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.