Brandl The Economist interview with Randy Bryce
Earlier this month I sat down (electronically) with Randy Bryce. For those of you who don't know Randy (better known by his Twitter handle @IronStache) here is an all too brief summary of this Renaissance man. He is an US Army veteran, cancer survivor, father, iron worker (if you have ever seen a high-rise building or a bridge being constructed, the people putting up the iron structure are iron workers), political activist, former candidate for elected office, and currently serves as the business representative of Ironworkers Local 853 in the Midwest.
(Edited for brevity and clarity.)
Brandl: You have been involved in organized labor in the skilled trades for over two decades. How have things changed in organized labor over that time?
Bryce: When I first joined the union a lot of the leadership had become complacent. It was the 1990s and the leadership was mostly on autopilot, doing the same thing over and over. Many of the union member took for granted what we had. We never had to really fight for anything. So, when Act 10 was passed in Wisconsin, and then the push to make Wisconsin and other states "Right to Work" states, the union leadership were completely unprepared. They did not really know how to fight back.
But now, unions are reaching out to younger workers and more and more people of color. You see this not only in the SEIU organizing fast food workers, but you see it even in the more conservative unions like those in the building trades. For example, for generations ironworkers were mostly white males. That started to change about 15 or 20 years ago when outreach programs to minority communities began. These outreach programs included things like pre-apprenticeship programs that help develop soft skills and life skills in young people, in order to get them ready for apprenticeship programs and then employment in the skill trades.
These skill trades position pay very well. The unions work with the contractors to make sure there are enough skill trades workers for the jobs the contractors are going to have. Thus, being "laid off" once a job end does not bring financial ruin to the unionized worker. They go back to the union hall and get placed on another job with a contractor who needs someone.
We are seeing more and more young people being drawn to unions. These young people are saying: what do we have to lose? Don't we deserve better? They are willing to work hard to get ahead. They are fearless and with huge amounts of energy.
Brandl: Some older economists seem stuck with this "outdated view" of unions being led by radicals that are either hell bent on destroying capitalism or are stogy "union bosses" that want to control firms.
Bryce: There is a long history there. Even today when we elect local union officials, they have sign forms that state "I am not a member of the Communist Party." This a relic of the 1950s but it is still there.
I will give you a recent example of how these old attitudes live on. Just the other day, I was talking to an owner of an iron shop and he was giving me a tour of the shop. I asked him "how has it going finding skilled workers? "I know many of the larger firms in the area have taken out ads on billboards trying to find welders and other skilled trades people. When I asked him that question, he paused. He looked at me with a very confused look on his face. Then he said, "I have never had a union person ask me that?" He looked amazed and asked me "Why are you asking so many questions?"
I looked him in the eye and said "Look. If your business is not successful, our members won't have jobs. We can help you find the skilled workers you need. Hell, it's in our best interest to get you the most highly qualified and best workers for you to hire, since out members are going to be working with these new hires." He had a look of shock on his face. He then stammered "so how often will you help us? Will you come by once a year or so?" I could not help but laugh. I responded to him "Oh no. I will be here at least once a month if not more often if I can be of help."
That is just one example of how unions are changing from how they operated decades ago.A union does not belong to one person, or a "union boss." As union members it is our responsibility to pass the union along to the next person who works here overtime. We want to leave it better than we found it.
Brandl: But the old-line approach of the need for management to "union bust" or to everything possible to stop workers from organizing still seems to dominate.
Bryce: And the sad thing is, so people get the history wrong. In another shop I work with that has been around for decades. Back in the 1970s and 1980s the company would pay bonuses to the workers each year out of the firm's profits. These bonuses could be huge. Often times these bonuses were enough for a worker to buy a brand-new car. It developed a bond between the union workers and firm. But, over time, a new generation of management came in, ended the bonuses, pocketed all that cash themselves, and then worked on ways to cut wages and benefits and basically bleed the workers.
Now many of the younger workers are realizing that unions can help them earn a wage and have working conditions that better reflects the efforts they are putting forward. They join unions so that they don't have to be like Amazon drivers and need to pee in cup in on the job out of fear that they will be reprimanded if they take a break which they are legally entitled to.
Brandl: So where do you think things are headed?
Bryce: This new, younger generation of leaders realize that for real change to take place, in addition to organizing workers, there has to interaction with elected officials. There must be changes both inside the workplace and outside. It is the megaphone in the workplace and in the streets, but it also has to be the microphone in the halls of state legislature and halls of Congress, change in public policy is needed. It must be a one-two punch to bring real change.
Brandl: Thanks Randy for your insights.
Bryce: It has been my pleasure.
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