The Union Way

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Blog entry by NoLongerHere posted 08-01-2012 03:42 PM 2178 reads 0 times favorited 26 comments Add to Favorites Watch

Back in the year 2000, I was a Union project manager for Dettmers, a 135 year old, 5 generation union cabinet shop with 50+ employees. It was a tough job but I loved it.

We provided high end cabinetry, exotic wood components like elevator panels and custom trim for projects all over Chicago including Water Tower and Park Tower. I helped manage six to eight ongoing projects, about 2 million in construction.


The owner decided he wanted to retire and sold the company to a man who was just what this company needed – experience in big business and he had a great personality that made you want to be part of the team.

Dettmers had a good reputation for producing excellent products but they’d been losing money for years and were about to go out of business. The Union cabinet makers were very good but set in their ways. It was a nightmare to expedite a project to meet a deadline or add a component that was missed or damaged. The shop ran their own schedule and showed little interest in being flexible or learning new methods of production.

I quickly learned how to work around them in order to stay in their “Union boys club” or face the Union dead man walking black list. Once you were on it you might as well quit as you will not get anywhere.

I think they liked me because I was a union carpenter/ cabinetmaker before I got in to management in the office.

Hint: if you ever want to get anywhere in the office, make friends with the office manager. The real boss.

The new owner called for a meeting with the office staff and said he wanted to make some changes. He was a Harvard business graduate (and a wood boat builder) who has built successful companies. He said he knew what it would take to bring Dettmers back and turn it around. He made sure we knew no one would be laid off.

With a new business plan, the managers met with the cabinetshop foremen to talk about the new methods needed to make the company successful.

The next week, about one third of the workers called in sick. The cabinet lines stalled, the spray booths were empty and a few components were found damaged. They refused to comply with any changes and sabotaged the ongoing work schedule.

I was stuck in the middle, not wanting to rock the Union boat but we had clients waiting for cabinetry. Architects were calling looking for their trim package and elevator wood panels.

After a few weeks, the new owner met with the cabinetshop foremen. I could hear them in his office and was glad I was not included in that meeting.

A few days later, two lawyers showed up and called for a meeting with the whole company. We were told that Dettmers was restructuring. They were taking over the company and needed us to work with them to finish the ongoing projects.

The workers protested loudly during the meeting and eventually walked out, leaving the lawyers and office staff behind.

We knew this was the end of Dettmers.

I stayed behind and tried to see if there were any components ready for my jobs that I could still deliver that day. As I walked around the shop, I couldn’t help but look at all the cabinet maker’s work stations.

The wood benches were old and well used. Some had big wooden vises with wood screws on the side, bench dogs made of brass and a few old hand tools sitting on top. They had notes and measurements scrawled on them from years ago. There were dusty pictures of family members tacked to the shelves. I thought of all the hard work performed and the cabintery that was created, the stories these benches could tell.

The company folded and was sold for probably half of what it was worth. The next owner tried to keep as many workers as he could but eventually, he gave up and the company was dismantled.

All the power tools, woodworking machines, inventory and the old cabinet maker’s benches were sold to the highest bidder.

I had to call my clients to let tell them know we were shutting down and their projects would not be delivered. Any refunds would be handled by the attorneys – here is the number to call.

It was one of the worst things I’ve ever had to do in my career. I eventually quit the Union and started my own remodeling business. That was the best thing I ever did.


26 comments so far

View Jorge G.'s profile

Jorge G.

1537 posts in 3636 days

#1 posted 08-01-2012 03:58 PM

Sad story indeed…..hard to understand the union mentality sometimes, specially in the US.

-- To surrender a dream leaves life as it is — and not as it could be.

View Kookaburra's profile


749 posts in 3385 days

#2 posted 08-01-2012 04:15 PM

Very sad story – and too often what happens to businesses and workers who cannot face that the world has changed and to stay alive, they need to change too.

-- Kay - Just a girl who loves wood.

View HalDougherty's profile


1820 posts in 4398 days

#3 posted 08-01-2012 04:33 PM

Thanks for sharing your story. You sure were in a No-Win situation. My first job after college was production supervisor in a union factory.

