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Friday, July 1, 2011

Wisconsin enacts its Declaration of Dependence

As we near our 235th Fourth of July, the nation's de facto birthday,  it is the end of an era.  As of Wednesday the labor unions representing people who work for the State of Wisconsin will no longer have collective bargaining power.  Those workers no longer have rights in the workplace.  The workers join that horde of individuals whose status reverts to that of serfs when they walk through their workplace door.  They are now dependent on the whims of their bosses regarding their well-being and their treatment as serfs.

I have a long history with labor unions, from disdain to becoming the state president of one.  I grew up in a factory town and many of us children had a disdain for labor unions.  The basic disdain was  not actually connected to labor unions.  It was a disdain for the labor involved in factories.  The overwhelming motivation that drove my schoolmates was not to be a factory worker as many of their fathers were.

Their main goal in life was not to get trapped in a life of drudged, repetitive, mind-suffocating piece work on a factory line like their fathers.  Or to reach middle age in a state of exhaustion, humiliation, and poor health.  In my lifetime, the life of  factory workers has changed from that of expendable drudges, about whom John Deere said they needed only a lunch bucket and change of clothes, to respected people who would be regarded in full personhood in a democratic society.  Labor unions are what transformed those lives.  And also the workplaces in which they  lived and expended their efforts eight hours a day.  

I worked in factories many summers as I worked through college,  on the production lines and in offices.  However, in Illinois, a closed-shop state, summer employees were not required to become union members, unless they worked more than 90 days.  When I was released from active duty in the Army, I went right to work for International Harvester Company, and worked there for about four years while I completed my undergraduate degree.  After 90 days, my union membership became automatic.

I was not active in union business, but I got pulled into it as a member of a hearing panel.  Most of the men in the department I worked in, Materials Control, were former company executives.  When the plant production shifted from the manufacture of war materiel to peacetime production, the men were laid off.  The company did not need as many executives when it shifted from making war machines back to making agricultural machines.  It summarily dumped the executives, but did provide them the option of applying for lesser jobs in the bargaining unit.  It was a difficult time for these men.  As soldiers were being discharged and came back home, they were given hiring preferences over those who had not  served in the military.  However, as peacetime production began to ramp up, the company found that it needed experienced hands in its offices as production forecasters, material schedulers, and purchasing agents.  Over time, men and women who had been let go were hired back to facilitate and trouble-shoot the managing of materials.  The returning service men, as it turned out, were more interested in going to college on the G.I. bill than to working in the  factories, as their fathers did.  Consequently, the fired executives comprised a corps of experienced and capable managers, and the company found a bit of a surprise when it tried to promote them back into executive positions.

The men turned down the promotions.  They refused to move from the bargaining unit covered by the union contract into management, where they would not be covered.  They had been dumped by the company once, and they would not be put in that situation again.  International Harvester, as a consequence, proposed an unusual clause in the collective bargaining contract. It asked that bargaining unit members could be designated as lead workers in their sections and as part of their duties "educate and direct" the work of people in their section.  That way, the company could make use of the experience and abilities of the men as managers while keeping them in the bargaining unit. The union agreed and set up an arrangement that was of huge benefit to the company and a comfortable arrangement for the men and women.

My job at IHC after being released from active duty was on the correspondence desk.  It was my job to maintain a log of all business correspondence that came into the department and to bother the recipients to which it was assigned if they were not answered in three days.  Often, they gave me the information and I wrote the actual letters in answer.  The lead men were very prompt and efficient.  Sometimes those who were full managers got a bit surly at my reminders.  But the people I worked with most were those lead men, because they possessed the information required, did the coordinating between sections, departments, and other company plants, and made most of the decisions, which were endorsed by the department heads as managerial actions.  A few of the executives appreciated the array of talent and ability of their workers and worked very closely with the lead men in administering the work and keeping current on information and developments.  The key factor was, however, that while the lead men did work that was of great financial and public relations advantage to the company, their first loyalty was to the union.  Nothing could move them from the bargaining unit into management, and they insisted that one of the things that benefited the company most is that the machines it sold were union made.  

My first real involvement in union business came one day when one of the lead men asked me to serve on a hearing panel.  Some workers had been caught stealing from the company.  They were pilfering valuable materials off of machines and supplies in the storage yard and depositing them next to the river by the barge docks.  At nights they came in fishing boats, posing as fishermen,  waited for the security guards to pass by, and then loaded the pilfered items into the boats to haul away.  The company caught them, fired them, filed criminal charges, and made them ineligible to collect pension benefits from the company. The men filed an appeal with the union, so the union assembled a panel to hear the appeal.  The panel upheld the company's actions without hesitation and issued a sanction from the union against the men. 

 Although many anti-labor factions contend that unions coddle the incompetent and protect the unproductive and dishonest, such was not the case.  Although there were some malcontents who filed complaints and grievances frequently, the union investigated them and decided on them by their merits.  The fact is that unions share the responsibility of administering the terms of the contracts with the companies,  and maintaining productivity and guarding quality is the prime concern of both parties.  Some grievances deal with allegations of discrimination, but the grievances I recall that had merit and were vigorously pursued by the union were those that dealt with charges that the company was trying to speed up production and take shortcuts that would affect the quality of the products.  The people who actually build the machines feel shame when something they make turns out to be defective or fails in the field.  The union constantly had to battle accusations by the executives that such failures were the fault of the workforce.  

