United We Stand 

Assessing an uncertain future for organized labor in Missoula

About 50 union members took to Russell Street in front of Wells Fargo Bank on a recent overcast afternoon, chanting and carrying signs reading, "Jobs, not banker bonuses" and "You got bailed out, we got sold out." The local protest, which coincided with a simultaneous New York City march that drew roughly 10,000 people, aimed to give Congress notice that organized labor wants wholesale reform of the nation's financial system.

"Wall Street has gambled with our economy, has gambled with our jobs. And they're getting away with it," says Missoula Area Central Labor Council President Mark Anderlik, who helped coordinate the event with Americans for Financial Reform.

Listening to Anderlik, there's urgency in his voice—and for good reason. A series of crippling economic blows have left local unions reeling. Smurfit Stone Container Corp. closed its Frenchtown mill in January, eliminating 417 union jobs, some of which paid as much as $70,000. In 2008, Stimson Lumber Mill's Bonner plant closed after 122 years in business. In its heyday, the plant employed nearly 1,000 people. Even worse, those displaced workers entered a historically poor job market. Missoula County's unemployment rate currently sits at 7.9 percent, the highest it's been since 1991.

For Anderlik, the Wells Fargo demonstration hits at the heart of the problem: As Wall Street receives billion-dollar bailouts, CEOs continue to rake in huge bonuses and industry jobs leave town, financial reform becomes a necessity. He believes fellow union members must come together to form one strong voice, and utilize what they've always counted on to enact change: unity.

"This is the only way workers can have a fair shake in any society," says Anderlik, who wears a hat for the rally that states "Jobs with justice," and a button that reads, "Kicking ass for the working class."

"Through organizing," adds Missoula resident Ruth O' Connor, a member of the American Postal Workers Union at the rally, "it gives a voice, even to the weak...It means that we have some kind of solidarity for decent jobs and decent pay."

While he's heartened by the turnout in front of Wells Fargo, Anderlik admits that his ranks are thinning. In addition to presiding over the labor council, the 51-year-old serves as executive officer for Unite Here Local 427, which represents roughly 500 maids, hospitality workers and dishwashers across the state. Private sector unions, like the Local 427, have seen a significant dip in numbers.

"Here in Montana, we're struggling to maintain," he says.

click to enlarge About 50 union members gathered on Russell Street in front of Wells Fargo Bank at the end of April to support a financial reform bill now working its way through Congress. “Through organizing,” says Ruth O’ Connor of the American Postal Workers Union, “it gives a voice, even to the weak.” - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • About 50 union members gathered on Russell Street in front of Wells Fargo Bank at the end of April to support a financial reform bill now working its way through Congress. “Through organizing,” says Ruth O’ Connor of the American Postal Workers Union, “it gives a voice, even to the weak.”

In fact, the numbers from the demonstration underscore the point. Most of those marching along Russell Street are attending a regional American Postal Workers Union (APWU) convention. Roughly 10 of the 50 demonstrators come from the local APWU chapter, and two attendees—including Anderlik—represent Unite Here. The rest are from out of town.

Anderlik says the local turnout is usually stronger for issues that hit closer to home, and explains that national politicking is still a pretty new push. Nevertheless, the scene sends a strong message: Solidarity only goes so far if there are fewer and fewer workers standing together.

The story of Montana's labor union movement runs deeper than the copper mines that color its early years. The effort started in 1878, when copper barons told miners at the Alice and Lexington silver mines that if they wanted to continue working, they'd have to take a pay cut. Instead of $3.50 per day, he announced salaries would drop to $3. Incensed, 400 miners walked out and took to the streets with a brass band leading the way. That night the miners created the Butte Workingmen's Union.

That first strike proved a success, with miners fending off the wage cut. But the fight was far from over.

At the time, the mining companies paid no benefits to workers. But the Workingmen's Union, later renamed the Butte Miner's Union, did provide a safety net and a voice for laborers.

