For 30 years, Fred Wilkerson, Sr., 79, was a proud union glassworker for Fostoria Glass in Moundsville. He started as an apprentice out of high school in 1958 and never stopped, except for a stint in the Air Force, 1959-1963. He belonged to the American Flint Glass Workers Union, paying his dues and collectively bargaining good middle-class wages and benefits for himself and his family. When Fostoria shuttered in 1985, part of the wave of closures that rocked the region (a story we tell in our film, available for $2.99 here), Wilkerson was one of the last workers laid off.
Stuck at home, the glassmaker had a major life decision to make. He could move to a different region for another factory job, he could change careers, or he could keep pursuing his vocation in his hometown. He chose the latter, the only thing he knew how to do. “I just wanted to make glass,” he said.
With his son, Fred, Jr., he installed a furnace in backyard and poured hot melted silica into paperweights, ashtrays, decorative pieces — whatever the market demanded. The smaller operation flourished. Last year, Wilkerson Glass produced around 50,000 pieces, Fred, Jr. said. It’s shipped around the world, including to Germany and Austria, and has made pieces for big-ticket clients around the country, including the White House. Fred’s daughter Dalis works at the Oglebay Institute’s Glass Museum in Wheeling.
Even though they do the same work, the Wilkersons, father, son and granddaughter, are part of a generational shift: Sr. belonged to a union. Jr. and his daughter don’t.
Only 10.3% of American workers belonged to a union in 2019, down from 20.1% in 1983, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In the private sector, only 6.2% belonged to union, compared to 33.6% in the public.
In towns like Moundsville, that shift has had a profound impact. The big private employers these days, like the Wal-Mart and other retailers, have successfully blocked unionization, generally keeping wages below $20 an hour, an obstacle of the shared prosperity and feeling of security Moundsville enjoyed in the decades after World War Two. Unions were flawed, prone to occasional corruption, and costly for management and owernship, yes, but they were a blunt instrument protecting workers’ wages and benefits.
As the coronavirus pandemic forces a reevaluation of the role of government in American life, it has highlighted the value, and leverage, of grocery cashiers, deliverers and other essential service employees. Workers for at Amazon, Whole Foods, Instacart, Walmart, FedEx and Target are starting to coordinate more labor actions, including walkouts on May 1, and pushing for a general strike to obtain better working conditions.
Can unions stage a comeback in America?
The biggest obstacle to the current labor movement is that it’s much easier to replace service workers than skilled technicians like the Wilkersons. Engineers and electricians still often moonlight outside their factory gigs, the same way the Wilkersons did, especially when there’s a strike on, a United Steelworkers official told me. “When you’re the one who knows how to do the work, you can be a capitalist and cash in on it.” Workers on their own can’t organize their own supply chains and import cheap toys from China.
At the glass workshop, business is good during the pandemic, Fred. Jr. told me when I called to check. “We got a big order from the state” right before the pandemic, he said, joking that ”I work seven days a week anyway, so I’m always self-quarantining.” Fred Jr. does not know how to use Zoom. The technology is not a tool useful for glassmaking.
Unlike his father, Fred. Jr. does his work without the support of a union, although, as he points out, “we do the same job.” That means he doesn’t have the same guarantee of income stability, but he gets to keep the profits for himself and doesn’t have to cope with angry or vindictive bosses. Union membership is not something Fred Jr.’s ever had, so it’s not something he misses: “I’m so fortunate to be able to do the work that I do.”
John W. Miller