Working with unions and management in Keokuk, Iowa
Living in Keokuk usually involved a job where you were either in an organized union or part of management. Many companies utilized the cheap and nearby electrical power source in the early 20’s and on, to locate a manufacturing facility in the town, and many are still functioning today. I had the pleasure of many fruitful years working in a union job, and saw the pros and cons of both union and management.
Of course the unions were meant to bring a sense of security and also a sense of stability to the job you worked at. Most factory jobs are an endless repetition of small tasks, that are repeated hundreds and sometimes thousands of times a day. Knowing that the company cannot fire you for any reason, knowing that an eight hour day and forty hour week are the norm, with medical insurance and other safety valves available, was quite reassuring. The benefits earned by early union organizers were greatly appreciated by the workforce at these factories. I myself was able to raise children comfortably, buy a house , save some money, go on a vacation occasionally and have a few perks that I did not see the guy working at Hy-Vee have. Of course I worked very hard, in a factory without air conditioning, under brutal noise and air pollution, doing jobs that were quite difficult to do.
Most people in the upper management tier were far removed from the small and necessary details of life on the factory floor. An occasional person would emerge, who actually understood the complex and ever changing nature of working on the floor, but believe me, they were few and far between. No matter, we rarely saw top management in the trenches anyhow. Every now and then a new plant manager would walk into the factory and announce a ‘introductory’ meeting with all employees. Since it was in the factory and after our regular shift, we got paid to be there, at time and a half. The speeches seemed to be all the same, he (always a guy) was going to change the world, implement his view on us and make everything great in our little centralized world. Sometimes that was the last time we ever saw the guy, no shit… Sometimes he would troll the factory aisles with a backup crew taking notes and this would last a few weeks until he disappeared into his office where we were not allowed.
The next level of management was the shift supervisors, section supervisors and foreman who dealt out the job assignments and controlled the situation on the floor. In my opinion, the foremen had the toughest jobs, they were the lowest tier of management and were made to answer for all the mistakes done by the union workers. And the mistakes and misdeeds were an everyday happening. I saw many a good person reduced to an angry shell of a human in the space of about six months. You needed a very thick skin to be a good foreman, and had to be prepared to discipline people you considered friends in an earlier time.
In between the top and bottom management were the mid level folks who had very little interaction with the workers. Human resources was there when you got hired, and that was about it. The secretaries and payroll and insurance people were always very helpful, and as long as you followed their instructions, treated you like an equal. Very nice people in middle management. Since I was located on the floor 99% of the time and was a union peon, I was not privy at the time to any behind the scenes drama or crisis in management.
Now, I will say this, the management at the factory I worked at was total professional almost 100% of my time that I worked there. I had a few issues from time to time, but on the whole, the management team worked with me and guided me to solutions that were acceptable to me. I viewed them as fair and following the set down rules, whether it be union guidelines or company policy. I saw many folks who balked at the most stupidest things, and they held their ground till they were unceremoniously fired, losing a job, insurance, pensions, vacation time etc etc. And I do mean stupid, unwilling to adhere to a safety rule, missing work on a continuous basis, arguing endlessly with a boss. I am sure you get the picture.
The other management people that I dealt with on a near daily basis was the tech people, the ones who fine tuned the machines or worked on the production samples from time to time. Again, very nice people, didn’t go around barking orders and causing grief.
Back to the foreman, both men and women, I have to say some were great, others just plain awful. I had foremen who screamed at me at 9 AM, and at 2:30 were asking in the nicest tones your plans for the weekends. Others were very considerate and would actually say stuff like “I hate to do this, but my boss wants this to happen”, and then spell out some discipline or whatever.
