Labor Day Time For Unions To Celebrate
In a little more than a week, there will be parades across the nation, celebrating work, workers and the unions that have shaped the American working landscape for more than century.
But all is not well in the land of labor unions, as industries have faded, new enterprises have taken their places, and employment patterns have changed to meet these shifting needs.
Organized labor in the north country has taken some hits in recent years, but the news hasn't been all bad for union members.
In 2009, General Motors ceased operations at the Massena Powertrain plant. More than 100 employees who had been on temporary layoff didn't return to work, while 37 returned to help officially close the plant. GM had employed approximately 1,200 people in the 1980s.
Also in 2009, Covidien announced it would close its Watertown facility and cut all 247 jobs as a continuation of a $200 million restructuring plan.
Then, in 2015, Alcoa officials announced that they planned to close the Massena East smelter rather than modernize it, and idle the Massena West smelter, idling 487 workers. But, under a deal negotiated with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, the company committed to keeping the plant open for the next 3 1/2 years and maintaining 600 full-time equivalent jobs. Thirty-seven employees were still laid off after retirements, voluntary quit packages and transfers.
In 2016, Climax Packaging in Lowville announced it would be ceasing operations immediately, laying off 157 workers at the company. Company officials had said they had been engaged in a potential sale to a unnamed outside company, but that deal fell through at the last minute, putting the workers without a job.
But the news hasn't been all bad.
IBEW LOCAL GROWS Peter Dishaw, the business manager for International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 2032 in Massena, says the union is seeing growth because of the work that's available to them. The national union currently stands 750,000 members strong, though, in its heyday numbered more than a million.
At the union's last progress meeting, Mr. Dishaw said they learned that the numbers had risen by 125,000 members.
"There's a huge growth in the technical field in our local and also in the lineman field," Mr. Dishaw said.
He said much of the power infrastructure is outdated, and the New York Power Authority will begin work in 2009 on rebuilding the Moses-Adirondack line that stretches 85 miles from Massena to Croghan. The project is called SMART Path, which stands for Strengthening the Moses-Adirondack with Resilient Technology, and will involve replacing a line that is more than 70 years old and requires extensive maintenance.
"Everything has been built back in the early 50s in New York, and then growth sped across the United States to the West Coast. It's old now and falling down and needs to be rebuilt and modernized," Mr. Dishaw said.
So, he said, the work is out there for them.
"I think unions are going to get bigger. We are actually in a growth in Massena," with eight new members recently, Mr. Dishaw said. "A young kid just came in looking for an apprenticeship. It's an alternative to going to college."
Even when the line is built, he said, there will still be a need to maintain it.
"Linemen (positions) are growing because of the line build, so that's a growth mode," he said. "You have to adapt; you have to be able to build. They're going to modernize the line so it's brand new. So what do you do with your work force? You go from building construction to O&M (operations and maintenance). There's work to be done on the supporting and security of the line."
Mr. Dishaw said there's a focus to get information about unions and their contributions out to the public, including the worker benefits they've fought for over the years.
"AFL-CIO is leading the march. We want people to be in the unions. We have to teach them the benefits of it. All unions in the United States have mobilized. We should be proud of what we've accomplished. We should be trumpeting our success," he said.
In the case of IBEW Local 2032, it's not just a job, but an opportunity to also support the community, according to Mr. Dishaw. They support the Wounded Warriors, golf fundraisers, and donate food and coats for kids. They also sponsored a young man for a fishing tournament.
SOME FACE TOUGHER TIMES But, while the IBEW looks to a bright future, it's not so bright for organized labor as a whole. According to the Pew Research Center, manufacturing jobs have shriveled throughout the United States. Their research showed that, in 2000, 19 percent of 11.1 million Americans who worked in production occupations were union members. In 2015, total employment in those occupations was 8.1 million, with 13.2 percent of them belonging to a union.
Ernest J. LaBaff, president emeritus of the Aluminum, Brick and Glassworkers International Union, said he has seen a steady decline in the number of workers employed in Massena over the years. Mr. LaBaff started working at Alcoa in 1951, at a time when three major plants - GM, Reynolds and Alcoa - were part of the Massena landscape. General Motors alone employed 1,800 workers.