"It was the only countervailing force for large corporations," says Pat Williams, a nine-term U.S. congressman and lifelong union member who now teaches at the University of Montana.

Williams, now 72, recalls learning about the labor movement by watching his father, a restaurant owner in Butte, negotiate with the Women's Protective Union.

"Although my father was a tough negotiator, because he was on the management side, he would always say to me as a kid, 'I'm trying to protect my profits. But I'm trying to do so in a way that I know there will be a little jingle in the pockets of our workers, because they'll spend in our restaurants,'" Williams says.

That lesson stuck with Williams, who throughout his career has advocated what he calls "percolate-up economics." He believes Main Street stays healthy when employers pay a decent wage. It's a holistic approach to economics that relies on the advocacy unions provide to keep people in power from treading on those who are less powerful.

"They are America's most important institution," he says.

Labor's history in the state is mostly one of large battles waged for small victories. Every so often, though, the movement scores a significant success. Victories gained over the years include implementation of the eight-hour workday, ending child labor, increasing Montana's minimum wage and improving worker safety conditions.

While economic and political landscapes shift over the years, the key to the labor movement—solidarity—has remained the same. Solidarity relies on the basic principle that if one group member is harmed, the rest suffer too. For union members, that's a powerful lure.

"That's the thing that really drew me to the labor movement," says Roy Houseman, a current Missoula councilman and former president of the United Steelworkers Local (USW) 885.

Houseman's first lesson in how organized labor works came soon after he went to work at Smurfit Stone in 2005. The company shorted him holiday pay that first summer. Houseman talked to his union steward, and the steward ensured he was paid.

Unified workers have more pull, Houseman says. They also make more money, on average, earning $2.23 more per hour than non-unionized counterparts in Montana.

click to enlarge The Missoula Area Central Labor Council helped organize a demonstration with Americans for Financial Reform outside a Missoula Wells Fargo last month. The rally coincided with a march in New York City that drew roughly 10,000 people. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • The Missoula Area Central Labor Council helped organize a demonstration with Americans for Financial Reform outside a Missoula Wells Fargo last month. The rally coincided with a march in New York City that drew roughly 10,000 people.

But for a variety of reasons, organized labor's message isn't resonating in the private sector today. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS), union membership has slid significantly during the past 20 years. In 1989 (the earliest year BLS has on record), 17.8 percent of Montana's workforce belonged to unions. Last year, membership comprised just 13.9 percent.

Meanwhile, according to the BLS, wages compared to inflation have stayed flat for at least the past decade. Earnings actually decreased 1.3 percent between 2008 and 2009. That same time period marked an increase in productivity of 2.9 percent.

"One can look at any state in the union and, where union representation is declining, wages are flattening," says Williams. "In those sectors where union is increasing, wages are climbing. And benefits are improving. So it's a direct cause relationship. That's the most critical economic boost that Montana could possibly get."

Mark Anderlik isn't going down without a fight. The organizer says he traveled 20,000 miles last year trying to grow Montana's unions.

"We're scrappy. Let's put it that way," he says.

Anderlik devotes much of his time to simply encouraging people to stand up for themselves. Whether it's verbal abuse from an employer or forced overtime, workers don't have to take it. Empowering people gives him the greatest pride.

"Every day we've got little victories," Anderlik says. "That's really the heart and soul of what unions are about."

But little victories have been hard to come by recently because organizers regularly run up against well-funded opposition. He asserts companies in Montana regularly break federal labor laws to keep unions out of the workplace. It's not tough to find examples. For instance, in January, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which investigates allegations of unfair labor practices, accused DirecTV of firing an employee for attempting to unionize its Missoula call center.

"DirecTV, that's a classic example," Anderlik says.

The company settled two days before the case went to trial. As part of the settlement, the terminated worker received nine months of back pay totaling $21,056. The agreement absolved DirecTV of violating the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and mandated the company post notices stating that federal law gives employees the right to unionize.

