For 40 years Ken Zelinske's work ethic and a union job helped him take home a respectable paycheck.
It was 1961 when Zelinske received his first union card as he started his job as a papermaker at Brainerd's Potlatch plant.
As president of the Brainerd Trades and Labor Assembly for the past 24 years he's seen the government make it more difficult to organize and a long string of union mergers in bids to bolster membership numbers.
"We always had a pretty good paycheck and Potlatch was a pretty good place to work too," the retiree said.
He followed Monday's news of a rift among major labor organizations with more than a little interest, but not a great deal of surprise. Zelinske said differing viewpoints among unions, declining membership and increased government resistance to union organizing have been apparent for years.
Zelinske said the two dissident unions that withdrew from the AFL-CIO, the Service Employees International Union and Teamsters, want to see more money spent on union organizing efforts and less on politics.
"I can see both sides on this issue," Zelinske said.
Fifty years ago nearly one of every three private sector workers belonged to a labor group compared to less than 8 percent of today's private sector employees, according to The Associated Press.
Zelinske, 65, an Oak Lawn Township resident, can remember when Brainerd area union members included musicians, retail clerks, barbers and, of course, railroad workers, when that industry was at its zenith. He remembers old-timers recalling the railroad strike of 1922, which bitterly divided Brainerd families. When some of the non-union employees were hired for permanent jobs at the railroad, the union men would be advised that they were "'22 models" and should not be spoken to.
Zelinske saw his own paper worker union merge to become the United Paperworkers International Union and later the Paper, Atomic, Chemical, Oil and Energy workers before he eventually retired in 2001.
By the time the Potlatch plant closed its doors Zelinske had more than his own career at stake at that union plant. He had four sons and a daughter-in-law working there. Of that group, one son became a registered nurse, two sons returned to work for the Wausau Paper Co., a fourth son became a painting contractor/bar owner and his daughter-in-law went to school to become a landscaper.
Although he said union membership in Minnesota is at about 19 percent among all workers, higher than in most states, the future isn't bright for organized labor. Zelinske said he thinks the largest unions in the state are the teachers and the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees.
"I would think until something real drastic happens it's going to be tough to organize," he said.
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