Compiled by Steven Wishnia and Neal Tepel
Americans approve of labor unions by a 54%-39% margin, according to a Gallup poll released Aug. 30 and taken earlier in the month. The 54% favorable rating indicated that union support is rebounding from the all-time low of 48% in 2009, but still below what it was in the 20th century. Americans are also sharply politically divided on the issue: Democrats approve of unions by a 75%-20% margin, while Republicans disapprove by 59%-34%. A slight majority believes unions will become weaker in the future.
With President Barack Obama trying to push through the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, labor unions are arguing that it will open the door to goods produced by child labor. On Aug. 26, International Brotherhood of Teamsters President James P. Hoffa warned U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman against reducing tariffs on “cheap imports in shoes and apparel from Vietnam or any country in which forced child labor has been documented.” A May report by Worker Rights Consortium found children as young as 14 forced to work 12-hour days in factories in Vietnam, which produces about 10% of U.S. clothing and shoe imports. Teamsters lobbyist Mike Dolan said the deal “seems much more like we’re rewarding these countries for their bad labor practices rather than giving them an incentive to improve.”
American workers have “endured more than a decade of wage stagnation,” according to a study released in August by the Economic Policy Institute. Workers’ pay has gone up far less than their productivity, the study said, “regardless of occupation, gender, race/ethnicity, or education level.” This was happening before the Great Recession, it added: From 2002 to 2012, wages “were stagnant or declined” for the entire bottom 70% of workers, despite productivity going up by more than 20% in that period. The reportrecommended that government lower unemployment by large-scale public investments and restoring cuts to public services, “aggressively” increase the minimum wage, and “restore the bargaining power of low- and middle-wage workers.”
The Pennsylvania State Building and Construction Trades Council has called for a boycott of Yuengling beer, after the Pottsville brewery’s owner said the state would attract more business if it had a “right to work” law banning union shops. "We want to support people who support us,” council Vice President Gary Martin said Aug. 29. “So we'll drink Miller and Budweiser and Pabst Blue Ribbon, companies where owners of the companies don't come out and tell people right out they're against labor unions." The council includes more than 115 locals from 15 different unions.
With part-time professors at two Boston-area colleges scheduled to vote this fall on joining the Service Employees International Union, a third has hired a union-busting law firm. According to the SEIU’s Adjunct Action, Northeastern University has retained Jackson Lewis, a New York-based firm the AFL-CIO calls “the number one union-buster in America.” Part-time “adjunct” professors are hired from semester to semester and are paid per class, with the overwhelming majority earning less than $20,000 a year. New York University hired Jackson Lewis to bust a graduate students’ union when its first contract expired in 2005.
In a surprise move, the 40,000-member International Longshore and Warehouse Union announced Aug. 29 that it was breaking off from the AFL-CIO. The biggest reason was the West Coast-based union’s jurisdictional disputes with other AFL-CIO unions over handling grain exports in Oregon and Washington, which led to some unions crossing picket lines when ILWU workers were locked out earlier this year. ILWU President Robert McEllrath also criticized the AFL-CIO’s support for Obamacare instead of a single-payer system, and for supporting immigration-law reform he said would not help undocumented “janitors and farm workers.” The ILWU joined the AFL-CIO in 1988, after being kicked out of the CIO in 1949-50 for alleged Communist influence.
Several labor unions are reporting successes organizing in Utah, one of the least unionized states in the nation—with only 5.2% of its workers covered by collective bargaining agreements, it ranks 43rd. “In the past three years we’ve had more success than in any of the 20 years that I’ve been with the Steelworkers,” said Wayne Holland, the international staff representative for the United Steelworkers of America, which now has more than 3,000 members in Utah. Workers at a hazardous-waste plant in Tooele who recently joined the Steelworkers won their first raises in six years, he said.
Canada’s United Steelworkers and the Telecommunications Workers Union announced a tentative agreement to merge Aug. 29. The deal still has to be ratified by the Steelworkers’ 225,000 workers and the TWU’s 13,000, but both unions’ presidents said it would increase their bargaining power, particularly to help telecommunications workers block Verizon’s entry into the Canadian market. It’s the second major union merger in Canada this year: The Canadian Auto Workers joined forces with the Communications, Energy, and Paperworkers Union of Canada to form Unifor, whose more than 300,000 members will make it Canada's largest private-sector union.
Atlantic City’s casinos have lost about 10,000 jobs since the Great Recession began, but union officials in the area are optimistic. Most new restaurants and clubs there are unionized, and Teamsters Local 331 expects to gain more than 500 members by organizing Caesars Entertainment workers. Local 331 has also joined with United Auto Workers Region 9 and Local 54 of UNITE HERE—which represents about 12,000 casino employees—in a campaign to unionize Revel Casino-Hotel. “The more a union spends on organizing, the more successful it’s going to be,” said Local 54 President Bob McDevitt. “We believe Revel will be union, Sugar House casino in Philadelphia will be union. That doesn’t happen because politicians made it happen. It happens because unions focus on organizing.”
After six months of bargaining failed to yield a contract, Service Employees International Union Local 503—which represents building, information-technology, and clerical workers at Oregon’s seven state universities—has declared an impasse and is scheduling strike-authorization votes. The university system is trying to reduce “step” increases given for time on the job, and the union wants a minimum increase of $75 a month and a minimum salary of $2,498 a month—high enough to keep a family of four off food stamps. About 1,200 of the local’s 4,200 members make less than that minimum. More negotiations are scheduled for Sept. 13 and 14, and a strike could begin Sept. 23, a week before fall classes start.