The Herald Bulletin

March 27, 2011

Unions in fight for survival

Collective bargaining takes center stage as bills threaten unions

By Brandi Watters
The Herald Bulletin

ANDERSON, Ind. — The role of trade unions in the work force came into question in the past year, and it’s a question that remains unanswered.

On March 10, one of the largest union rallies in the state’s history descended upon the Statehouse as Republican lawmakers pushed “right to work” bills that would change the face of union membership.

It was such legislation that prompted Democratic lawmakers to walk out and flee to Illinois in late February to break a quorum in the House and keep the legislation from being voted on.

The Democrats’ walkout was inspired by a standoff between Democrats and Republicans that began in Wisconsin in the weeks prior.

Democrats, fearing the impact of the anti-union legislation, fled to neighboring Illinois to keep the bills from coming to a vote.

In Indiana, teachers unions began organizing in 2010 as rumors of anti-union legislation began to travel through education circles.

Rick Muir, president of the Indiana Federation of Teachers, led many protests at the Statehouse as lawmakers considered bills that would expand charter schools, provide school vouchers and limit the collective bargaining rights of teachers unions.

“I think it’s been an effort across this country, but certainly in the Midwest, an all-out attack on unions, but also on the middle class, on working men and women,” he said.

According to UnionSmart.org, there are 13 unions and 6,585 union members within 10 miles of Anderson.

There are 184 unions with 162,026 union members within 50 miles of Anderson.

Gov. Mitch Daniels has referred to public unions as “the privileged elite.”

One of Daniels’ first moves as governor was to strip the collective bargaining rights from state employees. Some credit the measure for helping Daniels trim the state budget and create a surplus.

Rep. Scott Reske, D-Anderson, who is among the Democrats who left the Statehouse for an Illinois hotel in protest of anti-union and education legislation, said the impact of unions has a direct effect on the American middle class. “The middle class is shrinking. It’s diminishing. The numbers don’t lie. The buying power of the middle class is shrunk.”

Love them or hate them, unions set the tone for other work environments, Reske said. “The unions help set the pace for wages that keeps the rest of the middle class wages up.”

America’s economic recession is at least partly due to shrinking unions, he said. “The three key elements to this recession are the jobs that went overseas two decades ago; that caught up with us. The buying power of the middle class has gone down so much that people can’t buy the products. Third, the unions are not what they used to be. They’ve been pretty neutered.”

The rallies, protests and dialogue about unions aren’t just about unions, Muir argued. “It’s about time people stood up and spoke out against corporate greed that has been blaming workers, union and nonunion.”

Even so, the popularity of unions has faded in recent years. “The favorability ratings for labor unions remain at nearly their lowest level in a quarter century with 45 percent expressing a positive view,” a Pew Research Center poll revealed in February.

A similar Pew poll found that many Americans, particularly Republicans, feel that unions have outlived their necessity in the American workplace.

“Just 53 percent of independents agreed that labor unions are necessary to protect working people, down from 67 percent in 2007 and 73 percent a decade earlier,” the poll revealed.

The poll revealed a clear difference between Democrats and Republicans’ views on the issue of unions.

“Fewer than half of Republicans (44 percent) agreed with that statement in 2009, down nine points from 2007 (and 1999). Democrats, meanwhile, showed little change over the 10-year period, with at least 80 percent consistently saying that unions were needed to protect working people each time the question was asked.”

Even so, Muir is certain that unions are not headed for extinction. “I don’t think you’ll ever seen unions be a thing of the past. You’re seeing the beginning of unions being stronger than ever.”