Growing up in Detroit, nearly everyone had strong opinions about the unions, especially the United Autoworkers. My father, despite working in management, was a life-long union supporter and so his four sons were expected to be, too.
The summer after I graduated from high school I worked the midnight shift in a huge Ford parts warehouse and had to join the UAW. I was a parts picker, so I cruised the parts bins and packaged up shipments for Ford dealers across the country. During my first week, I had picked my parts and was packaging them to ship when the horn went off at shift end. I had been told that I needed to punch out on time because no overtime was allowed, so I punched out then went back and finished packing the boxes.
The next night when I arrived at the warehouse the union steward, a particularly angry-looking dude, grabbed me at the time clock. “Come here, kid! I heard you were working after the horn went off yesterday.” I tried to explain that I was simply finishing up and had punched out on time, thinking that was the problem. “Look,” he said, “when that horn goes off you will walk out the door. I don’t care if you have to finish your work an hour early. But it makes the rest of us look bad if you’re working harder and for free.”
I learned my lesson and always finished my work and punched out on time but it left a bad taste in my mouth that the union guys felt like the company was the enemy. And I think it was that attitude that has killed the unions. For many years, the unions did great things for the working man — better wages, better hours, better benefits — but they got greedy and that us-versus-the-company attitude prevailed.
In 1955, 75% of the public approved of the unions and 35% of American workers were union members. Today, fewer than half of Americans support the unions (only 26% of Republicans) and only 11% of workers are union members. In most cases, in construction, companies treat their non-union workers as well as they would union workers, so maybe the union has become irrelevant. But we’ve lost something too. The training that the unions provided gave construction companies some great workers, and being able to get guys from the hall was a great benefit.
So, this Labor Day — a day set aside to celebrate the union movement — enjoy your end-of-summer holiday, but remember that construction is dependent on good labor and we don't want to go back to the confrontational approaches of the past.