Local Unions: What Are They Up To?

As part of his American Jobs Act campaign, President Obama greets members of Ironworkers Local 44, under the Brent Spence Bridge connecting Ohio and Kentucky, September 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.)

“The union tent is a big tent,” says Pete McLinden, head of the Cincinnati Labor Council, the umbrella organization for 128 local unions, representing 100,000 members in Southwest Ohio.

There is room for many different ideas and political affiliations, says McLinden, who also strives to build working relationships with those outside the tent.To underscore the importance of unions in the American economy, the White House hosted a Summit on Worker Voice on Oct. 7 “to explore ways to ensure that middle class Americans are sharing in the benefits of the broad-based economic growth that they are helping to create.”

In Cincinnati, C4AD spoke with union representatives and labor advocates about their challenges and opportunities over the next 12 months. The President’s theme of “sharing in the benefits” of economic growth resonated in all responses, but individual priorities differed. Building diverse alliances. Creating more jobs with living wages. Protecting workers’ against illegal practices. Fending off legislative efforts to diminish workers’ rights. And enhancing the bargaining position of workers.

Community Issues Are Union Issues

Community issues are union issues, and union issues are community issues, in McLinden’s view.

“There are a lot of unmet needs out there.” Issues like school funding, public transportation, housing, heroin addiction, racism, minimum wage, wage theft, and the accountability and transparency of elected leaders are important community issues for unions in McLinden’s view. “These issues are affecting all of us.”

But the economic issues affecting working families are central. “The economy is rebounding but the opportunities are not there for a lot of people. And lot of our problems (in Cincinnati) stem from lack of economic opportunity,” says McLinden, referring to the Urban League’s report, The State of Black Cincinnati 2015: A Tale of Two Cities.

“It’s not just jobs, but family-raising jobs,” says McLinden. “If (people) don’t have opportunities and they don’t have hope, the kids don’t have hope.” So, he asks, why should kids believe in the American Dream?

These issues can only be solved with community support. “We can’t win these fights on our own,” says McLinden. “We need partnerships with faith-based and community organizations. There are a lot of groups out there doing good things.”

And, he says, unions need to build membership across the community. This requires constant outreach to working families as well as new ways to communicate with groups such as Millennials.

IUPAT painters outside student dormitory on the campus of Xavier University, August 2014. (Courtesy of IUPAT, District Council 6.)
IUPAT painters outside student dormitory on the campus of Xavier University, August 2014. (Courtesy of IUPAT, District Council 6.)

Training apprentices from the urban center is a goal of the CORE (Community Organizing for Real Economics), a new program of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, says Lee Denney, business agent and organizer for IUPAT District Council 6. Denney, who heads up the CORE Program for the district council, is currently taking applicants for apprenticeships with the aim of making them ready for commercial jobs as glaziers, drywallers, painters, sign painters, and related trades. IUPAT shops employ one apprentice for every three journeymen.

Contractors in the Middle

“Low-wage and immigrant workers often face wage violations and safety issues,” says Brennan Grayson, executive director of the Cincinnati Interfaith Workers Center.

These issues also affect the contractors who hire the workers as well as business owners who hire the contractors. Too often, the contractors in the middle lack the resources to remedy the wage or safety issue, according to Grayson.

On the other hand, the business owners have the resources, but are unwilling to remedy the problem. “They hide behind a piece of paper, saying it is not their responsibility,” Grayson says.

We want the parties—workers, contractors, business owners, and the city—“to see themselves as part of a community that agrees on basic standards and wants to see them enforced. This is our fundamental challenge.”

CIWC’s Just Pay Cincy legislative campaign urges the City of Cincinnati to adopt a wage theft ordinance to expose and stop wage theft. The ordinance is a vehicle to understand the connections between the parties, says Grayson. “It’s not a blame game. It is a recognition that we’re all in this together.”

Jessica Vernon, central field representative for the Ohio AFL-CIO, Pete McLinden, Cincinnati Labor Council, Tefere Gebre, executive VP of the AFL-CIO, and Brennan Grayson, Cincinnati Interfaith Workers Center, gather at the 2015 AFL-CIO annual Labor Day picnic at Coney Island. Photo: Paul Breidenbach, C4AD.
Jessica Vernon, central field representative for the Ohio AFL-CIO, Pete McLinden, Cincinnati Labor Council, Tefere Gebre, executive VP of the AFL-CIO, and Brennan Grayson, Cincinnati Interfaith Workers Center, gather at the 2015 AFL-CIO annual Labor Day picnic at Coney Island. Photo: Paul Breidenbach, C4AD.

The Service Employees Union International, one of the fastest growing unions in North American and underwriters of the Fight for 15 campaign, faces a similar “contractors in the middle” challenge when organizing janitors.

Rather than put janitors on their payroll, companies subcontract for janitorial services. In a highly competitive local market, when corporate contracting decisions are based largely on cost, janitorial service companies squeeze the largest cost variable in their control, which is labor.

