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Not Your Father’s Union

I belong to a union for retail workers. I had never heard of it before going to work at the store. That should have been a clue right off the bat. I have been around unions my entire life and thought I pretty much had them down. Silly me.

I grew up just outside Detroit (as in one mile from the border). Detroit was the ultimate union town. Every company associated with making a car (manufacturers, suppliers, transport) was closed shop. If you didn’t belong to a union and were blue-collar, you probably didn’t have a very good job. The United Auto Workers (UAW) was king, but there were teamsters, electricians, plumbers, metallurgy workers, and an alphabet soup of others. Every fall would see one or more school district closed by teachers’ strikes. Unfortunately our district always signed.

Every three years, the automakers (GM, Ford, and Chrysler) would “pattern-bargain”, so workers at all three companies would get the same pay and benefits. The unions were extremely successful and the workers enjoyed high wages and some of the best healthcare benefits in the country. Unfortunately, it also meant that other companies couldn’t afford to move here. (cue ominous music)

But car sales slumped with oil crises and foreign competition. Did you know that UAW membership is slightly more than one third of what it was in the heyday of the 1970’s? And as Charles Wilson, President of GM said (more or less) in 1953, “As goes GM, so goes the nation.” (the music gets louder)

When I was hired, the company was semi-open. I guess that’s what you call it. It was a stupid system. Even if you didn’t sign up, you had to pay the dues. Since you were paying the dues, the union had to represent you.

Representation is kind of a strong word for what we get from our union. The wages start at minimum wage in each state. They increase by 25 cents for every 700 hours we work to a maximum hourly rate somewhere in the neighborhood of $10. There are a few specialized jobs in the company that earn $1/hour more.

The pay scale has been the same since the union “negotiated” a second tier for new employees several contracts ago. The new tier pays approximately half of what the more senior employees make. I don’t think the company would have been allowed to pay people less than the minimum wage even if we didn’t have the union. Note: our starting pay is less than the big-box store across the street.

Because of the Affordable Care Act, the company was allowed to put in more stringent requirements for part-time employees to be eligible for health-care. Guess the union was too busy to even comment on that.

We are not allowed to strike. I have no idea how the union got the store to agree to that.

The store is closed on Christmas Day. Every other holiday is treated like a regular workday. I work every Thanksgiving because Thursday is part of my schedule. Full-time or part-time is irrelevant. I bet the union had a hard time getting that through too.

The union was nowhere around when the company changed its discipline system to allow all absences and tardies to stay on our record for a year instead of dropping off after 30 days. Discipline issues and absence issues can now be combined to determine whether an employee can be terminated.

Usually a union will get some kind of concession for that type of change. Here’s ours: if we go four months with no absences, our manager stops by and congratulates us (if they remember).

Last year, Michigan became a right-to-work state. Which means we can all opt out of the union if we choose to. In what can only be described as interesting timing, the union raised our dues this week. They are now 2 hours pay + $16 per month with a minimum of $30.08.

Since the dues are taken out weekly, it was almost impossible for some of the people to figure out how much the raise was actually going to be. The calculation [(2 hours +16) x12/52] is a bit complex, particularly since the store is good about hiring mentally challenged employees for many of the rote tasks.

Of course, we can’t get out of the union until the next contract is negotiated in May 2015. The union may not be doing much for us, but it seems to be taking care of itself just fine.

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My Family is Not THIS Dysfunctional

I saw Ralph (as in Ralph’s Mega-Mart) on TV the other night. They were interviewing him about a new store opening and asked him about his formula for success. He said that one of the keys to his success is that all of his employees are treated like family. I wonder what type of family he grew up in.

The father of one of my co-workers recently died. When my Team Leader heard the news, her response was “But I need her here on Saturday!!” I’m sure that if someone had explained the situation to the poor man, he would have planned things a little better. Of course, this is the same Team Leader who resigned a few weeks later because the stress was making her sick. It appears that employee support is not considered a family value.

Recently the company introduced a new program. It is called Personal Responsibility for Your Behavior (or something close to that – the real name faded once I realized that the message might be new to a 10-year-old). We work in a very “us vs them” environment. If we are more than a minute late arriving, punching in from break or punching in from lunch, we receive a 1/2 point on our record. If we call in sick, we receive 1 point on our record. If we no call/no show, we receive 4 points on our record. If we behave inappropriately or unsafely we receive points on a different record. If either record reaches 12 points in a year, we are subject to termination (kind of death by boredom by that point).

The new policy said that it is our responsibility to control the number of points we accrue. If we went four months with no points, we would get a face-to-face meeting with our manager (!!) so that person could tell us what a good employee we have been. So, if you’re bad, you get points; if you’re good, you get to talk to your manager. And you are responsible for which one happens!!!

As part of a “family” we need to make sure that everyone is safe. So we have quarterly safety updates and videos and readings. The bottom line is – if you get hurt, it’s your own fault. One new employee hurt his back moving a pallet, then got hurt lifting some boxes, then ran a pallet jack over his foot. He was terminated for being a “safety risk”. Of course, no one explained to him why he kept getting hurt –  he had sat through the 9 hours (no joke) of video training before they let him out on the floor. If management had been paying attention at all, they would have told him that taking mind-altering substances at work will lead to lapses in judgment that could affect your health (and safety).

They don’t really have anything that counts as “light” duty. If you are not able to do your job fully, you have the option of toughing it out (and having your co-workers complain that you are not pulling your weight), taking time off (without pay), or becoming a greeter. Greeters are those people who say hello and good-bye as you enter and leave the store (in case you couldn’t figure it out yourself). Greeting is the most boring job on earth (or at least at Ralph’s). They can’t tell you ahead of time when you will be working – as far as I can tell you either take the place of an ill greeter, a vacationing greeter, or a greeter who is injured themselves and has to stay home.

Ralph’s prides itself on hiring people at $0.25 over minimum wage (that’s $10/week closer to the bottom of the poverty line if you work full-time). However, if you are a cashier or service worker, you lose that extra money. Apparently dealing directly with customers all day is not considered as difficult as putting bags of cheese on a hook. Of course, no one is hired full-time so all of this is relative anyway. I wonder what kind of allowance Ralph’s kids get?

If you have the audacity to leave and then want to come back (regardless of how long you have been gone), you have to re-join the family. You have to complete the drug screening (probably a good idea since you know what you’re coming back to), the hours of video training and the on-the-floor training. The best part is that even if you have only been gone a few weeks, your pay drops back to the starting salary and you have no seniority toward vacation, 401(k) match or anything else. You have to be really desperate to return to our family.

Our equivalent to “Wait til your father gets home” is the senior management visit. Whenever someone important is supposed to come, we have to clean, make sure everything is tidy, and stock everything (you would think that would be the norm, not a special occurrence). The higher up the chain of command the visitor, the more stressed out the store director becomes, and the more unpleasant it is for everyone. Does anyone really think that the VIPs don’t know what’s going on? Maybe they are as clueless as some parents.

Thinking about it, maybe Ralph read too many Victorian novels about families. There seem to be a lot of stories with rich families who take in poor relations and seem to be helping them while ensuring that none of the wealth actually gets to the relations.

At any rate, my second ‘family’ is not coming to my house for Thanksgiving.