"What employer is going to go, 'Hmm, well, that's tough'?" Anderlik asks. "There's no downside for them to do this."

According to the NLRB, last year the public filed 22,943 charges alleging that employers or labor organizations committed unfair labor practices that adversely affected employees.

"That's documented," says Anderlik, "so the [actual number of] incidents is probably way higher."

The statistics are part of the reason Anderlik and other organized labor groups are pushing for the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier to unionize workplaces. The legislation, now in Congress, would also increase penalties imposed on companies found violating the labor law.

That's just a start. Anderlik estimates that someone is fired roughly every hour in this country for union-related activities, making an already difficult job of recruitment that much harder.

click to enlarge Local members of the International Workers of the World (IWW) celebrated May Day with an elaborate parody involving Sir Michael Smurfit and a his reported purchase of a $68 million yacht. “We live in an extremely anti-union country,” says IWW member Jay Bostrom. “There are reasons for it. I’m a teacher. I can tell you that inside schools, we don’t teach it.” - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Local members of the International Workers of the World (IWW) celebrated May Day with an elaborate parody involving Sir Michael Smurfit and a his reported purchase of a $68 million yacht. “We live in an extremely anti-union country,” says IWW member Jay Bostrom. “There are reasons for it. I’m a teacher. I can tell you that inside schools, we don’t teach it.”

"People are so scared of losing their jobs,'" he says, "even though it's against the law."

Jim McGarvey grew up surrounded by the state's labor movement. From his childhood home on North Main Street in Butte, he could hear mine elevator doors crashing throughout the night. He joined the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers at age 15, making a living as a laborer on highway projects before he earned a teaching degree from Carroll College.

"Back then there was a lot of opportunity for young kids to work union jobs," says McGarvey, now 67. "I made good money. The union was very good to me. I didn't know there was any other way."

McGarvey says that while organizing in the private sector is an uphill battle, unions are successfully making gains among government employees.

"People would like you to think we're dying on the vine, our membership," he says, noting that in the public sector, at least, that's not true.

The AFL-CIO has 38,000 active union members, and 23,000 of them are government employees. That's the highest AFL-CIO membership in Montana history, according to McGarvey, who is the union's executive secretary.

The hardscrabble union man takes pride in the numbers. He says he and MEA-MFT president Eric Feaver have brought in a record number of teachers, health care workers and state and local employees. Since 1980, they've grown from 7,334 members to 17,550 today.

McGarvey and Feaver attribute much of the growth to aggressively putting boots on the ground and offering a valuable product. But McGarvey also says there are significant differences between public and private unionizing.

For instance, private industry is more capable and willing to mobilize resources to subvert union activity, McGarvey says. Another big difference is oversight. In Montana, a state labor board oversees public workplace grievances. That makes the ramifications of union busting more immediate.

"The labor board isn't in Denver or Seattle or someplace across the country," he says. "The labor board is right here in Montana."

Another hurdle for private sector unions is elected officials, says McGarvey. He points out that until recently not one contractor working on the massive Superfund cleanup in Butte Silver-Bow County is union. In light of the area's history, he finds that offensive.

"At one time," he says, "you would have never had a situation in Butte where legislators slept through the fact that it wasn't union people doing the work, where their forefathers had died...to get unions.

"You know," he continues, "a corporation, they want to make money, and they don't want to pay good salaries, and they don't care about safety. But when government officials allow—and this is what's happening—all that cleanup work, with not one union job, Butte legislators ought to be ashamed of themselves."

During the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) annual May Day celebration this year gathered at Caras Park. As they arrived, bewildered shoppers looked up to see people in hard hats and overalls pushing a soggy cardboard boat dubbed the "Lady Ann Magee II."

"We'll get boats, toys, all you have to do is work," shouted IWW's Jay Bostrom from the boat's rickety helm.

