Workers Are People, Not Widgets
Meet Alex and Lance, two blue-collar workers in southwestern Ohio. One had union representation as he sought a foothold in the labor market; the other did not. Their lives remind us that there is still power in a union.
In 2010, Amber and David Lapp began interviewing white, working-class young adults in southwest Ohio about their views and experiences of marriage, family, and work. Their research was initially sponsored by the Institute for American Values and then the Institute for Family Studies. The names of some people have been changed to protect their identities.
In the fall of 2009, Alex got a factory job after five months of working for minimum wage at the Food Mart in his small southwestern Ohio town. “I want a real job,” he told his stepdad one day. “Can I work at the factory with you?”
Alex’s stepdad was a plant manager at a factory that made steel oil drums, and he had an opening on the second shift for “environmental quality,” a glorified name for cleaning boy, Alex said. But it was a union job (United Steelworkers) that started out at $12.75 an hour. It was a position that typically required you to prove yourself as a temp before getting hired fulltime with eligibility for insurance and full benefits. But mainly because it was his stepdad that was doing the hiring, Alex had a direct route.
He was only 19 and finishing up his certificate at a broadcasting school, where he met his future wife, Hannah. Before he met Hannah, he was friendless and depressed, ready to give up. He only agreed to attend broadcasting school to satisfy his mom and stepdad’s emphatic wishes to get some kind of further education. He figured he’d stick around for a few weeks, maybe a few months, and then drop out. But Hannah delivered him from alienation, and he threw himself with purpose and energy into work.
With his new factory job, the last few months of broadcasting school looked like Alex waking up at 5:00 in the morning for classes, and rushing home at 2:00 in the afternoon to grab lunch and pack his dinner in his grandpa’s old metal lunchbox, before rushing to the factory for the 4:00 – midnight shift. By 1:00 in the morning, his head finally hit the pillow. At 5:00 in the morning, his alarm rang, and he did it all over again. After a few months of the rigorous routine, Alex and Hannah made a sudden decision to marry after thinking that Hannah might be pregnant.
At the factory, Alex quickly earned a reputation as one smart, helluva worker. In his first position, sticking “HAZARDOUS” and “NOT HAZARDOUS” labels on steel drums and cleaning the paint booth, he learned everything he could about the chemicals. When the plant hired a new second shift crew, they asked Alex to be the inspector. That position paid $13.50 an hour. And with the new shift came a new round of employees and temps who didn’t know anything about steel drums. But Alex did.
“I’m gonna make you my line leader,” Alex’s supervisor at the time told him. “Because you do a damn good job and you know it all.”
Alex was now making $16.50 an hour for 12-hour night shifts and taking whatever overtime he could get (at $24 an hour), which meant that during a typical week he worked anywhere from 70 to 90 hours. There was a sign-up sheet that said that anybody who wanted overtime had to sign up by 1:00 the day before. Every Monday, Alex would go in and sign up for Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday—whatever overtime he could take.
Working as the line leader also meant that Alex often had to do the work of two or three people, “because we kept on getting crappy temps in,” he said, “people we got in didn’t want to work.”
Granted, the factory was no paradise. For one thing, it didn’t have any heating or air conditioning, so in the winter you saw your breath and in the summer your skin shone with sweat.
But as Alex saw it, when it comes to how people view work, “something has been lost” since his grandfather’s generation and since his West Virginia pioneer family moved to America. “We come over here a bunch of industrious trying to escape persecution, trying to escape a hard life,” he said. “Come to the land of milk and honey, if you will, the streets are paved with gold. Work your way up, become a Rockefeller, become a Carnegie. You know what I mean? Work your way up. And now I don’t know what the hell has happened. Now, we wanna work our way down.”
Alex wanted to work his way up. But then he got a different supervisor he didn’t get along with. One day, they had a conflict that culminated with the supervisor ordering Alex to clock out and go home.
“I don’t recognize your authority anymore,” Alex remembers shouting back. “You can’t tell me to clock out and go home. Get out of my face, or I’m gonna have my truck loaders beat the f*** out of you.”
