6/3/08

Labor unions call for federal bailout

Card-check recognition would reverse worker rejection of unions

Union membership has taken a hit over the past decade. Its role has changed since its inception more than 140 years ago. And so have its challenges. Since 2000, membership rates in Fort Smith and Van Buren (AR) declined 17 percent. Some in the organization attribute the decline to layoffs, outsourced jobs and difficulty spurring interest for new unions.

During the labor movement of the early 20th century, unions took part in bolstering public awareness about reforms needed in the workplace. Today, the organizations continue to play a role for workers facing a different set of challenges than their predecessors.

Membership Rates

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, there were 5,661 members of 17 different unions in Fort Smith and Van Buren last year. Those numbers are down from the 6,661 reported in 2006 and down from 7,398 in 2002.

Local union representatives said they’ve all experienced a halt in membership rates, with some even declining over the years.

Stacy Fox, principal officer of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local 373, said his membership rates are holding steady around 900, representing workers from nine local companies. His union covers mostly transportation employees, which last year represented the highest number of union members in the United States with 23.2 percent in the transportation and utility industry.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 15.7 million union members in the United States last year, an increase of 311,000 from 2006. Union representation accounted for 12.1 percent of total wage and salary workers last year, up from 12 percent the previous year.

While an increase is positive, it’s still below the numbers once experienced by unions in the United States. In 1983, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent of all workers in the nation, according to the most historic comparable data.

In Arkansas, the union membership rate is less than half of the national rate. In 2007, there were 62,000 union members, according to the BLS, which represented 5.4 percent of the work force. That is just below the seven-year high of 63,000 and 5.8 percent of the work force in 2000, but it’s well above the 50,000 and 4.8 percent posted in 2003.

Economic Challenges

The economy is considered to be a factor affecting membership rates. The second-highest industry with a union membership rate at 13 percent of its work force in the nation is construction, which can be easily impacted by the housing crisis. And the fourth-highest industry with a rate of 11.7 percent is one industry hit hard in recent years, especially in Arkansas — manufacturing.

At Rheem Manufacturing in Fort Smith, the housing crisis has caused a slowdown in product demand of residential heating and cooling systems. Several layoffs there have been blamed on the declining sales, according to the company.

“When things were going really well, we were running high percentages in the local union,” said Ronnie Teague, president of the United Steel Workers-Local 7893, representing about 1,000 Rheem workers. But, he added, layoffs do take a toll on membership rates.

Economic woes aren’t the only issues. One that has many unions pushing Congress is the North American Free Trade Agreement, which eased restrictions on trade among the United States, Canada and Mexico, Fox said.

“I think if you look at the loss of the good manufacturing jobs in the U.S. — union jobs — that decline has actually been increased by some bad deals that exacerbate the loss of manufacturing jobs in the United States,” said Fred Azcarate, director of The Voice of Work program of the AFL-CIO in Washington, D.C.

Whirlpool Corp.’s Fort Smith plant also has taken job hits in the past five years. The manufacturing facility, once the cream of the crop job in the region, has seen more than half its work force lost through layoffs, most of which came with production shifting to Mexico.

In January 2006, Whirlpool reported 4,600 employees. Through layoffs, that number of active workers at the plant was 1,840 at the end of 2007.

“There’s not a whole lot you can do (about the outsourcing of jobs) outside of making the best quality inside the United States. The main thing is trying to talk people into buying products made inside the United States, if you can find any,” said Larry Ryan, president of the United Steel Workers-Local 370 representing Whirlpool employees.

And it’s Whirlpool that has taken the largest hit in membership rates over the past two years. At the end of 2005, there were 2,519 members of the union. By the end of 2007, that number was cut in half to 1,270.

Even when workers are laid off, they remain part of the union in an inactive role, still able to vote. For now, all that can be done at Whirlpool is to restructure the union, Ryan said, which has been affected by last year’s severance packages, which allowed the company to buy out employees’ contracts, terminating their employment.

As president of the Sebastian-Crawford Counties Labor Council of the AFL-CIO, John Rogers speaks frequently with a coalition of unions in the area regarding challenges unions face.

