Still Fighting for the Eight-Hour Workday
March 31, 2014
Flat wages have been pushing American workers backward for decades, but Minneapolis Local 292 member Kent Blachowiak’s employer was trying to push him all the way back to the 19th century.
Blachowiak is the shop steward for the more than 80 members of Local 292 working for FMS, a metal components manufacturer. When their contract expired near the end of last year, the company’s first offer went after one of the foundational achievements of the labor movement: the eight-hour workday.
“They wanted 12-hour days, no overtime,” said Local 292 Business Manager Rodger Kretman. “It wasn’t even clear if they wanted three 12-hour days a week or four, or how it would work at all. They just wanted it and they wouldn’t budge.”
After two months of fruitless negotiations, they entered federal mediation. A week into mediation, the company added language that would have prevented union representatives from entering the plant. Talks continued for two more months, with no movement, until early February when the membership unanimously rejected the company’s offer.
The entire bargaining unit stood together, but Kretman said the FMS workers struggle brought the entire local together. At the monthly general membership meeting March 11, Kretman asked the inside wiremen, low-voltage, manufacturing and broadcast workers that make up Local 292 to call and email the company to express their concern and then pass the story on.
“From what I hear, their phones were ringing off the hook,” Kretman said. “Two days of calling and they buckled.”
On March 13, the company capitulated on nearly every one of their initial demands and members approved a two-year contract, with 2.75-percent annual raises, eight-hour days and continued access to the membership.
‘Eight Hours is an Accomplishment on this Job’
IBEW members have been working at FMS since the 1950s, when it was a neon-sign manufacturer. Today FMS is a specialist in producing complex metal components for a variety of industries including off-road vehicles and medical and industrial equipment.
Unlike foundries that cast or forge components from molten metal or machine shops that carve parts out of solid metal ingots, FMS uses precise mixtures of metal powder that are molded and then compressed by hydraulic rams that create hundreds of tons of pressure. The components are hardened in room-length furnaces that are hot enough to bond the metals without melting or deforming the parts.
Making conditions even tougher has been the contentious relationship with management.
In the four plus years since Lindahl became the business representative for many of the broadcast, inside and manufacturing members, he has negotiated three two-year contracts with FMS and two have gone to mediation.
In 2009, plant management exploited the perception that union leadership was more concerned with its nearly 3,000 inside members – more than half of the local-- than they were about the largely immigrant factory workers.
Kretman said demonstrating to the FMS workers that all members are equal was a high priority from the moment he became business manager in 2011.
“My thought was, whether they come from Asia, Central America or right around the corner, I was sure they felt like they didn’t have a voice on the job, and I wanted to make sure they did,” he said. “It was clear they needed our representation in a bad way.”
Kretman said since Blachowiak became shop steward in 2010 he and Lindahl built a communication system among the workers that has transformed them into a force the company has to respect. The local has filed more grievances on the workers behalf – two had to be arbitrated -- and Lindahl became a constant presence at FMS.
Unfortunately, Kretman said, the company did not see the unified, active union workforce as a pathway to improved operation, as the many manufacturers who participate in the IBEW’s Code of Excellence program do. FMS went another way.
“They saw us getting stronger and it scared them,” he said.
Attacking the Eight-Hour Workday
One of the earliest rallying cries of the international labor movement was for shorter workdays. In the early days of the industrial revolution, 10- to 16- hour workdays, six days a week was the common lot of factory workers. Philadelphia carpenters went on strike in 1791 for the 10-hour day. President Ulysses S. Grant approved the eight-hour day for federal workers in 1868, but it wasn’t until 1914 that Henry Ford –no friend of organized labor-- became the first American factory owner to adopt the eight-hour day, which both improved workers’ lives and increased their productivity.
It wasn’t a victory that came cheaply. The most infamous event in the U.S. struggle came in 1886 in Chicago’s Haymarket Square during a peaceful demonstration by hundreds of striking workers calling for a shortened workday. A dynamite bomb was thrown at police moving in to break up the demonstration. The police began to fire into the crowd. According to eyewitness accounts, within five minutes the square was empty except for the bodies of seven policemen and four workers. Up to 60 more policeman and 70 workers were wounded.
Eight men were arrested and charged with murder and conspiracy. The trials were an embarrassment: the working class was excluded from the jury, the evidence was weak and the judge was hostile. The widely criticized trials sent four activists to the gallows -- a fifth committed suicide the night before his execution. The bomber was never found.
The Local 292 members at FMS may not have known this history, but they were clear and united, Kretman said.
The negotiating committee --Lindahl, Blachowiak, John Pregler and Business Representative Dan Ferguson-- had been updating the membership so when the company’s last, best offer arrived Feb. 6, including the 12-hour day proposal, Lindahl said the FMS workers knew what was coming. A week later, there was a two-day membership vote to give every shift a chance to be heard. The negotiating committee and Jose Seals, a Local 292 member fluent in Spanish and English, remained on site during the vote to explain the stakes.
Out of the 82-member bargaining unit, 75 voted, and every vote rejected the contract. At the same time, a vote to authorize action against the company, up to a two-day strike was approved 67 to 2.
Lindahl said that rejecting the 12-hour day was critical, but keeping access to the workplace was no less of a win.
“Being able to talk with them and see what their issues are in a single place is convenient and important, but just as important is that we can see if they are safe. We’re not there to disrupt anything but we need to know that the working conditions are as we agreed,” Lindahl said.
The first action came the next day, payday. Virtually every member wore a red IBEW T-shirt as managers walked the factory floor handing out paychecks.
“They saw every one of those shirts and had to look every one of our members in the eye and hand them a check. They had to see the determination,” Lindahl said.
That is when Kretman appealed to the membership of Local 292 and the calls and emails began pouring in. It seems the company got the point. They signed a tentative agreement within weeks and the membership overwhelmingly approved it March 20 and 21.
“They proved that every member of the IBEW is a full member and an injury to one is an injury to us all,” Kretman said. “Because members inside the building stood together with the support of their brothers and sisters off the factory floor, the deal was done.”
Lindahl said that now that the contract is signed, he hopes that the company’s management will drop its effort to destroy the union and begin to work with them.
“We want the company to succeed, and we can help, if they stop fighting us every step of the way,” he said. “These are good people who work here and the company could do so much better if they started treating them like they are the solution, not the problem.”