Union Workers

First-hand accounts of the frustrations and bright spots for American organized labor

Marty Beil
Executive Director,
Wisconsin State Employees Union

Beil, 65, is leading an effort to recall Governor Scott Walker, who signed a law curtailing bargaining rights for state workers.

We’re in the middle of a drive to recall the governor. We have 60 days to basically get 575,000 petitions signed. We are going to every nook and cranny around the state. To meetings, to Green Bay Packers games. On Black Friday, at shopping centers, we were there. As of yesterday [Dec. 6] we had about 450,000 signatures. We’re signing up about 20,000 people a day. It shows how deep the feeling of angst is.

This year has been a huge challenge for us. We saw our collective bargaining rights being taken away by our governor. What’s been interesting is that though it’s not been the best of times, our membership has really coalesced around this. We’ve seen a renewed sense of militancy amongst our members.

This is the biggest fight of my career. Everything else pales in comparison. It started when the governor introduced the bill on Valentine’s Day, and the day after there were 15,000 workers in the capital square. The next day we had 20,000 and then 30,000. And then we had 120,000. We had people sleeping in the capital, occupying the capital. People were so taken aback.

The energy started in February and continued to the spring. We recalled two state senators. And people kept saying, “When will we have a chance to recall the governor?”
Ghana Goodwin-Dye
President, Local 909,
United Auto Workers
Goodwin-Dye, 49, works at a GM transmissions plant in Michigan. She was on the UAW’s negotiating team in contract talks this fall.

During this contract year we were worried that we’d have to give up more for the company to succeed. We were worried we’d have to take pay cuts, we’d have to give away more things. At our plant they no longer build the four-speed transmission. So that was a big worry on my members’ minds—if we were going to get some new work.

It wasn’t like back in the day, when they would be pounding fists on the table, screaming and hollering. This time the atmosphere was different because of the bankruptcy. It was our job to come up with the best contract we could, return jobs to the U.S., and keep General Motors afloat. I believe we accomplished that.

Management wanted to take away our pensions. That was something we were not willing to give up. We maintained our wages. We got a better profit-sharing plan. Before, GM had their own profit-sharing formula that no one could figure out. Now it’s simplified. If they make $52 billion in profits, we each get $5,200.

I first started working for GM in 1985. I’ve seen huge improvements. Instead of management saying, “I know what I’m doing, I don’t need advice,” the person who is on the job is the expert. That’s where GM really fell down. They didn’t utilize the knowledge or expertise of the workers who do that job every day.
Ron Harp
Transport Workers Union
Harp, 54, an American Airlines mechanic, talks about what the company’s bankruptcy filing means for him and his co-workers.

My grandfather worked for the Federal Aviation Administration. My dad worked for Continental. He was with them for 38 years but was laid off within 18 months of when he wanted to retire. And here I am going through what I’m going through.

This is my third bankruptcy. I started my career with TWA in 1977. The company filed for bankruptcy in 1992. Everybody lost a week of vacation. We didn’t lose our pensions at that point, but the plan was frozen. The second bankruptcy was in 1995. That’s when the pension plan was terminated.

Labor groups today are more savvy. I believe we’ll be well represented in the bankruptcy. We’ll be better positioned with the cash on hand that the company has, but I’m not counting on it. Employees are pretty low on the totem pole when it comes to the reorganization.

I worked at an overhaul base in Kansas City where people had worked for 20 or 30 years. By the time the base closed last September, we were down to about 400 employees. I crated up my toolbox and put it on a truck to Dallas. I basically took a large cut in pay just to keep a job.

I can’t say whether this will ever get back to where it would be a good job. The saddest part is that the craftsmanship and know-how are not being passed on to the next generation.
— As told to Elizabeth Dwoskin

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