a simple mistake and wanted to rectify it.  Most of the time the company rejected the grievance, and if we didn’t think it had a chance to win in arbitration, which was most of the time, we accepted their decision and dropped the grievance.  That really pissed people off, telling them they didn’t have a valid grievance and we had decided to drop it.

But this was the fourth step of the grievance process, so I’ll back up.  I mentioned the first one, the worker presenting his grievance to a committeeman, the committeeman writing it up, and both he and the grievant signing it once the grievant had read it and agreed it correctly stated the problem.  The committeeman then submitted a copy of the grievance to the office.  The second step was a face to face meeting between the grievant, accompanied by a committeeman, and someone from management, usually the plant supervisor.  The third step took place at the monthly union meeting where the committeeman and the union officers would discuss the grievances between ourselves and decide which ones were valid and should be continued.  The grievant, if he wished, could attend these meetings, as any union member could attend any union meeting, and plead his case.  That happened occasionally.  Much more common was someone coming to a union meeting after his grievance had been dropped and yelling at us.  Sometimes they threatened to file unfair labor practices against us.

This never happened.  Because we had a rep from the Southwest Ohio Region of the International Steelworkers who advised us.  There was one regional rep who advised all the locals in Southwest Ohio.  Sometimes he would sit in on our grievance meetings with the company, and sometimes he would sit in at our monthly union meetings.  He helped us decide what to do with the grievances, which ones we should proceed with and which ones we should drop.  Also, these reps would help us negotiate our contract.  We had several different reps while I was financial secretary.  Some of them were good, some of them were lousy.  This one was an alcoholic the company laughed at.  Most of the time the rep wanted to drop all the grievances.  We had to fight with them to proceed on any.

I can’t remember winning any arbitration decisions.  Very few went that far.  The ones that looked like we had a chance to win, the company would fight all the way to arbitration, then settle just before we went to court.  Even so, this cumbersome system worked well.  The threat of losing at arbitration forced the company to take our complaints seriously.  And having a system to air our complaints kept the employees, if not happy and satisfied, at least placid.  I remember my father talking about the union he was in.  If there was some unsettled grievance in the plant the committeeman would call a wildcat strike and shut down production and make everyone go home.  I could not do that.  We had a more rational way to handle grievances.

The last straw came in February of 1988, when I was forced off first shift.  There were too many flanger operators on first and too few on second and third, and I was the least senior operator.  To balance the number out I had to go onto one of the other shifts.  I must have been better at being a committeeman than I thought, if I irritated Geoff L. so badly he wanted to be rid of me.  I chose third shift, since that way I could be at home with my boys in the evening from after they got home from school until they went to bed.  But I lost track of what was going on in the plant.  Also, I still had to attend the grievance meetings with the company, which took place during my usual sleep time.  I held on until August of 1988, when I resigned as committeeman and was replaced by Joe D.  But I continued on as financial secretary until February of 1994.

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I took over as financial secretary of our local as soon as the new contract with Trinity was signed.  Harry S. asked me to take the position.  All of the old regime was out, except for Tom B., the vice-president who became president when Ollie B. resigned, and Dave C., the treasurer.  Harry was planning to run for president in the next election, and was assured to get it, so he wanted his own people in.  Why he wanted me is a good question.  He was the first shift inspector then, and knew me from turning down my heads.  I guess he trusted me.

I had to balance the local’s books.  It wasn’t too difficult.  I had taken a bookkeeping course in high school, and that pretty much covered what I had to do.  The company deducted monthly union dues from the employees and deposited them directly into a bank account.  We disbursed the funds for reasons such as arbitration fees (that went to the judge) and reimbursed expenses for the officers.  If an officer had to miss work because of union business, his wages were paid by the local.  As financial secretary that only happened to me once a year.  I’ll get to that in a minute.  The president went to Steelworkers conventions, which usually took place in Las Vegas, for some reason.  Las Vegas isn’t much of a steel town; you’d think they’d hold them in Pittsburgh or Gary, Indiana.  Also, committeemen were sent for training, to become better committeemen.  So that was the kind of things the local spent its money on.

Dave C. wrote out the checks.  That was the treasurer’s prime responsibility.  And getting the bank statement.  Each check had to be signed by him, me, and the president.  Three signatures had to be on every check issued.  It was a safeguard against fraud.  Dave and I worked together.  He kept a ledger of money coming into and going out of our account.  I kept a detailed record of all our expenses, which included receipts for everything.  Every month at the union meeting we’d compare ledgers.  They always agreed.  Dave told me I was the best financial secretary he’d ever worked with.

Now about that one time a year I missed work on union business.  Once a year I and Dave and the president went to a day-long meeting with auditors hired by the International union to go over the books of the locals.  Our local made estimated tax deposits quarterly, and once a year we filed a return.  Before we did this our books had to be right.  In theory, the auditors went over our numbers with calculators to make sure everything balanced.  The president usually spent the day at the bar – we met in a conference room of a restaurant or hotel.  Dave just sat there watching.  It was my ledger that had to be right, so I was the one involved with the auditor.  They were amazing.  Rarely did everything come out right.  I had entered a number in the wrong place, I had made a math mistake, yada yada yada.  The numbers hardly ever came out to their satisfaction.  They’d whip their pencils out and attack my ledger.  “Let’s enter this here, move this number over here, make this number that.”  You get the idea.  Their pencils were a blur as they erased and scribbled.  But in short order they were satisfied.  I and Dave and the president and the auditor signed off on it, then we ate dinner.  I did this seven times.  I was financial secretary from April of 1987 to February of 1994, and it never got easier.  I don’t care who the auditor was, they always found mistakes in my bookkeeping.  But at least I tried.  I remember one time this one financial secretary from another local came in and dropped his ledger down before the auditor and said, “What do I do?”  He had not touched his ledger all year.  It was blank.  I thought the auditor was going to cry.  But he got busy with the guy.  That day after we had finished our books and had eaten dinner and were getting ready to leave, that poor auditor and that financial secretary were still going at it.