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Discussion: Iowa's Labor Unions

posted on July 25, 2008 at 1:56 PM

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A report released by the IowaPolicy Project last September revealed a couple of important trends. Over thelast six years: jobs in sectors of the economy that offer the best wages andbenefits are in decline, while sectors of the economy where jobs are growing donot 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 thegovernment began keeping statistics on membership.

Labor union membership didtick 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 – duelargely to the loss of the state’s manufacturing jobs. Large industrial employers have replacedworkers with technology, or outsourced jobs to domestic, non-union plants, orbuilt plants overseas in lower wage regions of the world. No one understands these trends better than Iowa’s labor unionswhich are now targeting the state’s service sector for new members.

Paul Yeager: There is little doubt Iowa's unions are in motion organizingworkers. But they are laboring againsttrends that have been in place for more than two decades.

Here's a few of the questions we'll take up tonight.

· Can the state's unions reverse the atrophy oforganized labor?

· What must the organizations do to make them moreaccepted in the workplace?

· And if they succeed how will the success affectthe Iowaeconomy?

To address these questions and more we have with us KenSagar who is President of the Iowa Federation of Labor and Colin Gordon who iswith the University of Iowa as a laborhistorian, he is also with the Iowa Policy Project. Gentlemen, welcome to the program tonight.

Paul Yeager: The first question is for you, Colin, whatis the status of the unions in the state of Iowa? Let's first look at a decade and then let's look over a generation.

Colin Gordon: Well, in the last decade the union movementhas continued a downward trend. In fact,in 2007 marked the first year in Iowa wherepublic sector workers outnumbered private sector members of the labor movementin Iowa. We've seen a dramatic increase down to six orseven percent of the private labor force largely for reasons that were noted inyour clip, the in place nature of the public sector and the departure of anyprivate sector jobs.

Paul Yeager: Has that changed over the last generation oris that just also what we've seen in the last few years?

Colin Gordon: It's somewhat cyclical but there's been asteady downward trend really since the early 1970s with trending down moresharply beginning in the early 1980s during the Reagan years and trending downfairly sharply again during our most recent recession.

Paul Yeager: So, Ken, where do you find new members tofill in some of those holes?

Ken Sagar: Oh, a variety of places. We've seen a number of people who have in ourlatest polling indicated that they'd like to join unions.

In fact, national polling indicates approximately 60million people would join a union but they're afraid that they're going to losetheir job and we've seen a lot of those kinds of things happen to folks andthat's one of the reasons we're trying to get behind and push federallegislation called the Employee Free Choice Act.

One of the other things that we've done recently lastyear we organized about 26,000 people in a community based effort calledWorking America. It was reallysurprising that we had that good a receptivity amongst all the folks. We knocked on 75,000 doors roughly and talkedto 35,000 people and signed up almost 26,000.

Paul Yeager: Do a little background for me on the FreeChoice Act, what that would mean. Itwould kind of remove one step if I'm understanding correctly on trying to gainunion ... ?

Ken Sagar: What we're trying to get here is themajority's card check status. One of thethings that we've seen happen and I have personal experience with this in anorganizing drive a lot of times the employers, 25% of them actually, will fireworkers in an organizing drive. I had anorganizing effort in the Cedar Rapids area.

There was 180 people that worked in the plant and theemployer fired 150 in the organizing drive. We still won the election, the National Labor Relations Board came inand interviewed these folks for about three months and we managed to get oneindividual $650 roughly, everybody else got their records cleared but nobodygot their jobs back.

So, people are rightly concerned about the kind ofillegal activities employers might engage in organizing drives.

Paul Yeager: Does that concern you that that's becomingmore or it seems like it's becoming more and more of a practice where we'restarting to organize, we're starting to talk and now all of a sudden aworkforce is let go?

Ken Sagar: It's a big problem in terms oforganizing. I think if you look at whathappened in Postville, the raids that happened up there, they were in the midstof trying to organize those workers and so coincidentally having immigrationfolks come in kind of put a big damper on the organizing effort.

Paul Yeager: Is that similar, these types of things,Colin, these similar actions -- are these the same kinds of things we've seenin labor's history in the past when they've met resistance trying to form? Or is this the new way of strong-arming,trying to keep a union from forming?

Colin Gordon: Well, what's old about it is that duringthe peak period of organizing in the 1930s and continuing that in right-to-workstates and in the South you do have this employer intransigence digging inusing illegal tactics. The NationalLabor Relations Act and unions who organized under it largely removed thatthreat for a substantial period of time.

And as Ken quite rightly points out what is new now isthe absence of sort of serious federal support that would level the playingfield in bargaining situations.

And I think if you go back to the questions you posed atthe outset I would call some out with the promises of it because I don't thinkit's what unions have to do, I think it's what state and federal governmentshave to do to level that playing field and allow people to make choices morefreely.

Paul Yeager: You don't mean in terms of forming moreworkers, you mean the legislation that would create an environment that wouldbe more friendly to the unions? Or whatdo you mean by that statement?

Colin Gordon: Two of the questions you posed at theoutset are: what do unions have to do to organize more workers? And what do unions have to do to makethemselves more acceptable? I think Kenis precisely right.

Polling consistently shows that a large majority, asubstantial majority of people who don't belong to unions would like to belongto an organization like a union that gives them a collective voice in theworkforce.

