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Why I Joined (and Still Support) Unions

by Joe Bowser


Union activity is very much active and in the news these days. There is a movement in the Bladen County community of Tar Hill to unionize a pork processing plant there. Just recently an effort to unionize Cannon Mills in Rowan and Cabarrus Counties failed. The vote was not a complete loss for the union—of the 5,000 votes which were cast, nearly half were in favor of the union. That speaks loud and clear that this effort is not dead. Having a number of this magnitude voting for the union indicates a need for change that will come.

The forefront of the labor union issue recently was the strike at UPS. Like the battle that was waged and won by the K-Mart workers in Greensboro last year, labor won this one also. A labor win at UPS was a labor win for all working- class individuals in America.

Why do individuals who manage a company feel that they must make more money in one year than almost all working class people make in a lifetime? Should the workers not strike to change this mentality, and to assure a fair return for their labor? Why should one official in a company make more money than hundreds or perhaps thousands of working class individuals combined?

The reason is pure old common greed and selfishness.

This mentality must be broken in consideration—not only for employees—but for other businesses as well. Hundreds if not thousands of small businesses might have had to cease operation because of the UPS strike. This would have translated into thousands of non-UPS jobs lost. Should greed at the top of UPS have inflicted this on our society? The answer is obvious.

This activity is just a part of the American way that I have learned and become accustomed to as a union member. What workers at UPS went through recently reflects what I have gone through several times while working for the railroad... Yes, another transportation entity.

I began my service with the railroad on Monday May 13, 1974. My first assignment was to relieve the agent in Gretna, Virginia. While at Gretna this Monday , I received a call from the division chairman for the labor organization (which I was supposed to already be covered by).

He commenced to tell me that I was now required to become a member of a labor organization that represented rail employees. He stated that the union I must join was the Brotherhood of Railroad, Airline, and Steamship Clerks (BRAC).

At that time I had a less than favorable perception of labor unions simply because of the miseducation I had received about them. No one in my family or any of my associates had ever belonged to a labor union. Therefore, the only knowledge that I had of labor union was what I had learned from media or read from reading materials.

I was very reluctant to agree to join the union until the union official informed me that he would turn me in to the railroad personnel office. It was explained to me that my employment would be terminated for refusing to join the union. At this point, I had no choice but to agree to join as had been requested.

After joining the union and studying the material they provided, I realized that I was getting a bargain for the monthly dues that I was required to pay. The union was a blanket of protection for me at all times when it related to my job.

The union protected me by seeing to it that I received a fair and decent wage for my labor. It made sure that other benefits such as health and dental insurance were adequate. It fought for good working conditions including making sure that I was not subjected to certain working hours and shifts. Whenever there was a problem in employment, the union always stood by. It even sent representatives to act as council at labor hearings.

The union handled every grievance I ever ask them to handle—including any and all appeals when necessary. These grievances or appeals were handled for any action that the railroad brought upon an employee. Some times these appeals would be litigated up to the U.S. Labor Board.

Being a union member helped to make sure race and gender did not play a part in the way you were treated at work. Everyone came under a uniform set of codes. Everything was unified including pay. I know that my tenure on the railroad would have been much shorter and different had it not been for the union. The railroad knew that the union would fight any mistreatment of its members and if necessary up to the U.S. Labor Board. Race and gender had no bearing at all, it only amounted to being a member of the union.

I was fortunate enough to stay with the railroad long enough to see females break into and work traditional male jobs. This include females being engineers and operating long heavy trains. It was nice to see a female work in one of the top paying (if not the top paying) unionized job on the railroad. Remember, because of the union negotiating blanket contracts women are paid and protected the same as males.

When the union went into negotiation with the industry to hammer out a contract to protect their members, I found each instance to be tough and drawn out. During my years on the railroad, there were several negotiating periods where a strike was called. I remember very well walking the picket lines. None of the strikes lasted very long—not over a week. They produced the desired results and, again, the financial health of the industry was never damaged as had been asserted. Furthermore, I do not think the union would be unreasonable and seek a contract that would destroy the company.

Unionization is good for every working class person (which most of us are). We need to educate ourselves more about unions so that they will receive the due appreciation they deserve. Whether we know it or not, unionization has influenced most working class jobs that pay a decent wage and have respectable benefits. Many companies have gone ahead and treated their employees right in order to avoid unionization.

  Joe Bowser is a Durham City Councilman. This essay courtesy of The Trumpet of Conscience; it constitutes no endorsement of The Prism or any of its contents. For subscriptions or information contact The Trumpet of Conscience at Box 3354, Durham NC 27702.  

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