by Chris Watson
The term “Union” stirs deep and often divisive emotions. For some, labor unions represent the standard for upholding working conditions to avoid those that are dangerous and inhuman. For others unions represent a problem for manufacturing in America and the reason so much trade is moving outside our borders. Here in Toledo, organized labor is at the very center of our culture, a vital artery, carrying lifeblood to the heart of our city.
Bringing “Lite” to a Movement
Thanks to the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933, wide spread organizing of labor forces began across the country. That act spurned on one of the most important strikes in the labor movement, the Auto-Lite strike of 1934, involving over 7000 workers and the National Guard and leaving two dead with over 200 injured. That strike marks one of the pivotal moments for our area, and across the country, in the labor organizing movement. Like most early strikes and conflicts, it came down to union recognition and the struggle for fair wages for workers.
“I joined the Teamsters originally for pay,” says Bill Lichtenwald, President of Teamsters Local 20 and President of the Ohio Conference of Teamsters. “That was 43 years ago. Back then the trucking company I worked for had no benefits, low pay and didn’t recognize simple overtime. The job I found, with work conditions that were negotiated by the Teamsters, changed all of that.”
Ray Wood, President of UAW (United Auto Workers) Local 14 agrees. “Many people only view the union through the lens of competitive wages. There is no question that basic wages and benefits are part of our union mission. However, at its core union organizing is about respect and dignity in the workplace. When you have that you want to come to work, work hard, and help create success for yourself and your employer.”
Wages might have been the prime mover, but organizing in general was the prime cause. Many manufacturers recognized craft unionism (masonry, pipe fitting, electrician, etc) but were resistant to recognizing and sternly against dealing with industrial unionism. The Auto-lite clash, now memorialized at Union Memorial Park on Elm Street near Champlain, firmly established the right for all workers in our area, as well as across the nation, to organize and negotiate their working package.
Pay is Just a Result
“The union gave me the chance to learn how to run the equipment I wanted to work on,” says Jody Storer, 44 year member of the International Union of Operating Engineers. “I apprenticed as an universal operator to run dirt moving equipment, dozers, scrapers, and tractor backhoes. In 1975 I became a journeyman, got an associate degree in Operating Engineering Technology with union support, and later began a crane operator.”
Storer’s story is not unusual. Unions, although certainly concerned about compensation, are also heavily involved in the training of our area work force. Many members join for the training benefits, rather than simply for a wage guarantee. “I wanted to be part of the construction field,” says Shaun Enright, Executive Secretary and Business Manager of the Northwest Ohio Building Trade Council. “After college I applied for an apprenticeship program and got in.”
Training is at the very heart of most unions menu of benefits. “We are always staying ahead of technology,” claims Enright. “This is important for our members and for our customers. For every hour we work we put a defined amount back into our training school. This allows us to pay for training programs, teachers and learning equipment to keep our members up to date and competitive.”
Storer is in full agreement about training. “This month I am taking two full day classes to update my OSHA certification. I have five different crane certifications. The training is offered via the union so I can take the nationalized certification tests.”
Benefits and Job Creation
“There is a myth that unions drive jobs away,” say Lichtenwald. “That just isn’t true. It is a fact that union workers make more, have reliable and steady benefits, and are offered more training and opportunity than their non organized counterparts. Because of this, union workers have a higher degree of loyalty, perform at a higher level, and stay with the same companies and in the same trades. Employers value that dedication and experience.”
“Low wage jobs will always be around,” states Wood. “It doesn’t matter where those jobs are. Our mission as a labor organization is to be a good faith partner with our manufacturing companies to create and preserve skilled jobs. Those are the kind of jobs that strengthen our middle class and enhance both our economy and society.”
There is no question that legislation, trade agreements, and deregulation have cost the union movement in membership. Lichtenwald continues, “Trucking deregulation alone cost the Teamsters 600,000 members over the years. Legislation is definitely one of our biggest challenges. Unions haven’t driven jobs away. Countries that allow labor to be cheap, unsafe, and even unregulated (in areas like child labor) will always be an issue. Unions don’t drive jobs to those places. Companies choose to move to them.”
Enright offers a different take on job creation. “If you want to build something, an office, a factory, a hotel, you want to build the best building you can. It just makes economic sense. By supplying a trained, skilled, safe, and up to date workforce this attracts businesses who want to build new facilities and businesses. They can build here with confidence.”
Besides job creation union benefits are also forward thinking. Says Storer, “The union was thinking about my retirement 30 years before I was. When I was young I didn’t think about that. All I thought about was pay and opportunity. Now that I am in retirement I feel blessed that I have excellent health benefits and a reasonable retirement through the union.”
Family and Community Affair
Union families are prevalent throughout our area. Most union members are still very proud of their family connection. “My father was an electrician with Norfolk Southern and also Interlake Steel,” states Enright. “I had other family members who were union members as well.”
Storer’s story is even more dramatic. “My grandfather, Al Storer, started a general contracting business right after WWII which developed into a masonry contractor in the 1960’s. His company SA Storer and Sons, was the first contractor in the City of Toledo to take on an apprentice bricklayer. That man went on to become a journeyman.”
Unions have helped build our community as well. Storer continues, “I have done nine different projects at the University of Toledo, including helping to install the original astroturf in the Glass Bowl. One of my most recent projects was building the parking garage at the casino.”
Enright agrees. “Look at the I-280 bridge. An amazing, even iconic, landmark here in our community. Something that ambitious can only be done with a highly skilled, well compensated workforce.”
The Next Generation
It is difficult to see where unions are going. Many businesses and even government entities are looking to circumvent union labor. “I see it in smaller venues and commercial building all the time,” remarks Storer. “I grew up in a masonry family. I can tell when a non journeyman has done the brick work. I am not saying that only union members are highly skilled, trained, or dedicated. However, in my opinion, the likelihood of getting those kind of workers is much better via unions.”
Lichtenwald of the Teamsters agrees. “Even with the membership losses of the last few years I remain very positive about unions. Many younger workers are starting to see the value of labor organizations that, frankly, my generation has taken for granted. We even see fast food workers trying to band together in areas of the country to negotiate higher wages. They don’t know it but they are organizing, just like our parents and grandparents did. The newest members of the work force are getting interested in the advantages behind organizing.”
Unions do, in fact, have support. It has only been 4 years since Ohio voters overturned a significant and restrictive anti-union bill. The referendum to overturn the restrictions, which passed with 61% of the vote, drew considerable interest, commentary, and political money. The people of our state overwhelmingly rejected curtailing union rights.
That voter enthusiasm does not, however, translate to union membership. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics union membership for both wage and salary workers in ohio is 11.1 percent. It can be a source of contention with longstanding union members. “There are those who want the benefits, wages, and training offered by the union without actually supporting unions financially,” says Storer. “I admit that I find that troubling.”
Wood sees things a bit differently. “Our younger workers are starting to be drawn to our organization. First, they see that we want to promote a positive and safe work environment. Secondly they are seeing the value, both for themselves and their families, of collective bargaining. That working as an unified labor force enables us to negotiate reasonable and rational pay and benefits.”
Many in unions see a brighter and broader future. “I think you will see a steady increase of union organization over the next couple of decades,” says Enright. “People need jobs and people want to work. Unions offer a way to secure a good job, good training, and ultimately, a good career.”
Lichtenwald is in complete agreement. “Many younger workers are starting to say, ‘it is my turn.’ They are getting interested in the power of union membership.”