The early days of unions in the Mahoning Valley included strife with management, frequent strikes and gains for employees.
Decades later, the confrontation is mostly gone, and labor and management have a much-less contentious relationship.
The Valley has a strong history of organized labor, and despite fewer workers in the private-industry unions, there has been growth locally in the public-sector unions such as those who represent teachers, state and local government workers along with university staff and faculty, said Dr. Thomas Leary, a history professor at Youngstown State University.
The most significant change in the history of unions in this area is the change to a collaborative relationship between labor and management compared to the adversarial negotiations that existed in the past, he said. This change does not necessarily apply to all situations or industries, however.
“Lordstown is the obvious example going from the guerrilla tactics including wildcat strikes from the 1970s to the current situation where union leaders will say they work with management,” Leary said.
The early years of the UAW involved a number of strikes, walkouts and disagreements with management, said Paul Cubellis, a retired member of UAW 1112 who helped negotiate the first contract and who had multiple leadership positions with the union.
“Management used to scream at us. We had a bunch of young guys, many of whom had just gotten back from Vietnam and they weren’t going to put up with that,” said Darwin Cooper, a UAW 1112 retiree.
The relationship between the UAW and management was at its most stressed during the 1970s with hardly a year going by without a work stoppage or threat of one. There also were complaints during this time about working conditions, including an assembly line that was alleged to be running too fast.
“They had us producing 100 cars an hour, which was the fastest time in the world. All they were worried about were the numbers,” Cubellis said. “The vehicles were junk.”
There were bumpers that would just fall off vehicles, said Bill Bowers, a GM retiree and former UAW leader.
Now, management and labor work together because they understand that each needs the other, Cooper said.
“We had leverage. We knew it would cost the company millions of dollars and take six months to get production started at a new plant,” Bowers said. “We used that to get what we needed.”
Now GM could start at a new plant making the Cruze in a week, he said.
The union didn’t just fight with management. They created programs that helped save the company millions by reducing costs for workers’ compensation and supplies, Cubellis said.
Despite the improved labor-management relations, there are still tensions between the two in the Valley.
The Youngstown General Duty Nurses Association and Service Employees International Union District 1119 are operating without contracts with Community Health Systems, based in Tennessee, and both have had informational pickets.
Some of the current issues with medical workers and CHS is that by operating in a right-to-work state, the company has a traditional way it operates. The company might not be used to working in an area like the Valley, which has such a strong union history, Leary said.
“Both sides need to learn the rules of the game, which change depending on the players,” he said.
The first labor action recorded locally was in 1865 when coal miners in Mineral Ridge walked off the job in reaction to wage reductions. The workers were then locked out until they agreed to abandon the American Miners Association.
Organized labor efforts took off with the Valley’s steel workers. Early steel-worker strikes at times resulted in violence reactions from management.
For example, in the 1916 strike against Republic Iron & Steel and Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co., company-hired guards fired into a line of pickets, killing one and wounding dozens. The shooting caused a riot, and the Ohio National Guard was called.
The Little Steel Strike of 1937 was another that turned violent. During the strike, workers fought with police at Republic Steel resulting in one death and 14 injures. Then, on June 19, at Stop Five in Poland a riot resulted in two deaths and 14 injured, including a Vindicator photographer. The initial efforts were not a complete victory for the labor forces, but this strike started changes locally for organized labor.
The relationship between management and workers has changed considerably since the early days of organized labor, said Gary Steinbeck, subdistrict director for the United Steel Workers union.
In the early days, entire portions of the town were company-owned, and the companies controlled much about the lives of the workers. There were seven-day workweeks, and if someone got sick or needed a leave for a day or two the company would fire them, he said.
“When unions were started there were two classes — rich and poor people,” Steinbeck said.
The unions helped to develop the middle class in the United States, he said.
During the 1970s, steel plants closed throughout the nation including Black Monday in the Valley — Sept. 19, 1977, when the announcement came that a large portion of Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. was closing, Steinbeck said.
“That’s when this area became the Rust Belt site,” he said.
Most people do not realize the benefits they enjoy — a 40-hour workweek, weekends, paid vacations, holidays, health-care benefits and pensions all come from the efforts of union members during the early days of organized labor, Steinbeck said.
Unions have been blamed for the economic issues that befell the Valley after Black Monday. But companies get the majority of the credit when business goes well, and they have to take the majority of the blame when things go poorly, Leary said.
The union officials should have adjusted during those early 1970s negotiations because they were still operating with a national mind-set when the steel industry had become a global business, he added.