State of the Unions: a snapshot of organized labor

By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor

On Monday, Sept. 6, union members and their families around Oregon will gather to observe Labor Day, a 118-year-old union-founded holiday acknowledging the achievements of American workers: the eight-hour day, Social Security, the minimum wage, employer-paid health care and pension benefits, workers compensation and decent wages. Nearly every one of those historic achievements is under attack.

Why are working people taking such a beating? In conversations with leaders of some of the state’s larger labor organizations, several answers come up again and again: The offshoring of jobs and political and economic attacks by employers. And, labor leaders say, it will be hard to reverse the deterioration for American working people as long as the economic and political strength of unions continues to decline.


American De-industrialization

At one time, manufacturing was the base and bedrock of the U.S. labor movement. Rising productivity and high rates of unionization resulted in high wages. Those jobs have been heading overseas. Between 1989 and 2002, American workers lost 4 million jobs in manufacturing.

Bob Petroff can put names to those jobs. Petroff is directing business representative of Portland-based Machinists District Council 24, which represents union members in light and heavy manufacturing. In 1975, Council 24 had 12,000 members. Today it has 3,300.

Some of that loss was union-busting — employer campaigns to persuade members to de-unionize. But most of it has been layoffs and plant closures, as production shifts to workers in other countries.

Petroff says the biggest threat to his members is the proliferation of NAFTA-style trade agreements, which grease the skids to sending work overseas.

District Council 24 lost half its membership in the last three years.

Employers that remain include Freightliner and Boeing, Johnson Controls, the can-maker Crown Cork and Seal, and numerous machine shops large and small, many of which are struggling due to increased competition from smaller non-union competitors.


Recession in Construction

For different but related reasons, many union members in construction are also out of work. Union building trades concentrate on large commercial and industrial projects, and have little presence in single-family residential home building. So when the economy is in recession and there is less need for new building, building trades unions find many members out of work.

Wally Mehrens, executive secretary-treasurer of the Columbia-Pacific Building and Construction Trades Council, says commercial work has rebounded in the last year, with projects like Portland’s South Waterfront development and new work at Oregon Health & Science University.

But employment is still down in most building trades unions.

“It doesn’t take as many people to build a building as it did 30 years ago,” Mehrens said.

And industrial work, such as the new construction in high tech that expanded building trades membership in the 1990s, is still in a severe lull. That means particular hardship for mechanical crafts like electricians and plumbers and steamfitters that specialize in industrial facilities.

Bruce Dennis thinks the continuing doldrums in industrial construction are related to the loss of manufacturing jobs, which has made it take longer for the U.S. to recover from the recession.

Dennis is president of the 1,100- member Portland-based Carpenters Local 247 and is president of the 20,000-member Regional Council of Carpenters, with a jurisdiction that extends to five Northwest states.

“The standard of living is going down in this country,” Dennis said. “It does not bode well for the working class.”

“Our parents said ‘we want you to have it better than we had.’ Today’s parents can no longer make that promise,” Dennis said.

Mehrens said it makes matters worse that the building trades are under political attack at the national level. One of President Bush’s first acts in office was an executive order banning project labor agreements on federal construction projects —agreements that all the work on a project would be done by union workers.

“The laws aren’t exactly favorable to union contractors,” Dennis added. “We’re seeing a proliferation of independent contractors who work without workers’ comp. We’re also seeing the exploitation of immigrant workers that are afraid to stand up for their rights and are willing to work for less than the minimum wage.”


Fighting Hard Just To Keep Past Gains

In sectors of the economy that are harder to send offshore, unions have held on.

Membership has held steady in recent years at United Food & Commercial Workers Local 555, Oregon’s largest private-sector union. UFCW Local 555 has 15,500 members in Oregon (and 2,500 in Southwest Washington.) The overwhelming majority are at the “big three” grocery chains — Fred Meyer, Safeway and Albertsons. [The local also has about 1,200 members in health care, and about 1,000 chicken processing workers at Foster Farms, plus workers at some smaller companies like Danner Boots and Dennis Uniform.]

The union should be growing, said Gene Pronovost, president of Local 555 and a vice president of UFCW’s international body. After all, the retail sector is growing, with new stores opening regularly. But Pronovost said employer hostility to attempts to unionize new locations keeps the brakes on union expansion. It also means organizing resources are taken up fighting over new units in mostly-union companies — instead of organizing non-union competitors like WinCo or Lamb’s Thriftway.

