September 3, 2011
Recession crimps labor unions
12 percent of US workers belonged to a union in 2010
Joe McIntyre/staff photographer
Verizon information technology employee Jim Vineyard last month picketed the Verizon Wireless store on Route 281 in Cortlandville.
Local labor unions have felt the heat as the U.S. economy has struggled the past three years.
State aid cuts and sudden increases in benefits for teachers and staff have caused school districts to negotiate for zero pay raises or lower benefits from their unions.
Verizon workers went on strike last month and then ended their holdout without a new contract.
New York’s CSEA agreed in June to a three-year wage freeze, furloughs and lower health care benefits. The Public Employees Federation said yes in August to similar concessions, as Gov. Andrew Cuomo pushes to erase the state’s budget deficit.
The United University Professions, which represents 35,000 college faculty and professional staff at State University of New York four-year campuses, and the New York State Corrections Officer and Police Benevolent Association are being asked for concessions now.
“There certainly are a lot of forces at play, to restrict or limit unions’ power to protect the interests of their members,” said Lee Adler, a lecturer at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. “It’s an unmistakable trend. It’s also true that this is a very difficult period because of the economic crisis in the U.S.”
In 2010, about 12 percent of American workers belonged to a union, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, down from 12.3 percent a year earlier.
In the public sector, 36.2 percent of workers were unionized. In the private sector, 6.9 percent of workers belong to a union, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Among states, New York had the highest union membership rate at 24.2 percent in 2010, and North Carolina had the lowest rate at 3.2 percent.
Adler said working people bear the brunt of mistakes by the wealthier people who manage government and large corporations. He said school teachers, police and firefighters are portrayed in the news media as greedy, shifting attention from management.
“Look who we bailed out,” he said, referring to auto makers in Detroit who were able to survive this year because their workers agreed to lower wages.
He said state governments have taken away collective bargaining powers from unions in Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio but he does not see that happening in New York, nor does he think there will be massive layoffs.
“So unions are not as strong right now but they are part of the solution,” Adler said.
Union leaders in the Cortland region said they have borne public criticism as the economy continues to struggle.
“Unions really go hand in hand with the democratic process,” said Lori Megivern, president of Cortland United Teachers. “Every single employed person needs to think about the structure of their work week and their work conditions — things that spread to nonunion jobs. Workers used to be at the mercy of their employers.”
Megivern, whose union has been without a contract since June 2010 and is locked in sometimes angry negotiations with the Cortland city school district, said there is “a concerted effort to bash unions. The citizenry needs to see what unions do globally, how other nations pattern themselves after our unions.”
Carl Haynes, president of Tompkins Cortland Community College, says his relationship with TC3’s three labor unions is fairly strong. He said there have been some “rough patches,” in the 1980s after two of them — representing faculty and administrators — formed.
“My feeling is, once the unions form, you have to respect that decision to form and you have to work with them,” said Haynes, who came to TC3 in 1969 as a professor but never belonged to any of the unions. He said the three unions’ contracts end in 2013 and negotiating new ones will be challenging.
In December, the Homer Teachers Association and school district administration ended more than a year of difficult negotiations on a new teachers’ contract.
HTA President Jim Baldwin said the contract talks led to some “trust issues” on both sides, but overall the union has a good relationship with the district administration.
During the school year, Baldwin meets once a week with Superintendent of Schools Nancy Ruscio and other district officials to discuss any concerns or ideas they have.
Baldwin said the keys to any good union-management relationship are trust, clear understanding of positions and an acknowledgment that the two sides are ultimately working together.
Baldwin said the HTA has worked with the district on several key issues, such as how teachers will be evaluated during their upcoming performance reviews.
“We have always made decisions collaboratively in terms of policy and what’s good for kids,” Baldwin said.
For Verizon, the union-management relationship has not been quite as easy as of late. The two sides are in talks about a new contract, and both but have struggled to compromise on health care, pension freezes and reductions in overtime, sick pay and disability benefits.
Verizon officials say they need to cut costs, asking employees to contribute to their health care premiums and change the pension system. The workers cite high executive pay as an example that the company is doing better than it claims.
After a two-week strike in August, the two sides are trying to find common ground on a new contract.
Don Muncy, a field technician from Freeville, is one of about 200 technicians in the Communications Workers of America 1111 unit, which covers Cortland and Tompkins counties and other regions in the Finger Lakes.
During the strike, Muncy and others picketed in front of Verizon’s Route 281 store in Cortlandville.
“It’ll be a tough road, but we have to last at least one day longer than they do,” Muncy said during the event.
To read this article and more, pick up today's Cortland Standard
Click here to subscribe