What pulls them back from that decision and from theactual collective action is the sort of employer action, the actions thatemployers feel free to take given the light hand of the federal governmentunder the current National Labor Relations Board.

Paul Yeager: So, is the federal government similar towhat some folks would say is they have a -- I really don't think I want a union-- is there a misconception about the union that's being held up here?

Ken Sagar: It's kind of interesting. If you look at the preamble on National LaborRelations Act it's a stated policy of the United States government to promotecollective bargaining and principally the only way to do that is to haveemployee associations, organizations, unions meet with management and theintent was to level the playing field, as Colin pointed out, so that those whohave the labor have some ability to negotiate for reasonable wages and benefitswith the individuals who have the money and the power, if you will.

We've seen a lot of things happen recently that areclearly against what the stated intent of this law is. We've seen changes in terms of the publicsector, they're using consultants now and that was part of our attempt tochange the public sector bargaining law was to counteract some of the effortsthat we've seen in public sector unions facing the stripping of long-timeclauses in their contract to protect discipline and discharges, safetyissues. We can talk about safety but wecan't talk about safety committees? Thatmakes no sense.

Colin Gordon: I think it's important to recognize thatthe other premise of the National Labor Relations Act was not that it was goodfor workers but that it was good for the economy because it made workplacesmore productive, it lessened turnover, it encouraged more investment in theworkforce in the form of training and, of course, anything that went into aworker's pocketbook as higher wages was spent in consumption dollars whichsupported the larger economy.

Ken Sagar: Initially what it did is it cut down on laborstrife too which is good for the economy.

Paul Yeager: We're in the middle of a political season,you're both fully aware I'm sure some of the unions that is something they donow is take very strong interests in politics. I hear from candidates saying the middle class is disappearing. The unions used to be the people stocking themiddle class. Is there any parallelbetween a declining middle class and a declining union membership?

Ken Sagar: I think that's without any argument on thepart of any economist they'll tell you that's absolutely true. If you look at the decline in the unionmembership a lot of employers what they would do would be to keep their wagesup, maybe not at the union wage level which is typically 30% higher thannon-union if you compare apples and apples, but they would keep the wages uphigh enough so their employees really wouldn't see any incentive tounionize.

Well, as there is a lesser and lesser percentage of theworkforce engaged in unions there's less incentive on the part ofemployers. You mentioned in some of yourpieces earlier about how much off shoring is going on, just all kinds of thingsand the middle class is definitely suffering as a result of this attack onunions.

Paul Yeager: Do you feel that this is one of the mostimportant times that unions have had to try to right that ship for yourpurposes?

Ken Sagar: Right now I see a lot more unions spending alot more resources in terms of organizing. The fact that we organized almost 26,000 people in last than five monthslast year just it's astounding numbers, it's astounding numbers.

Paul Yeager: Are you talking in the service sectorindustry? Where are these growth ofmembers coming from?

Ken Sagar: Well, we're seeing growth in construction,we're seeing growth in service sectors, we're seeing growth in public sectors,we're seeing a lot of unions organizing in traditional union environments,manufacturing. I think people genuinelythink there's something wrong but they don't know what exactly is wrong.

Maybe they're not junkies that follow every politicalshow and news show and everything but they know when the kids are living in thebasement something's not right because the money is not there for them to moveout and become a productive part of society. Union movement drew basically everybody out.

Paul Yeager: The efforts that Ken is talking about, doesthat help? When do you think we'll seefruits of the labor that they have been doing on numbers if that is beingsuccessful?

Colin Gordon: It's hard to say with substantial changesin the political arena. It's importantto note that private sector unions in Iowanow is about seven percent. That's whatit was in 1900.

We now have a union movement that rests largely on publicsector and the reason for that I think is interesting because the public sectorhas an obligation to be a responsible employer and I think it's interestingthat the private sector no longer feels that obligation.

It's also important to recognize that the benefits ofunion membership are especially important in the United States because so much morehinges upon job conditions and job benefits. We have employers providing health insurance, we have an employmentbased pension system, these sorts of things that flow from employment arelargely the fruits of union organizing over the movement's history.

Paul Yeager: I'm going to give you each 30 seconds toanswer this question, what do you see in the next decade or generation wherelabor is headed?

Ken Sagar: I think fundamentally we're at a crossroadsright now and a lot of people that I talked to on a regular basis are seeingthat the efforts of their organizing are starting to pay dividends. People are starting to recognize the benefitsof being involved in the labor movement and I see a real positive outcome inthe future.

Paul Yeager: Colin, same question.

Colin Gordon: I agree with Ken. There's a real reason for optimism and partof that optimism comes out of the sort of sense of pessimism we have now, theeconomic situation we're in because those are key moments of labor organizationwhen really your options are constrained, it is increasingly difficult to gethealthcare and decent wages that will support a family and I think people willincreasingly turn towards collective forms of organization to accomplish that.

Paul Yeager: And I would assume you would hope that theelection this fall will be favorable to those causes to push that forward andyou're working hard to make that happen.

Ken Sagar: Working hard to make sure that we elect folkswho are favorable to working families' issues.

Paul Yeager: Very good. Ken Sagar, he's the President of the Iowa Federation of Labor and ColinGordon from the University of Iowaand the Iowa Policy Project. Gentlemen,thank you for coming in tonight.

Both: Thank you.


Tags: economy genetic engineering Iowa jobs unions


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