March spelled disaster for Northeast Ohio’s unions. The General Motors Lordstown Complex made its final car, while Schwebel’s announced the shuttering of its Solon bakery, staffed with Teamsters Local 507 and Bakers Union Local 19 laborers. The Plain Dealer also laid off 14 staffers represented by the Northeast Ohio Newspaper Guild. No wonder President Donald Trump and 2020 Democratic candidate Beto O’Rourke campaigned to Ohio labor groups in March. But not all is bad on the workers’ front, says David Wondolowski, who represents 17 unions as executive secretary of the Cleveland Building and Construction Trades Council. A Labor Department report found about 639,000 Ohio workers belonged to unions in 2018, an upward swing that bucks a downward national trend, and the median pay for union workers was nearly $200 more per paycheck than non-represented workers. “A lot of people have this misconception that we protect people who aren’t doing their jobs,” says Wondolowski, who credits work availability for high spirits. “We are out here to help make employers successful so our people can continue to go to work.” We talked to three local union leaders about why unions are important and what their futures may hold.
“At a daily newspaper, there are things you want to stand up for in terms of coverage or autonomy as a journalist. You have a lot more freedom to do that in a union. And it makes you a lot closer with your co-workers. When you’re fighting for the union, you’re fighting for everyone else, so the union itself is stronger. It’s really brought a sense of community to the newsroom that I haven’t necessarily had in other places.”
— Ginger Christ, health care reporter, The Plain Dealer; chair, The Plain Dealer News Guild
— David Wondolowski, executive secretary, Cleveland Building and Construction Trades Council
“A lot of young teachers, ask ‘What’s in it for me? Why do I need to join the union?’ I love those questions. It makes us talk about what we’ve done for our members, what we can do and how we’re much stronger when you engage. We give them an idea of what we provide, from [better] health care to salary. A union isn’t in some building downtown. The union is in every school.”
— David J. Quolke, president, Cleveland Teachers Union, Local 279