"In 1959, they were all running," Mr. LaBaff said.
Of those three plants, all that remains in Massena today is Alcoa, whose employee numbers now stand at around 700, according to Alcoa's website. That's compared to the more than 2,200 that were once employed there.
"That's a lot of spending power that's gone. That's what's hurting the north country. We don't have the revenues generated," Mr. LaBaff said. "When this country was strong economically and militarily job-wise, it was the 50s. Who was the strongest ever in the 50s? Unions."
But, he said, as some companies have shifted their operations overseas and some have employed nonunion workers to do jobs that would normally be handled by union members, organized labor has seen a decline.
"The focus is not on labor. It's what the companies are doing. Many of our jobs have gone overseas," Mr. LaBaff said. "Those things have contributed to the downfall of labor. They have all contributed to the downfall of the economy."
UNION POWER SHIFTS While manufacturing jobs once had the highest number of union members, there has been a shift over the years. According to the Pew Research Center, the top two groups with the highest unionization levels in 2015 were protective service occupations such as police officers, firefighters and security guards, and education, training and library occupations. Both of those groups had a 35.3 percent unionization rate.
Overall, however, union membership has seen a decline throughout the United States. In a report released in January by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 11.1 percent of those employed in the United States in 2015, or 14.8 million workers, belonged to unions.
In 1983, the first year for which comparable union data is available, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent, with 17.7 million union workers. In 1985, 18 percent of U.S. workers belonged to unions. By 1995, that number had dropped to 14.9 percent, and it fell even further in 2005 to 12.5 percent.
New York has the highest union membership in all of the United States, at 24.7 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In New York's private sector, 15.9 percent of the employees belong to a union. In the state's public sector, 68.6 percent are members of a union.
Mr. LaBaff said unions have fought hard for workers, but in return, they face losses in pensions and insurance. The New York State Teamsters Conference Pension & Retirement Fund has announced a plan to cut benefits for retirees by 31 percent and to cut benefits for active participants by 20 percent. The pension plan has more than 180 participating employers and 35,000 participants across New York. Without the cuts, officials say, they estimate the fund will run out of money within 10 years.
"I believe unions are more important than ever because of the onslaught against pensions and insurance," Mr. LaBaff said. "When companies are going overseas all the time and have the ability to put money overseas, it's less profit for employees to share. If it weren't for the unions, the guy making $20 an hour would be making about $8."
worldwide DECLINE Alan Draper, professor of government at St. Lawrence University, said the decline in organized labor isn't limited to the United States.
"Basically, there's been a long-term decline of labor in terms of membership from a high of around 35 percent to where we are today. It's not unique to the United States," he said. "Labor density is declining almost everywhere. Almost all unions are declining as a percentage of the work force. This is long-term and it's pretty international. There's much to be worried about. It's a disease that's happening elsewhere."
With the decline, Dr. Draper said, the biggest concern is losing the power to bargain with employers.
"I say there's much to worry about because unions are one of the factors that tend to equalize wages. Where unions decline, you have greater inequality, you have less protection for workers at work," he said. "This is something Americans, in my view, need to be worried about, not to feel good about, but rather the opposite. Its consequences are tremendous."
Today, he said, employer attitudes have become more anti-union and more aggressive.
"You see this in permanent replacements. One of the interesting things that's happened is that the strike has withered away. Strikes are not part of the landscape as much as they were 50 years ago," Dr. Draper said. "Unions don't believe they can win them anymore. The United States used to be one of the most strike-prone western countries. Now unions think it's an act of suicide."
A CALL TO THE YOUNG In order to stay relevant, he said, unions have to convince the younger generation of their value.
"Unions need to convince a younger generation that they are progressive and helpful whereas previously that wasn't the case. They need to make a case for themselves that older generations understood implicitly," Dr. Draper said.
For instance, he said, unions were behind the push for a higher minimum wage, even if its impact was beyond its members.
"That helps everybody," he said.