I remember many a management (usually a technician) person coming into the plant brand new, and demanding to change the way we went about doing some job. They would say, “This is the way I want it done,” and of course, we knew better from past experience that what he was proposing would just cause scrap. I actually tried to speak up and say, “Hey we tried that and it doesn’t work because…” but they didn’t want to listen. They were the boss, had a college degree and they were in charge. This happened time and again, many, many times. If I wasn’t sure whether it worked or not, I kept my mouth shut, but when it came to just stupid orders that I knew wouldn’t work, I spoke up, twice. It became very clear they didn’t want my input so I just went along for the ride and produced a bunch of garbage for them. They of course would come back to me, the operator of the machine, to try to make it seem as if I was the one who caused hundreds, and sometimes thousands of dollars of shit going to the dump. I would tell them every time, “I followed your instructions to the tee, if you have a problem with my efforts, please contact my foreman and talk to him”. Sometimes the guy would contact my boss, and of course the boss seemed to always side with me, because he had full confidence in me and the work I put out. The poor soul would also be suggested to ask the operator (me) for their input in any further experiments, as the operator had many years of service and experience and was trustworthy.
So on the whole, I had no problem with management, got along great with several of them, but also avoided at all costs the guys (and gals) with the ‘Hitler’ label attached to them, they were real crazy, I and do mean crazy, folks. Some of the foremen I worked for, came down hard on me for whatever reason, while I tried to explain that what happened was unavoidable and they wouldn’t listen at all. Yet a couple hours later, they would come back and apologize, which I thought showed real class, and after that I would go the extra mile for them, always.
Management always paid me every payday, never cheated me out of wages earned, gave me holidays off, vacations, free meals now and then, never cursed me, treated me with respect, when I was sick they understood, when I was treated bad by fellow coworkers they intervened, when I suggested better ways to do the job they listened, I really had no complaints after all those years…
Unions were created to give the workers power to negotiate certain terms of their employment to be reasonable and secure. Better working conditions, better wages, safer woking conditions, and the power to go on strike if those negotioations were to break down. And they worked. People died by the hundreds to get the unions organized and in place. Many obstacles, including the federal and state governments trying to break the unions, were in place, but the workers prevailed and the unions are still a force to be reckoned with.
When I was hired, after a few weeks I was asked to join the union. Never even really knew what a union was at the time, and it was explained how they helped get us wage increases and other goodies. So I joined. Just a few bucks a month straight out of my paycheck and I got a little card and a lapel pin. Other than that I really didn’t do much with the union. Went to a picnic or two each summer, took my kids to the Christmas party and took home a gift bag that they gave out. And every time we negotiated a new contract and had to vote on it, I always went to the big meeting to discuss it. And I always voted in the contract vote.
The unions as stated before are a powerful force in the country and help to make the working class a better station in life, I have no qualms about that. Yet it appears the perception by non union people is that it is outdated, corrupt and of little use in today’s society. Two sides to every argument. I never was one to beat my chest and argue either way, yet I was in the union where I worked, so I am entitled to express my experiences, be they for, or against. Most of my views are simply personal observations, reality observations…
After a while I noticed that there were three times of people working in the plant; 1) Pro union to the point of union business and ideals overtook everything they talked about and thought about, 2) People who never joined the union and were subsequently called scabs and didn’t seem to care, 3) and everyone else in the middle. The middle portion was about 99% of the workforce. I was part of that 99% group. The pro union fanatics constantly were talking about the horrible way the company treated us, the near poverty wages, and the slave like labor being forced on the workforce. Of course I would look around and see none of this, and wonder where they came up with this opinion, I honestly thought they were kooks. It was always a select few, and they were always complaining. They professed to never buying a foreign car, never shopping in a Wal Mart for whatever reason, and even told how they would lecture their own children on the evils of supporting non union enterprises. Some even told of singing union songs at gatherings they went to, I did not even realize union songs existed, but yep, they do. Check them out here.
The union put out a pretty lame newsletter that preached the same values and every issue contained a list of ‘Do not buy’ retailers who went against the grain of union thought or some other non union crime. The newsletter also from time to time would print the names of the workforce who were not union members, I assume so we could either try to convince them of their evil ways, or spit on them as we passed them in the workplace. It was never really made clear why this was done. To shame them or something ? Pretty sophomoric in my opinion. Anyway, the newsletter kept us all up to date on the union’s activities on our behalf, and announced upcoming union meetings and conferences held throughout the year all over the state and country. I would read it and ultimately file it under ‘Whatever’ and forget it.
