Readers drove the Register's coverage last week concerning the labor strife at the J.H. Routh Packing plant in Margaretta Township.
Workers and their families made sure reporters knew about the 185-10 vote May 5 to reject the company's "last, best and final" labor contract offer. They logged onto the forums at sanduskyregister.com and blogged about their concerns and fears for the future.
But my interest in this story goes way back.
My brother, Grant Westerhold, got a job at Routh shortly after he graduated from Sandusky High School in 1975, and he worked there until the day he died (vacationing with his family) in the summer of 1999.
Only the good die young, and Grant was the best, absolutely.
But I always had difficulty understanding why he stayed at Routh for so long.
When he was 14, Grant began working for Best Service, a carpet cleaning and rug surging company on West Madison Street. He eventually bought the company and always had it as his second job through all the years he worked at Routh.
Surging, basically, seals the outer edges of a rug with a thick, matching decorative thread, or connects two or more rugs together to create a unique design. It takes skill to do it right, and Grant had those skills.
"I make $50 an hour doing this," he once told me on a day he'd hired me to help on a job.
"Then why don't you do this full time?" I asked.
"I need the health insurance, the benefits (from Routh)," he said.
"At $50 an hour for 40 hours a week you'll be able to buy your own health insurance," I said.
"I can never be sure I'll get 40 hours of work every week," he said.
Grant and his family lived through the lockout at Routh Packing in 1982-83. The company fenced off the plant and refused to allow workers in to do their jobs a day after the union voted down a contract offer that included wage cuts.
The hourly wage before the lockout was about $11.21 an hour; when workers were allowed to return to their jobs months later, after the holiday season had passed, they earned $9 an hour.
Fast forward 25 years, and some of those same workers who were locked out back then are making $13 per hour today. With this latest contract offer voted down, is it any wonder they're worried about their futures, their families? Will the company lock them out again? Will it close down? One thing for sure is wages at Routh Packing have not kept pace with inflation.
The "blue hat" management team at Routh is not asking for a wage cut this time around, but the "last, best and final" contract offer would require workers to pay a share of their health insurance costs, pay a larger deductible, agree to a four-year wage freeze, reduce vacation and holiday pay and eliminate bonuses, among other concessions.
One worker told the Register he'd lose about $3,500 a year if the contract offer had been accepted by union members. That amounts to a 13 percent cut in real earnings.
That's biting the bullet, hard.
Company officials aren't talking, and I don't know the challenges Routh Packing faces in the meat processing industry. I'm sure the company is seeing health insurance costs spiral just as every other employer.
I'm not in a position to know what is best for the long-term survival of Routh Packing, the future of its workforce, or even if the company wants to stay open.
But I do know Grant would have something to say about all this, and he would speak from personal experience.
"Blue hats wearing those clean white coats," he says. "You'll never find a smudge of dirt or a drop of blood on those white coats, a ding or dent in those hard hats. You'd actually have to work for that to happen, and blue hats are too busy shuffling papers and looking real smart to actually work."
"But Grant, somebody has to be in charge, making sure everything runs on time," I tell him.
"Is that what they do?"
"Someone does," I say.
"I guess," Grant replies. "But there ain't a blue hat in that office who could do my job for five minutes let alone an hour. Routh Packing brings in more than $100 million every year, and there isn't a blue hat there who contributes a dime's worth of labor to that. The only reason the company's any kind of success is because of the workers, the 200 guys who come in here every day and give an honest day's work for an honest day's pay."
"Well, times are changing. The economy sucks," I tell him. "The company has to protect its future."
"Yeah, and an honest day's pay just went down by more than three grand a year, and for good measure, the blue hats give us a good swift kick in the teeth and take away a little vacation pay and a little holiday pay.
"I'll stand with the workers until the very end," he says. "Never put on a blue hat. I'd rather work for a living."
Wow. He's not lost his principles.
But something seems different.
"Grant, what's up? Not an F-bomb or a curse word in your whole monologue?"
"What's a monologue?"
"The stuff you just said."
"Oh, yeah. Like Johnny Carson, right."
"Well, we don't cuss here in heaven," he tells me.
He quiets for a moment, flashes his sweet smile, and speaks once more.
"I'll see you again," he says. "Life is just the blink of an eye, brother. Just a blink. Have fun, that's what it's all about. Have fun."