Last year, Local 555 was able to avoid the bitter strikes that hit grocery workers in Southern California and other parts of the country. Pronovost said that might have been, in part, because union grocery wages in Oregon were already the lowest on the West Coast, and health care and pension costs were also lower. Considering employer resolve to beat down UFCW locals elsewhere, Pronovost said he counts Local 555 lucky — it was able to resist employer proposals for a two-tier wage system, in which new hires would get lower wages.

As tough as it’s become to win for workers, Pronovost says pro-union sentiment has never been higher in his memory. “When I go around to stores, I’ve never been around a more positive pro-union environment than now.”

That may be because so many working people are taking a hit in the current economy. Workers who have a union contract feel the advantage, particularly in health care and pensions.


Public Workers Squeezed

Several sectors of the economy have seen some growth in unionization: Health care and the public sector.

Though public-sector employment hasn’t been growing in recent years, its rate of unionization has been on the rise, perhaps because public employees were late to win the right to organize, and there tends to be less incentive for employers to fight unionization.

That may be changing though, says Ken Allen, executive director of American Federation of State County & Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 75. Allen said he’s seen a change in the last four or five years in the severity of anti-union campaigns by public sector managers. Where before they might have sent out a letter or two discouraging unionization, now they mimic the private sector in holding mandatory anti-union meetings and showing anti-union films. This has slowed but not stopped AFSCME’s growth, Allen said.

Council 75, which covers all of Oregon, has 21,400 members, including 7,000 who work for the state, 8,000 for counties and cities, 5,000 for special districts, and 1,400 for hospitals and non-profit organizations.

The two largest public employee unions in Oregon are the Oregon Education Association, which represents 43,000 public school teachers, and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), a category unto itself.

SEIU is the nation’s largest and fastest-growing union in part because of where it’s concentrated: health care, service-sector workers like janitors, and the public sector. Health care has been consistently growing in employment and revenue, and little of the work can be done overseas. And campaigns to unionize building services have been helped by the sense that they’re part of an immigrant civil rights movement.

SEIU devotes tremendous resources to strategically organizing new units. In Oregon, the largest organizing victories in recent years have been SEIU’s, most notably home care workers and nursing home workers.

There are two Oregon locals: 49, the building services and health care local; and 503, the public sector local. Local 503 represents about 37,000 workers. The overwhelming majority are public employees, including 17,000 at state agencies, 4,000 at state universities, 3,000 in local governments, and 10,000 who work as state-paid home health care workers. The local also has about 1,500 members in nursing homes and private non-profits that receive public funding.

Because of tax cuts and the poor economy, state government has been pinched and state employees have endured a wage freeze, even for step increases, for two years.

Local 503 President Kathie Best said public employees have also seen their workload go up in almost every agency, as positions go unfilled for budget reasons.

And they’ve felt burned on their pension, adds AFSCME’s Ken Allen. “They’re angry about what was done to them over PERS,” Allen said, referring to the 2003 Legislature’s decision to cut public employee pension benefits promised to retirees.

Most of the state contracts, both AFSCME’s and SEIU’s, are up for renegotiation this year and next. Local 503 Executive Director Leslie Frane, who is also a vice president of her international, said the mood of the members is “angry but determined” as they prepare to go into bargaining.

Allen, too, said he senses a feeling of determination from his members.

“Times are tough,” Allen said, “but we’re a fighting union, and that’s what we’re about. People need unions now more than ever.”


Labor Law Reform Needed

Last year, Oregon was one of a handful of states to show an increase in the percentage of workers unionized. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, there were 230,000 union members in Oregon in 2003, up 4,000 from previous year. That constituted 15.7 percent of the workforce, compared with 12.9 percent nationwide.

The majority of union members in Oregon — 143,000 — belong to unions that are affiliated with the Oregon AFL-CIO. The AFL-CIO, which stands for American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (two federations that merged in 1955), is a confederation which most U.S. unions belong to. The AFL-CIO has local, state and national structures, which coordinate labor’s political and other efforts.

That makes Oregon AFL-CIO President Tim Nesbitt, the state’s top labor union leader, charged with coordinating labor’s response to politics and the economy.

And Nesbitt doesn’t see a way back to a better life for working people unless the nation’s labor laws are changed.

“The biggest obstacle to growing our membership, year in and year out, is the state of our labor law, in which employers can block our attempts to organize,” Nesbitt said.

“Most polls show that a majority of workers that don’t have a union say they’d vote for a union tomorrow if they had the opportunity.”

In other words, Nesbitt said, if all workers who want to join COULD join, unions would represent a majority of American workers, more than they did at the labor movement’s peak in the 1950s.

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