The supervisor called his maintenance men to throw them on Alex, and Alex countered by calling his truck loaders. The battle lines were drawn, and it might have turned violent had the plant’s United Steelworkers representative not intervened and told Alex to go home.
“Look, I can’t show you favoritism,” Alex’s plant manager stepdad told him the next day. “As far as I’m concerned, you’re a speeder, and the policeman caught you speeding. I’m gonna have to throw the book at you.”
He suspended Alex for five days on two charges: disobeying the supervisor and “something like starting a revolution,” Alex remembered.
Alex could have been fired for insubordination, but following typical policy that had been agreed upon by the union and management, Alex, with the help of his union rep, filed a grievance stating why he should be reinstated after his five-day suspension. In the factory parking lot, Alex delivered the letter to his union rep, who then made the case to management that Alex was a good worker and should be retained. After Alex’s five-day suspension, Alex and the union rep met with Alex’s stepdad, the plant manager, to decide Alex’s fate.
It was a standard process, Alex said, that typically resulted in the suspended employee getting his job back—a direct result of the union’s strength, Alex said. Only a minority of cases resulted in the worker getting fired, like if the worker had a particularly bad work record. In Alex’s case, he was retained, an outcome that Alex chalked up to his union rep’s advocacy on his behalf. “I was supposed to get fired, but luckily I got rescued,” was how Alex put it. “The union guy was like, ‘Look, Alex was totally in the right and you know it.’” Because of the union’s protection, Alex says, “I didn’t get screwed.”
Alex was demoted from his position as line leader, which included a reduction in pay. But Alex quickly ascended in his new position and hoped to rise to the level of supervisor and retire from the company. He always got the overtime he needed, and he was grateful for the work.
Lance, his wife Tonya, and their five kids rented a house a few doors down from the home that Alex and Hannah lived in as newlyweds. Lance and Tonya also married young in 2009, the same year Alex and Hannah married. They were high school sweethearts who said they didn’t care to buy a big house in a new subdivision or to make a bunch of money. They were happy to live in a small house and raise five children, sometimes even taking in a struggling friend or family member in need. But despite both Lance and Tonya working full-time, financial stability has been elusive for them.
During his long job history, Lance has mostly been in and out of temp jobs and service jobs, a narrative that highlights the powerlessness of low-wage employees in America’s deunionized economy.
To hear Lance tell the beginnings of his work history more than ten years later begins with an admission and a regret from Lance: looking back, if he were the supervisor of 19-year-old Lance in those jobs, he’d fire the kid. For instance, Lance’s first full-time job, at Kroger, ended with Lance cussing out the supervisor and walking off the job. But as Lance entered into his early twenties as a husband and a father, he thinks that he matured and that his attitude toward work shifted.
A formative part of Lance’s early work history—after the Kroger firing and his subsequent attitude change—was through temp agencies, a history that includes a series of questionable firings and run-ins with management. First, there was a manager who threatened to fire him for clocking in one minute late (despite never having called off or clocked in late), followed by a factory that fired Lance for smoking at a picnic table a couple hundred feet away from the factory building, thereby violating a company no-smoking policy that Lance didn’t know anything about. The temp agency in turn fired Lance for that, stating that his violation of company policy would have to go on his record and make it harder for them to find him a job.
But the incident that really soured Lance on temp agencies was a job at an industrial lighting company for $10 an hour, a job he had found through a different temp agency. The company made street lamps, and Lance was a ballast picker, which meant picking 150-pound boxes of steel ballasts, stacking them on a skid, and sending them to the assembly line. Lance loved the job – mainly because he got a paycheck every Friday for up to $550. The temp agency had a strict six-month “hire-or-fire” policy, and Lance really wanted this job; he was determined to win it with extra conscientiousness.
One day, while waiting for the forklift driver to move a huge metal bin out of his way, Lance grew impatient and set out to move the metal bin with his own hands. But as he did so, his left shoulder popped, and his arm dangled and went numb.
