How to Keep Unions Strong Under “Right-to-Work”

Alexandra Bradbury February 8, 2017

The Jeffboat story might reassure you—because their secrets to maintaining membership aren’t expensive or complicated. (Scott Beale / Laughing Squid / Flickr)

This arti­cle was first post­ed by Labor Notes.

Plen­ty of union offi­cers are jus­ti­fi­ably wor­ried about how many mem­bers will quit their unions if Con­gress or the Supreme Court impos­es right to work” con­di­tions on the whole coun­try.

But when right to work hit Indi­ana in 2012, it didn’t have much impact at the Jeff­boat ship­yard in Jef­fer­son­ville. I believe we only have one per­son that’s dropped out,” said Team­sters Local 89 Busi­ness Agent Jeff Coop­er. That’s one out of 700.

The Jeff­boat sto­ry might reas­sure you — because their secrets to main­tain­ing mem­ber­ship aren’t expen­sive or com­pli­cat­ed. The union has a deep bench of stew­ards who seek out and address work­place prob­lems. Because mem­bers strike when nec­es­sary, they’ve won good wages and health insur­ance that make the val­ue of the union con­tract self-evi­dent. And they’re sys­tem­at­ic about ask­ing new hires to join.

The ship­yard stretch­es a mile and a half along a river­front. It’s a tough place to work — hot in the sum­mer, cold in the win­ter, wet when it rains. Much of the work is done in con­fined spaces.

And it’s dan­ger­ous. Chief Stew­ard Ron­nie Waiz, near­ing retire­ment after 48 years on the job, can rat­tle off the exact date and time of each work­place fatal­i­ty. Two men fell to their deaths in 2010; one was crushed in 2011.

They’re very painful even to talk about,” he said. I feel respon­si­ble for every employ­ee in this yard.”

Espe­cial­ly since those tragedies, safe­ty is a main union focus. Local 89’s 33 stew­ards join area safe­ty meet­ings and walk around to talk it up,” Waiz says: They ask peo­ple if they have prob­lems, and try to solve their prob­lems. If they can’t get them fixed with their super­vi­sor, it moves to the next lev­el. If they can’t work it out, it goes to me.”

Sign them up

Local 89 has nego­ti­at­ed the right to spend 30 – 45 min­utes ori­ent­ing all new hires — with the boss out of the room. It’s usu­al­ly Waiz who makes the presentation. 

Nine­ty per­cent of them are first-time union peo­ple,” he says. So he starts from square one, explain­ing how the con­tract works, how much dues are, who will be your stew­ard, and what you get out of union mem­ber­ship. He asks each one to sign a card and autho­rize dues checkoff.

If you don’t join the union, I still have to rep­re­sent you,” he tells new hires, but it would be to your ben­e­fit to join, because [oth­er­wise] you don’t get to vote on con­tracts, you don’t get to enter the union hall. I think it’s the best thing for you and your family.”

Dur­ing strikes, Jeffboat’s attor­neys have encour­aged a hand­ful of mem­bers to drop out and cross the pick­et lines. But Waiz, who nev­er gives up on his co-work­ers, has won them back afterwards.

One who crossed in 2010 did it because his wife was preg­nant and need­ed the insur­ance. I said, You should have come to me. I could have helped you get insur­ance,’” Waiz said. He said, I didn’t think of that.’ But he has since come in, and he is a strong union member.”

You’ve got to fight

Sev­er­al strikes, includ­ing a wild­cat, have forced Jeff­boat to respect work­ers’ pow­er. In 2006 the com­pa­ny tried to decer­ti­fy the union.

But after that failed, Jeff­boat decid­ed they want­ed to get along,” Coop­er said. The par­ties nego­ti­at­ed a con­tract in 2007 with a big pay increase. On day-to-day mat­ters, man­age­ment got eas­i­er to deal with.

Still, work­ers went on strike again in 2010. Jeff­boat want­ed to raise their share of health care costs from 10 per­cent to 20. After a five-week strike, they end­ed up com­ing to us and say­ing, Okay, fine, you’re right. We’ll give it to you,’” Waiz said.

Mem­bers still pay 10 per­cent. We’ve got the best insur­ance in south­ern Indi­ana for a com­pa­ny our size,” Waiz said. At Ford Motor and GE, they wish they had ours.

Some­times you’ve got to stand up and fight for what you think’s best.” That’s what makes work­ers loy­al to their union.

Alexan­dra Brad­bury is the edi­tor of Labor Notes, a mag­a­zine and orga­niz­ing project ded­i­cat­ed to putting the move­ment back in the labor movement.
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