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How dare we mention the “u” word

Aug. 3, 2005
Are labor unions essential agents for improving the global standard of living and a great hope of human rights advocates everywhere, or unreasonable parasitic bloodsuckers helping to destroy North America’s manufacturing base by desperately trying to outlive their usefulness?
Are labor unions essential agents for improving the global standard of living and a great hope of human rights advocates everywhere, or unreasonable parasitic bloodsuckers helping to destroy North America’s manufacturing base by desperately trying to outlive their usefulness? My May column, “Solidarity going global,” brought responses on both sides of the fence, each full of praise or ire, convinced that I had taken one side or the other.

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The most stinging comment came from Clyde Smith, plant manager for Norampac, Niagara Falls, N.Y., who wrote, “I am really offended that a magazine that claims to be ‘The Benchmark for Successful Plant Systems and Management’ through their editors use this magazine to support union movements. Next time, you should consider your audience -- it is not the union but the lowly managers like me trying to stay afloat in a very competitive market. The unions have a big enough propaganda machine that I do not need to read it also from this source.”I replied to Clyde and say here to all readers that Plant Services and I are neither pro- nor anti-union. We simply advocate the principles and activities of any and all individuals and organizations that help people make a good living improving the performance, reliability, efficiency and asset management of industrial facilities. Naturally, we do not support organizations, activities and individuals who diminish that opportunity.The union issue is a hot button. Many of you have solid perceptions based on hard experience. Your knowledge is formidable and your opinions are strong, and I will not even pretend to argue that you should think differently.But I will not shy away from a subject area just because it’s controversial. If an issue is relevant and important to the future of maintenance, reliability and asset management professionals, it has a place in Plant Services.The most disheartening theme I hear in communications with “lowly managers” like Clyde is the sense that manufacturing in North America is a losing proposition. A typical comment is, “It is time to realize that we have missed the boat, it is heading to Asia. You do not force companies to manufacture, they are here to maximize profits, to pay stockholders and if they cannot find the right ingredients to do so here, they will find them somewhere else.”I want companies to continue to find the right ingredients to manufacture here, wherever here might be. I happen to live in North America, with my children, family, friends and the vast majority of Plant Services readers. I share with many of you only the slightest appreciation of marketing, investing, real estate and myriad other professions that seem insubstantial to me. I have no talent for medicine, law, politics, teaching, law enforcement and other critical life’s works, and can’t bring much to jobs that require physical strength, patience, artistic talent or coordination.It was a natural process for me to go into mechanical repair, engineering and manufacturing, and become a process engineer charged with specifying, overseeing installation, commissioning and continued proper operation of complex manufacturing equipment. I developed a fine appreciation of smooth-running, reliable machines, material and energy efficiency, water-tight roofs and the many other aspects only made possible by excellent maintenance and asset management.My plant suffered from intractable union practices and benefited from the levels of competence, training and dedication that often come with that pesky union card. I complained (to no avail, of course) when the millwright on the job insisted on waiting for an electrician to move a completely dead wire out of the way of his task, and appreciated it when the crew of three that came out to do a one-man job took it upon themselves to knock out the work of five while they were at it.I much prefer the hum of heavy machinery to office gossip, the sight of work in process to e-mail, and smell of cutting oil to cologne. To those of you who read this, share these feelings and ask, “So why are you writing words and editing a magazine instead of working in manufacturing?” I can offer no better excuse than I think I can make a bigger difference here.Making that difference is important to me because I want my kids and your kids and every kid to have the opportunity to understand, participate in and enjoy manufacturing like I have. I want them to be able to see raw materials transformed into useful products under the powerful forces of a well-maintained, productive plant, adding value you can see and smell and touch, and to take a critical role in making it happen if they so choose.So if it ever seems like Plant Services is trying to get in your face, poke you with sharp words and tell you what to do, before you get angry, please think about our motivation. It’s only because we care.