So about 15 years into my employment, I thought well why not see who I pay my ever increasing dues to, and I went to the local meeting. I worked the afternoon shift at the time, and the meeting was at like 10:30 or 11:00 in the morning for 2nd and 3rd shifters and another was held in the afternoon for the day shift folks. I arrived (by walking there because my wife used the car for her job) a little early and had brought a 16 oz bottle of Pepsi with me which I was told in no uncertain terms was not allowed in the labor hall. I asked, “For goodness sakes, why not ?”, and was told they sold soft drinks at the labor hall bar and I could get one there. I put my soda down outside to retrieve later on (completely puzzled at this ‘rule’) and made myself somewhat comfortable in the 40 or so fold out chairs in the room. There was a desk set up and several chairs set up by the desk in front of the room facing me, presumably for the union officials.
The meeting was brought to order and the 6 or 7 union people took their places while I was the only person in the audience. Just me. They went through the protocol proceedings and then mentioned several planned events and projects they had talked about in previous meetings and did anyone want to volunteer ? They all looked at me, needless to say I didn’t volunteer, mainly because I had no clue what they were talking about or what ‘volunteering’ exactly entailed. They did this several times and always asked for volunteers from the audience (again, just me). The meeting wrapped up in about 15 minutes and one of the officials mentioned getting lunch somewhere and pretty much an open invitation to me to go along. I declined, but did ask if someone could possibly give me a lift to my house, to which I was told “Sorry, we are not going that way” without even asking where in town I lived. So I grabbed my Pepsi and walked home, wondering why I even bothered to go in the first place.
OK, I thought I would give it another chance and went to the meeting the next month, again with my Pepsi, which for some reason didn’t seem to bother them this time. Again, I was the only one in the audience with 6 or 7 officials at the head of the room conducting the meeting. Again, the asking for volunteers, this time I did volunteer to take photographs of something the union found important enough to document with a photo. I asked about payment for the film and they said to keep the receipts and I would be reimbursed. I again asked for a ride at the end of this meeting and was told, nope, again. I took the photos, saved the receipts, went to the next meeting with the photos (which they loved and used in the next newsletter), gave them the receipts and was promptly forgot about. It wasn’t much, just a few dollars, but hey, just pay me back. I never mentioned it to them again and walked home again after asking for a ride please.
Upon noticing my interest at attending the union meetings, I was approached by a couple of hard core union members and asked if I wanted to go to a symposium in Des Moines later in the summer. It included speeches, workshops, workgroups and other activities that lasted about 3 or 4 days. I said sure, and they told me that a van was taking them there and all hotel and eating fees were to be absorbed by the union. Cool. I was further told how after the obligatory attendance at the event would be followed by a raucous time at Hooters, followed by a gambling excursion at the racetrack or casino, trips to Adventureland and other things. I mentioned I really wasn’t into Hooters, gaming, Adventureland and other things. They said , “Hey, not only does the union pick up the bill for hotel and eats, but you also get paid for missing work !!!”. I then mentioned that I was actually on vacation that week and was getting paid anyhow. They said, “Change your vacation and get an extra free week in Des Moines !!!” I told them I was fine with it and still looking forward to going to find out about union business.
About 3 weeks before the event I was again asked if I still wanted to go, since I had never said anything to the contrary, I found it rather odd, but told them yes, I was ready. About 10 days later I was told the heartbreaking news that I couldn’t go because the van wasn’t big enough or something to that effect. So I never did go to Des Moines and spend the union dime at Hooters and gambling and Adventureland. What a bunch of lame asses, just cause I didn’t want to party or something I got taken off the list of attendees. And when they told me I wasn’t going, it was just “Sorry”, and they moved on…
So I thought about it a bit and came to the conclusion that the ‘officials’ in my union used any excuse to get out of doing any actual work, and then on top of that, get paid for it anyhow, on my union dime, which now had almost tripled in dues since I started. Let me list the ways I found my union to be not so quite pure bred, snow white and above the standard of ‘doing the right thing’…
- Union president was paid a full wage of 44 hours a week, and did not even have to show their face in the plant once in his whole term… NOT ONCE… In fact the only time I ever saw the person was when they ran for election and was looking for votes…
- The officials at the monthly meeting also got the day off paid to hold their little meetings that no one really seems to attend and nothing seemed to ever get done. So now add 6 or 7 ‘officials’ to the total of getting 12 extra paid days off a year. At the meeting, I watched as the secretary read the minutes and the treasurer gave the balance and that was it, the others just watched and listened and seemed to be happy they weren’t working. I often wondered if I hadn’t showed up to be the only member there, would they still have even bothered with a meeting ?
