Growing membership in a manufacturing local is a challenge under any circumstances. American jobs continue to move overseas at an alarming clip, so growth in a right-to-work state makes it even more of an achievement.
But Iron Mountain, Mich., Local 2221 – in the state’s Upper Peninsula along the Wisconsin border – has spurned the trend, using the growth of its two major employers and improved outreach by local officers and officials to more than double its membership since Michigan’s right-to-work law passed in 2012.
Perhaps even more impressive is that about 90 percent of the roughly 600 covered employees have remained members, Business Manager Pat Dani said. That hasn’t been easy because Dani and other local officers still work full-time for the two main employers, Boss Snowplow and Systems Control.
“I think we’ve done it by stepping in and representing people,” said Dani, a 15-year employee at Systems Control, where he works as a fabricator-welder.
“In years past, we didn’t provide a lot of representation. We didn’t have a lot of training, especially on how to contest things when we had a problem with management. We got a lot of our stewards trained and we put in a lot more of them. We started paying them something and we gave them a decent wage. Otherwise, you can’t get anyone to do the job.”
Founded in 1962, Systems Control builds equipment storage enclosures and control and relay panels used in electrical transmission and distribution substations across North America. The company has long been successful, but Dani said less than 100 employees were covered by the agreement with Local 2221 when he joined the company.
Now, they number nearly 450. Systems Control has added an average of six to seven employees a week for the last three years, he said.
“When they started substation work, it took off,” Dani said. “With the amount of work they’re doing right now, they can’t stop hiring.”
The work has proven so lucrative the company was acquired by Comvest Partners, a private equity firm, in 2018. Company officials later announced they planned to add about 300 jobs at the Iron Mountain facility.
Boss Snowplow seems to be a perfect fit for Iron Mountain and the snowy Upper Peninsula. The company was founded in 1985 and has remained there through ownership changes. Local 2221 has represented its employees from the start and Dani noted that MJ Electric – an IBEW signatory contractor based in Iron Mountain – built the facility.
The company now has about 175 employees covered in its agreement with Local 2221. Its growth has not been as explosive as Systems Control, but it has emerged as an industry leader. It’s expanded beyond snow plows to salt and sand spreaders and plows designed for homeowners. Company officials praise the craftsmanship of its workforce in promotional materials.
Dani said the companies agreed to give Local 2221 officials 30 minutes to meet with new employees during the hiring process, something they didn’t have prior to the right-to-work law. In the past, they had to wait until new employees began working in the facilities.
At a place like Boss Snowplow, which has a large base of part-time employees, Local 2221 often finds itself re-recruiting employees when they return to the plant.
The best recruiting tool, however, continues to be negotiating favorable contracts. At Systems Control, salaries are well above the average for other workers in the Iron Mountain area, health insurance is paid for and workers have access to a 401(k) retirement savings plan.
“People see that and realize what we have to offer and that their membership dues are being put to good use,” Dani said. “Our biggest lift are young people coming in. A lot of them are just out of high school. They have no idea what the union is all about, so we have to educate them.”
Sixth District International Representative Bob Koerschner, who has worked closely with Local 2221, said that while right-to-work remains a threat to organized labor, local unions can minimize its impact by preparing wisely.
“The training the local requested from our office and received has been very helpful, but honestly, the biggest difference-maker is the dedication of the officers and stewards,” he said. “They already have tough full-time jobs and then they put in more time to work for the benefit of the members and the good of the union. It’s impressive.”
Koerschner said it’s also led to improved relations with both companies, where management understands that Local 2221 is speaking on behalf of its members with a unified voice.
“The overarching message is that the companies need to know that the members – their employees – believe in the union,” he said. “That’s when they really listen.”