In February 1995, having the occasion to visit a picket line in Virginia where union members had been on strike for 11 months, was an enlightening experience. Having only left the union movement a few years earlier, it was that strike in Virginia where my belief that today’s unions are but a facade—union in name only—was confirmed.
In that small Virginia town, union members had gone out on strike in March of 1994 over an issue that would not have affected them. The company had wanted a two-tier wage system that would have left strikers’ wages intact but would have allowed for new employees to be hired at a lower rate. The union, however, had convinced its members that the company was trying to “bust the union” and that the union had never negotiated two-tier wages anywhere in the country and it wasn’t about to start in Virginia.
Although the striking union members in Virginia were replaced three months after they walked off the job, the union had convinced them they couldn’t lose their jobs to replacement workers and kept the strike going. Eight months later, when I visited their picket line, they were still under the belief that they would get their jobs back.
Two weeks after visiting the picket line (11 1/2 months after the strike began), the union went back to the bargaining table and accepted the company’s offer. As a result of signing a contract with its members permanently replaced, the union ended up representing the replacement workers. Had the strike gone on another two weeks, the replacement workers could have voted the union out and the union would have been “busted.” However, by signing the company’s contract, the union saved itself, while the members were thrown under the bus.
Ironically, in 2005, while working in Ohio, I learned that the union that had taken its members in Virginia out on strike ten years earlier by telling them it had never negotiated a two-tier wage system anywhere, had actually agreed to two-tier wages in the mid-1980s. The workers in Virginia went out on strike and lost their jobs over a lie!
Although it is unlawful for an employer to fire employees who strike, it has always been legal for an employer to hire replacement workers on a permanent basis. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed this in 1938. However, fifteen years ago, after nearly a decade in the union movement, it was the first time (but not the last) that I had ever seen a union stoop so low. Since then, though, unions settling contracts after their striking members have been replaced has become more commonplace.
After striking for nearly 11 months against Tyson Foods, the members of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 538 voted 293-70 to accept Tyson’s latest offer, after rejecting a similar offer on January 11 by a 242-74 margin. UFCW International and local leaders pushed the “yes” vote due to the threat of union decertification.
A seven-and-a-half month strike has ended at a factory in Merrill. But according to the union president, the strikers won’t go back to work right away.
Norma Schroeder says the Merrill Manufacturing Corporation will keep the replacement maintenance workers it hired. And the union members who walked out in late March will be put on a recall list as the replacements leave.
Thirty-two of the 58 local members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers initiated the strike, saying they wanted fair wages. The company said it suffered significant losses, and it needed to cut employee wages-and-benefits to survive. In July, the union sought federal mediation. It was provided, and it helped reach a settlement.
If ever there were such a thing as malpractice for union bosses, America’s union members should have ample grounds for a class action.
“I bring reason to your ears, and, in language as plain as ABC, hold up truth to your eyes.” Thomas Paine, December 23, 1776