Lance pressed on as if nothing happened, but he felt burning all the way up his neck for the next two hours. Finally, when the pain was just too intense, Lance told his plant manager, Ray, that he wasn’t feeling well and needed to go home, not daring to tell the plant manager the real reason for his early exit.
“I know if you say ‘I got hurt at work,’ they find a reason to fire you,” he said.
He went straight to the hospital, and when the nurses asked him what happened, he lied and said that he’d blown his arm out moving cinder blocks in his back yard. The doctor put his arm in a sling and told him not to work for two weeks. When Lance gathered the gumption to tell Ray how he’d actually injured his arm at work, he made sure to emphasize that he wasn’t going to file any complaints.
“Okay, well, do whatever you gotta do to get your arm healed so you can get back in here,” Lance remembers Ray assuring him.
Lance returned to work after the two-week absence his doctor had ordered, and as the six-month “hire or fire” point approached, Lance made sure to ask Ray repeatedly about the prospect of getting hired full-time, always reminding Ray of his diligence.
“Most definitely,” Ray told him. “You seem to be a hard worker.”
But the day before the six months were up, Lance took a call from the temp agency representative at the plant.
“We don’t need you anymore,” she said.
“How come?” Lance asked, taken aback. He explained that he had just spoken with Ray, who’d assure him that he’d be hired.
“Oh, it’s because of your attendance,” the temp agency rep explained.
“Well, you guys told me it was okay to take two weeks out of work,” Lance pointed out, “whatever it took to get my arm healed.”
“Well, I’m sorry,” the representative responded—and hung up the phone. His services were no longer required. As Lance put it, “They basically screwed me over.”
After that experience, Lance set out to find work on his own, apart from a temp agency. But Lance has encountered similar frustrations in those jobs.
For instance, there was the landscaping company whose dozens of lawn signs advertised a wage that seemed too good to be true: $510 a week. But after tearing open his first paycheck he quickly discovered an important caveat: it was only true if you finished the daily routes the company expected you to complete—a feat that Lance found impossible with a work truck and equipment that kept breaking down.
There was the Popeyes franchise, where Lance worked as a crew leader for $9.75 an hour in 2015. He had been working there for about a year when, on the way to his shift, his only car was totaled, the victim of a texting teen who veered across the median and plowed into their car. Sitting in the back of the police cruiser filling out an insurance claim, Lance called his district manager to explain that he wouldn’t be able to go to work that day, that the policeman had told him to take the children, who were in the back seat, to the emergency room. Unimpressed, the district manager said that either Lance would show up to work that day or be fired. That evening, Lance called the corporate office to report what the district manager had told him and was assured that somebody higher up would get back to him. Lance also called back his district manager, threatening to hire a lawyer if she didn’t let him come back to work, but the district manager ultimately demoted Lance, saying that he was setting a bad example to other employees. His dignity offended and his pay cut, Lance said he didn’t want the job back and left. No one at the corporate office ever returned Lance’s call.
Most recently, there was the automotive repair chain where Lance had worked for a couple years. The work was steady, the pay decent. But in mid-February of 2020, Lance’s wife, Tonya, a thirtysomething mom and a cancer survivor with a diabetic condition, got sick after the children she nannied got sick with coughs and fevers—only days after their father returned from a trip to Hong Kong. She became so sick that she had to be admitted to the hospital, and her doctors suspected that it could be a case of the new coronavirus that was then ravaging China. But there was no way to test for it at the time. As Tonya spent several days in the hospital, Lance took a few days off work to care for their five children. He took what days he had left of his week of vacation, but when he had used all those up, he had no option but to call in sick. None of this mattered to Lance’s employer, who fired him just days after he’d called in sick. Weeks later, Lance’s application for unemployment was denied – he had been fired after all.
Lance has since moved on and found work elsewhere, first at an Amazon warehouse, and recently as a utility locator.
