Labor unions are declining in membership across the U.S., but they still play a key role in protecting jobs and benefits for those still working in organized manufacturing venues.
The United Steelworkers, for example, represents about 70,000 hourly employees within the tire, rubber and plastics industries. That´s down from about 90,000 when the United Rubber Workers merged into the Steelworkers in 1995. Closings, consolidation and a lack of successful organization within the rubber sector have helped bring the membership figure down.
But that role of protecting what the workers already have is a different one for the USW-or United Auto Workers or Machinists or any other industrial union-than in the past. In the early 20th century, unions fought to get for workers things they never had, such as livable wage levels.
Later, they were able to get members even better pay and health care and retirement benefits that once were far out of reach.
Today, as U.S. manufacturing jobs disappear, they strive to keep the jobs that are here and the benefits workers already have, but it´s an uphill fight.
The umbrella business
"Unions are the voice for the workers to get the best deal that can be had in a global economy," said David Meyer, associate professor of management at the University of Akron.
"They preserve as much as they can, and without unions those jobs would be gone. They´re making the best of a difficult situation."
Non-union operations are at the mercy of a company with the ability to shut them down, Meyer said. With a union and with collective bargaining, even when a plant is being closed, there will be a fight, and there will be a high cost to shut it down, he said.
Ron Bloom, assistant to the president with the USW, said both union and non-union workers are susceptible to the "vagaries of globalization," and globalization is like a giant rainstorm. In this context, the union is in the umbrella business, he said.
"It´s raining on everybody in America, and no one is immune except for the elite of the elite," Bloom said. "So we´re in the umbrella business, but umbrellas are imperfect devices. They don´t keep you completely dry.
"I can tell the difference if I´m walking down the street with one and you´re walking down the street without one. Am I bone-dry? No, but I´m not soaking wet."
Despite the fall in union membership, there is a strong need for labor unions in the U.S., said Becky Blust, associate professor of engineering technology at the University of Dayton. They help to sustain a middle class that is being squeezed out, she said.
Also, if union members can partner with companies and become part of the business they´re in, the solutions will outweigh the problems, Blust said.
Meyer agreed, using Europe as an example where the unions are often at the decision-making table along with management and government representatives. "That´s not usually the case here," he said.
USW President Leo Gerard is all for real cooperation between labor and industry, pointing to the steel industry as an example of a union being a constructive partner with willing employers to help save domestic manufacturing.
"With the tire and rubber industry, I think we obviously have to work with those that want to have a domestic industry," he said. "One of our concerns is I´m not sure any of them do."
Gerard did say that he believes Titan International Inc., the farm and off-the-road tire maker, is an exception, in that it has expanded capacity in its markets, in large part due to the recent purchases of assets and plants from Goodyear and Continental Tire North America Inc.
A competition issue
Dick Wilkerson, executive vice president at Michelin North America Inc., believes competing successfully in the North American market doesn´t involve a union/non-union issue. The real question is, is a company able to develop a work force capable of taking care of the customer, serving the market well and competing, he said.
Michelin would prefer its hourly work force to be non-union and has said that for more than 30 years, Wilkerson said. But the issue is cost-competitiveness, and the company believes it can achieve its goals with the cost structure it has in place, he said.
The tire maker operates three unionized BFGoodrich tire plants in the U.S. along with nine North American non-union facilities.
Lauren International Inc. employs union and non-union workers as well, and like Wilkerson, Lauren´s Scott Peters said being competitive is the key to survival.
The company´s vice president of sales and marketing said it works either way, and the real difference maker is in maintaining a flexible, cooperative and engaged work force as opposed to one that is not.
"Companies who have decades of labor/management problems embedded in their cost models and psyches have a problem whether there are unions or not," Peters said. "We work very hard to stay out in front of this."
Wilkerson said everyone in the tire industry is dealing with the reality that 15 percent of the tire manufacturing capacity in the U.S. and Canada has been shut down in the last 18 months, and that fact brings another reality into focus: you have to be able to deliver to your own market at a cost lower than the competition.
"If not, then your business model is not sustainable," he said. "The USW wants to protect the jobs that exist, but they´re realists, too, at the end of the day, and they understand what we´re all facing."
The USW´s Gerard believes it´s the charge of organized labor to not only protect the rights and holdings of union members, but to try to change the economic direction of the country, no matter what writing may be on the wall.
"I think everyone who works in the union knows it´s our collective responsibility," he said. "Workers´ wages are stagnant or falling and industrial jobs are in decline."
But he added that it´s also the responsibility of the companies within those industries to help and keep jobs in North America.
As for the future of unions in the U.S., "we´ll see," Bloom said.
"It´s pretty obvious by the fact that we´ve done a pretty poor job of persuading most workers that they want a union, largely because the companies are able to fire people as soon as they say they want a union," he said. "The average rational worker doesn´t want to put his job on the line each day, a perfectly rational decision."
For those who have chosen or will choose union representation, there´s still much worthwhile work to be done to help them, Bloom said.
"We can´t stop every factory closing, and we can´t fix all that´s wrong, but I think the key role of unions today is to give people a measure of protection in a very unfriendly world," he said. "I think that´s a role that´s more needed now than it´s ever been needed. Sometimes that means making economic changes or working for less or working differently or giving up things you´ve won over the years."
Generally, the union record on what it´s able to achieve for people is very good, Bloom said. "It´s not all they deserve, and we don´t get people justice," he said. "But we get them all a hell of a lot more than what they´d get without us."