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February 4, 2000
Union membership numbers in the U.S. are finally looking up.
The number of union members was 16.5 million in 1999, a net increase of 265,000 workers from the year before, reported the U.S. Department of Labor. It was the largest increase in union membership in more than 20 years.
In the building trades alone, union membership numbers increased by 131,000 from 1998 to 1999, the largest jump in decades. The IBEW alone accounted for 50,000 new members.
"Today's data indicate that our renewed emphasis on helping working people form unions is having an impact," said AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. "Our challenge for the future is to remain focused and to broaden our efforts. It's crucial for unions to continue to grow if working men and women are going to have a stronger voice in the issues that matter to them most."
Union membership had begun to reverse its steady decline in 1997-1998 - when the numbers were essentially stagnant - and now stands at 16.5 million members. Turning around the negative trend is such a daunting task because so many workers are lost every year to attrition. At least 600,000 workers joined unions in 1999, but with attrition, the net gain was 265,000. The overall percentage of workers who carried a union card in 1999, 13.9 percent, didn't change from 1998.
"Given the very powerful forces that labor continues to confront, it does represent an important step in the direction in which unions want to go," said University of California at Berkeley labor professor Harley Shaiken in the Wall Street Journal. "One would be cautiously optimistic looking at these numbers."
One particularly bright spot for union labor was a gain of 112,493 members working in the private sector, nearly double the size of the only other such annual increase in two decades. In the recent past, government jobs have been the stronghold of union labor. Now, labor's message is getting out to a variety of occupations. For example, 45,000 doctors joined unions in 1999 and 75,000 home health aid workers were unionized in California alone.
"The private sector growth is a clear sign that our efforts to think strategically and creatively are beginning to bear fruit,'' said Kirk Adams, the AFL-CIO's organizing director.
In 1999, government workers continued to have a substantially higher unionization rate (37.3 percent) than workers in the private sector (9.4 percent). The organized U.S. construction industry, with just over three million workers, enjoyed one of the highest unionization rates in the private sector, jumping from 17.8 percent to 19.1 percent.
Economist Ken Goldstein of the Conference Board, a business-sponsored study group in New York, advised labor not to declare victory yet.
"Unless they can start to organize the office, days like this are going to be few and far between," he said. "For all good news this is from their point of view, this is a quite limited and perhaps a quite temporary celebration."
Many labor unions are committing serious resources to make sure the increase in numbers isn't temporary. The labor community has doubled the resources spent on organizing in the last four years, and more unions are prioritizing organizing in their budgets. For example, the Operating Engineers committed $15 million to organizing, following AFSCME and the Steelworkers, who last year committed more than $40 million to help workers join unions.
Sweeney said there is more work to be done. "We're turning
the corner, but we're not at our destination yet," Sweeney
said. "Our challenge for the future is to remain focused
and to broaden our efforts."
Robert Georgine, president of the Building Trades Department, AFL-CIO since 1974, announced his resignation on Jan. 19.
Georgine, 67, said he has accomplished the goals he had set at the Building and Construction Trades Department's last convention, and wants to give his successor time to prepare for the next BCTD's convention this summer.
The General Board of Presidents elected Edward C. Sullivan, president of the International Union of Elevator Constructors, to fill out Georgine's unexpired term, effective April 15. Joseph Maloney, director of Canadian affairs for the building trades, was elected to serve in the No. 2 post, secretary-treasurer. He has been a Boilermakers since 1974.
Ironically, the surprise announcement came only a day after the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that Georgine had helped accomplish a major goal: a turnaround in declining membership. From 1998-99, membership in building trades unions increased by 131,000, the largest jump in decades.
The pickup in the numbers is widely credited to Georgine's leadership in urging building trades unions to devote more resources to organizing new members.
"Bob Georgine is the best our movement has to offer," said John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO. "He has been a strong and effective leader and his support for the programs of the AFL-CIO has been a critical factor in our rebound in organizing and political power. I respect and support his decision and look forward to working with Brother Sullivan in his new capacity."