A Tale of Two Workers
The history of organized labor in America is tumultuous and complex, a struggle that echoes in the lives of Alex and Lance. Neighbors and newlyweds little more than a decade ago, today they lead rather different lives. Alex worked his way up again at the factory after his first suspension making $18 an hour, plus all the overtime he ever wanted, enabling him and his wife to save enough to buy a house in a new subdivision for their family of six, and for Hannah to stay at home full-time to care for their children.
Lance and Tonya, meanwhile, both work full-time and continue to experience financial precariousness, recently moving from their single-home rental to a trailer park– tight quarters for their family of seven.
The divergent paths of these two families cannot be reduced to a single factor—there is a lot going on in the two stories. For one thing, Lance will be the first to volunteer that he thinks he was “lazy” and hardly a model employee during the first year of his marriage. Whereas Alex was willing to tolerate extreme heat and less-than-ideal conditions at his unionized factory, Lance left factory work and tries to avoid it in general. But Lance thinks he’s matured a lot in the last fifteen years, and having been neighbors to Lance and Tonya for the last five years, we’ve watched them soldier on with decency, kindness, hard work, and nary a complaint through the latest job upheaval, a cousin’s opioid addiction (they adopted the baby), Tonya’s health scare, and the coronavirus pandemic.
The bottom line is that there is something fundamentally misaligned about an America in which a law-abiding, decent, and hard-working husband and wife are both working full-time but cannot consistently pay rent, much less save for homeownership and other life goals.
What’s going on? Why have Alex and Hannah been able to rise to relative stability, whereas Lance and Tonya are as fragile as ever? Despite the complexities of their stories, one difference stands out: whereas Alex benefitted from unionized labor, Lance has consistently experienced the vulnerability of nonunionized labor.
Alex’s story points to both the promises and limits of the modern-day union. The promises are evident in the stability and benefits that Alex experienced in his almost decade of work at the unionized factory: the path to full-time work with plenty of overtime, health insurance, vacation time, and sick days; the pay raises every November (up to a limit) “because it’s a union place,” as Alex put it; a grievance process and union representatives to defend you when an angry, entitled supervisor claims you’ve been insubordinate; and a company pension ($.75 for every hour Alex put in) that he could reap upon retirement at age 65. All of those were reasons that Alex envisioned retiring from the factory. That stability is what gave Alex and Hannah the means and the confidence to buy a new home.
But we shouldn’t just accept the simplistic narrative that unions are good, nonunionized workers are vulnerable, and America just needs more unions—end of story. Alex himself rejects it, arguing that “the institution of the union is trash.” He believes that the basic needs that necessitated unions in the first place—child labor, egregiously dangerous working conditions—have been resolved and that the necessary standards have been set. Now, he believes, it’s best to let companies be guided by market forces and to let individuals and companies work out agreements between them.
“The union, as far as I can tell… only ever helped people that were no good,” he had said about five years into his job at the unionized factory. Despite the support of his union rep, Alex believes that, overall, the union too often works against the best interest of the company and of hardworking employees, by protecting the jobs of less-than-hard-working workers. He pointed to one coworker known for absenteeism and was fired. “Union saved his job. Whatever the rules, you know, flipped out on management, saved his job. Well, he quits about a month later—just quits. Why’d you save his job?” He saw this as a waste of resources and unfair to those who work hard and follow the rules. “The only thing a union is good for is saving people that are no good.
And when other factory employees asked Alex to be a union rep, he told them, “‘I don’t want no part of the union! I’m a Republican, I don’t want no part of that!’ As far as I’m concerned a man comes into work, earns his pay, and goes home to his wife…. you do your job, you go home. You’re not in here to screw around, or to drink your beer, do drugs out on the parking lot—that’s not what it’s about. It’s about the American Dream.”