-- Hal, Tennessee

View LittlePaw's profile


1572 posts in 4239 days

#4 posted 08-01-2012 06:15 PM

Mark, I was saddened to read your story. I believe that unions were necessary back when workers were taken advantage of, especially child labor. But since, labor unions had grown to become monsters, and as we have seen, especially in your case, they have choked the life blood out of businesses large and small. I hope the time would eventually ( and hopefully soon) come that labor unions would cease to exist. We too often see their destructive forces and power with no corresponding benefits to our economy. I wish I could comfort you in some way. I have seen your work and you are a Master. May our Good Lord bless you and your new business, Mark.

-- LittlePAW - The sweetest sound in my shop, next to Mozart, is what a hand plane makes slicing a ribbon.

View Dennisgrosen's profile


10880 posts in 4276 days

#5 posted 08-01-2012 07:31 PM

Mark sorry to read this story but glad you shared since so much can be learned from this story
as I read it you cuoldn´t move one guy from the tablesaw and to the joiner or thichness planer
and say you work here today …... what crap is that ….. why wasn´t they fired on grey paper
its the same bunch of idiots that scream why does the companys move the jobs out of the country
and get things made in China
to bee on the jobmarket today is all about being fleksiple beside skillfull and you can only have skills
if you try new things
sorry but if I was the ceo I had toldd them do as told or give me your resignation and started all over with new foks ….. there is enoff out there that want´s those jobs
union or no union …. even here they have learned it if you want your job tommorrow you better start to think
its not enoff just to to go thrugh the gate in the morning and then go home 4 a´clock in the evening

sorry for rant Mark
but sitting here without a job and read this without giving my 2 cents .. I just had to

have a great day


View bladedust's profile


230 posts in 3427 days

#6 posted 08-01-2012 07:59 PM

Unions were absolutely critical up to about 60 years ago. As LittlePaw said, they have turned into monsters that feed on their host. Unfortunately, this type of story is all too frequent in our country and that is a major reason we are loosing manufacturing jobs to overseas.

I have a friend who is a robotics engineer in a GM plant. Some of stories he tells me would curl your hair. The level of apathy and hostility towards management is astounding and would drive me insane in his place.

If he picks up a tool to even make a minor adjustment, he gets written up because that’s not his job. There is no cohesiveness, there is no common goal, there is no drive for excellence but there is a drive to hinder management if they don’t get their way.

How we’ve survived this long amazes me. According to their contract (I don’t know if it still holds now) if they are laid off, GM has to pay 90% of their salary for up to 3 years.

I’ve been part of unions in both sides of the table and both sides suck. When I had my businesses, my employees knew (they were paid well above standard and treated like family) if they just mention the word union, the gates would come down, the equiptment would be sold and I would go on my merry little way and enjoy early retirement.

The unions are just way too powerful and the cause of their own employment demise. I’ve seen it time and time again.

Sorry for the rant, but this is a sore subject with me.

-- ok, is it cut once measure twice, cut twice measure once???? I know....I'll just keep cutting until it's long enough.

View crashn's profile


528 posts in 3626 days

#7 posted 08-01-2012 07:59 PM

I agree with littlepaw, the time and place for unions has passed. They were useful and necessary for the reasons that he stated. My wife is a union nurse, she had to join the union to work at the hospital she works at. Not too much benefit, but for her, being a relatively new nurse, they do stand behind her when management has a hair up their bu**s.

If I ran that company, I would close it down and re-open without a union. You want a job and have the right skills? then sure, lets make money. but you want to be stubborn, see ya!

Some wonder why manufacturing has moved overseas. Not me, dennis and others.

-- Crashn - the only thing I make more of than sawdust is mistakes

View NoLongerHere's profile


893 posts in 3837 days

#8 posted 08-01-2012 08:30 PM

I edited this to mention this happened in the year 2000. It was a long time ago but the story has always been in the back of my mind.