Bostrom had assumed the persona of Irish packaging tycoon Sir Michael Smurfit in a tongue and cheek salute to International Workers Day. Sir Smurfit was the former chairman of Smurfit Stone's parent company, Smurfit Kappa. The elaborate parody spawned from the packaging tycoon's reported purchase of a $68 million yacht, complete with a gym, movie theater and beauty salon. The purchase came within months of Smurfit Stone's bankruptcy.

"Thank you, Missoula. Thanks for the boat," Bostrom continued.

As part of the skit, a bunch of faux workers then ejected Sir Smurfit from the yacht with the help of someone playing the role of the late legendary labor leader Mother Jones.

After the guerilla theatrics, about 45 people carrying umbrellas and signs—"Socialist and proud" read one, "People not profit" read another—wound down Front Street and up Higgins on the way to Kiwanis Park.

click to enlarge Butte’s Miners Union Local Number One was the first group of underground workers to organize a union in the nation. “They were militant because they were working for pennies a day and no benefits, period, over and out,” says Pat Williams, a Butte native and former nine-term U.S. congressman. - PHOTO COURTESY OF PAT AND CAROL WILLIAMS
  • Photo courtesy of Pat and Carol Williams
  • Butte’s Miners Union Local Number One was the first group of underground workers to organize a union in the nation. “They were militant because they were working for pennies a day and no benefits, period, over and out,” says Pat Williams, a Butte native and former nine-term U.S. congressman.

The mood turned serious at the park, as University of Montana professor Michel Valentin talked about the origins of the international workers holiday in the U.S.: On May 1, 1886, 80,000 people took to the streets of Chicago demonstrating their resolve to stick to an eight-hour workday. The strike lasted for days—340,000 workers nationwide walked out of 12,000 factories. As with most of organized labor's endeavors, implementing the eight-hour workday didn't happen overnight. But on that spring day more that 100 years ago, a tradition was born.

"We have to reclaim tough, in-your-face politics," Valentin said. "Let's stop behaving like slaves."

That's the same message IWW founders brought to Montana more than 100 years ago. Since the industrial union's 1905 inception, the IWW has offered a far more radical critique of capitalism than the mainstream labor movement ever did. IWW members advocate using direct action—everything from strikes to sabotage—to better workplace conditions. The group also aims to seize the means of production from those in power and return it to the working people.

From the beginning, the Wobblies, as they were known, posed a threat to business as usual in Montana. In the summer of 1917, IWW leader Frank Little showed up in Butte spreading an anti-war and anti-capitalism message, giving more than a few leaders cause for concern.

"An injury to one is an injury to all!" Little wrote in a July 1917 publication called Solidarity, which Montana State University professor Jerry W. Calvert dug up and published in his book, The Gibraltar: Socialism and Labor in Butte, Montana.

"So all you together, you diggers and muckers," Little continued, "boost for the organization that is going to get you the things that will really make life worth living. Force the bosses off your backs, put them to work down a hole with the producers; hand them their muck sticks and make them earn a living for a change."

click to enlarge Former U.S. Congressman Pat Williams recalls watching his father, a restaurant owner in Butte, negotiate with the Women’s Protective Union. The lessons Williams learned during childhood stuck with him throughout his career. “They are America’s most important institution,” he says of unions. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Former U.S. Congressman Pat Williams recalls watching his father, a restaurant owner in Butte, negotiate with the Women’s Protective Union. The lessons Williams learned during childhood stuck with him throughout his career. “They are America’s most important institution,” he says of unions.

According to Calvert, less than two weeks after that publication, six men took Little from his Butte boarding house, tied him to a vehicle, dragged him behind it, beat him and hung him from a train trestle.

Little's message lives on today in about three-dozen Wobblies from the Missoula, Butte and Hamilton areas. Bostrom, a Big Sky High School Spanish teacher and one of the group's most outspoken members, proudly shares his views with anyone who will listen: Poverty breeds crime, he says. If certain segments of society scrape for scraps while another lives the high life, there will be anger and, in turn, violence. It's a cycle, Bostrom explains. If working people don't come together in solidarity, our global society will continue to be fractured by the symptoms of inequality.

