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Labor Pains

  As Labor Day approaches, union leaders and experts offer their takes on the coming year for organized labor as both their power and popularity decreases.
By Jared Shelly
While Labor Day is America´s chance to celebrate its workforce, these are hardly festive times for unions.
For one thing, membership continues to decline. In 2009, union membership fell by 771,000 to 15.3 million and making up 12.3 percent of the total workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In the private sector, union membership is at 7.2 percent, its lowest point since the BLS began collecting that data in 1983, according to a BLS spokesman. Experts said it´s the lowest number in about 50 years.
Bruce Raynor, executive vice president of Service Employees International Union in Washington, says that union enrollment is low because of high unemployment; less people working means less people in unions. The rest just want to hold on to their jobs, he says.
"Those that are working are scared to death of losing their jobs ... it´s not a time when workers stand up to corporations and organize," Raynor says.
Ron Meisburg, who served on the National Labor Relations Board from 2006 to 2010 and was its third longest-tenured general counsel, agrees the economy is hurting union organizing.
"Clearly when the economy is tight and workers are concerned about having a job at all, it may make it more difficult for them to think about anything beyond just maintaining their employment," says Meisburg, now a partner at the law firm Proskauer, who works out of both the Washington and New York offices.
But Bill Adams, a labor-relations consultant with Adams, Nash, Haskell and Sheridan in Covington, Ky., says unions are becoming less and less needed over the years since workplace laws have changed in favor of employees.
"They elect people passing workplace laws that [in turn] make them less necessary ... ," says Adams. "Employees can say with more frequency that ´I have that coverage through the federal government, why would I need to join a union?´ "
Public opinion of unions fell over the last few years as well. Currently, only 41 percent have a favorable opinion of unions, down from 58 percent in January 2007, according to the Pew Research Center for People and Press. Now, 42 percent said they have an unfavorable opinion, up from 31 percent in 2007.
Nonetheless, unions have a mission they believe matters to their members and to the country at large. In the coming months, Raynor says, the SEIU and other unions plan to fight against unemployment, which sits at 9.6 percent, according to the BLS.
"We need to focus all our attention on policies that create jobs," he says, noting that the SEIU will push for trade agreements that stimulate jobs in the United States, rather than overseas, especially manufacturing jobs.
Raynor says the union also plans to lobby the government to allow the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 to expire on Dec. 31, since they offer tax breaks for wealthy Americans.
The struggling economy has organized labor in a tough spot as many companies are simply not offering much in the way of wage or benefit increases to workers -- and unions are having a hard time bargaining.
Michael Lebowich, partner and co-chair of labor management relations practice group at Proskauer in New York, points to the situation involving Mott´s as an example of unions losing strength.
The apple-products maker, owned by the beverage conglomerate Dr Pepper Snapple Group, has sought to impose pay cuts, freeze pensions and get other concessions from workers. Its unionized workforce has been on strike since May 23.
But it appears that Mott´s is working from a position of considerable strength: Its plant has been churning out apple juice and apple sauce with replacement workers since the strike began and the company says it has no intention of resuming negotiations, according to the New York Times.
"In this type of economic environment," Lebowich says, "companies are not looking to give big wage increases or big benefit increases; they´re looking for employees and the unions to rationalize their wages structures and benefit structures."
One thing that is going right for unions these days is the Democratic control of the National Labor Relations Board, which could lead to decisions to ease union organizing and other pro-union rulings. Earlier this year, President Barack Obama appointed Craig Becker -- the former associate general counsel for the AFL-CIO and the SEIU -- to the board, along with labor lawyer Mark Pearce.
Midterm Madness
The unions also plan to have a voice in the hotly contested midterm elections, especially since control of the House and Senate is up for grabs.
The AFL-CIO already has volunteers engaged in 400 races in 26 states and plans to run pro-union TV commercials over the Labor Day weekend.
"This is a defining Labor Day for working people -- and the kick-off to the final round of a defining set of elections ... ," said Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, during a recent press conference.
"We´re looking for leaders who will call out corporations that ship our jobs overseas; leaders who will reject unfair trade deals; leaders who will fight for the middle-class economy and put us on a path to make things in America again," he said.
Raynor of the SEIU outlined a similar plan for his union -- targeting races to "fight against anti-worker politicians, whether they´re Republicans or Democrats."
And should the GOP emerge victorious, it would be another blow to organized labor.
"If Republicans get in, they´re dead," says Adams. "If Republicans get in the White house in two years, and control both houses of Congress, we might see the end of organized labor."
Raynor counters that unions have dealt with Republican governments before and can do so again, although lobbying for pro-union legislation would surely be more difficult.
Whatever the outcome of the elections, the lame-duck session of Congress that will follow could create quite the buzz for unions, especially if Democrats lose their congressional majorities and seek to pass legislation through while they are still in control.
But, probably not the Employee Free Choice Act. Experts believe it has no potential for passage.
Raynor says the SEIU will push legislators for more job-creating measures. It will also fight against the Korea Free Trade Agreement because "it threatens American jobs in the auto industry and in textiles and apparel," he says.
He also thinks Congress could provide tax cuts for companies that manufacture domestically or for small businesses that create jobs or introduce a new stimulus plan.
"America has a desperate need for roads, tunnels and infrastructure, and workers have a need for jobs so the idea of an economic stimulus that will allow more job-creating programs that provide infrastructure makes America a more viable country economically," he says. "It´s essential."
 

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