Union protesters demonstrate at the Kohls store on U.S. 6 in Portage. | Jerry Davich~Sun-Times Media
Updated: December 2, 2013 11:16AM
No other issue I’ve written about in recent memory has generated more contentious comments than from a photo I recently posted on social media.
It shows two union workers/protesters outside the Kohl’s store in Portage standing behind a long banner stating, “KOHL’S ... SHAME, SHAME, SHAME ON YOU.”
I passed the site a few times in my daily travels, wondering who else may have noticed it. It seems that everyone who drove past it, at the intersection of U.S. 6 and Airport Road, had a knee-jerk reaction, though not everyone was aware of the purpose behind the protest.
The “labor dispute” reportedly involves the new Kohl’s store in Michigan City using an out-of-state union contractor, instead of local union workers, during its construction.
Similar labor dispute protests have taken place at other Kohl’s locations across the Midwest for various reasons. These protests, however, spark strong feelings in us regarding unions in general — their purpose, their tactics and their reputation.
“They need to get off their high horse because it is a free market to hire whoever they want and nonunion people need money too,” Sarah W. wrote on my Facebook page.
Kerry Paris of Lake Station disagreed, writing, “My father was a union worker and so is my husband. I won’t shop there.”
Within minutes, the debate was on with dozens of pro-union versus anti-union remarks. By day’s end, more than 125 passionate or polarizing comments were posted on this always-volatile issue.
In my photo, I simply asked if such union-backed protests — whether they’re using a banner, picket line or giant rat — are useful, needed, effective or outdated. Everyone seems to have an unwavering opinion on the matter, convinced they are right. But is there a “correct” stance on this topic, generally speaking?
“Those of us out busting our asses and not sitting around a hall waiting for a call-out don’t have time to protest,” wrote Kathy P. “I’m not against the union concept that my grandfather, father and husband all worked for. What I have issue with is a current generation of people feeling entitled because they pay dues.”
This sense of union-shielded entitlement is a common complaint about unions today from nonunion workers. All of us have heard stories about union-protected workers who totally abuse their rights in the workplace.
I worked inside the former Bethlehem Steel (now ArcelorMittal) Burns Harbor plant for more than a decade, watching firsthand how many union workers took full advantage of their card-carrying, dues-paying rights to do as little work as possible.
This scenario still goes on there today, I’m told, as well as at other unionized workplaces.
Then again, I also watched many union workers bust their double-overtime butts on a daily basis under dangerous work conditions. Did I want their handsome paychecks, insurance benefits and job security? You bet. Did I want their tough jobs, long hours and dirty workplaces? No way.
“Think before you criticize,” wrote Anthony Letnich of Valparaiso to the many critics of unions. “Union members have benefits, pensions and have never had (their) health care taken away.”
“Unions and union companies spend a lot of money to keep their members or employees up to date on the current codes, trades and safeties because they want us to do the best job we can do that will last for a lifetime,” added Ian Paris of Lake Station.
“Shame, shame, shame on Kohl’s,” he added. “You want Hoosiers to spend money in your Indiana stores when you refuse to spend your money in Indiana? Come on, use Indiana (unions).”
Casey M. of Hobart, who works for Kohl’s, said, “I can honestly say that the picketers out front have absolutely no effect on the business at the store.”
So is the protest there truly effective? Is it more to raise awareness than lower Kohl’s profits? Do these ubiquitous protests affect in any way those people who are not union supporters? Or do they drive past obliviously while scorning the protesters?
“These people are the laziest excuse for protesters,” commented Portage resident Elizabeth G.
Rich K. added, “Unions were needed at a time, and did certainly fight for workers rights. My dad was a steward for 30 years. But that day has passed.”
Being paid $50 an hour for what can be done just as well for $35 is part of our country’s economic problem, he noted.
“This is why there is no middle class,” he added. “The union wages have forced companies’ hands to outsource, therefore creating a class of working poor.”
Ian Paris adamantly disagreed: “Without unions ... most people wouldn’t have a job. So with people working, it puts money into the economy, money into taxes, money for each of us to feed our family and provide in the way we choose.”
Still, the union membership rate reached a record low of 11.3 percent last year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Brian H. spoke on behalf of this declining demographic of American workers: “I’m a retired union steelworker who retired at age 54 with a pension, health insurance and 401(k). Let me see a nonunion slug do that.”
Margaret Franke of Gary called me to say angrily, “Not all of us nonunion slugs get hired into those jobs because we don’t know the right person. It’s not about skills, it’s about nepotism. Shame, shame, shame.”
As you can see, there’s little common ground on this subject and jealousy may also play a role. Union workers live in a sort of gated community in the workplace that not everyone is privy to, and it harbors resentment, name-calling and misguided “facts.”
Only one other subject — abortion — has ignited such a powderkeg of passionate responses from region residents. I’ll be writing about this in my Sunday column after attending a pro-life protest outside a local abortion clinic, so stay tuned.
In the meantime, feel free to join the discussion on my Facebook page, my blog, or my “Casual Fridays” radio show today at noon on WLPR, 89.1-FM, streaming at www.lakeshorepublicmedia.org .