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When the union comes knocking: Part 1

February 20, 1999

6 Min Read
When the union comes knocking:  Part 1

Mention the word "union" to owners of injection molding and moldmaking companies, and there is an immediate reaction. And it's not good. The word can strike fear in the hearts of normally strong men and women in this industry, causing most to avoid discussion of the subject entirely. When they do comment, it's usually under the cloak of anonymity.

"We scrimped, saved, and sacrificed, and even went without paychecks in order to pay our employees and build this company," says one anti-union mold shop owner. "How dare an outside party come in and tell us how to run our shop and treat our employees."

However, with union membership falling as many large industries see a decline in demand, and with U.S. plants closing and moving offshore, the plastics industry-and its excellent growth-has become a new target.

Union leaders have made no bones about it: They are out to capture new members within the rapidly growing plastics processing industry, including injection molding and moldmaking companies. Efforts to unionize have cut across lines from small, privately-held, family-owned operations to large, publicly-held firms.

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Unions such as the United Steelworkers of America (USW) and the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE) have moved beyond their traditional base of worker members to target the plastics industry. Their efforts to unionize the injection molding and moldmaking industries have met with mixed results.

What's Happening?
Recently, unions have started coming in the back doors of smaller, privately-held companies by pressuring large manufacturers, such as Ford Motor Co., to encourage unionization of their suppliers and to support union efforts by rejecting parts produced at non-union plants. That was the case two years ago when Ford backed strikers at parts supplier Johnson Controls by rejecting parts made by replacement workers.

This unionizing effort of suppliers to the automotive industry, particularly among Tier One and Tier Two suppliers, is seen by union leaders as a big boost to union membership. Many large Tier One molded parts suppliers already have union representation at their various plants. A spokesman for Lear Corp., one of the largest suppliers of molded subsystems to the automotive industry, said only that most of their facilities are union plants and would not comment further.

Interviewed owners of smaller custom molding and moldmaking companies that supply automotive components and are not unionized say they have not felt pressure from their customers to become unionized.

Note: 166 SPI
member companies
representing 218
plants responded to
the Labor Survey
for 1997. Only 57
percent of the
companies surveyed
also contributed to
the 1996 survey,
which reduces the
comparability of
the data

Pros and Cons
Some companies have blamed the unions for their inability to remain competitive, resulting in those companies going out of business. Many of these firms are fighting back, resisting union organization vehemently.

Others who are union shops, however, say management and the union work well together. Employees of EPW Inc. (Elkhart, IN) are represented by the International Association of Machinists (IAW). Dick Purvis, vice president of the moldmaking firm, says the union has changed with the times.

Years ago, all union employees in the shop received the same pay, except for the shop foremen who might get $.50 more an hour. Today, EPW's contract with the IAW allows for a sliding scale that ranges from $14 to $25 per hour depending on the position and the experience of the worker.

"Our union has become very understanding over the years and works with [management] on issues we face," says Purvis. "[The IAW] realizes everybody isn't created equal and there's no benefit to anybody when you have to pay the person doing menial tasks the same as a skilled person doing complicated work. They don't want to pay people who aren't doing the job."

Purvis, who has been on both sides of the fence and once served as a Local president, points out the role of some unions has changed. He explains how many years ago unions supplied the help. "You could call the union hall and tell them you needed workers, and they'd send the guys over," he says, adding that actual benefits of unions for mold shop workers are questionable when the pay for journeyman moldmakers and machinists is already some of the highest in the manufacturing industry.

Indeed, unions have a tough sell at most moldmaking shops. A shortage of skilled employees has pushed both wages and benefits, such as guaranteed overtime hours, even higher, making the benefits of union representation less tangible.

Management's Side
As much as management grouses about unions, are there any benefits to management of employees represented by a union? Yes, say some. Larry Eisenga, vice president of human resources at Blue Water Plastics Inc. (Marysville, MI) says with a union contract, "you live by it, so there's no guessing. Everything is cut and dried and all by the book."

Blue Water, which has six molding facilities in the Marysville vicinity, purchased another molding facility last July, located about 85 miles away. This new shop's 75 employees are represented by the USW. Almost immediately, Blue Water had to negotiate a new contract because the old one was set to expire in September. However, Eisenga says negotiations went smoothly, and so far everything seems fine.

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"Pay raises are by the book, vacations, holidays, everything is outlined by the book," he explains. "Both parties agree to it, and you follow it to the letter. The only time you have problems is when you don't follow the book."

The family owners of Landis Plastics Inc., headquartered in Chicago Ridge, IL, might dispute that claim. For nearly three years, Landis has been fighting off the USW at its Syracuse, NY injection molding facility. Both sides have reportedly spent more than $1 million so far to promote their separate causes. Although things are quiet currently, whether or not the USW has given up its organizing efforts is anybody's guess.

On Nov. 16, 1998, 66 employees of South Bend Plastics Inc. (Mishawaka, IN) walked out of that custom molding facility after their union, the UAW, failed to reach a new contract. The dispute centered around health benefits. South Bend Plastics' salaried workers filled in until the company hired replacement workers the first week in December.

South Bend Plastics President Austin Drinkall says, "We've actually had a very good relationship with our union. There's so little [disagreement] between us, we were really stunned that they struck."

Drinkall notes that this facility has had a union for more than 30 years and has lost only one day to a strike in the last 12 of those years. He is disappointed that the two sides haven't been able to reach an agreement.

Management and owners of companies whose employees do not have union representation would just as soon keep it that way, but sometimes that's not possible. What can employers do when unions come knocking on the doors? Next month, we'll take a look at your rights with respect to unions and what you can do when employees are approached by a union who wants to organize your plant.

>Click here to read When the union comes knocking: Part II

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