This kind of predatory environment, with janitorial contractors in the middle, creates a race to the bottom for workers, many of whom are women, according to SEIU.

“We have not seen any reason to believe that the pressure placed on workers by corporate America will lessen.”

Kathleen Policy, SEIU Local 1

SEIU started organizing janitors in the early 1900s in Chicago, and rejuvenated its organizing in 1985 in Pittsburgh. In 2005, after organizing janitors in many other cities, SEIU initiated a Justice for Janitors campaign in Cincinnati.

SEIU used a corporate campaign to pressure owners of large Class A office buildings and their janitorial contractors. By 2006, SEIU had succeeded in getting neutrality agreements with eight of the 10 largest janitorial companies in the Cincinnati area. In the agreements, the janitorial companies, with the tacit consent of the building owners, pledged to remain neutral in the union’s organizing campaigns. This enabled SEIU to unionize.

A master janitorial contract was signed in 2007. “Generally, in large to mid-markets like Cincinnati, we negotiate one master agreement for most companies,” says Kathleen Policy, spokesperson for SEIU Local 1.

“This market-wide approach keeps wages out of the bidding process and allows for stability in the market. This prevents companies from gaining other work at the expense of union members by underbidding other companies with lower wages.” The current janitorial contract expires at the end of 2016.

Janitors rally for good jobs, strong communities, and hope on Fifth Street in Cincinnati, October 9, 2014. (Photo courtesy of SEIU Local 1.)
Janitors rally for good jobs, strong communities, and hope on Fifth Street in Cincinnati, October 9, 2014. (Photo courtesy of SEIU Local 1.)

“Large corporations control the money in our cities. They have the ability to raise standards. Most of Cincinnati’s contractors have chosen to do the right thing, but a few bad apples remain,” says Policy. “Companies that pay substandard wages and benefits undercut companies who do choose to be responsible. They do not affect our contracts, but make bargaining more difficult.

“We have not seen any reason to believe that the pressure placed on workers by corporate America will lessen,” says Policy.

“We are still seeing stagnant wages at the low end of the scale. Too many working moms and dads are still living in poverty. Our contract will help us, hopefully, to address this issue for a few hundred Cincinnatians.”

Policy reports that negotiations on the new contract will probably begin early in the fall of 2016.

Who Is The Employer?

Who is the employer of contract workers? The contractor or the parent company that hires the contractor? In August 2015, the National Labor Relations Board answered this question.

In its so-called “joint employer” decision, the NLRB said companies may have responsibility for contract workers, even if they don’t employ them directly. Additionally, contract workers who unionize can negotiate with the parent company and their direct employer.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce blasted the NLRB for its “misguided decision” upending “decades of settled law defining who the employer is under the National Labor Relations Act” and “meddling in the legitimate business decisions of our nation’s entrepreneurs.” Weeks after the NLRB decision, legislation was introduced in the House and the Senate to overturn the decision.

While SEIU organizes and bargains in industries where workers would benefit from the NLRB’s joint employer decision, Policy cautions, “The joint employer decision has not been tested yet.”

Ohio and Kentucky “Right to Work” Legislation

Cincinnati area unions are girding for another battle over right-to-work legislation.

In February 2011, teachers, policemen, firefighters, and other public employees jammed the statehouse to hear testimony on right-to-work legislation. Photo from Facebook page, Stop Senate Bill 5 in Ohio.
In February 2011, teachers, policemen, firefighters, and other public employees jammed the statehouse to hear testimony on right-to-work legislation. Photo from Facebook page, Stop Senate Bill 5 in Ohio.

In the previous battle, Ohio Senate Bill 5 (SB 5), limiting the collective bargaining rights of public sector employees, was signed into law in March 2011. Teachers and other employees of the state’s public school systems were particularly hard hit.

A referendum vote on Issue 2 in November 2011 overwhelmingly rejected the law, 61 percent to 39 percent. As a result, SB 5 was voided, and Ohio did not become a right-to-work state for public sector workers.

In 2014, Gov. Kasich was quoted as saying right-to-work legislation is “not on my agenda.” Even so, Tom Brinkman Jr. (R-Mt. Lookout) said he will sponsor a right-to-work bill in Ohio to prohibit unions from charging “fair-share fees” to non-union workers at private-sector workplaces.

“Right-to-work is designed to starve unions of the resources we need to bargain good contracts, to enforce our contracts, and to organize our members.”

Brigid Kelly, UFCW Local 75

Under current law, non-members covered by a union contract pay fair-share fees, which go toward a union’s cost of collective bargaining, contract administration, and grievance representation of all employers.

“If you’re not a union member, but you’re in the bargaining unit, we have to represent you,” so the fees are a matter of fairness, says McLinden.

“We know that in each legislative session we face this threat,” said SEIU’s Policy. “We do operate in several right-to-work states and have seen the dangers of these laws first hand, and are aggressively organizing our members to counter this threat.”

