Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in the Feb. 13, 2014 edition of the Labor Tribune.
By KYLE NORRIS
UFCW Local 88
This past March I moved to the great state of Louisiana for a short while and I finally realized just what right-to-work means.
I have been a meat cutter for 13 years and a department manager for eight of those years so getting a job was a fairly quick process. I was hired within an hour of looking for a job as a meat cutter at a large chain of stores and immediately learned my first lesson in not having the support of a union.
LOW PAY, NO BENEFITS
My starting wage with 13 years of experience was $10 an hour and all benefits were to be paid for by me at a cost of almost $92 per week for health care. That is a very long way off from what I was used to being a union member and, sadly, isn’t even enough to survive on.
UNSAFE WORK CONDITIONS
On my first day of work I got my second and most important lesson in the effects of not having a union to protect me in the work place.
I arrived at my work station to find out the meat saw I was to operate didn’t have any doors on it. The speed of the spinning wheels and blade were fully exposed and when I was cutting they were throwing meat dust directly into my face.
I called the manager over to inform him that I felt this was a major safety issue. He chuckled at me and informed me that this is how they do things around here. As long as it runs and does what it’s supposed to they will not pay to fix it. He then informed me I was free to call OSHA, but if I did I would no longer be employed with this company.
In the vicinity of where I was living this was the only store around so it’s not like I could just quit and go to a different company, so I sucked it up and tried my best to work with what I was given.
After getting to know most of the meat and store employees I began to notice that most of them still lived at home with their family due to the fact that they just didn’t make enough to support themselves and their families.
Over the next few weeks the safety aspect of the job really started to get to me.
I was working on a saw that had a cut in the power cord, no doors and, due to a broken water drain, I was standing in almost three inches of stagnant water for most of my work shift every day.
NO DEPARTMENT WORK RULES
With no union rules to govern your work shift, I was working split shifts on some days and 10-hour shifts with mandatory two-hour breaks in the middle on others.
The store was open on Easter Sunday and due to my newness with the company I got the pleasure of working all 14 hours that the store was open.
Also there was no department-based anything.
If you worked in the store you were eligible to work anywhere in the store. So, if you were cutting meat and they needed help checking you went and checked or got carts, which might seem like a nice break, but the truth is after getting carts in the pouring rain and then standing under a meat room cooling fan I quickly realized just how miserable work can be.
WORKER INJURED; COMPANY DOES NOTHING
The final nail in the coffin came a day after a grocery clerk was severely burned on his legs and feet by the crawfish boiling pot falling over on him. The meat manager and I found ourselves in the same position, luckily there were two of us and we were able to save the situation from a repeat incident but I had seen enough.
What had happened was the leg broke on the table that the large 50-gallon boiling pot sat on the day before and fell on the grocery clerk. Instead of the company fixing it they just put some wood under it and said go back to using it as it is.
After seeing just how reckless a company could be I decided I had to make the best decision I could for myself and I moved back to St. Louis.
NO IDEA HOW BAD THINGS COULD BE
Until this move down south, I had no idea how bad things could be in the grocery business and how lucky I was to work under the safety of a union.
The safety, a fair working wage, and the protection of our jobs, are something I will never take for granted again.
Right-to-work is not a good thing in any way shape or form and, if passed, will mean that our lives as union members will forever be changed.
No longer will you be able to make a livable wage and provide insurance for your families.
No longer will you feel safe at your place of work.
The everyday things we take for granted that the union does for us is the difference between having a career or struggling on a daily basis just to survive.
Cutting meat is not a glorious job by any means, but it is a job that with our union’s help gives me a means to have a nice life.
In my short time working in Louisiana, a right-to-work state I didn’t see anything as good as what we have in our union shops.
They say “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone,” and for all of my fellow union brothers and sisters I hope you never have to see a workplace without a union.