Originally published in
August 17, 2000
August 17, 2000
So you want a union! You are going to have to work for it. Yeah! I know that’s a bit redundant. What I mean is that you are going to have to spend time beyond what you spend on the job.
First, you are going to have to convince a small number of your co-workers that a union is in their best interests and convince them to work hard to have a union.
Last, you are going to have to convince a majority of your co-workers that a union is in their best interests.
In between there will be many, many months of hard work passing out information, attending meetings, and talking one-on-one with your co-workers. The antagonism of your employer towards a union will be only one of your problems.
As a school bus and transit driver I was involved in two organizing efforts with three unions. Yes, three unions for two efforts, more later.
A year or so before I started with Medicine Lake Lines in Golden Valley, the Amalgamated Transit Union lost a certification vote by a few dozen votes.
Labor laws require a minimum of two years between certification elections. In 1996 a group of drivers approached the United Steelworkers for help in forming a union. When I learned of the effort, I was lukewarm partly because I didn’t see how the Steelworkers could represent bus drivers.
I attended one organizing meeting and asked lots of questions. Meanwhile the company went on the offensive with a series of “mandatory” meetings (with pay) in which they presented their case. I asked lots of questions.
Some activist employees started an inflammatory newsletter. I counseled that it would turn more drivers off than it would gain. At one of the mandatory meetings, two of the editors harassed management instead of presenting reasoned arguments against management points. Many, many drivers were embarrassed by their tactics.
Unfortunately, the Steelworkers lost the election, and I never heard from them again. Maybe the more active did, but they didn’t relay that to me.
Moving forward two years, Ryder Student Transportation Services had bought Medicine Lake Lines, and instead of 400 drivers to organize, there were now 1500. Those activists who still were around and not burned out approached the Teamsters.
At the first meeting at Teamster headquarters that I attended, the organizer in charge said she would make an agenda and stick to it. She never did. A great part of the meeting was spent with Harold Yates, the President of the Joint Council, interrupting with tales of his connections and how much he would use them for us. Some drivers became less enthusiastic about the Teamsters.
The next time I attended a meeting, only three of us went. We found out that the meeting had been cancelled and that the Teamsters were putting a hold on their activities on our behalf. I suggested that they at least send out a letter to those on their mailing list. Several weeks later they did. I never heard from them again.
One activist driver who now drove for a school district encouraged some of the remaining activists to contact his union, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
The first meeting that I attended was at the home of Dutch Fischer, an organizer. Present were two other organizers and four drivers, including the driver who had left. Over the weeks, the number dwindled until it was often just Dutch and I. The SEIU had another organizing effort going and wasn’t too happy about stretching their resources. However, between my continually meeting with Dutch and Dutch spending many days a week talking one-on-one with Ryder drivers, the SEIU decided to go ahead with a full organizing effort.
The SEIU brought in additional organizers to help. The organizer in charge had already worked on several successful campaigns; she was sure that this one would be successful too. Her enthusiasm alone should have made it successful.
Management of course began its counterattack. The meetings weren’t mandatory and weren’t very well attended. Our terminal manager sounded so reasonable but his arguments were laughable.
Ryder put up posters that if the union did not win they would have a drawing to send one or two families on a vacation trip. Although they backed off on the condition, the damage was done. The SEIU filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board. It is still in abitration.
But I don’t think that is the real reason the union lost. Many drivers really believe that a union will help improve pay and other working conditions. But many other drivers think that all a union will do is take their dues money. I heard that argument from drivers who had been in other unions for decades. I heard that argument from drivers who had little respect for management.
The last time that I heard from Dutch he was still keeping in touch with some of the drivers. But many of the really active have moved on to other jobs. Many new drivers have started who have no memory of the past campaigns.
Will the arbitration get through an understaffed bureaucracy in the union’s favor soon? Will the SEIU make another organizing effort in 2001? I don’t really know. I don’t care except sentimentally. I have moved from the Twin Cities and moved on to other interests. Like many other workers in many other occupations that could be unionized.
How will unions succeed? When a majority of employees really believe that a union will be in their best interests. For that to happen a significant minority of employees must be willing to show up at meetings, willing to write the newsletters and pass them out, willing to talk and talk to their co-workers. For that to happen the large unions have to support those whom they would represent year after year, not just when success seems likely.
©2000, 2006, 2007 Melvyn D. Magree