All of these social media posts about Hostess snack cakes are somewhat entertaining, but I have to think about the untold underlying story: The Story of the workers, the company, and the unions involved. Forget for a moment that you have to go without your beloved Twinkie. This story is not all about YOU! Yeah, I know, I’d kill for a Ho-Ho right now myself. But what about the real story?
Unlike many people reading those posts, I have some recent personal experience with labor unions and plant closings. Up until the end of October I was a member of International Brotherhood of the Teamsters (local 823). I was a dues-paying member simply because I don’t live in a “Right to Work” state, and my employment was conditional on my participation. It was never a personal choice of mine. My choice was to work for my employer, the choice to join a union was made for me.
Back in May I found an opportunity to improve myself financially and I left a non-union employer to go to a closed union shop. The wages were somewhat higher and my family comes first. Honestly I had never worked through a union and I had no idea what to expect. So these are just my observations from a short union stint that lasted 5 months. These views belong to me, Dean Garrison and I won’t ever claim to know the whole (behind the scenes) story. With that said, here is what I witnessed…
My first perceptions were that I had no possibility of advancement with Hydro Aluminum because of the union. Collective Bargaining Agreements (CBA’s) tend to protect seniority and that is not necessarily good news for a 43 year old with extensive management experience and ZERO SENIORITY! The pay was good enough that I was going to try to remain patient, however. To make around $40-50,000 (with overtime) a year as a blue-collar grunt in a rural Missouri economy isn’t that bad. It was better than my previous situation, or so I thought. Then I started seeing things that bothered me about a “total seniority system.”
I have to wonder… Is it a crippling disservice to American Businesses who are dealing with labor unions? Let me explain… I had never worked anywhere where production seemed to have less urgency. It was so laid back and the workers loved it. Even the bosses were “laid back.” At the same time I was surrounded by people who had worked for this company for 20+ years and simply didn’t seem to care about productivity. They were protected by seniority and had almost no worries. The biggest worry of a union member with seniority is simply not to violate any policies. If your production levels are low, it is not necessarily a reason for dismissal. So as I looked around I saw some people who were doing very little, and had probably been doing very little for many years. That is not a healthy environment for someone who wants to bust their ass to get ahead.
So the question here is from the employers perspective… Is it fair to be saddled with unproductive workers who are lucky enough to be protected by a union contract? Isn’t the point of owning a business to make a profit?
I owned a small business at one point in my life and my thought on this subject was simple. If you didn’t get results you didn’t deserve a job. This is what America was built on. America was built on excellence, ingenuity and competitive drive.
Now I can’t say that lazy workers contributed to the problems with our “Ding Dongs” disappearing from the shelves, but I can say as an interested observer that it certainly didn’t help Hydro Aluminum. The lazy workers were not the rule, they were the exception, but they were there and they were unfortunately not going anywhere. As a former business owner I could not comprehend how this place could make money. It was taking 2 people to produce what one person should, in many cases. People were skilled at abusing already generous breaks and taking advantage of unsupervised situations. How the hell did this place make any money? Roughly two months after I started my new job we got some sobering news, but it did not really surprise me. Hydro Aluminum was ceasing operations in Monett, MO with the jobs being moved to Phoenix, AZ. Well, that’s only part of the story.
The local Hydro facility had two distinct divisions. The extrusion division was a “closed” shop and the remelt division was an “open” shop. I can’t believe it’s coincidence that they decided to close extrusion and keep remelt open. My opinion is that the company felt crippled by a union shop that was not turning an adequate profit and decided to dissolve it. There were several economic explanations but the reality is…the union guys lost their jobs and the non-union guys did not.
When this happened I got to see another side of a labor union that some may never see, and I certainly hope they don’t have to. Let’s forget my comments about some of the workers being lazy for a moment, because this was not everyone…just a few. Look at the rest of the story through the eyes of someone who was doing the best he or she could.