Ronald P. McDougall, president of the Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence Counties Central Trades and Labor Council, AFL-CIO, said the union's numbers might be down, but that doesn't mean they are down and out.
"From the broader numbers, it's not a secret that the percentage is down, unfortunately. But we're coming back," he said. "This year it's coming back a little. We're a long ways from being extinct."
Mr. McDougall, a General Motors retiree, said organized labor is broken down into three sectors: private, public and building trades. And, while they ensure the concerns of unionized employees are addressed, they also work for those who don't belong to the union, such as workers who could benefit from an increase in the minimum wage to $15.
"We don't represent the workers at McDonalds, but we think it's the right thing to do for working people whether indirectly or directly," he said."I think by and large, if you took pools of citizens, they would say organized labor has had its rightful place and organized labor will represent workers. It does set the parameters and the baseline and the pattern for people."
NEW EMPLOYMENT PARADIGM One of the reasons unions may be facing difficult times ahead is because of the growth of "non-standard employment," according to a retired professor who taught sociology and employment relations at SUNY Potsdam between 1998 and 2014.
Professor Emeritus Dr. George Gonos is known for his research on the growth of temporary work and other forms of contingent labor in the United States. He said more employers these days are turning to "contingent employment," where temporary workers make less money and have no benefits with the company because they're not full-time employees.
"It goes by different names. Sometimes it's called precarious employment. The problem is, these kinds of precarious jobs have been growing by leaps and bounds for some time now," he said "The old-fashioned secure jobs, where you work for one employer on that employer's premises and you are a direct employee of that employer and receive benefits from that employer, that kind old-fashioned or standard has been on the decline."
Dr. Gonos said unions have been on the decline for 40 years.
"It's pretty shocking that only 6 percent of the workers in the private sector are with organized labor," he said.
In its place is the rise of contingent forms of labor, he said.
"By that, we mean temp agency jobs, so-called independent contracting, which often is not truly independent or contracting. It's a labeling of working as independent contractors," he said.
Involuntary part-time work and other forms of precarious labor are also on the rise, he said.
"These kinds of jobs do not provide the ability or the benefits. They don't give workers a voice in their workplace. Forming a union becomes difficult," Dr. Gonos said.
That shift isn't new, he said.
"It's been going on for a long time all across the country" with nearly every occupational area affected, he said.
"The tremendous growth of what they call precarious labor or contingent labor has transformed this job market. It's changed the experience of most workers for the worse," Dr. Gonos said.
Mr. LaBaff said the future of organized labor could hinge on who is elected as president. He suggested that, if Donald Trump is elected, he would appoint two or three conservative justices who have ruled against labor.
"They like to terminate pensions, contracts, right to work states. It could be the end of labor," he said. "If conservatives get to the Supreme Court, it's the end of organized labor, in my thought. After the 65 years I've been with labor, it would break my heart."
BY THE NUMBERS
Union membership by occupation, 2014 vs. 2015 by the thousands:
* Management, professional, and related occupations: 2014 - 5,835 (11.9%); 2015 - 6,132 (12.0%)
* Service occupations: 2014 - 2,498 (10.6%); 2015 - 2,492 (10.6%)
* Sales and office occupations: 2014 - 2,023 (6.5%); 2015 - 2,055 (6.6%)
* Natural resources, construction, and maintenance occupations: 2014 - 1,782 (15.3%); 2015 - 1,751 (15.0%)
* Production, transportation and material moving occupations: 2014 - 2,614 (15.8%); 2015 - 2,365 (14.2%)
* Agriculture and related industries: 2014 - 14 (1.1%): 2015 - 15 (1.2%)
* Nonagricultural industries (includes construction, manufacturing, wholesale and retail trade, information, financial activities, professional and business services, education and health services, leisure and hospitality, other services): 2014 - 7,345 (6.7%); 2015 - 7,539 (6.7%)
* Federal government: 2014 - 939 (27.5%); 2015 - 979 (27.3%)
* State government: 2014 - 1,867 (29.8%); 2015 - 2,079 (30.2%)
* Local government: 2014 - 4,412 (41.9%); 2015 - 4,183 (41.3%)
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