- The union ‘events’, including the one I was invited to ( and unceremoniously uninvited to ), were held all year, at different locations, under the guise of different names, which our union always supplied the same members to attend, so they could snooze a couple hours at the event, and then party till the cows came home for the rest of the time.
- The actual ‘officials’: President, vice president, secretary, treasurer. Seems reasonable enough. But wait, that wasn’t enough, now they needed a ‘sergeant at arms’ to prevent people with Pepsis from walking in. And now we needed a ‘financial secretary’ and a ‘recording secretary’, several ‘trustees’, ‘guides’, an ‘inside guard’, an ‘outside guard’ and who knows who else on the union dime taking the day off to watch for illegal Pepsis…
- The actual ‘officials’ part 2: Laziest bunch of workers I ever met in my life. Almost every one of them carried a ‘Doctor’s slip’ that prevented them from doing almost any kind of work, prohibited them from working more than 8 hours a day or 40 hours a week. And this was the case for years and years. I honestly watched as employees cancelled stuff because they had to work overtime, while these spineless fools laughed at our predicament, while they packed up and left for the day, I kid you not.
- The actual ‘officials’ part 3: One ‘official’ in particular was a freakin’ genius. In the break room, where he could be found most of the time, he emphatically stated over and over how he knew how to run the country better, knew how to run the company better, knew how to do anything better than anyone. I am sure everyone out there know the type, a regular blow hard, hot air, full of himself know it all. And I will never ever forget the time we are sitting there listening to this piece of shit, Doctor slip carrying, never working overtime, when a supervisor poked his head in the door and told the asshole he was going to work on a different section than his usual section. He all the sudden expressed how he had no training for that job, didn’t know anything about it, couldn’t do it blah blah blah… Everyone, AND I MEAN EVERYONE ELSE in that room, knew how to do almost any job in the plant. This guy was just a waste of space in that plant, even on his regular job, he was pretty much useless because he always seemed to need to be somewhere else (usually on union ‘business’).
- The actual ‘officials’ part 4: While I worked there I had several times where I needed to go to a doctor or dentist and I always, ALWAYS, scheduled my appointments before or after work. I can’t tell you the number of people who made all their appointments for medical care during their time of work. It was perfectly allowable, all you needed was a doctor’s excuse saying that you were there at the dr’s office. But here is the catch, the appointment was invariably at 2 hours into the shift, and they never came back, AND this was almost every week for years and years. I remember one lady I worked with who said she had a dentist appointment, I asked “What needed to be done ?”, she said ‘she’ wasn’t seeing the dentist but needed to take her son. Sounded reasonable, until after she left, and another co-worker informed me her son was 22 years old !!! And he had a job in another factory !!! She used this same excuse to leave work at least 20 times in one year… Pitiful… Later I found out the son was perfectly capable of caring for himself, and perfectly capable of driving a car… What a perfect union scam… Of course, you didn’t get paid for skipping work so flagrantly, but that didn’t seem to bother any of the scammers…
The rampant drug and alcohol abuse among the working members, that went on in the 70’s and 80’s and 90’s was staggering… I actually watched about 6 people drink themselves to death, watched as the drug addicted fell into a trap of non functioning humanity, that resulted in them being relieved of their jobs for missed time, or unbelievable drug induced behavior. Really, really, sad scenes… One alky proclaimed over and over to imaginary listeners how a better job awaited him at this other factory. This fellow was nice until he took a drink, then everyone avoided him like the plaque as his behavior turned ugly. So after working some 20 years and looking forward to a pension and several weeks vacation and seniority benefits, he quit in the delusional dream he had created that everything would now be so much better in the new job. He lasted 6 months, at the end of one workday he retrieved his trusty 12 gauge from the trunk, and blew his brains out in the parking lot of his dream job.
