RTW: Workers ‘replaceable, expendable’
By SHANE PELLERIN
Carpenters Local 97
I’ve worked in the construction field since 1984 and most of my time has been spent in “right-to-work” states.
When I moved to Missouri several years ago and joined the Carpenters Union in St. Louis, I was completely blown away by the change. As a union member, I was offered health and dental insurance, vacation and pension and the opportunity to go to school to advance my skills. I never thought of carpentry as a career until I took an oath and joined a local.
Under right-to-work laws, being a carpenter or tradesman was merely a way to scrape by week-to-week. Wages constantly hovered around $10 an hour, with little room for advancement. Worst of all, in a trade with so many perils, if I was hurt or injured, I was on my own. I heard the phrase “If you fall, you’re fired before you hit the ground” many times over the years.
Even if said in jest, this is how the workforce is viewed in these states: replaceable and expendable. That is no way to build pride and self-worth in the people who build, customize and make structures habitable and profitable places for businesses and homes.
When I moved to Missouri and was presented with an opportunity to become a union member, I was amazed by the world class training facilities, extensive safety programs and the emphasis on being the best of the best.
I feel the pride and care I have always had in my work is finally rewarded and respected. I’m proud to put on my hard hat and carpenter’s whites and know I’m going to the highest quality and best-run job sites in the world.
I also feel there is complacency among union members that these better, safer working conditions and living wages are the norm. But as someone who has experienced both sides, I know they are not. The union is the only defense we as workers have against the conditions I have described, and I do not wish to return.
RTW: Many downsides besides low wages
Fueled by an interest in working on the NASCAR circuit, Lou Fusz Chevrolet union mechanic Ed Schneck packed his bags in 1998 and moved to North Carolina to pursue his dream.
Schneck knew he would be making less money since North Carolina is a “right-to-work” state, but he was 31 and single. While putting his feelers out with NASCAR, he worked as a non-union mechanic at a Chevy dealership for $2 an hour less than what he was earning at his St. Louis union shop.
He quickly learned that lower wages weren’t the only downside of living in a RTW state.
“I had very basic insurance and only got three holidays a year,” Schneck said. “The worst part was that there were no guarantees of a 40-hour workweek. You might be at the dealership for 40 to 45 hours a week, but your paycheck was only for 21 hours, and the cost of living there was higher.”
Unfortunately, Schneck’s dream of working at NASCAR never materialized and he took a job at another dealership where he was able to negotiate a three-month, 40-hour a week guarantee.
“At a union dealership, you are guaranteed 40 hours a week, and it’s a huge benefit,” he said. “And it helps the dealership by maintaining experienced, qualified mechanics. It’s just good business.”
After spending four years in North Carolina, Schneck moved back to St. Louis. Today, he is member of Machinists 777 working as a fleet mechanic at UPS in Earth City.
“Many of the younger workers don’t fully understand the benefits of being in a union,” he said. “It creates stability in the workplace, and the pay system is so much better. It’s imperative that they understand what we’re fighting for.”
RTW: Lower wages, unsafe, no rules
By KYLE NORRIS
UFCW Local 88
I recently moved to Louisiana (a “right-to-work” state) for a short time where I was hired as a meat cutter at a large chain of stores. That’s when I finally realized just what “right-to-work” means.
I had 13 years of experience as a meat cutter and has served as a department manager for eight of those years. My starting wage at the company with 13 years of experience was $10 an hour and I had to pay almost $92 a week for my health care benefits. The pay and benefits were a long way off from what I was used to as a union member.
On my first day of work, I discovered the meat saw I was to operate didn’t have any doors on it, which is a major safety issue. I told the manager and he said as long as it runs and does what it’s supposed to, they will not pay to fix it. He also informed me I was free to call OSHA, but if I did, I would no longer be employed with the company.
Over the next few weeks, the safety aspect
of the job worsened, and I found myself working on a saw that had a cut in the power cord and no doors, and due to a broken water drain, I was standing in almost three inches of stagnant water for most of my shift every day.
Additionally, there were no rules to govern your work shift. I worked split shifts some days and 10-hour shifts with mandatory two-hour breaks in the middle on others. And there was no department-based anything: if you were an employee, you had to work wherever they needed you in the store.
The final nail in the coffin occurred after a grocery clerk was severely burned on his legs and feet by a crawfish boiling pot that fell on him when a leg of the table holding the pot broke. Rather than fixing the table leg, the company just put some wood under it and said go back to using it as it was.
After seeing just how reckless a company could be in a RTW state, I decided I had to make the best decision I could and moved back to St. Louis. Until my Louisiana experience, 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.
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 family or feel safe at work.
The everyday things we take for granted that the union does for us is the difference between having a career and 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.
They say “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone,” and for all my fellow union brothers and sisters, I hope you never have to see a workplace without a union.
RTW: a lesser quality of life
In the early 1970s, Nancy Reilly moved to Texas, a “right-to-work” state and began working as a department manager at non-union local grocery chain. Prior to that, Reilly had worked at a St. Louis grocery store represented a union.
She made $2 an hour less at the Texas store than what she was paid while in St. Louis and the health benefits were at the lowest level you could get. But the lousy pay and benefits weren’t what bothered her the most about the non-union job.
“There was no respect on the jobsite, and no one to help you,” Reilly said. “It was difficult because there was no recourse if anyone did something wrong. You were at the mercy of whether someone liked you or not.”
Reilly moved back to St. Louis in 1995 and soon afterward began working at Dierbergs Bogey Hills Market as a non-foods manager, represented by UFCW Local 655. She has been there 22 years.
“Being part of a union not only offers better wages and benefits, it provides a far better quality of life,” she said. “I’m getting ready to retire, and if it weren’t for UFCW Local 655, that wouldn’t be happening.”
RTW: increases workplace discrimination
The one thing I’m most concerned about when it comes to “right-to-work” laws is that such laws will increase workplace discrimination workplace prospects for people with disabilities.
I lived in a “right-to-work” state (Georgia) for four years, and saw how badly employers treated their employees. I’ve seen employers shove workers that they consider “undesirable” out within six months.
I got shoved out of one job in Georgia within a month, the second one in six months and the last one in five months. The workers who got shoved out were usually adults with disabilities or high school students.
I believe that joining a union should be a fundamental right. All unions should come with the job, like the United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW). I was in UFCW Local 1063 in Atlanta when I worked for Grand Union and Kroger.
I believe people with disabilities will benefit greatly by having greater access to union membership.