“Right-to-work cuts right to our core,” says Brigid Kelly, public relations director for UFCW Local 75, whose 30,000 members reside in Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana. “Right-to-work is designed to starve unions of the resources we need to bargain good contracts, to enforce our contracts, and to organize our members.”

Right-to-work laws depress wages, benefits, and workplace safety, says Tim Donoghue, president of the Northern Kentucky Labor Council, who is concerned about both state and local law changes.

Matt Bevin, the Republican nominee for governor, says he will make Kentucky a right-to-work state, if elected. In addition, there is a big push for Kentucky counties to adopt right-to-work ordinances, according to Donoghue, who says that behind the push are The Heritage Foundation, a Conservative Republican policy organization, and Americans for Prosperity, a conservative political advocacy group backed by billionaire industrialists, Charles and David Koch. As of July, 12 of Kentucky’s 122 counties had adopted right-to-work ordinances.

The Friedrichs Case: National Right-To-Work

The Friedrichs case would create a national right-to-work regime for public sector workers. This is a chilling prospect for unions since the membership rate for public sector workers (35.7 percent) is five times higher than the rate for private sector workers (6.6 percent), according a January 2015 report of the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

U.S. Supreme Court. (Creative Commons photo.)
U.S. Supreme Court. (Creative Commons photo.)

The U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether non-union members of a public sector collective bargaining unit will have to continue paying fair share fees to the union. “This is a very significant case. It may well be life or death for the unions,” Harvard Law School professor Benjamin Sachs told the Los Angeles Times.

Local unions are watching and holding their breath for the decision, which is expected in 2016.

Enforcement

“Competing against contractors that cheat” is the biggest challenge facing Ironworkers, says Larry Oberding, business manager for Local 44 in Hebron, KY.

Public works jobs are especially problematic, says Oberding. He claims contractors fail to pay legally required prevailing wages, pose as minority-owned businesses, use employees’ pension fund moneys to finance business operations, and do not comply with safety requirements such as certifying welders in order to save money.

“Making sure the law is enforced and people are being paid what they are supposed to be paid.”

Terry Burke, Insulators Local 8

In a recent investigative report, Local Fox19 reporter, Jody Barr, investigated the issue of faked welder certifications. The report asks whether Nippert Stadium on the campus of the University of Cincinnati is safe? The report alleges that Merit Erectors, a local contractor, falsified documents about the qualifications of its welders to work on the $85 million expansion that was completed in time for the Bearcats opening football game.

“The public will pay it now or pay it later,” says Oberding.

“Making sure the law is enforced and people are being paid what they are supposed to be paid,” is the biggest challenge for Terry Burke, president and organizer for Insulators Local 8. “We’re working on wage issues, especially prevailing wages.”

A new development, says Burke, are bogus paycheck deductions for benefits that employees do not receive. In a recent case, an employer made a deduction for employee training, but there was no training program. With help from the Ohio Department of Commerce, Burke was able to have the money returned to the employees.

Organizing and Bargaining with Employers

Carmen Cotto, a line worker, addresses a July 16 rally at AdvancePierre Foods in West Chester. Photo: Mike Brown, C4AD.
Carmen Cotto, a line worker, addresses a July 16 rally at AdvancePierre Foods in West Chester. Photo: Mike Brown, C4AD.

Workers at Advance-Pierre Foods in West Chester are organizing with the help of the UFCW Local 75 for better wages and working conditions, as C4AD reported in July. Since the July post, workers held a one-day strike, and Advance-Pierre increased wages in an attempt to mollify workers, but the push for better wages and working conditions persist, according to Ellen Vera, an organizer for UFCW.

The American Association of University Professors is preparing to return to the bargaining table for a new 3-year contract with the University of Cincinnati, according to Greg Loving, president of the AAUP at UC.

AAUP is again seeking pay parity with peer universities. Based on the union’s analyses, Loving concludes, “Our upper administration is paid at a much higher level in comparison to peer groups than our faculty is. We don’t know what peer group they reference but it’s a much better one than ours.”

Failure to maintain parity, he argues, inhibits UC’s ability to attract and retain faculty, who are central to the mission. The administration says it wants to invest in its people, but instead it invests large sums of money in sporting facilities, such as the $85 million renovation of Nippert Stadium. UC’s promise to invest in people “rings hollow,” Loving says.

White House Summit on Worker Voice

President Obama, speaking at the White House Summit on Worker Voice, urged that “working Americans don’t get lost in the shuffle” as the economy evolves “both in this new ‘on demand’ economy and in the traditional economy.” Globalization and automation should not undermine “the capacity of the ordinary worker and the ordinary family to be able to support themselves.”

The central problem, said Obama, is that “ordinary workers were seeing their wages and their incomes flat-lining,” while folks at the top did very well. The solution: “Wages need to rise more quickly. We need jobs to offer the kind of pay and benefits that let people raise a family.  And in order to do that, workers need a voice.”

By Mike Brown, mbrown.c4ad@gmail.com. Mike sits on the board of the Cincinnati Interfaith Workers Center.

 

 

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