Monday, September 04, 2006

The state of unions in the Valley

Labor Day 2006
Tribune Chronicle

WARREN — Labor unions will mark Labor Day Monday with an uneasy blend of the good, the bad and the ugly.

The good:

l A growing cooperation between labor and business leaders to help save jobs and bring new employers into the Mahoning Valley.

l The growth of non-governmental organizations, or NGOs — grassroots groups that are growing outside traditional government and labor unions to represent worker interests.

The bad:

l The 116-year-old Delphi Packard Electric will be left with about 670 union workers after a round of retirements and buyouts cut the work force from 3,800 last year. In 1973, the auto parts maker, which is part of its parent Delphi Corp.’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy, had about 12,500 union workers in the early 1970s.

l From a peak of roughly 9,500 members in the 1970s, United Auto Workers Local 1112 at the General Motors Corp. Lordstown Complex assembly plant will have 2,500 by year’s end after workers grabbed incentives to retire or leave.

l From 1,450 a year ago at the next-door metal fabricating plant, UAW Local 1714 will wind up with about 950 in the same period.

The downright ugly:

l After representing 32.5 percent of U.S. workers at the peak in 1953, unions’ share of the labor pool shrank to 12.5 percent in 2005, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

l Longtime union strongholds Cleveland and Detroit are running one and two as the nation’s poorest cities, according to the U.S. Census report that came out last week.

Area union leaders try to stay positive during one of the toughest years they’ve ever faced.

‘‘Someone asked me if we’re weaker because of the people who took the buyout. Absolutely not,’’ said Local 1112 President Jim Graham, referring to workers at the Lordstown assembly plant who are taking GM’s money and running. ‘‘Retirees have a lot more time to work on campaigns and other events. We’ll be stronger because we’ll have more people.’’

Local 1714 President Jim Kaster said the retirees give unions more of a chance to ‘‘set our agenda by getting some pro-labor Democrats elected. We’re stronger because of our retirees.’’

Even though the steel industry faces more intense global competition than ever, unions must keep fighting for their members, said Ed Machingo, new president of United Steelworkers Local 1375 at WCI Steel Inc.

‘‘I was part of the 1995 strike,’’ he said, referring to the bitter work stoppage to win better pensions. ‘‘I’m not afraid to go there again if that’s what it has to be, but I don’t want to. There are things we can do to influence the company short of a strike.’’

The union has been staging weekly picketing at the mill since safety and money issues arose over a new contract that took effect when WCI emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy May 1. Union leaders also meet wtih their company counterparts weekly, and with the chief executive officer every other week, Machingo said.

Two longtime observers of the area’s labor movement agree unions are trying to adapt to the loss of jobs and stiff global competition, but added labor still wields considerable influence.

‘‘There most certainly has been a weakening of the local labor movement because of the de-industrialization of the 1980s and 90s,’’ John Russo, co-director of Youngstown State University’s Center for Working Class Studies, said, referring to periods of downsizing in the wake of recessions.

The remaining jobs have become more ‘‘episodic’’ with the rise of temporary and contract workers, he said.

The American Staffing Association, whose members represent more than 85 percent of industry revenues, said Monday that domestic staffing firms employed an average of 2.9 million temporary and contract workers per day in the April-June period, up 3.3 percent from the year-ago period.

‘‘Employee leasing is the future,’’ said James McTevia, whose Michigan-based company consults in corporate bankruptcies.

Russo credited women’s, human rights, church and other NGOs for pressuring companies such as Nike and retailers to treat workers better.

Much of what growth unions have enjoyed has come in the public sector, such as government and public schools. But even that sector is starting to feel the same pain as the private sector.

Fewer well-paid private sector jobs eventually erodes the tax base that supports universities, cities, counties and other public sector employers, Russo pointed out.

Lakeview School District in Cortland has a 1-mill renewal levy on the November ballot, but it also has a large number of Delphi Packard workers who face a uncertain future after retiring or giving up their job to get the company’s buyout.

‘‘No way I can vote for a levy right now,’’ Phil Budnik, one of the departing workers, said.

Changes that unions are going through mirror those that companies are going through as the world economy evolves, a local economic development expert said.

‘‘ ‘Evolving,’ is the word I’d use,’’ said Reid Dulberger, executive vice president of the Regional Chamber. ‘‘As the business world evolves, they’re evolving with it.’’

One major change by local labor leaders is that they’re becoming a more visible part of economic development. Local 1112 President Graham said he speaks every few months to new members of the chamber’s Grow Mahoning Valley economic development group. He also served on a committee to investigate the causes of a strike at Youngstown State University.

‘‘The Valley has been devastated. Everyone has to work together to get new industry and jobs,’’ he said.

Dulberger said labor played a key role in the Grow Mahoning Valley effort in the 1990s to mobilize area leaders to get more federal and state dollars for highways, sewers and other infrastructure.

*The group helped win funding for the 711 Connector highway that more tightly links Trumbull and Mahoning counties, along with the King Graves/Ohio 11 interchange that opens up land around the local airport for business development.*

‘‘All groups had the common goal of raising as much money as possible. By combining our resources, we could be that much more effective,’’ he said. ‘‘While we continue to disagree on some things, we didn’t have to look far to find things that we could agree on.’’

Dulberger said he understanding a longing for the unions’ glory days by some workers.

‘‘I’m one for remembering and honoring the past, but the phrase, ‘Get over it’ has a certain meaning to me,’’ he said. ‘‘We live in the world as it is today and as it will be tomorrow.’’

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