At the same time, Lance’s story is the near flipside of Alex’s; it’s what you get when it’s one isolated worker versus a whole corporation – a maze of temp work and low-wage jobs and questionable-to-unjust firings, with no real possibility for recourse, a shifting and confusing pathway to stable, full-time work that enables you to buy a home and enjoy a secure retirement. In many of his jobs, Lance has gone without health insurance, paid vacation, or paid sick leave. (The absence of the latter is also true for his wife: she once elected to go back to work three days after delivering her baby, so that they could keep paying the bills.) In some of the jobs he’s held, he’s struggled to see a path to steady, full-time work. At Popeyes, for instance, from his position making $9.75 an hour as a crew leader, he looked up and figured that he could get promoted to assistant general manager for a mere $10.50 an hour. After that, he could become a general manager, a salaried job that he figured paid about $45,000 a year, but that could come with 70-hour work weeks and loads of stress. Plus, there was only one of those salaried jobs per location.
It’s possible that a confident and highly motivated person like Alex, willing to work 70 hours a week regularly and certain in his ability to win a well-paying job, can make it in that libertarian, deunionized economy. But it’s perhaps more likely that average but decent workers like Lance—not drug-addicted but responsible, not driven by an ambition to climb the corporate ladder but content to work a normal work week—those workers are acutely vulnerable to getting screwed.
Indeed, you can see in Lance’s story the declining power of the ordinary worker in a hypercompetitive environment, and in Alex’s story both the power that still resides in a union and the corruption that threatens its legacy. But if modern-day unions are imperfect, is that really a reason to lean in the direction of leaving the worker to fend for himself? Or is it all the more reason for workers to seek new and better ways to assert and defend their rights?
Among the white working-class young adults we’ve interviewed over the last decade, there is a general attitude of helplessness—expressed in a shrug of the shoulders, a sigh of resignation—when it comes to workers’ rights. “True hardworking Americans get screwed over in the long run,” was how Lance put in 2015, just as Trump was beginning his campaign. “We’re screwed,” is a common lament. Union membership has declined dramatically since the mid-twentieth century, and research suggests that most workers aren’t that interested in joining a union. Part of the story may be that, among some young adults, a loss of agency has given way to cynicism, the belief that one’s choices and actions are of little consequence in the face of larger forces.
But also important is the way that Big Labor today fails to meet the real needs of working people. A neighbor of Alex’s with whom we spoke – also a Millennial but one who leans more progressive – commented that though he is not anti-union, in his experience unions aren’t functioning as they should. “Mercifully, I’m not part of a union anymore,” he says, adding that the union at the grocery store where he works “hasn’t shown much, if any, usefulness.” And yet, he sees the need for a stronger labor movement with real bargaining power to address the needs of workers. “Otherwise these ‘essential’ workers are just expendable workers instead,” he says.
A More Perfect Union?
What we need are reimagined and reformed worker associations that transcend partisan politics, eschew the national machines of Big Labor, and instead deliver direct benefits to workers. This is the kind of labor movement that might resonate with people like Lance and Alex, and conservatives should see merit in a new labor movement along these lines.
The American labor movement is but one expression of what Alexis de Tocqueville famously admired as the American penchant for forming associations, large and small, political and otherwise. According to Catholic Social Teaching, the right to form associations is a natural, God-given right of which neither the state nor the employer may deprive workers. Pope John Paul II reaffirmed this right in his 1991 encyclical, Centesimus Annus:
Here we find the reason for the Church’s defence and approval of the establishment of what are commonly called trade unions: certainly not because of ideological prejudices or in order to surrender to a class mentality, but because the right of association is a natural right of the human being, which therefore precedes his or her incorporation into political society.
Worker associations function as one of the mediating institutions in civil society that exist between the state and the individual: an intermediary that exists precisely so that Lance neither has to rely on his own devices when confronting a wayward boss (calling corporate, but never getting a call back), nor to depend on a supposedly omnipresent, omniscient government bureaucracy (for instance, a flood of regulations that may go ignored or unenforced). In this way, worker associations could be an antidote to alienation in white working-class America – summoning personal and communal agency and creating opportunities to take meaningful control of their own lives and communities.
