The United Steelworkers union believes its main mission is to protect American jobs. In order to be successful, it needs to be able to work with management.
It's not always easy, but it is necessary.
“It's been a phenomenally tough period,” said Stan Johnson, USW international secretary treasurer. “The industry has changed so much in the U.S., really beginning in that late 1980s-early 1990s period when there were so many foreign companies coming in and buying U.S. assets.”
And foreign firms that do choose to set up shop usually select a state without a union presence. Recent examples include Michelin, Bridgestone, Continental and Giti in South Carolina; Yokohama in Mississippi; and Hankook in Tennessee. U.S.-based Goodyear dodged the issue altogether when it chose Mexico over its home country for its latest North American tire plant, a decision Johnson described as disappointing.
The landscape certainly has changed over the years, but Johnson said the union just keeps adapting with the times. As trade becomes more prominent, the USW fights to ensure the playing field is fair, petitioning the International Trade Commission three times in the last year to bring antidumping tariffs against tire imports from Asia, specifically China.
“The need of the union to change in the way it reacted became a necessity,” Johnson said. “We started facing certain foreign competition, then there was a substantial number of plant closures that happened across all manufacturers. We reacted to that, and we modified how we both negotiated. We started negotiating protections, not just contracts for the workers that worked in the facilities, but protections for the facilities themselves.”
But at the end of the day, union and management need one another. Robert Hughes, president of Overland Resource Group, a third party organization that aims to have employers and unions work together to improve performance, said many places in the market have organized labor. If it exists, divorce isn't really an option, which means the sides can either fight or collaborate.
He added that unions can lead to a more active employee engagement process if both union and management are out selling it.
“I've yet to see a local union do better while the organization that their work force works in does worse,” he said. “Even though not typically seen as the role of unions to help the company do better, it is clearly in their best interest if it's done well, and it's done right.”