"If there is no justice, there ain't no peace," he says.

From the beginning, the Wobblies have been called purveyors of radical rhetoric. But Bostrom says that's bunk.

"I don't think it's rhetoric," he says. "I think it's either honest and it's true and it's factual, or it's not. Capitalism and its marketing system, its propaganda machine, can give us really potent emotional oversimplifications."

Bostrom believes schools provide a prime example of why unions have a hard time getting their message across. He points to textbooks that imply free markets have solved workers' problems, while high schools and colleges teach organized labor as if it's a historical footnote rather than a modern-day tool.

"We live in an extremely anti-union country. There are reasons for it," he says. "I'm a teacher. I can tell you that inside schools, we don't teach it. In fact we're loath to teach it, which is interesting because we're in a union."

Plus, as evidenced by Michael Smurfit and his 213-foot yacht, the issue of inequality is just as real as it ever was, he says. In turn, Little's dream of creating the "One Big Union" comprised of workers across the globe is still painfully relevant.

"If people are okay with this system of winners and losers," Bostrom says, "then lets keep going down this road of capitalism."

Montana Chamber of Commerce President Webb Brown sees things a little differently than Bostrom. For one, "industry" is not some faceless force bent on bleeding its workers dry. He says it's largely the face of people just like you and I.

"I think most folks want to do what's right for employees," he says.

Really, business in the state is comprised of mostly mom-and-pop shops, Brown says. And operations like that often have a tough time stomaching the expense of union demands.

"It becomes where the hands of management are actually tied," Brown says. "Companies can't continue to compete because the loads of demands are too high, everything from the wage levels to the benefits."

Organized labor's critics say that when unions gain too much power, an excessive and inflexible wage burden is passed on to consumers. According to James Sherk, senior policy analyst in labor economics for the Heritage Foundation, profits at unionized companies run between 10 and 15 percent less than those of comparable non-union firms.

In turn, Sherk asserts in articles published through the Heritage Foundation that unionized businesses are left at a disadvantage when competing with non-unionized shops. In Detroit, for example, General Motors was hindered by its salary agreements with the United Auto Workers (UAW) union. Weighted down by labor's demands, the company was left with less money to invest. Innovation stagnated. That's largely what hurt GM.

"Active and retiree health benefits alone add $1,200 to the cost of each vehicle GM produces," Sherk writes. "The UAW has also saddled them with complex work rules that allow only certain workers to do certain tasks, and no one else. Ford's Master contract with the UAW is more than 2,200 pages long and weighs more than 22 pounds. Those work rules prevent the Big Three from opening any integrated and competitive plants."

Other union watchdogs say labor's claims of deep-pocketed and illegal resistance to organizing efforts are overstated. In fact, NLRB board member Peter Schaumber told the American Bar Association last winter there's no hard evidence to back up claims of union busting.

"As to the asserted increasing willingness of employers to violate the (NLRA), I have yet to see any persuasive empirical evidence to support that assertion," he said. "Certainly, it does not square well with the Board's own statistics that show a significant decline in unlawful labor practice complaints being filed over the last several decades, from 6,230 in 1980 to 1,108 in 2008."

Schaumber argues that declining union participation among contemporary workers can largely be chalked up to changing times.

click to enlarge Current Missoula City Councilman Roy Houseman, 29, previously served as president of the United Steelworkers Local 885, where he worked hard to convey organized labor’s rich history to a new generation. “The question is, how do you educate young people to basic labor rights?” Houseman asks. “There needs to be some branding and some basic advertising.” - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Current Missoula City Councilman Roy Houseman, 29, previously served as president of the United Steelworkers Local 885, where he worked hard to convey organized labor’s rich history to a new generation. “The question is, how do you educate young people to basic labor rights?” Houseman asks. “There needs to be some branding and some basic advertising.”

