Unions Battle for Their Future

Dayton Daily News - September 4, 2011
   

Their relevance is questioned because of wage and hour laws

Dayton Daily News

Public employee unions have become the labor movement’s Alamo, a last
bastion of strength.

That’s why the fight over Senate Bill 5 is seen by some as a fight for the very survival of
unions in Ohio.

Nationally in 2010, just 6.9 percent of private sector workers were in unions, while 36.2
percent of public workers were part of organized labor.

In Ohio, 8.4 percent of private sector workers were in unions while 43.1 percent of public
employees were union members.

This makes Issue 2 — the repeal of Senate Bill 5 — a “make or break” issue not just for the
more than 300,000 police, firefighters, teachers, prison guards, trash collectors and other
public employees but for the labor movement as a whole, said political scientist John Green.

“In recent times, labor’s growth has been in the public sector and changes in the law in Ohio
and elsewhere will likely interfere with that trend,” said Green, director of the Bliss Institute
of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. “So a successful campaign against the law is
about the future of the most vital part of organized labor.”

The campaign also raises a more basic question: With shrinking membership and declining
political clout, are unions relevant or needed today?

Matt Mayer, president of the Buckeye Institute for Public Policy Solutions, a conservative,
Columbus-based think tank, said wage and hour laws, workplace safety laws and rules and
other regulations make unions irrelevant.

“The only role unions now perform is to quibble over workplace flexibility issues and drive
up labor costs,” said Mayer. But Amy Hanauer, executive director of Policy Matters Ohio,
a Cleveland-based liberal think tank, said unions are the only institution society has come up
with to make sure that the rewards from productivity are “shared broadly across society.”

She said that as a member of the public, she has a special interest in public employees.
“I like knowing that the people who make my life better are reasonably well compensated
for doing so,” she said.

Echoes of 1958
It has been more than half a century since a Labor Day dawned in Ohio with as much at
stake in the ongoing battle over how workers can bargain for salaries, benefits and working
conditions.

In 1958, labor unions and Democrats overwhelmingly defeated — 63-37 percent — the right
to-work ballot issue championed by Republicans and their allies in the business community.

This year’s battle includes mostly the same combatants on each side, at least in ideology.
The Republican-controlled legislature passed SB 5 over the objections of Democrats and
organized labor. About 1 million Ohio registered voters signed a petition putting the issue
on the November ballot.

While the arguments for and against this year’s organized labor tussel may be familiar, Ohio
and the world today are very different places than in 1958, especially for unions.

Their membership has shrunk dramatically from more than a third of all workers in the
mid-1950s, both nationally and in Ohio, to just 11.9 percent nationally and 13.7 percent in
Ohio in 2010, according to Unionstats.com, a website maintained by economists Barry
Hirsch and David Macpherson.

Sharp disagreement
If voters approve Issue 2, upholding Senate Bill 5, there’s little disagreement that the labor
movement will be weakened.

There is, however, sharp disagreement about whether that would be good or bad for Ohio
and Ohioans.The Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce is one of many business groups that has endorsed
Issue 2 and Chris Kershner, vice president for public policy & economic development,
explained why.

Ohio now has a reputation as a “labor heavy” state among businesses being recruited for
Ohio and the Dayton area, Kershner said.

“It’s step in the right direction of sending a message to the private sector that the state of
Ohio is open to new approaches to making us a more business-friendly environment,” said
Kershner.

James Winship, president of Dayton-based IUE-CWA Local 755, disagreed. Winship’s union
represents manufacturing workers, a segment of the labor movement whose membership
has shrunk drastically as the result of outsourcing, automation and increased trade.

In Ohio, the number of manufacturing workers in unions shrunk from 461,915 in 1983 to
129,887 last year.

These manufacturing jobs once were a ticket to the middle class. Private sector unions have
joined forces with public sector unions against what they consider another assault on the
middle class by backers of Issue 2.

“They want nothing more than to have the upper class and all the rest of us in the lower
class. They want to go back to the days when we had a king,” said Winship.

So far, the unions and their allies appear to have the upper hand in the Issue 2 campaign.
A July Quinnipiac University poll showed repeal winning, 56-32 percent. However, the ad
machines from both sides haven’t begun yet, and a steady drumbeat of the excesses of
unions could sway some voters by November.

The solid pro-union vote that long influenced elections in Ohio doesn’t exist anymore.
“You don’t have that large base of union support you once had,” said labor economist Hirsch
of Georgia State University in Atlanta. “Fewer voters are union members or have union
neighbors. There’s less political sentiment among voters for supporting unions.”

This all puts the spotlight on Ohio where voters on Nov. 8 will send a message not only
about Senate Bill 5, but about the future of unions in the state and across the country

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