For a time, I worked on a customer service team that investigated customer complaints.  Often when machines failed, company representatives blamed the customers for abusing or misusing the machines.  Our team found that most of the problems could be traced back to the factory and to bad decisions.

An example was the plant I worked in, which made harvester threshers, and the tractor plant across town.  Both laid off workers and shut down operations to save money to cover a massive recall of our machines.  Both the tractors and harvester threshers used the same main axles.  An executive engineer had come across a process for heat-treating the axles, which hardens and toughens them, that could save the company millions and millions of dollars.  To get the axles treated by the new method onto the machines as soon as possible, the executives decided not to subject them to the full process of test engineering, in which the durability and reliability of the machines is fully tested under field conditions. Instead, they limited the testing to laboratory tests for stress and endurance.  The axles passed in the laboratory.  But after the machines were used in the field for a while, they started breaking down in massive numbers.  The company service representatives were frantic to get replacement axles that could get the farmers working again--fast.

The plants were closed and the workers were laid off for what was to be a period of two or three months.  The company executives were stymied as to how to deal with the problem.  After being off for about a week, I received a telegram at home to report back to work first thing Monday and be ready to put in some overtime.

Some of the lead men in my department had checked their inventories and their material records and found that they could find enough parts manufactured under the old process to make axle assemblies to replace most of the break downs.  It meant having to set up production lines, organize assembly teams, and then work out ways some of the factory workers could go into the field with the service representatives to repair the machines.  This was worked out with union help.  Teams were sent to key dealerships where the broken machines were hauled in and reworked.  Dealers were open 24 hours a day during that time with our people putting in 12 hour shifts to get the job done.  It did cost the company some money, but the workers were glad to receive bonuses for overtime and off-site work, and the dealers were particularly happy at the effort put in by the company to serve and satisfy their customers.

However, a number of farmers gave up in disgust, told the dealers to come and get their damned machines, and went to competing dealers to get machines with which they could finish their work.  Our company, which had built an international reputation, was hurt by this incident, and some others that followed.  

The demise of International Harvester Company was not the fault of its workforce.  Union stewards and local leaders were constantly trying to alert the company to problems that the workers saw developing, but as newer people took over management, the attitude toward company-union cooperation changed.  The new managers resented the workforce having any kind of voice in how the company was run. 

My own attitude toward unions changed, too, when I witnessed the efforts of union members to contribute to the businesses they worked for.  

As a faculty member, I was not a union member until I came to South Dakota.  At the previous college where I worked,  the administration urged its faculty to be members of the American Association of University Professors, which worked with the profession to maintain academic freedom and enhance teaching and research.  When collective bargaining came to education, the AAUP and the National Education Association, which had not been collective bargaining agents, took up the role of representing teachers at collective bargaining.  It joined the American Federation of Teachers, which was affiliated with the labor union, AFL-CIO.  

I was very active in the faculty union in South Dakota, having served as a local officer, including president, as a member of the bargaining committee, and as statewide president.  After serving one term as state president, I chose not to run again, and shortly after let my union membership drop.  When I first came to South Dakota, 75 percent of the faculty at NSU had joined the newly created union.  However, the number began to dwindle away to a very low percentage.  One reason is that the union has to represent all faculty in the bargaining unit whether they are members or not, and many faculty could not see reason to pay dues if the union had to represent them even they were not members.  It takes money to run an effective union, and the dwindling dues greatly limited what we could undertake.  A major problem was that our union, which was an NEA affiliate, kept claiming that the problems faced by college faculty are identical to that faced by k-12 teachers.  All teachers have some common concerns, but those concerns vary widely according to the levels at which they teach.  After watching some individuals very badly damaged because the union was not able to understand and represents their interests,  I found that the union was simply not fulfilling the role it claimed.  I let my membership lapse.  However, I maintained my membership in AAUP.

In South Dakota, public employees cannot strike.  The right to strike is not something I would work for.   First of all, unions experience very serious public relations damage when public workers go on strike.  There are other sanctions and contractual remedies unions can employ to exercise power at the negotiating table, but little effort has been made to adjust tactics to changing attitudes.  Those adjustments are worthy of a book.

Public workers in Wisconsin have been stripped of rights and responsibilities that unions earned for them 50 years ago.  This stripping of rights is accompanied by a lot of talk about balancing budgets, fairness in the workplace, and union power.  The bottom line is that collective bargaining rights only give workers the opportunity to come to the negotiating table and work out agreements.  Unions cannot impose anything on governments, school boards, or companies.  And that bottom line is that the people dominating Wisconsin government right now simply do not want workers to have a voice in their working conditions or their benefits.  It wants them beholden to and dependent upon their employers for what the employers will give them, not what the employees can rightfully earn.

And so, Wisconsin enacts its Declaration of Dependence of workers.  

Will the workers allow themselves to be thrown back into the status of serfs?

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States