Monday, September 01, 2014

So you want a union (Part I)

Originally published in the
Northland Reader
now the
August 3, 2000

Peter Kellman (“Freedom of Association”, Northland Reader, July 6) makes several good points about the antagonism of many businesses towards unions and their often extraordinary efforts to block unions.  However, as with many issues, the decline of unions is the result of more than the antagonism of a single group.

I have been involved with unions at two points in my life: once as a supermarket employee while I was in high school and college, and a second time as a bus driver with private companies.

I joined the grocery chain Kroger’s in Cleveland, Ohio as a stock clerk and bagger in the mid-1950s while I was a junior in high school.  I started at $1.05 per hour working two evenings a week and Saturdays.  I also joined the Retail Clerks Union which was a condition of employment.

In many ways it was a great job.  In general everyone worked together to make the store a success.  The manager did his best to give every one a fair shake and a chance for advancement.  Everyone had regular hours week after week; none of this shifting schedules every week.  A regular schedule was also a bit easier to do because the store hours were limited; nine to six Monday through Friday, eight to six on Saturdays, and closed on Sundays.  Probably a quarter of the employees were full-time.

In about four years time I was making $1.75 an hour through a mix of seniority and a new union contract.  The last regular assignment that I remember is coming in at 6:30 to help stock the bread shelves and then relieving cashiers for the rest of the day, leaving with a broad grin at 3:30.

I don’t remember much about union activities.  I think I only attended one union meeting and didn’t find it very interesting.  I remember our excitement when the union’s contract proposal was released.  Some thought that we would get everything in the proposal, not realizing that it was only a negotiating position.  The union did however negotiate many improvements.

When I flunked out of Case Institute of Technology, I asked for full time work at Kroger’s.  Unfortunately, no full-time positions were available at that time.  I spent a few weeks looking for work, finally finding a job at a new supermarket being built by Pick’N’Pay, a local chain.

It was just about the opposite in employee relations that I had experienced in Kroger’s.  Other than Saturday’s, the work schedule was unpredictable, based more on when the trucks came on than anything else.  Even though I was nominally “third man”, the manager made sure that I stayed “part-time” by assigning me less than 35 hours per week of work.  Also, even though employees were required to be members of the Retail Clerks Union, Pick’N’Pay paid me less than I had been getting at Kroger’s.  Complaining to the manager did no good.

Whether it was deliberate or not, the store was designed to divide and conquer.  Like most supermarkets, the meat department was in its own section.  But, the produce and the grocery departments each occupied sections of the back room with little traffic between them.  With little traffic between them, there was little reason for employees of either section to get to know each other.  And produce was where the union steward worked.

Not knowing the union steward well, I turned to a former produce manager at Kroger’s whom I did know well and who was now a union business agent.  Although Pick’N’Pay was not in his jurisdiction, he saw to it that I received the correct pay rate and accrued back pay.

I left Pick’N’Pay in September to go to Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio.  I applied for a job at the local Kroger’s and was accepted.  I worked Saturdays and a couple evenings a week as a stock clerk.  Again, I was paid less than I had been getting.

I spoke about this with the manager and he said he would look into it.  Nothing happened.  This time I knew the union steward and spoke to him about the pay rate.  He said he would look into it.  Nothing happened.  Finally, I called the union office in Columbus.  A business agent said that he couldn’t help me; it had been thirty days and they had nothing in writing.  I didn’t go back to Kroger’s the next school year.

The existence of a union does not guarantee good working environment.  A minimally functional union can negotiate wages, benefits, and working conditions.  But without strong leadership that involves itself with the union membership, the union is no more than a negotiating team.

To be really strong and work well for its members, a union must be just that: a union of its members working together.  If the members are not involved in their union, then the union becomes another “outside force” like management.  If the members are not involved in their union, then the employees’ interest are of concern only when they match the interests of company or union management.

In the next issue, I’ll draw on my experiences as a bus driver to examine some of the reasons employees don’t always vote in unions.  It isn’t just management antagonism.

©2000, 2006, 2007 Melvyn D. Magree