Unions are having a tough time breaking into plastics.
The U.S. plastics processing industry traditionally has not been highly unionized, but that doesn't mean unions haven't been trying.
Unions have been less successful organizing plastics plants than in other areas, according to data analyzed by Plastics News.
From 1984 through 1995, unions held at least 551 elections in the plastics processing industry, based on records kept by the National Labor Relations Board. Those elections covered 53,581 employees, an average of 97 workers per election.
The Teamsters led all unions, with 123 elections in the plastics industry. But it also lost 98 of those elections.
The surge of Teamsters elections may have more to do with history than with a concerted effort to organize in the plastics industry, according to Richard Wessels of St. Charles, Ill., a lawyer who represents plastics companies in labor disputes.
``My observation is that there hasn't been specific targeting of the plastics industry,'' Wessels said.
``It corresponds with the beginning of the major downturn in membership with the Teamsters.
``After the deregulation of the trucking industry, the Teamsters realized that they had to branch out into other industries. Plastics is a growth industry. Unions are getting away from their traditional base by necessity.''
But organizing efforts do not equate to union wins. And the Teamsters' election woes characterize union performance in the industry as a whole.
The track record for unions in the plastics industry is not as good as in other industries. For example, the Teamsters were involved in more than 14,000 elections between 1984 and 1996 — more than any other union — and won about 40 percent of them.
NLRB records show that a higher percentage of plastics shops rejected unions in certified elections than the national average of all industries.
Of the union elections certified, unions won 175 in the plastics processing industry, and lost 377, which is 32 percent.
During that same period, unions won 45 percent of all elections — 21,684 out of 48,058.
Of the eight most-active unions in the plastics industry, only the United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers of America and the International Association of Machinists did better in plastics than in other areas.
The eight most-active unions won 28 percent of their plastics shop elections: 106 wins, 264 losses.
As a group, the other 37 unions with elections in the plastics industry won 30 of 69 elections, or 43 percent.
Those elections covered 6,300 workers, an average of 91 workers per election.
The union with the most-publicized attempt to organize plastics plants, the UE, was not the most-active in terms of actual certified elections between 1984 and 1995. UE was involved in 10 elections during that decade, one of which was called by an employee petitioning to have the UE ousted from the plant.
UE lost five of those elections, including the election to remove it.
Its 50 percent winning rate in the plastics industry actually was better than its 47.8 percent winning rate in 90 elections held outside the industry.
UE has not stopped trying to organize in the plastics industry, but it has widened its efforts, according to UE organization director Robert Kingsley.
``Campaigns are going on in three different [plastics] plants in three different states,'' he said. ``We're not ready to go public on those yet, though.''
But UE has changed its strategy a little from the early 1990s, when it zeroed in on plastics plants.
``A few years ago, plastics was a primary focus for us,'' Kingsley said. ``We were able to organize a number of plastics plants. Now plastics is just one piece of a bigger organizing program with various industrial targets, as well as some in the public sector and service industry.''
A number of factors make union wins hard to come by in the plastics industry, according to Wessels.
``The plastics industry is fragmented, as opposed to the auto industry, rubber, or trucking,'' he said, adding that many plastics plants still are mom-and-pop operations.
``Family-owned businesses are the hardest to organize,'' Wessels said. ``By their very nature the owners are going to be closer to their employees. A family-owned business with good employee relations is not going to be vulnerable.''
In other industries where larger companies have broad holdings, there can be a domino effect, where union success in one plant will spur others to organize.
``Whether an employer has an organized facility elsewhere is the No. 1 factor that would make a factory a target,'' Wessels said. ``You don't have that in the plastics business.''
One union official, who did not want to be identified, said mobility in the industry — both for companies and workers — could be a reason organizing in plastics is hard.
Many plastics workers do not fit the mold of the traditional union supporter.
``The skill level is not that high, and the work is not that great, so you have a lot of turnover.'' he said, ``You have a lot of transient workers.''
The smaller firms also can be transient, he said, especially when faced with a union organizing effort.
``If you're talking about a small extrusions company with a couple of machines, for example, they can be picked up and moved on the spur of the moment,'' he said. ``There really doesn't have to be too many employees to be up and running.''
Such transience also makes it hard for a union to get a contract even after a union wins an election, he said.
But with the recent popularity of mergers and acquisitions in the plastics industry, unions may have an easier time organizing.
``Bigger companies are perceived as being more vulnerable. Plastics has grown up as a lot of small, very entrepreneurial businesses. As the industry evolves away from that it makes them a more inviting target,'' Wessels said.
But even in industries where unions have been strong, organization efforts have faltered in recent years, Wessels said.
``A big part of the reason is management is far more sophisticated and is engaging in good employee relations approaches,'' Wessles said.
The size of the voting unit seems to have had an effect on the results of the union elections outcomes, with smaller bargaining units more likely to approve a union.
Independent, one-shop unions generally were more successful than their big-league counterparts.
In plastics shops, independent unions won nine out of 19 elections, or 47.4 percent. That still is not as good as their 59.5 percent winning rate out of 2,907 elections in all industries.
Those numbers may represent union attempts that were not opposed by plant management because they were a ``better'' alternative to having a national union come in, Wessels said.
``It's highly likely the company didn't oppose the union in those cases,'' he said, adding that those cases may have skirted the sensitive issue of company-dominated unions, which are illegal.
``In other cases, it could be a small local union coalesced about highly personal issues,'' he said.
In plastics plants, the size of the voting unit where the union won averaged 69.7 workers. Units where the union lost averaged 109.8 workers. The average bargaining unit size in plastics shops elections was 97.1.
In nonplastics plants, the units where the union won averaged 68.4 workers. Units where it lost averaged 92.8 workers. The average bargaining unit size was 81.8.
Wessels said those figures are not surprising, because organization attempts at many smaller shops are the result of personal animosity between labor and management. A bitter irony for unions is the fact that past successes may have led to today's tough environment for them.
Partly out of fear of unionization, management generally has learned to pay more attention to workers' concerns, Wessels said.
``The things the early unions fought for are the things management needs to provide now. And if they even do a C-plus job of doing it, they should be OK.''