It took roughly two weeks for local 823 to organize a meeting with us. The local news stories were abundant but the workers were totally in the dark. Due to the W.A.R.N. act, Hydro had to give all employees 60 days notice of the facility closing. The company did not however come up with any quick details to resolve our worries so we were relying on the union to do what we were paying them to do. We were expecting and waiting for representation.
A shit-bomb was dropped at this meeting and I am still picking the corn from my teeth. Sorry for the bad visual but that is how I felt and still feel. Despite having a CBA in place, there was no severance clause in the contract. WHAT THE FUCK? I’m sorry but sometimes the only way I can bring my real reactions and emotions to light is by taking the sugar off the shit and letting you see what it is… a big old stinky pile of human excrement. There is no sugar coating that. I didn’t know that was coming because I hadn’t even seen the CBA yet. I was new. Prior to this announcement I had lots of time and lots of worries so I had searched for possible answers on the internet. A standard Teamsters CBA seems to offer “1 week of severance for every year of service.” I found evidence of this all over. I can’t say that we were the only workers who were unprotected but lots of IBT members seemed to have protection that was not offered to us.
The representative went on to admit, “If I would have been here years ago this would have never happened. I would have made sure the contract was written to plan for this.” That is a paraphrase but 60 or so people at that meeting can verify that the representative admitted union negligence. So, not only did he tell us that we were screwed, he admitted that the CBA should have never been accepted without a severance clause. He assured us that the union was going to get as much as they could for us, but admitted that they had nothing to stand on. Some people got up and left. Others cursed. In general we were happy for the free donuts and not much else.
How would you feel if this was your labor union? Would you feel a little let down? 160 members of 823 certainly did, but we held out hope that Teamsters would prevail for us, despite a bad Collective Bargaining Agreement. This is the real world and we certainly could not count on a Norwegian owned super corporation to do the right thing for 160 displaced American workers.
I would say it was at least another 4-5 weeks before we hear another word. We asked union stewards questions consistently and they didn’t seem to have any answers. There were certainly rumors which made it worse. None of us even knew if we should stay or try to go find a job before all of the local jobs were gone. A lot of people felt trapped because they didn’t want to risk losing a big severance that may be coming with their 20, 30, and even 40 years of service.
Then the second meeting came. Basically a company offer was outlined and it was a slap in the face. Let me digress for a moment and tell you about a cousin of mine.
My cousin Mike is 54 years old and had worked for this company for 36 years. He was part of this company before Hydro Aluminum bought them out and long before Teamsters entered the picture. This was his first job out of high school. So I want you to look at this through his eyes for a moment and not the eyes of a guy named Dean Garrison who worked there for 5 months.
The union basically announced that people with 20 or more years service would receive a $3000 bonus if they stayed until October 1st. It was not labeled as severance. It was labeled as a “stay” bonus for people who stayed until a certain date. It scaled down to the bottom where new employees received $350 (which was about 2 days wages). I can’t complain about $350 for 5 months of service but what about my cousin Mike? He worked for this company his entire adult life. He was there for them in good times and bad. He was as responsible as anyone for building this company. He was the heart and soul of what makes middle managers look golden. He was the guy at the bottom who worked his ass off for his family and his employer, while the greed at the top took both the credit and the profits.
Needless to say the old timers were livid. The union rep assured us that we didn’t have to accept this offer and that we would be able to vote to accept or reject it later. We never saw that union rep again. The day of closing came and we all got exactly what the company offered, with no possibility for negotiation. This is what Teamsters did for us. The funny thing is that on that final check, the bonus was called “severance” for the first time. They played legal games up until that point and in the end called it what it really was. So what about Teamsters and unions in general? I’m sure it’s not hard to figure out the opinion of those 160 people.
Was the union ultimately a factor in the plant closing? It’s natural to wonder when the open shop still stands and the closed shop which is less than 50 feet away is now history. They blamed profitability but even if that’s the truth, was it the labor union’s fault that the company became unprofitable? Was it caused by common “seniority” policies that make it very difficult for companies to make necessary personnel moves. That seems to be what happened with Hostess. Many people are arguing this point right now. Many people arguing for the unions have never even been in a union, and if they have…they have never experienced what happens when the union ceases to support it’s constituents. I have.
