Greg Hull: When it comes to union negotiating, Dad has swayI remember well my first encounter with an angry union shop steward who accused me of adverse working conditions and creating a hostile work environment.
By: Greg Hull, Lake County News Chronicle
I remember well my first encounter with an angry union shop steward who accused me of adverse working conditions and creating a hostile work environment. He, speaking for the total union membership, threatened to have the entire labor body walk off the job if things didn’t improve.
It was in August of 1999, and we were in Gunflint country, helping clean up after the Fourth of July wind storm. It was hot and muggy weather, and we were staying in some rustic cabins without running water or electricity. We cleaned up at the end of the day by swimming or taking a sauna.
It was like a vacation for the first three days. Then it got to be a chore. To add to it, we couldn’t start working before 9 a.m. each morning, as we were working around the resorts. That meant the work day stretched into the evenings. There was a lot of running equipment in narrow quarters and around buildings, which slowed productivity up significantly. Our pay was based upon productivity and this effected our compensation.
At the beginning of the third week, my labor force appeared one afternoon to inform me that they had held a meeting, and voted to form a labor union. They had organized the IBDBO, Local #1. They were now the International (we were on the Canadian Border) Brotherhood (the entire membership was made up of brothers) of Disgruntled (why organized unless they were disgruntled?) Band saw Operators (we were running a band saw mill at the time.)
Having been elected shop steward and business agent (or, more accurately, having appointed himself to these posts) Joshua (then 15) presented the list of demands that he and his brother Benjamin (then 12) had made up. Working conditions, they claimed, were adverse. It was hot and muggy, and they contended we should shut down at 3 p.m. each day so they could go swimming. Additionally, they argued, wages should be increased, as we were far from home, and the resort had a store which offered such goodies as frozen candy bars and cold pop. Finally, management (i.e. me) needed to stop creating hostile working conditions which resulted from their being yelled at frequently.
Unless and until management recognized their right to organize, and concede to their demands, they were going to go on strike.
I pointed several things out to them. The shorter the work days, the longer we would be on the road. As we couldn’t begin each day before 9 a.m., shutting down at 3 p.m. meant we were going to be working very short days. Second, I not only yelled in order to be heard over the running machinery, I yelled because they refused to follow instructions regarding work procedures. Plus, I informed them, I felt that the phrase “jerk of a jackass” was fairly strong language for a 12-year-old boy to use about his father. Third, we were nearly 100 miles from home. Neither of them had a driver’s license or owned a car. Sensing a teachable moment, I posed a simple math question: if they were able to average 3 miles per hour walking, how many days would it take them to walk home?
It was obvious we were at an impasse.
I proposed a solution. We submit our respective cases to binding arbitration. After explaining to them what binding arbitration is, they went off and caucused. In a few moments they returned, and agreed to my proposal, as long as they could choose the arbiter. In a moment of foolish impulse, I agreed to let them choose.
They smiled broadly at me, and said, “We want Mama to decide.”
I knew then I was dead in the water. I was certain she would see things from labor’s point of view, and never adjudicate in favor of management.
In fairness, she did an admirable job, giving a decision delivered with both speed and clarity worthy of Solomon.
She agreed that we needed to get the job done and get home, but felt an afternoon swim break was not unreasonable. She had the union agree to work at least two hours after the swim break. That had the effect of keeping the swim break to a sensible length of time.
As for snacks at the resort store, a strict ration of one candy bar and one can of pop per day was imposed. A charge account was established, and management was to settle the bill at the end of the job, but the added expense could be subtracted from future wages.
As for the yelling, she noted that machines are loud, and one’s voice needed to be heard over them. If the instructions that management felt the need to communicate required more than five words, the machines were to be shut down. Instructions were to be given in a tone and volume that most people would deem “normal.” At the same time, 12-year-old boys should not be disrespectful of their fathers, no matter if, in the youth’s opinion, the actions of his elder fell into a class characteristic of equestrians. Ben was ordered to apologize.
Eventually, we finished the job, and made it home. In the decade since, the IBDBO has dissolved, its entire membership having moved on to greater opportunity. One is a machinist and member of a pipefitters union, and the other is a mechanic and heavy equipment operator at a mine far from home.
Both agree that the IBDBO was the most effective union they were members of.
Greg Hull is owner and operator of Hull’s Sawmill. He has suggested his wife offer her services as an independent mediator of labor disputes. Their email is firstname.lastname@example.org.