State of the union

Organized labor still plays a vital role in manufacturing, leaders say

Posted on Jul 13, 2018 :: Back Office Operations
Posted by , Insight on Manufacturing Staff Writer

Amidst a crippling worker shortage, Mark Westphal thinks employers could learn a thing or two from unions.

The president of the Fox Valley Area Labor Council, AFL-CIO, Westphal has been active with unions for 25 years. He says he doesn’t question the existence of the labor shortage, but rather the way it’s being addressed.

“That’s the real paradox of this whole thing,” he says. “You hear about the skills shortage, but as much as we hear about that, we haven’t seen that really translate into pay increases or other benefit increases to either keep people in their current job or entice people to leave from one job to another.”

Westphal points to tangible benefits unions have brought to workers: An average union employee still makes 20 percent more than a non-union employee working in the same type of job. Plus, union workers are more likely to have retirement plans and more comprehensive insurance plans, he says.

Unions, however, have faced significant headwinds during the past couple of decades. Because of actions on both sides of the political aisle, the power of organized labor has eroded, says Jon Shelton, associate professor of democracy and justice studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

On the left, Democratic politicians have given much lip service to making it easier for workers to organize, but largely have failed to act. For example, as president, Barack Obama championed but failed to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, legislation aimed at making it easier for workers to unionize, Shelton says.

“There’s a real sense by a lot of people that the Democratic Party hasn’t done a lot for workers in a long time,” he says.

Meanwhile, Republicans, for decades, have worked to undercut the power of unions. In 2015, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed a right-to-work law, which prohibits workers from being forced to join a union or pay union dues as a condition of employment.

At the same time, employers have devoted significant sums of money and legal resources to fighting organized labor, and groups such as the National Right to Work Committee have gained traction, Shelton says. This can carry hefty consequences. In a March 2015 article, the International Monetary Fund posited that the decline in unionization has contributed largely to income inequality.

For years, Westphal, who also works as an industrial electrician at SCA, and his organization have been battling issues on several fronts. The biggest reason union numbers have decreased isn’t that employees are leaving unions, but rather that employers are shutting down facilities and moving them out of the state or country. The way tax laws are written and trade policies are administered, companies have little disincentive for shutting down U.S. production and moving it overseas, he says.

“American corporations, they’re much more reactive than proactive,” he says. “They’re more worried about their bottom line at the end of this quarter. They’ll do what they need to do to make that look good and then not worry about what they need to be doing one, two, three, five years down the line to keep that incentive.”

The AFL-CIO also is concerned about trade. China, Westphal says, has been dumping cheap steel in our country for years, and litigating the issues in international trade courts has proven slow and ineffective. While he says the organization doesn’t agree with President Trump on targeting allies with tariffs, it does advocate for directing those toward “trade cheats” such as China. In addition, the AFL-CIO promotes fair trade as opposed to free trade and relooking at NAFTA.

The organization also has work to do when it comes to recruiting younger members and educating them about what unions do. Many fail to grasp that the wages and benefits they enjoy came as a result of the efforts of those who came before them, Westphal says.

Despite many challenges, unions have enjoyed fairly consistent high public approval. A Gallup Poll released in August 2017 showed 61 percent of adults approve of labor unions. That’s up from a low of 48 percent in 2009.

Though the union-employer relationship can be adversarial, it doesn’t need to be, says Jeff Knaus, business manager/financial secretary and treasurer for the Plumbers & Steamfitters UA Local 400. The Kaukauna-based organization is comprised of 2,300 members who serve Northeast Wisconsin.

Knaus says the UA 400 views the contractors it works with as partners. The parties work together to procure work, and they all have the same goal. While disagreements can arise, the organization has never had a contractor file a grievance.

“At the end of the day, it’s about making sure the job gets done on time, on budget for the customer,” Knaus says.

The organization works to ensure its members enjoy a good living wage and robust health care benefits and pensions. It also offers an apprenticeship program and many education and certification opportunities for its members. The UA 400’s average age is a relatively young 39, and its apprenticeship program helps ensure it keeps bringing in people from the younger generation.

Shelton, though, still sees many challenges ahead. Many workers, he says, seem to see less of a promise of long-term job security. In addition, recruiting people to the trades will continue to prove difficult without that assurance.

“Workers have less leverage than when unions were stronger,” he says. “I think absent something, it’s only going to give employers more leverage and make the situation more difficult for workers.” Φ


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