In Park Falls and elsewhere, the labor movement is not dead.
Finding that union label
Two weeks ago, workers at the Weather Shield window and door factory in Park Falls voted 81-56 to form a union with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. I was able to talk with one of the workers who was central to the success of the organizing campaign, and that worker described to me in detail how management’s relentless cutbacks on wages and benefits, combined with a consistent disrespect for the workforce, pushed the workers to take action. Despite management’s threats and attempts to divide the workforce during the campaign, those brave workers banded together to fight for fairness and dignity on the job. In so doing they said no to the chronic job insecurity and substandard wages and benefits that have plagued the factory for so long.
All too often, the bloodletting of the American middle class that has accompanied this age of globalization has led us to accept diminished standards of living as a fact of life. Most jobs nowadays are non-union, and the average person’s pay and working conditions reflect that. Seeing people challenge that seemingly indomitable fate amid the uncertain economic times is inspiring.
To be sure, a union is still far and away the best anti-poverty tool available to working people. I experienced the Union Difference firsthand during my as a student at UW-Marshfield, when I was a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union at Festival Foods. When I spoke with a worker who transferred to the Marshfield store from one of the company’s non-union branches, I could hardly believe my ears when told me how much her pay increase just to get up to union scale.
The benefits of having a union go far beyond economic issues, though. During my time with UFCW I served on the contract negotiations committee and was able to fight for and help win a new contract that maintained our healthcare plan and increased our vacation time, among other things. It was an experience that made my employment at the grocery store something more than just another job. Having the ability to determine your terms of employment gives you a sense of ownership over your job that no amount of managerial benevolence or HR scheming can replicate.
The importance of having a union was further underscored to me this past summer when I worked for Los Angeles’ education workers union. One of the major organizing campaigns I was involved in was at a Head Start school where workers wanted to organize because of how badly they got kicked around by the company. The teachers there worked year-to-year on individualized, annual contracts, and if management liked them they would get “invited” back to work for another year. This constant job insecurity was the source of much stress for the teachers, as they never knew whether or not they would have a job until three weeks before the next school year began.
The teaching staff at this school was made up of several races, reflecting the diverse community the school resided in. Tragically, when the all-white managerial staff decided to cut costs by laying off teachers last fall, it seemed that just about all of the displaced workers were African Americans, many of whom had been at the school for years longer than other teachers who had been retained. Things like that are unheard of at the Los Angeles schools represented by Local 99.
In addition to giving the Weather Shield workers control over their working lives and protecting them from such abuses, however, the implications of the recent union election in Park Falls stands to change the fabric of the community itself. Park Falls is now a rather unusual place, with three of the four biggest employers unionized. I am proud to say that my hometown is through-and-through a union town, a place where even in hard times workers stand up for decent jobs that allow them to carve out a living good enough to raise a family on.
This is an exciting development that promises to renew the fledgling local economy by providing high-quality union jobs at a time that they are desperately needed. This could very well have a cascading effect on Park Falls, as good paying jobs can support larger families, and the community might not lose so many of its best kids upon graduation for lack of opportunities. One would be hard-pressed to overstate the importance of that to Park Falls.
Like so many other towns in northern Wisconsin, Park Falls has been slowly withering because of a lack of decent jobs. When my older brother graduated from high school, the local school district sent off a senior class of well over 100 and took on a kindergarten class less than a quarter of that size. It is no coincidence that, at the same time, employment at the local paper mill, a unionized factory that provided $20-an-hour skilled manufacturing jobs, had shrunk by the hundreds. Clearly, the health of my hometown is inextricably linked to the state of its union jobs. That’s why the Teamsters’ victory at Weather Shield comes as wonderful news for the entire community.
My Dad, a good union man himself, always told me that a union is the only leg a working person has to stand on. As working and middle class people, we need to take matters into our own hands and organize to partake in the wealth that our hard work creates. Indeed, such has been the only way anyone has ever achieved the American Dream. And by following the example set forth by that little town deep in the Northwoods, we can turn the corner and rein in a new era of prosperity.
September 7, 2010
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John Ertl lives in Park Falls, Wisconsin, and is a student at Cornell University.