Is there still a place for the labor movement in Chattanooga?
In an increasingly divided political country, one of the most contentious issues facing American businesses and workers today is the right to organize. The question facing many union supporters is whether the labor movement is still viable, and whether there is a future for unions, both nationwide and right here at home.
It all started when oppressed people realized that they needed a unified voice in the workplace for the pursuit of their common interests. Workers rights became the calling cry against many overbearing types of employers.
Originally, such noble beginnings were comprised of craft and trade workers joining together in what is known as a system of collective bargaining. Leaders were elected and employees were united in a combined effort to bring about change in areas such as: fair wages, decent working conditions, and health care/insurance coverage.
Today, many of these “common benefits” that people take for granted are the direct result of efforts by union negotiators. They have spilled over into what is now considered the norm and enjoyed by several millions of non-union workers every day. Unions are, and remain, organizations by, about, and for their members.
In the past, several labor accomplishments for working families have been made. But in today’s global market, unions are viciously attacked by government, politicians, and as always, many employers. Some still operate in the “us against them” style of management. This only serves to perpetuate a hostile work environment for everybody involved and the goal of mutual compromise is often times obscured with contention.
My personal experience with union forces began in 1978, when I became a member of the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen (BRS). Eureka! A real job—with benefits! Suddenly, I no longer worked for minimum wage (or less), I had health insurance, dental, vision, regular check-ups, hospitalization, sick benefits, an employee pass to ride on an AMTRAK passenger train, etc. With that, a life-long vested retirement account (after 10 years of service) with the Railroad Retirement Board, stocks, and bond incentives. For every single share of stock purchased, the railroad company would match it! Wow, what a deal!! A real job that actually paid more than I had could ever have imagined.
Toys were bought: cars, motorcycles, all at break neck speed. The big one, though, was the purchase of my own home (which by the way was paid for in just a few years). The proverbial American Dream had come true for me and it was wonderful! Life was good. I had the railroad company to thank for all of this quickly gained prosperity, right?
Well, not exactly.
I was thankful to the railroad company for hiring me and giving me the job, but the amazing benefits package was primarily due to the efforts of the union, the BRS. You see these great benefits were the result of years and often times grueling contract negotiations with railroad management. Alarmingly, the other workers who had come before me had paid for all of these wonderful benefits with their blood!
The railroad companies, like other companies, do not just offer these valuable perks out of the goodness of their hearts. Determined union negotiators fought for all it. Contracts are usually agreed upon for three or four-year intervals. After expiration, the negotiations start all over again with lots of back-and-forth positioning by management and the unions. Ideally, compromise is the goal. In today’s bleak economy though, some management, from all manner of professions, take advantage of this depressed market and will balk at an expedient agreement. This is called ‘dealing in bad faith.’ Unfortunately, and all too often, time is on their side and they can afford to stall. Working families cannot.
My career as a union officer started while working on the Georgia Division of the railroad and later led to my appointment as Chattanooga’s local chairman. While serving this time on the Tennessee Division, another opportunity arose. The new General Chairman asked me to be the General Secretary-Treasurer of the Committee—a move above the local level with more responsibility. I accepted and was elected.
The BRS makes great efforts to educate all of its representatives by offering several training seminars located all over the country. A vast array of subject matters pertaining to a union officer’s duties is provided. Topics include: claims and grievance procedures, member’s benefits, Labor laws, federally mandated rules and regulations, etc.
The job experience was really beginning to grow, and show in my career. Members were calling to discuss any potentially amicable solutions to their disciplinary cases involving the company. Actually, the job is a pseudo-lawyer’s position in nature. Intervention with Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) lawyers was ever constant and lawyer’s ways and practices were attained.
Like the BRS, one large union presence in Chattanooga is the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 175. Located on Volunteer Drive just off of Bonny Oaks, they’re building a union hall that will be host to several other organizations. Combined they make up the Central Area Labor Council (CALC), which is affiliated with the Tennessee American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) in Nashville, TN.
The AFL-CIO is the largest federation of unions in the USA representing over 12 million active and retired workers. The AFL-CIO is the one of the biggest spenders and most politically active mega-union organizations in the country. Most international unions in the country are members of this large organization.
Thankfully, in Chattanooga we have a labor friendly mayoral administration. Mayor Andy Berke has been a consistent pro-advocate of labor and working families throughout his career. As you know, Chattanooga has been a national model of prosperity in all areas of social and domestic growth. We are very fortunate to have leaders like Mayor Andy Berke and his staff who continually promote and elevate Chattanooga in the national fore front as a city constantly growing with vision, prosperity, and hope for all.
When it comes to politics, unions are a political football that gets regularly kicked, bounced, and thrown around. Government regulations are absolutely stifling in their so-called oversight of union operations and activities. One particular establishment party has been consistently hostile toward labor over the years while another party tends to be more amicable, but sometimes also tends to take labor organizations for granted.
As mentioned earlier, politicians like to make big promises to get elected. Once in office, labor groups are very diligent in watching a politician’s voting record on working family’s issues. Political Action Committee (PAC’s) contributions are directly determined and tied to such a politicians vote for, or against, labor. Candidates, beware.
Over the past few years, union membership has dwindled. Many contributing factors such as a poor economy, government intrusion, political interference, etc., have taken their toll against reducing the overall numbers of union members. In this day and age of right-to-work states, the unions and private workers’ rights are being eroded dramatically.
Corporations pay their CEO’s millions and then, when it comes to negotiations at the bargaining table, they can often times be stingy and arrogant in addressing fair compensation for their employees. Outsourcing of jobs and manufacturing oversees cuts domestic workers pay and benefits and makes for a less safe environment.
In recent years, it seems to be the growing trend. The loss of jobs in this country is obvious no matter how one tries to spin the statistics. Businesses are closing everywhere.
In this wounded atmosphere, China desperately tries to undercut the US labor field by offering cheap labor and manipulating their currency. The long term effects seem to be gaining momentum especially since China’s economy is now bigger than that of the US’s. Was labor to blame for this downturn on the global market? Not as much as other factors involved, and yet, labor receives a large undeserved amount of the criticism for such.
Unfair trade laws and corporate outsourcing are the larger factors. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), and the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) are all big examples of such anti-union measures.
Many have bad feeling toward labor while some see an advantage in membership. More than likely, if you were raised with parents who owned a business, you probably would be anti-union. On the other hand, if you were raised with a family that had to work several jobs just to make ends meet, the labor union could be an attractive advantage in your life.
Like in all things, people and money make the difference. Opinions on union affiliation vary greatly and personal circumstances usually triumph in the prevailing wisdom of a choice in such matters.
Personally, my experience has been a very good one with long time union association. Having never attended college (or having a desire too) unionism has been a huge positive experience in my life. With nearly 40 years with the BRS (currently as a pensioned member) and now the Secretary-Treasurer of Local 80 AFM, unionism is a way of life for me. It has been, and still is, a very good one.
My closing statement to AFM members in newsletters and other correspondence is usually the basic principle of unionism that always rings true:
United we stand, divided we fall.
This is what makes a union strong!