The labor movement has historically been a vital part of the broader social fabric, and it can meaningfully reinforce other institutions of civil society. For instance, it’s not unusual today to see businesses post placards near checkout boasting of how much they’ve given to local charities—a convoluted and backwards approach at promoting the general welfare. A company might pay its workers as little as possible and even deny them the ability to form a union, but donate a windfall to social service providers or defer to the state to pick up the tab. Wouldn’t it be better – for workers and for civil society – if instead labor unions secured the better wages, benefits, and scheduling practices from those same businesses? Would that not more directly support families, enable marriages, and create more time for involvement in churches or volunteering at kids’ Little League?
A new labor movement would have the opportunity to achieve something that previous labor movements in America have largely failed to do, and in some cases not even attempted: a cooperative relationship between employers and employees. This approach to organized labor could prove more popular with workers as one landmark study found that “[w]hen respondents had the option of joining a union or participating on a cooperative management-employee committee for discussing problems, union support fell to 23 percent; the committee concept proved more than twice as popular.” Indeed, there need not be an inherent struggle between the workers and the employer—in fact, as Catholic Social Teaching has emphasized for the last century, we ought to reject the idea that there is an inherent struggle between the two.
Beyond the context of the workplace, a new labor movement would also have the opportunity to be a force for multiracial solidarity and provide an antidote to America’s polarizing racial tensions. In the working class, Black and brown and white people would all stand to benefit from reforms that a new labor movement would raise. It would be an opportunity for working people to labor in a common cause, regardless of whether they’re more likely to participate in a Black Lives Matter march or to hang a Blue Lives Matter flag from their porch.
Is there an appetite in working-class America for a new labor movement? It’s true that we’re not aware of anyone in our white, working-class town chomping at the bit to form this new movement. The new labor movement, like the old labor movement, will need Catholic priests and Mother Joneses to summon and organize the requisite leadership and self-capacity. But in that effort, there is something to tap into – despite the strong individualist and even libertarian sentiments that one often hears among our neighbors. You can hear it in the frustration when Lance said, in 2015, “I come home every day mentally, physically exhausted from the amount of work I’ve put in, and my checks are pocket change basically. I personally don’t think it’s fair.” You can hear it in Alex, who despite his strong anti-union and libertarian sentiment, does believe in a solidarity that begins at the bottom and works up.
After strongly condemning unions and Democratic policies that he believes amount to socialism, Alex told us about how one day he went down to Cincinnati for a walk along the Ohio River, where he noticed a statue of Cincinnatus, the celebrated Roman general who is said to have left his plow standing in the field to lead Roman forces to victory against the invading Aequians. The statue had Cincinnatus with one hand on the plow, the other hand holding out an ax bound by sticks. Studying the statue, Alex had recognized the ax bound by sticks as the symbol of fascism—but there was another meaning here, he thought. He noticed that the bunch of sticks around the ax protected the ax handle “so that it can chop even harder,” and the sticks were bound together with a rope so that it would be “one strong, unbreakable thing.”
Alex worked a parable in his mind: it was like how his relatives in West Virginia back in the day hunted the land and shared the bounty of their labors with each other because they were family and that’s what family did. It was “the idea of a union even in a factory,” he said, that if “All men band together, we’re way of the hell stronger than we are individually.” One stick alone you could break, the statue said, but if you bound a bunch of sticks together you couldn’t break them.
The statue made such an impression on him that years later, even the recollection it would move him deeply, his hands shaking and his voice welling up with tears. The statue spoke for the idea, he said, “That men are supposed to work together for the common good. Not in a Socialist, Communist kind of a way, but in a moral, Jesus kind of a way where you take care of each other and you give. If I have ten dollars in my pocket and I go along and I see someone in need and I—I don’t need ten dollars—I give it to them, they can use it. That’s how it’s supposed to be.”
With our national family polarizing into hostile groups, don’t we need that bottom-up solidarity? Wouldn’t it be astonishing if a new labor movement of Trump-supporting factory workers in small-town Ohio and Black Lives Matter-supporting fast-food workers in New York City would be the protagonists of that surprising new union? Yes, and what an American achievement it would be.See more from this series
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