When Gary Bradshaw signed on at Timber Products 46 years ago, he didn't think much about joining the union a few weeks later.

It was what employees did at his mill, and at many of the other wood products plants that populated the Rogue Valley in the early 1970s.

As the years passed, Bradshaw discovered there was more to his union membership than dues. There were tangible aspects that drew him closer to the center of activity at his International Woodworkers of America local.

For nearly half a century, Bradshaw's life and work have been intertwined with his union.

"I was so young, not involved in hardly anything," recalled Bradshaw, the senior rank-and-file employee at the Medford Timber Products particle board and hardwood plywood plant, where he operates a 5-foot-wide, eight-head sander. "But as I became more aware of working conditions and my place in it, the union became more important to me and I got more involved."

Over the decades, he's held top leadership roles in the union, ranging from recording secretary to president and presently shop steward. As a plant committee member, Bradshaw polices contract enforcement. If there are violations, he said, they are brought to him. His role is to bring them to management, either verbally or through a written grievance.

As the timber industry went into decline a generation ago, the International Woodworkers of America merged into the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers in May 1994.

Even though membership has dwindled along with the wood products industry, the survivors are on solid ground.

"A lot of people are gone, including Medco (Medford Corp.), and we're not as labor-intensive because of automation," Bradshaw said. "But unions are still viable, at least in our industry."

While the rise of public unions, paralleling his working years, shifted emphasis to political action, workplace safety remains an integral focus for traditional trade unions.

"People don't realize that a lot of the safety rules, the legal rules in the workplace, were established because of what unions were able to get through legislation, and other ways," Bradshaw said.

Automation has changed nearly every job in the land, often making things safer, but Bradshaw contends it takes watchful eyes to produce safer workplace outcomes.

"It's a safer environment now, but not just because of automation, but because there is more emphasis statewide. The unions pushed for it," the 1966 Crater High graduate said. "Some things are acceptable. And some are absolutely not acceptable any more."

As an example of safety improvements, Bradshaw pointed to the lockout tag system to assure machinery doesn't get turned on during maintenance or repair operations.

Even in a climate where regulatory agencies dictate much of what occurs, labor unions continue to strike a balance between management and employees.

"Our role is to keep a watchful eye," said Mike Hicks Jr., the local president. "If we lose our negotiating ability, management could exploit workers. It's getting harder, with the political tide, to win good benefits, but we're out there bargaining all of the time."

The Machinists local's membership spans a diverse range of employers, from Sweed Machinery in Gold Hill, Webfoot Trucking in Medford, Georgia Pacific, Weyerhaeuser and Koontz Machine & Welding in the Coos Bay area, as well as the cities of Elkton, Reedsport and Winston.

"We've shrunk a bit, but after the big decline, we've held our own," Hicks said. "If you can make a good living with a good, solid income, then you're supporting your community, buying Dutch Bros., Human Bean, groceries and cars."

Hicks is one of 10 electricians at Timber Products.

He went to work at the mill after graduating from Medford High School in 1985 and went into an electrical apprenticeship, becoming an electrician in 1991.

"We still get dirty, rolling around a lot in the sawdust, but it's a good line of work," he said.

Just as woodworkers trace their heritage back to Jackson County's agronomic roots, so does the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 962, whose predecessors trucked fruit from Rogue Valley orchards.

Dan Ratty has been a Teamster for 48 years, serving as an agent in the local office for the past 22 years, and presently is secretary/treasurer.

Teamsters often truck anything from soda to sand and gravel. United Parcel Service is the largest Teamsters employer in the area. Bread truck and freight drivers are also members.

"A lot of these people are making more money than they have in the past and they don't know what they could make in the future," Ratty said.

Contract negotiations still center on wages, pension, health and insurance, he said.

"There are individual workplace issues," Ratty said. "But that's usually what the negotiations are over. The biggest issue down the road is going to be healthcare and pensions."

The Western Conference of Teamsters pension is one of the largest defined benefits plans in the country.

"If you don't have a defined benefits plan, when your 401(k) is gone, you're out of a pension," Ratty said.

The Teamsters local was chartered in May 1938, during the depths of the Great Depression.

"But we didn't get real strong until about 1955," Ratty said. "Prior to that it was mostly fruit, laundry and construction workers."

Ratty suggested the Teamsters were at their height from the post-World War II years through the 1970s, spurred by President Jimmy Hoffa's master freight agreement.

"A lot of companies welcomed unionization so they could offer insurance, pensions and benefits that we have now that are administered by the union," Ratty said.

Ratty broke into the Teamsters when he began loading trucks and sorting bottles for Coca-Cola, then moved on to selling beer and wine.

His course was charted during his formative years when he rode along with his dad, who delivered milk, bread, beer and soda.

"I learned to get up at a certain time," Ratty said. "I understood what I had to do when I got there."

Passing the work ethic from generation to generation has taken a hit, and it has shown up in the workplace, he said.

"It's not so much the kid's fault, but I think it's the biggest hurdle we face, and the employer faces," Ratty said. "You have to get up and go to work in the morning. You have to be on time, and when you do get there, you have to earn your keep."

 — Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or business@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness, and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31.