A Chicago native, Georgine began his career in construction as an iron worker helper. After serving in the Army, he began an apprenticeship as a lather and worked his way up to being president of the Lathers union prior to his election to president of the Building Trades Department.
A Massachusetts native, Sullivan worked as a mechanic and an adjuster in maintenance for 17 years. He was elected business manager of Boston's Local 4 in 1981 and served in that capacity until he was elected assistant to the general president of the International Union in 1996. He was elected general president in 1998.
MARQUETTE - The largest construction project in the history of Northern Michigan University is providing steady employment for the building trades over the long U.P. winter.
The $46.9 million Seaborg Science Complex will consist of two buildings - a new, three-level facility for science- and math-related departments and classrooms that are currently under construction, and a renovated and expanded Luther S. West Science Building.
"Things are moving along well," said John Bekkala, NMU's director of engineering and planning. "Right now they're working on HVAC, electrical rough-ins, lab hoods, and drywall. There's a lot of snow outside, but we're enclosed, and this portion of the project is about 60 percent complete."
Devere Construction of Alpena is the general contractor on the project, which is employing about 70 building trades workers.
Glenn T. Seaborg was an Ishpeming native and winner of the 1951 Nobel Prize in chemistry. He was co-discoverer of plutonium and nine other elements, including Seaborgium. Mr. Seaborg participated in the groundbreaking of the complex, but died last February at age 86.
"Naming the complex after me is one of the greatest honors that I have ever had," he said. "I regard this as comparable to having the element named after me."
"This building will be a tribute to a man who is among
the most prolific scientists of our era," said NMU President
Judi Bailey. "It also represents a quantum leap in Northern's
capacity to ensure that students leave here with a higher level
of scientific sophistication and knowledge."
Organizing efforts may be one reason why union numbers are on the upswing. But Americans who are fed up with the bottom line on personal income may be another reason.
A report released Jan. 18 by the labor-backed Economic Policy Institute and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that despite the nation's strong economic growth, the income gap between the nation's rich and everybody else is widening.
The report said that throughout the 1990s, the average real income for the wealthiest one-fifth grew by 15 percent (average income: $137,500), while the middle class saw less than a 2 percent increase, and the lowest-income families saw no growth at all.
In Michigan, the disparity was less pronounced. During the 1990s, the poorest 20 percent of Michigan residents saw an income increase of 11 percent, or $1,490, and the middle 20 percent saw their income go up 7 percent, or $3,200. Meanwhile, the richest 20 percent in the state were about average with the rest of the nation. They saw their income go up 16 percent or $18,100 over the last 10 years.
Contrast those numbers with the right-to-work states of Arizona and Wyoming. In Arizona, average family income has actually dropped by $3,900 over the last two decades, while in Wyoming, average family income during that time fell by $5,600.
By the way, Business Week magazine said the average CEO of
a major corporation makes $10.6 million a year. And according
to the AFL-CIO, between 1980 and 1998, the average pay of American
CEOs grew 1,596 percent. For working people during that time,
the average increase was 69 percent.
The stroke of a pen on Jan. 21 wiped out the last major legal hurdle before substantial construction starts on the creation of the Detroit Lions new stadium, Ford Field.
The Detroit-Wayne County Stadium Authority and the Lions signed off on a deal that gathers up some land and allows the incorporation of the old Hudson's warehouse into the stadium's south wall. "This now allows the Lions to move forward on the entire construction process," said Mary Zuckerman, assistant county executive to the Observer and Eccentric Newspapers. "They'll now be moving ahead full force."
Excavation work on the site has already begun, and construction work on the 65,000-seat domed stadium is expected to begin Feb. 1. Early on, a 48-inch water main along Adams Street will have to be relocated.