I will never know about all of the back room deals and behind the scenes details and I really don’t care. All you can do when you are on the bottom is observe and react. Savvy politicians tell you what you want to hear to gain your support and in the end they will most likely make you to bend over and grab your ankles. We see it happen over and over in America and my opinion is that the labor unions are no different.
No attempts were made to save our jobs through any negotiated pay cuts. At least the Hostess employees got an offer, which I read most rejected. No attempts were made to find us new jobs with other Teamster shops. No one seemed to make a case for the state of our local economy, where roughly 50% of the companies hire in the summer and lay off in the winter. We live in a construction dependent economy here and there are just no jobs after August.
I also have a friend who was clearly violated according to the terms the CBA. His short story is that he came from remelt to extrusion and legally (in the contract) had the right to go back. He bid on a job and was rejected by the company. The union told him to file a grievance and he did. In the end he was collecting his last check with the rest of us. He did what he needed to do, and legally had a case that would hold up in any court, in my unqualified opinion, but no one seemed to want to back him up. I heard the local 823 representative promise him that he would get to keep his job, and in the end…he was unemployed like the rest of us.
Would it be bad business to serve a customer who won’t be your customer next month? Well not really but maybe that was the thinking. My friend Rodney had a legal right to reclaim his old job and no one cared. We are talking about guys in the trenches here. These are the guys and gals who were making tool boxes used by NASCAR Crews, lighting fixtures for retail shops and homes, and everything else under the sun…that could be made with aluminum. These are the men and women that hold the failing economy together.
For every high level executive or government bureaucrat that produces nothing…there are workers who make them look good. And in the end…no one fucking cared.
I have come to my own set of conclusions and I am entitled to that more than most because it is based on experience and not theory. Unions are businesses who are out to make money. They act a lot like the federal government does. Unions tell you what you want to hear and do what they want to do. If it is not a profitable move then they don’t pursue it. They seem to spend a little as they can on attorney fees regardless of how many people are at stake. I’m not sure who their attorneys were but the joke around the facility was that they were using pro bono counsel. I can’t speak for all unions but after belonging to the largest organized labor union in the USA I can tell you that my family is now hurting.
My union steward mentioned something at the 2nd (and final) meeting, while he was trying to rally support for the company offer, I had to laugh at the time.
“Guys if we are gonna get screwed we might as well get some vaseline money.”
Unfortunately in the end I didn’t say what I wanted to say, so I’m saying it now, “Have you seen the price of vaseline?”
A company closing that involves tens of thousands of jobs mandates a response from government officials. But, for every high profile business failure, there are hundreds like the one I just experienced and you won’t find these on the national news. No one really cares about 160 workers who lost their jobs just before Christmas in a town where employment is very “seasonal.” For many of us it will be late February before we can find a suitable new way to support our families. Oh and by the way… The maximum unemployment benefit in this state is $320 a week. That is less than 1/2 of what I was making. How are my “brothers” and I supposed to live on that? What a joke.
When I first started my new job, I talked to lots of people about the union. I was naturally curious and wanted to know how it might benefit me. A lot of people gave me heart-felt testimonials in support of the union. Guess what those same people are saying now? Yes, unions are great…until you really need them. Do some research online, there are dozens of documented stories of unions failing to support constituents. This is not as uncommon as you probably think.
Don’t call me a conservative folks, because you will hear plenty of horror stories come out of my mouth about those lousy bastards as well. But let me just say…fuck you asshole liberal theorists who have never belonged to a labor union yet act as if your opinion matters. Get your heads out of the clouds and wake up. This is the real world. I know 160 people who would knock your teeth down your throat if you started talking that smack in their presence.
My only conclusion is that labor unions are all about politics and money. In the end I haven’t seen proof that they truly care about people, at least not the guys and gals of local 823.
That is my real-life story. I am not a paid political columnist or analyst. I am a real person, much like the guy next door who keeps letting his dog have his way with your lawn. Whether you agree or disagree, please feel free to post your comments…