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Iowa's Labor Unions (Feature)

posted on July 25, 2008 at 10:35 AM

A report released by the Iowa Policy Project last September revealed a couple of important trends. Over the last six years: jobs in sectors of the economy that offer the best wages and benefits are in decline, while sectors of the economy where jobs are growing do not provide comparable benefits and wages.

Many of the “better” jobs were once held by members of labor unions. But, labor union membership has struggling since 1983, the year when the government began keeping statistics on membership.

Labor union membership did tick higher last year. Twelve-point-1 percent of the U.S. workforce belongs to a union, compared with more than 20% in 1983.

In Iowa though membership rates are down – due largely to the loss of the state’s manufacturing jobs. Large industrial employers have replaced workers with technology, or outsourced jobs to domestic, non-union plants, or built plants overseas in lower wage regions of the world. No one understands these trends better than Iowa’s labor unions which are now targeting the state’s service sector for new members.

Todd Tonelli: We bought the house and from our start date to move in date was seven months.

And then once we moved in we kept working on the house. It was livable but still had small things to do. And then I stayed in the automotive business. I worked and worked on the house at night.

Todd Tonelli was injured in a car accident the day before he was to open his own auto body shop. Since then he has been in the care of friend and companion Amy Elder. They live in an old school house the two had re-built just prior to Todd’s accident.

Amy Tonelli: Do you know why they don't consider us state employees?

As a home care worker Amy is compensated by the state of Iowa, but is considered an independent contractor rather than a state employee. She is a earnest prospect for union organizer Matt Butler.

Matt: They are low paid, they have issues getting paid, they don't have health insurance and a lot of these people give up their jobs to do this. Other things they're considered independent contractors by the state of Iowa so the state doesn't hold any taxes out so once a year they basically have to come up with a large lump sum of money. Just little -- big issues like that -- I guess they're really not that little. What may seem small and trivial to some people to them is a big deal.

Although union membership in Iowa’s private sector has fallen in recent years, public sector union membership is growing. It’s not lost on union officials that service sector jobs can not be easily sent off shore.

The gates to union organizers to recruit home care workers were opened by Governor Vilsack when he issued executive orders directing the state’s Department of Human Resources to bargain with home child care providers, and with Consumer-Directed Attendant Care or CDAC providers.

Amy Tonelli: We keep those logs and I live here so you could say it's 24 hours but if I write down in my log how many minutes each thing takes me, each task I think I average out about 10 to 12 hours a day or depending on the day it could be 14 hours. And she said, well, quite frankly we just can't pay you obviously what you're worth. But at the time I thought -- because at the time I didn't know I wasn't considered a state employee. I just thought legally how can -- any employer can't have you work so many hours and then just say, well, we just can't pay you overtime.

Amy is seeking help on multiple fronts. Ideally she would like to have access to the benefits the state offers its employees – healthcare and retirement. The union is working to gain those benefits for her and other homecare workers.

The union argument is workers like Amy cost the state far less than institutionalizing their clients.

But, many in the legislature are resistant to the prospect of expanding the state’s workforce, much less expanding the influence of labor. Moreover, the current governor has been cool to labor’s so-called “fair share” legislation to assess fees on non-union workers who receive benefits won by unions. He also has vetoed a union proposal to expand the scope of what public employees can negotiate during contract talks.

Gov. Chet Culver: “I ran for governor to lead this state I love to the greatness that we know is possible. That means at timers you’re going to have people that are upset with you. That comes with the territory”.

Despite the political climate, Iowa’s labor movement sees the potential of gaining political muscle with each new member it enrolls.

Amy Tonelli: Any questions you have later on I put my card in these so you can always call me.


Tags: economy Iowa jobs unions


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