The Lions have not named a construction manager for the $300 million project, which is expected to be ready for action in August 2002.
Level 3 of the warehouse will be developed into suites, club seats and concessions. Levels 4-6 will also be suites, while the press box will be located on Level 7. Office/commercial areas will also be incorporated into the building.
The 30 employees of Hautamaki Mechanical Inc. recently voted to go union in an NLRB representation election held in Bruce Crossing, about 80 miles west of Marquette.
Owner Joe Hautamaki recently completed signing collective bargaining agreements with the five crafts involved in the election. The petitioner for the successful election was the U.P. Building and Construction Trades Council.
Local unions involved in the multi-craft effort were Iron Workers Local 8, Laborers Local 1329, Plumbers and Pipe Fitters Local 506, Operating Engineers Local 324 and Carpenters/Millwrights Local 1510.
"This successful organizing campaign is an indication of the seriousness with which the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council and its local councils view multi-craft organizing," said MBCTC Field Rep. Jack LaSalle, who coordinated the organizing efforts. "The credit for our success goes to the individual organizers who spent the hours of time necessary for house calls, travel out of state, and all of the other tasks needed to win in this election. Don't let anyone tell you that the trades cannot work together at winning multi-craft campaigns."
The next step in the process is to administer a "no-fail" test to the new union members to determine the skill level of each person, and place them into apprenticeship training, if necessary.
Plumbers and Pipe Fitters Local 506 Business Manager Bill Retaski said Joe Hautamaki went along with unionization when he found out his workers wanted to join.
"We're glad to have them, they're a good size shop, and
it's good not to have another competitor out there," said
Plumbers and Pipe Fitters Local 506 Business Manager Bill Retaski.
"The owner said he appreciates the opportunity to get qualified
people and maybe get more work out of the area."
Bar is raised on jobless bennies
The alternative earnings qualifier allows jobless workers to qualify for unemployment benefits with fewer weeks of work. Generally, a claimant needs 20 "credit" weeks to qualify for state jobless benefits. With the alternative earnings qualifier, workers can qualify with 14 credit weeks, but they must also have gross wages exceeding 20 times the state's average weekly wage.
This year, according to the Michigan Unemployment Agency, the AEQ amount is $13,564.60, an increase of $683.40 over the 1999 qualifier. The new average weekly wage is $678.23, up $34.17 from 1999.
A credit week is a week of unemployment in which the worker earned at least $154.50. Credit weeks must be earned during the 52 weeks preceding the claimant's application for unemployment benefits.
The alternative earnings qualifier was created for industries
like construction, where workers may have high earnings over
a short work period.
State of the state 'long on gimmicks'
"The governor's message tends to forget the problems of Michigan's working families and the poor," said Gaffney. "There are a lot of Michigan families scrambling from paycheck to paycheck who don't find the state of the state as rosy as the governor's speech."
Gaffney called on the governor to address the Working Family Agenda outlined by AFL-CIO unions last month. The agenda included increasing the minimum wage, lifting the cap on unemployment benefits, improving workplace safety and other bread and butter issues that make a difference in the lives of working families.
The governor's speech is "long on gimmicks, like providing laptop computers for teachers, but falls short on basic policy, like reducing class sizes," he said. "If teachers have to keep track of 35 students, they won't have time to plug in their laptop, let along use it for instruction"
Gaffney said other parts of the speech were flat-out insulting, such as the call to "empower" school principles. The Engler and the Republican-led state legislature last year eliminated collective bargaining for Detroit School principles. In his speech, the governor said "we took the first step with Detroit principles. Let's finish the job."
"If union busting is the 'first step' for the governor and Republican legislators, I hate to think what they mean by 'finishing the job,' said Gaffney. Perhaps they want to make Michigan a right to work state and completely eliminate collective bargaining for Michigan working families."
He said the state AFL-CIO will be keeping labor union members
informed from now through the November elections about further
attacks on collective bargaining.