“We discuss issues that concern us so we can confront them on a political front,” Rogers said. “We feel threatened by trade agreements of jobs going to Mexico or China.”

Rogers, an employee at Rheem, said they’ve already seen a loss of production because of the company’s Mexico plants. And in July last year, the announcement that the company purchased land in Mexico to build a new production facility rattled workers and community leaders.

Fort Smith is home to Rheem’s Heating & Cooling Division, employing about 1,620 area residents, making it one of Sebastian County’s top manufacturing employers. And although the company hasn’t mentioned any jobs being moved to Mexico, the company didn’t shy away when asked about it.

Ed Raniszeski, director of market development and communications for the Fort Smith division, told the Times Record after the news release that it was just to give everyone a heads-up. “You have to look at every plant through a global microscope,” he said when asked about the competitive global marketplace.

Battle

While memberships have declined through attrition and lost jobs, union representatives continue to educate new workers on the benefits of unions.

To union representatives, getting new employees to join a union isn’t difficult once they learn about it. But it can get overwhelming, especially to the younger generation not familiar with the union history, Rogers said.

Union dues can also keep potential members away. Rogers said the international unions set the dues, which is put into the contract with the company. At Rheem, union members pay 1.3 percent of their wages plus 2 cents per hour every week. It’s also negotiated in the contract to have those automatically deducted in paychecks.

“There’s a lot of people in this part of the country that just don’t know what unions are about,” said Ronnie Teague, president of the USW-Local 7893. “And the fear of the unknown is worse than the unknown itself.”

But for some workers, there’s a fear of punishment if they join unions, Azcarate said.

It could be obvious why some companies would be opposed to unions. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, union members made an average weekly wage of $863 in the United States last year compared to the non-union member average of $663 — a 30.2 percent difference.

It’s something Azcarate doesn’t understand.

“It’s part of what made the middle class,” he said. “We think it should be celebrated and not opposed.”

With union membership waning, the future seems uncertain as having a company form a union has become a rarity.

That stems from fear that companies could scare employees who try to organize a union, Azcarate said.

But according to the National Labor Relations Act, that’s not legal. The National Labor Relations Board was formed by Congress in 1935 to administer the laws governing relations between unions and employers.

“Anything to do with fear or danger or anything like that, I’m not sure I understand the question, because we do investigate unfair labor practices if the employee has been threatened,” said Bruce Hill, resident officer of the NLRB Resident Office 26 in Little Rock, when asked about the board’s input on perceived dangers or threats of union organization in the workplace.

But according to a recent survey by the AFL-CIO, 25 percent of those involved in organizing campaigns are fired, 50 percent are threatened with plant closure, 70 percent experience company meetings to talk them out of it, and 92 percent conduct mandatory meetings to talk them out of it, Azcarate said.

Fox said at any given day, he’ll have two or three groups contact him about organizing a union but won’t give their name because they’re afraid of being demoted or even fired.

The NLRB is a neutral policing agency that investigates unfair labor practices. And when a company is found to have violated the act, the board gets the issue back to the way it was before the unfair practice, Hill said. If that means a terminated employee is reinstated, then they are and made “whole” by receiving back-payments. The company’s punishment is then to post a notice regarding the violation.

But to Fox, the punishment isn’t enough. That’s where support for the Employee Free Choice Act proposed in Congress comes in. The act would strengthen penalties against employers who violate employee rights when trying to form a union and also make it mandatory for companies to recognize a union if 50 percent or more employees sign cards requesting to organize it. As of now, companies don’t have to recognize it. If employees want a union, they have to go through the National Labor Relations Board.

New Role

Unions play a partially different role than what they were first organized to do in its early days. Issues such as work week hours and minimum wages were so bad that everyone knew there were problems that needed to be fixed.

“It almost seems like when unions started up in this country, there was a real, certain need for them, and there still is today. It’s just not as visible,” Fox said.

Unions represent workers when it comes to bargaining agreements on wages, benefits and pension plans. But they’re also there to protect the employee’s job.

“That’s the kind of America we want. Yeah, you got to work hard but you’re rewarded for it,” Azcarate said. “You never see a CEO work without a contract, yet with so many of these companies, you see workers go to work without a contract.”

(swtimes.com)

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