Is Traverse City union-friendly? It depends on whom you ask

TRAVERSE CITY – While numbers show workers at the area's largest employers are represented by labor unions, union reps insist that locally-based manufacturers have a zero tolerance policy for unionization.

Workers at four of the five largest employers in Grand Traverse County and eight of the ten largest have at least some labor union representation (see chart pg. 46), and all of the area's largest manufacturers (Sara Lee, Eagle-Picher, Tower, and Lear) are union shops. Local Sara Lee workers are represented by The Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers, while hourly staff at Tower, Lear, and Eagle-Picher are all United Auto Workers members.

Yet the numbers are deceiving, some say.

Main offices and decision-making for these large manufacturers are in metro Detroit or elsewhere. And of the estimated universe of 279 manufacturing companies operating in Grand Traverse County, less than two percent are unionized. Neither union reps nor the Business News was able to identify a single locally-based manufacturer operating a union shop.

Roger Adkins, a local liaison for the AFL-CIO, believes the numbers illustrate a problem in our region. "Absolutely, our area is underrepresented for unions. We are constantly having employees contact us about organizing, but keep in mind-this has been a traditionally anti-union area for the past 20 years or so."

Unions are in decline nationally, but still represent one in nine workers, with higher representation in the "rust belt" state of Michigan. According to 2005 U.S. Department of Labor statistics, 12.5 percent of the national workforce was unionized, unchanged from 2004 but down from a high of 20 percent in 1983. In Michigan, 20.5 percent of workers were union members, slightly below the 21.6 percent in 2004 and off a 1989 high of 26 percent.

One local manufacturer, Stromberg Carlson Products, was formerly unionized but decertified its union in the mid-1990s.

"Our agreement with the UAW had expired and we had given them the notice of termination in advance," said company President Bob Brammer.

"The bottom line was 90 percent of the workers who walked through the doors at Stromberg Carlson have been great people who wanted the company to do well. We saw each other every day, knew the names of each other's wives and families. We were a small, close-knit company. We averaged 15 to 25 employees. The UAW wanted us to operate like the Big Three. The only time we heard from them was when 10 percent of our workers-which could be two people-were unhappy with something we did.

"Today we don't have union representation," he continued. "We sub out more than 80 percent of the parts that make up our product lines. We continue to create jobs in-house and for other northern Michigan companies by using local contacts with plastic companies, stamping shops and painters."

Unionization is a topic that is sure to elicit "no comments" from most business owners. But area manufacturers who asked not to be quoted echoed Brammer's sentiments, that unions are not necessary when employees are paid and treated well. One source pointed out that some small manufacturers relocated to northern Michigan to escape the union mentality of metro Detroit.

Mackinac Center for Public Policy Director of Fiscal Policy and Traverse City native Michael LaFaive, observes, "It's no accident that the explosive growth in northwest Michigan has not been accompanied by organic growth in unions. Unlike those on the east side of the state, companies and business owners in west Michigan view unions with caution and sometimes contempt."

The Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce does not take a pro- or anti-union stance. Tino Breithaupt, the Chamber's senior vice president of economic development, noted, "Traverse City is fortunate to have a number of businesses, including many of its largest employers that operate with union employees. It is also fortunate to offer a thriving environment for non-union entrepreneurs. Workers in Traverse City have a healthy option to work for union employers or outstanding non-union employers and know that they will still be treated fairly."

LaFaive is less diplomatic. "If I were a Chamber leader, I might point out that manufacturers who are growing here often do so because of friendly, non-union work environments." BN