Also, I don’t blame the workers, they were caught in the middle like me. They just followed the example of the their peers and didn’t want to rock the Union boat either. They were like brothers.

They knew their work was good and some new collge guy wasn’t going to come in and tell them different.

The Union gave me alot of opportunuty to work on huge projects and learn from some incredible people. I have nothing against the union as far as training and benefits are concerned.

But when I hear about the money being spent these days by Unions and the strong arm corruption, I realize it’s not the same as I remember.

It’s part of the reason why Bain Capital has such a bad reputation. Some businesses deserve to fail due to bad management and an unwilligness to change in order to remain in business. Somebody has to come in and fix it or part it out. Nobody wants to see a company like this fail.

BTW – all of these guys went back to the Union hall and had new jobs almost immediately as the economy was doing well at this time. Chicago is mostly Union.

It was quite an experience for me.

View Craftsman on the lake's profile

Craftsman on the lake

3869 posts in 4598 days

#9 posted 08-01-2012 08:34 PM

It was going to fold anyway no matter what the ‘new guy’ did.

-- The smell of wood, coffee in the cup, the wife let's me do my thing, the lake is peaceful.

View Dennisgrosen's profile


10880 posts in 4276 days

#10 posted 08-01-2012 08:50 PM

I´m not saying union is only crap
but as I remember even some of the strongest union in the world
and here we talk England both in the carindustry and the strongest in the newspaperindustry
had to stand down from the high piedestal back in the 80´s and 90´s
in the car industry it was when a Japanese factory builded a new carfactery for one a there models
they said do it our way or no job it wasn´t a matter of union or no union
they wanted people who just didn´t thought of what can I get out of it without doing anything
or have to be told every minut of the day now you do this …..... now you do this


View bladedust's profile


230 posts in 3427 days

#11 posted 08-01-2012 08:50 PM

Craftsman, how can you possibly say that? Is it possible he was going to modernize and improve processes and efficiency to make them profitable or is it just that you believe a business can’t be turned around.

The reality is that if the entire company works in unison towards a common goal anything can be achieved. The sad truth is unions don’t allow for that because they have the “what can you do for me” attitude and see management as the enemy.

-- ok, is it cut once measure twice, cut twice measure once???? I know....I'll just keep cutting until it's long enough.

View Dennisgrosen's profile


10880 posts in 4276 days

#12 posted 08-01-2012 09:07 PM

one thought experiment I wuold have loved to see with those union workers is
how wuold they have behaved if every single one of them had a single part in that company
so they both risked there money but also got the bonus on the same conditions as a owner
of a company in the end of the year

I´ll bett they wuold had worked there pants out during the day to do what was nessery to be done
nomatter what kind of job they had to do cleaning toilets or using paper and pencil in the office

View bent's profile


311 posts in 4830 days

#13 posted 08-01-2012 09:12 PM

“The sad truth is unions don’t allow for that because they have the “what can you do for me” attitude and see management as the enemy.”

bladedust, that is BS. i’m a union electrician, and we are in business to make money for our contractors(management). we work under a contract and get good pay and benefits, and in return they get a highly skilled and productive workforce. if they’re not profitable, we don’t have a job. it’s a partnership. if they fail, we fail. they are not our enemy.

View bladedust's profile


230 posts in 3427 days

#14 posted 08-01-2012 09:30 PM

Bent, I applaude your attitude and mindset but you happen to be the exception not the rule. Maybe it’s because you work under contract with individual contractors and you only work when there is work to be had.

In other words, if a contractor has a bad experience he may not hire the union again so in essence you are a private contractor.

The unions I think most of us are referring to are in factories, assembly lines, work for one employer or large corporations. At your level there is no overseas competion, just non-union employees. Large manufacturers are subject to competition from overseas because someone of your skill level is not required to produce a widget.

-- ok, is it cut once measure twice, cut twice measure once???? I know....I'll just keep cutting until it's long enough.

View Beginningwoodworker's profile


13345 posts in 4834 days

#15 posted 08-01-2012 10:38 PM

We dont have any carpenter unions around here.

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