Drinking, sex, more drinking, NASCAR, and hunting and killing the most deer in a week were the preferred topics that were heard constantly in the conversations among the workers. I once mentioned how I had read an interesting book over the course of last week, and was met with scorn and derision and comments how ‘they hadn’t read a book since high school’. What a bunch of idiots…
Another story to share before I quit with my working days in Keokuk…
The Insurance Claim
Everyone has their insurance story, right ? I have a few but I want to relate one that happened not to me but another fellow worker, and it includes a side twist story concerning the union.
A friend of mine at work ( a female) was looking rather dejected one day, and started to tell me the tale of how our insurance company at work was refusing to pay a legitimate claim she had made on behalf of her child. She said the child was injured and that the insurance was somehow refusing payment for one reason or another. I said go to the personal office and take it up with them and she said she tried two times with negative results. I then told her it might be a good idea to bring the union around and see what they say. She said she also tried that but the union told her that ‘their hands were tied’ in this circumstance. I asked what did that mean ‘their hands were tied’, and she just shrugged and said that is what they said. So I asked, “That was it ? no help at all?”, and she said yes.
She actually had the papers denying the payments on her and showed them to me, and I asked if she just didn’t try calling the insurance company herself, yep, she tried that several times. They wanted paid, and the next logical step was collection agency time. She asked if I could help and I told her that I would try, but I didn’t see any way I really could. The next day she brought all relevant papers about the injury, hospital visits, doctors visits, medication and what not, to work and handed them all to me. This seemed to have been going on for 8 months !!!
That night I looked at every document and read them twice, copied them on my computer for further reference, and began writing the insurance company a letter wanting to know why they were deliberately denying payment on a claim, that seemed by all standards to be in order. I wanted answers, and I meant specific answers, and told them my next step was legal action against them. I thanked them for their consideration and signed off as the girl at work.
The next day I gave her the letter and copied documents and instructed her to sign her name and mail it off to the insurance company and then I crossed my fingers hoping for some sort of good news. I didn’t have to wait long.
I think it was within 8 days I came into work, and she showed up with the biggest smile on her face with a letter in her hand. She practically shouted out that they paid in full and apologized for the delay, hoping it had not been a hardship on her. I looked at the letter and indeed they paid everything, actually sent her the check to pay the bills. I told her that made me happy also and wished her well. Not the end of story….
In her celebrating mood she walked over to the union cubby hole office in the factory, and handed over the letter to the president (who just happened to be there that day), and asked why he couldn’t do what I had done ??? He said his ‘hands were tied’ blah blah and she cried ‘bull shit’, told them they were just lazy and all it took was letter written to the insurance company by a competent person (me) to get results. She told them they were worthless and walked out.
About an hour later I was contacted to report to the union office, so I did, wondering just what they could possibly want. Yeah, they had the freakin’ nerve to tell me to not interfere with other peoples problems, that is what the union and front office were for. At first I just stood there stunned that this low life asshole would actually accuse me of doing something wrong in this circumstance. I mentioned to the creep that I actually had got done what they couldn’t. What was the fucking problem ? No answer… I told him to rethink his position, and maybe contact me as a paid consultant next time someone had a problem and your “Hands are tied”. Never heard from the deadbeat union again.
In the end I always wondered why they were asking for volunteers to do these mundane union chores at the meetings, when it seems that they were the people with the most spare time on their hands. Worthless people eager to hold on to their positions of less than zero worth, while the rest of us suffered through a true day of work…
The labor day parades were good though, and at the big picnic at the Labor Hall after the parade, there was always several good fights to watch between drunken clods and alcoholic morons.
Today I think I wasted a whole boatload of money on a stupid union membership….
When my kids got older and ready for their lives on their own, I told them to get a professional title and stay as far away from unions as you can… And they did…
‘Look for the Union Label’ – and pay twice as much….