Edward Allen and three fellow shoe workers drove more than an hour today to an old Shoe Workers Union hall to hear whether AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland could offer them any hope about their future.
"You can't sit by and watch your union go down the drain, and watch your job go down the drain," said Allen.
Allen, 42, now works only 23 hours a week and brings home $130 because his employer, Laconia Shoe, has been decimated by a flood of shoes from Korea, Taiwan and Brazil. The burly factory worker has two children and a wife who earns the minimum wage as a part-time cashier.
But a more direct threat to Allen's job and to the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU) is a proposed "right-to-work" law that passed the Republican-controlled state House this month and may be approved this week by the Senate.
Vigorously opposed by unions, the law would make New Hampshire the 22nd state to outlaw "union shop" labor agreements that require union membership or payment of union "agency fees." The measure is certain to result in a dramatic drop in union membership, both sides agree.
Kirkland's visit to this old Merrimack River mill town was one of six campaign-style stops that he made today as part of a new effort by the AFL-CIO leadership to listen to the concerns and problems of rank-and-file union members, such as the 75 who gathered in a 100-year-old church to hear him.
"We are facing times of difficulty . . . and we have powerful forces arrayed against us in Congress and in the states," Kirkland said. ". . . But we have no intention of backing down."
Foreign imports and domestic anti-unionism were among the chief concerns here, in a state where tens of thousands of high-paying union jobs have disappeared or moved south. Only 16 percent of the work force here remains unionized, much of it in sectors threatened by intense competition.
"I just don't understand why they allow all these imports into this country . . . . If we don't stop it, our jobs just won't be here tomorrow," said Allen.
Kirkland said the 13 million-member federation is pushing in Congress for legislation to ensure trade "reciprocity" by denying access to American markets to nations that restrict U.S. goods. He said the AFL-CIO is also arguing for stronger sanctions to deny market access to foreign nations whose lower prices are based on "the exploitation of human beings."
But time is running short for action, said Vincent Hall, regional director of the ACTWU, which once represented nearly 10,000 workers in 21 New Hampshire shoe plants, but now has only 900 members in three factories here.
"I don't know what's going to do us in first -- imports or right-to-work," Hall said.
The ACTWU has had a union shop agreement with Laconia Shoe for 30 years, and would lose substantial membership and dues money if the bill passes, Allen said.
"If we lose those members, we will never have the strength to negotiate a decent contract again. We'll all be at minimum wage," said Allen.
The arch-conservative Manchester Union Leader uncharacteristically took up the union side today with a front-page editorial labeling the bill a "right to bust unions" law that would depress wages in New Hampshire, worsen labor relations, and allow nonunion workers to "freeload" by receiving union-won benefits without paying dues.
The Virginia-based National Right to Work Committee has set up an office here to establish a beachhead in New England, which has no right-to-work laws. The AFL-CIO has countered by dispatching extra staff members here for lobbying in what is expected to be a close state Senate vote.