Janesville30.5°

What will happen to 95?

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JAMES P. LEUTE
August 31, 2008
— Bob Alexander will never forget the 2003 tornado that demolished his union hall in Oklahoma City, Okla.

Now sitting in a hall rebuilt bigger and better, Alexander is dealing with another storm. It has enveloped United Auto Workers Local 1999 since 2006, when General Motors closed the neighboring assembly plant.


“If we had known then what we know now …” said Alexander, Local 1999’s president.


GM has left Oklahoma.


Alexander’s union local is a shell of its former self, getting by month-to-month with a depleted staff and decimated budget.


Since GM announced plans to close its assembly plant in Janesville, storm clouds have been building near UAW Local 95, which finds itself in a similar fight for survival.


Declining membership

As of Aug. 1, Local 95 represented 3,765 workers in 12 bargaining units, as well as 4,577 GM retirees. If GM and its supplier companies close their doors in Janesville, the local union will be left to represent 645 workers whose jobs are not tied to GM or its suppliers.


“If GM pulls the plug on Janesville, we’re concerned with how we’re going to keep our doors open,” said Andy Richardson, Local 95’s first vice president. “We will survive—maybe not in this building—but we’ll be here.”


With a full-time staff of four plus elected officers, Local 95 is an amalgamated union, meaning it represents workers in a variety of industries. Its high-water mark for membership was 1999, when it had 7,244 members. In the GM employment heyday of 1978, Local 95 had 6,466 members, but at the time the union only represented workers at GM, JATCO and Blackhawk Community Credit Union.


In Oklahoma City, Local 1999 represents about 1,000 GM workers in various stages of “pre-retirement,” Alexander said. It also has about 2,300 retirees. It represents no one but former GM workers.


“We’re continuing to function as a local union, doing everything the international is asking of us,” Alexander said


Local 1999 still distributes information, rents out its hall and runs classes to make a little money from vendors.


“We’re trying the best we can to stay open a couple more years, hopefully through the end of 2009.”


If GM closes the Janesville plant, Local 95 will continue to service its other units. It will also try to grow its membership by organizing other companies in the area, which union officials acknowledge is a difficult task.


‘Bean counters’

Similar to Local 1999, Local 95 will be forced to soldier on with a much smaller budget and quite possibly a much smaller facility than the one on Lafayette Street, which for decades has housed countless union meetings, wedding receptions and community celebrations.


This Labor Day weekend, the Local 95 hall is hosting the 18th annual LaborFest celebration.


Active GM and supplier employees pay monthly union dues that equate to two hours of pay. When they’re not working, the dues are cut in half, and most retirees contribute $2 a month on a voluntary basis.


Take away the GM connection, and Local 95 could see its annual budget from dues drop by hundreds of thousands of dollars.


“We intend to be here and continue in this community and area and even build on what we have,” said Bob Vicars, who started with Fisher Body in Janesville in 1947 and has been involved with the union ever since.


Vicars has bargained local contracts, served as a regional UAW director and now represents GM retirees on Local 95’s executive board.


“I’m very proud of membership,” he said. “They donate and participate in all kinds of organizations. I think this year alone we’re well over $50,000.”


Vicars hopes a local coalition working to save a GM presence in Janesville is successful. That would keep Local 95 healthy for the foreseeable future, he said.


“They’re all bean counters in Detroit,” Vicars said. “If they see a way to make money in Janesville, they’ll do it.


“If they want us to make pencils, we’ll make pencils.”


Since GM announced its plans to close the plant, Richardson has spoken with Alexander in Oklahoma City


With a smaller budget, Richardson’s concerns center on training and education, serving Local 95’s displaced workers and retirees and keeping a staff to support those efforts.


Growing membership

Richardson said Local 95 has identified growth opportunities in the area. While he won’t name company names, he noted that the union represents workers in the credit union, health care and food equipment manufacturing sectors, as well as companies that make parts for the auto sector that aren’t tied to the Janesville GM plant.


The last non-GM unit Local 95 organized was in 2001 with a group of employees at Abitec, a Janesville company in the food ingredients business.


Richardson and Vicars are well aware of the data that show union membership is declining around the country. Between 1983 and 2007, the number of workers belonging to unions has fallen from 20 percent of the workforce to about 12 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.


Both men dismiss the argument that increasing union membership would be nothing more than an attempt to pad union bank accounts and keep union officials in jobs.


“Organizing in this day and age is much tougher,” Vicars said. “Employers have smartened up and have offered workers more.


“But if employees are dissatisfied, we can help.”


Richardson and Vicars said union representation gives workers a voice in the workplace.


“It gets them a contract,” Vicars said. “There’s nothing wrong with a contract. Most companies deal with contracts as they buy and sell things, so they’re familiar with contracts.


“About the only thing they don’t make a commitment to through a contract is their employees.”


Richardson and Vicars agree that Local 95’s future is filled with questions. Will GM survive in one form or another in Janesville? Will the union be able to weather a hit from the loss of GM and then grow its membership?


“We’re not dead, but we’re ill,” Vicars said. “The prognosis? I don’t know, but we’ve weathered some pretty bad storms before.”


LOCAL 95 MEMBERSHIP HISTORY
1935: The United Auto Workers gain recognition, and Local 95 and Local 121 form to represent workers in Janesville. Local 95 represented Fisher Body and Local 121 represented Chevrolet hourly workers.
1968: General Motors announces the Fisher Body and Chevrolet plant will be merged into GM Assembly Division. At the same time, UAW Locals 95 and 121 merge into what is now known as Local 95.
1978: Representing hourly workers at GM and JATCO exclusively, Local 95 has 6,466 members.
1999: Local 95, now an amalgamated union, hits a membership high of 7,244.
2008: Local 95, which represents 12 units of workers, reports 3,765 active members.

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