Steel Reunion

On June 24, at precisely 11:30 a.m., a group of almost 100 workers emerged from the Union Tank Car manufacturing plant on U.S. 90 near Sheldon Reservoir. Wearing hardhats, protective shoes and expressions of defiance, they marched toward the plant gate 100 yards away as a uniformed officer kept casual watch in a nearby guard shack. At the front of the group, several men held a United Steelworkers of America banner; others shouted slogans and shook fists.

At the gate, the group met a busload of envoys from other labor organizations, who voiced their solidarity with the plant workers. A few fiery speeches later, the crowd dispersed; the lunch break was over, and the workers had to get back to their posts before the appointed hour or risk a write-up.

Though mostly symbolic, the demonstration was a rare show of strength from organized labor, which is trying to turn around its fortunes both locally and nationally after years of setbacks and declining membership. And it gave notice to the company, which manufactures and repairs railroad tank cars, that any attempt to prevent the plant workers from unionizing was likely to fail. Not that Union Tank Car had been dissuaded in the past -- the company had employed a variety of strategies to keep the Steelworkers out since the employees began organizing a year ago.

Virtually following the textbook, Union Tank Car initially attempted to appease the workers by addressing their discontent over pay, safety and personnel issues. The plant manager and human resources director were fired last winter and replaced by more caring types. Gripes about substandard equipment suddenly found an ear. "They tried to love 'em first," says Steelworkers organizer Bill Fears, who worked on the campaign.

Carrots weren't enough, because the workers voted by a 21 margin in April to certify the union as their collective bargaining agent. Undeterred, the company adopted a more confrontational stance. It challenged the election results on technical grounds -- one appeal alleged an election monitor failed to tape the ballot-box slot shut when she took it into the restroom with her. The company simultaneously redoubled its efforts to thwart the organizing drive.

Those efforts, according to plant workers, included the hiring of an anti-union consulting firm. Placation gave way to a more tried-and-true tactic, sowing fear through threats and intimidation. At mandatory meetings, employees were shown films that described the horrors of life under the union yoke: lower wages, decreased benefits, lost jobs. At other meetings, also mandatory, plant manager Elmer Justice predicted that the plant would be forced to close within five years if the union won the election. Hispanic employees, perhaps more susceptible to pressure, were separated from the others and given their own special anti-union pep talks.

The strategy didn't work, though it did inspire several unfair labor-practice charges now pending before an administrative law judge. "We thought it was a bunch of bull," says James Brown, a welder and fitter who actively supports the union. For one thing, workers at the majority of the Chicago-based company's plants have been represented by unions for years, including the home plant and a repair facility in Cleveland -- the Cleveland just up U.S. 59, where workers and management hammered out a contract only last year. Employees of that plant have visited Houston on several occasions, dispelling the specter of unemployment conjured by the consultants.

In addition, Brown says, the company's indifference to repeated complaints about arbitrary firings, unsafe working conditions and other problems at the plant had pushed the employees past the fear point. "The plant manager and the company wouldn't work with us," he says. "It was just a buildup of everything."

To avoid a protracted legal battle, the union agreed to hold a second election July 1. The vote, again in favor of the Steelworkers, was by an even more lopsided margin.

Union Tank Car won't comment beyond acknowledging that, like the union, the company engaged in a campaign of its own. "That's an issue that's past history," says Dick Shoop, corporate director of human resources. Instead, Shoop says that he expects both parties to conduct themselves amicably and move toward a mutually satisfactory conclusion when they meet at the bargaining table October 5. "I think we're both entering the discussions with the same sort of attitude towards it," he says.

That suits the union, but such sentiments have little value if the stakes are high and both parties dig in their heels. Given Union Tank Car's experience with organized labor and a robust economy that may give the company some financial wiggle room on wages and benefits, that doesn't seem especially likely on the corporate side.

The union, on the other hand, has a lot to lose if a good contract doesn't materialize. The last couple of decades haven't been especially kind to the United Steelworkers union, especially in the Houston region. The closing of Armco's Houston steel plant in 1984 and the USX plant in Baytown three years later decimated the union's membership. Coupled with a weak economy, setbacks in the political arena and a national antipathy toward unions in general, it's been all the Steelworkers can do to hold on to their remaining 1,600 or so local members. "We took a beating," says Bill Fears.

The past several years, however, the union has invested more resources in organizing and is now reaping the reward. About 320 Union Tank workers will be covered by the eventual Steelworkers contract. The company is the third area plant in the last 18 months to have employees sign on with the Steelworkers, increasing membership in the district by more than 25 percent. "Hopefully we're seeing the trend turn around," Fears says.

But the health of organized labor remains shaky, and the success or failure of every organizing effort has significance beyond the individual plant gates. The public may be unaware of what's happening at Union Tank Car, but employers and labor leaders will be closely eyeing the results of the negotiations. "We're still at a real critical juncture," says Richard Shaw, who heads the Harris County AFL-CIO office and witnessed the demonstration at the plant.

Union Tank Car is keeping a low profile, but the Steelworkers clearly hope to win concessions from the company at the table and build momentum for the future. "This is the largest Steelworker victory in Harris County in a number of years," says organizer John Patrick, who will lead negotiations for the union. "I would certainly hope that the news will spread, that there is a rejuvenated labor movement in America, and specifically Harris County."

E-mail Bob Burtman at


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