"I would maintain, as some others have argued, that of the several factors involved in the decline of union density is dissatisfaction with that model; that contemporary employees, particularly more skilled workers, want a more cooperative relationship with their employer," he says.

As it stands, workers have a right to vote on whether or not they want to organize. Brown says they're simply making a conscious and informed decision based on organized labor's sales pitch.

"Employees are voting," he says, "and they're voting to not join the union."

Rather than blaming external forces, Brown thinks unions need to look within themselves.

"The promises that are made by union organizers, there's no weight behind that," he says. "I think it's more an issue of, what are they offering to the workers? What value are they offering?"

Pat Williams doesn't make this a fight between those who favor unions and those who don't. In his opinion, all working people benefit from union advocacy.

"Interestingly, because of labor's success in raising the salary and benefits of their members, all workers in Montana, union and non-union, have better benefits and wages than they would have had," he says. "Every study demonstrates that paying dues to a union is a good investment, because unionized workers are better off."

With such a clear benefit, the longtime public servant says he's saddened by the downfall of private sector organizing.

"Although it's not spoken about much, the failure to modernize America's labor laws is a national tragedy," he says. "It used to be that leaders of other nations wanting to enact good labor law would come to America to find out how we did it. Now our labor leaders and members of Congress go to other countries to see how they're doing it."

Houseman is similarly disappointed by the current plight of unions, especially the many misconceptions about what organized labor represents. For instance, he vigorously disputes the Heritage Foundation claims that unions burden innovation.

"There are a lot of places where money can come from besides the workers themselves," he says, pointing instead to auto industry CEOs. "They're the same guys who flew down to beg for money from the government—and each in individual planes."

Maybe they should have sold their jets and used that money to innovate, he adds.

"People are going to scream class warfare, but you're looking at the richest 1 percent owns like 24 percent of the wealth in this country," he says. "It's just amazing to me."

From Houseman's perspective, the issue of organized labor moving forward is one of message.

"The question is, how do you educate young people to basic labor rights?" Houseman asks. "There needs to be some branding and some basic advertising."

click to enlarge A helmet once worn by a veteran Smurfit Stone employee hangs on the fence outside the shuttered mill. The facility closed in January, eliminating 417 union jobs. “I just can’t tell you what a pounding and a gut-wrenching hurt this Stone closure was,” says Jim McGarvey, executive secretary of Montana’s AFL-CIO. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • A helmet once worn by a veteran Smurfit Stone employee hangs on the fence outside the shuttered mill. The facility closed in January, eliminating 417 union jobs. “I just can’t tell you what a pounding and a gut-wrenching hurt this Stone closure was,” says Jim McGarvey, executive secretary of Montana’s AFL-CIO.

That's a primary reason the 29-year-old was elected president of the Steelworkers Local 885. When he stepped into the position in January 2008, Houseman stood out among his USW peers who were almost double his age. He quickly worked to improve and modernize communication, reviving a monthly newsletter and creating a text message list for union members. In essence, Houseman simply looked for ways to translate lessons learned in Butte's copper mines into the modern era.

"It's important that we recognize that history," he says. "But how do we translate that history for the 21st century?"

It's slow, but there is a shift to modernize underway, Houseman says. For instance, the AFL-CIO opted to independently broadcast its Wall Street rally in New York.

"There really wasn't any major media press coverage," Houseman says. "So they live streamed the speakers, they live streamed the march. And basically said, 'All right, if the major media isn't going to cover it, we'll cover it ourselves'...I see that and I have a lot of hope, you know what I mean? This is a good start. Now the question is, how do we integrate that and make sure it works with social media."

Organized labor advocates like Williams, Houseman, McGarvey and Anderlik agree that, no matter what the answer is to today's challenges—be it rallies, public parodies, social media or something else—that answers must be found. Labor built Montana. Without it, workers will face even tougher struggles. And that's not an option.

"It's just like any other organization," Houseman says. "You have to evolve or die."

This story was corrected on May 26, 2010.
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