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Labor Day 2012: The State of 10 American Workers' Unions

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The labor movement has been struggling against the forces of globalization and other changes in the labor market, but America's major unions have not given up on the middle class they helped create.

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MINYANVILLE ORIGINAL Labor unions were once celebrated as champions of the middle class. Most of the standard benefits enjoyed by workers today, including paid holidays and overtime, health benefits, fair wages, and a five day work week, are in place because of organized labor.

But as Labor Day 2012 arrives globalization and changes in the labor market are currently contributing to the labor movement's decline. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2011 only 11.8% of wage and salary workers were union members, compared to 20.1% in 1983.

Though their numbers are shrinking, unions continue to fight for their members by tackling crucial issues, including living wages for workers, retirement security, job protection, and workplace safety. But do unions still have a place in the modern workforce? Read on to learn about 10 industries and the unions that work within them.

Auto Workers
If there's one shining example of how corporations and unions can come together in a crisis it would be found in the auto industry. Beginning in 2008, US auto manufacturers, members of the United Auto Workers (UAW), and the federal government worked together to save the car industry from potential collapse brought on by a rise in fuel prices and the nationwide economic crisis.

In a process that began at the close of the Bush administration and was completed by President Obama, all sides agreed to a number of concessions to avoid complete liquidation. Steve Rattner, an economics contributor to the New York Times and formerly of Quadrangle Group LLC and Larzard Frères & Co., and Ron Bloom, also of Lazard and a former advisor for the United Steel Workers, or USW, were chosen to lead a team to restructure both General Motors (GM) and Chrysler so they could emerge from bankruptcy as more efficient and profitable companies. The UAW agreed to cuts in jobs, wages, and benefits for current employees and retirees in exchange for shares of the restructured companies.

Today, the American auto industry has experienced increased profits and job creation, and has built new auto plants. The US Treasury reported that the auto industry has created 115,000 jobs since GM and Chrysler emerged from bankruptcy. Plants in cities like Kokomo, Indiana, and Lordstown, Ohio, are adding second and third shifts. The revival of the auto industry also breathed life into the struggling US-based auto suppliers, which employ three times as many people as the Detroit Three. Industry insiders, including Ron Bloom, predict that the future of the American auto industry will depend largely on the development of more energy-efficient cars and cutting-edge technology.

Letter Carriers
Facing a financial crisis of monumental proportions, the United States Postal Service finds itself dealing with nationwide facility closures, service cuts, and layoffs. A 2006 law requiring the USPS to set aside $5.5 billion annually for retirement funds set its financial position on a downward spiral. The agency, which is also taking a hit from consumers who increasingly rely on email and other forms of digital communication, defaulted on its latest yearly payment on August 1.

While the USPS and Congress have submitted proposals to save the agency, the National Association of Letter Carriers came up with a plan of their own. They hired investment bank Larzard Ltd. (LAZ) and President Obama's former auto czar Ron Bloom, who was heavily involved in the 2009 reorganization of General Motors and Chrysler, to submit a proposal. In addition to offering concessions of their own, the union's six-page report suggests crucial agency restructuring, exploring additional business partnerships, and postage rate increases.

At $0.45, the United States currently has one of the lowest rates for a first-class stamp in the world. That's thanks to a 2006 law that made it impossible to raise the price of a stamp higher than the rate of inflation.

Public Sector Workers
Last year the state of Wisconsin was ground zero for what many believe was the decline of American labor unions. The battle over collective bargaining between Wisconsin public sector workers and Governor Scott Walker that resulted in the passage of his anti-union "Wisconsin budget repair bill" last March didn't just hit national headlines, it took the conversation of collective bargaining to the national stage and climaxed in the June 5 failed recall election of the governor. After the nation watched thousands of students, labor unions, and concerned citizens from across the country flock to the state capital in Madison to show their support for local labor unions, groups like the AFL-CIO began to organize and send their people into the field to talk with Wisconsin citizens, preparing them for the recall election. But a large influx of cash from Walker supporters, combined with the news that Walker's cost-cutting measures saved taxpayers almost $1 billion, could not convince voters to pull the plug on Walker.

The failed recall was seen by many as the beginning of the end for labor unions. On the same day, pension reforms for public sector workers were overwhelmingly favored in elections in San Jose and San Diego, supporting evidence from polls showing that public approval of unions was dropping. A 2009 Gallup poll found that only 48% of the public supported unions compared to 72% of Americans approving of unions in a 1936 Gallup poll.

Farm Workers
Immigration is currently a hot topic, especially in states like Arizona, California, and most recently Alabama. When the state's controversial new immigration law, HB 56, went into effect last September, no one predicted how it would decimate Alabama's agricultural community. Documented and undocumented farm workers and their families fled Alabama in large numbers, many to neighboring states like Florida, in fear of immigrations authorities. Many pulled their children from schools and left their jobs without warning. The situation became so dire that Alabama agriculture commissioner John McMillan proposed an inmate work-release program to tend to the neglected farm work, an idea that was later opposed by the Alabama Department of Corrections.

In response to the law, the United Farm Workers (or UFW), founded in 1966 by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, participated in statewide information seminars, along with area law firms and the Alabama Farmers Federation. Though some of the more controversial parts of the legislation, such as checking the immigration status of elementary and secondary school students, were soon suspended, the labor shortage continued. On May 4, Huerta, a 2012 Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, traveled to Selma to participate in the reenactment of a landmark civil rights march that took place there 47 years ago. With the focus of this year's march on the Alabama law, El Hispanic News reported that Huerta led the rally with the chant made famous by her and Chavez decades earlier, "¡Si se puede!" or "Yes, we can!"

Legal battles over the laws continue. In June, the Supreme Court struck down parts of Arizona's controversial immigration law, but left its "show me your papers" provision intact. Earlier this month, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down provisions of Alabama's law that made schools collect data on students' status, but other sections are still being litigated.

Miners
Miners of America could be forgiven for forgetting what year it is. In a battle that feels like it should belong to an earlier era, the United Mine Workers of America (or UMWA) is taking on Congress in its latest battle to protect coal miners from black lung: an entirely preventable, long-term occupational disease that plagues miners when coal mine dust is inhaled.

Years of bitter labor strikes and unnecessary deaths led to the passage of the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969 which limited exposure to coal dust and provided health care and financial benefits to those afflicted. In the years that followed, new cases of black lung sharply declined. However, data released by The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) shows that new diagnoses of black lung have doubled in the last decade and 10,000 miners have died from it since 1995, according to a recent investigation by National Public Radio and the Center for Public Integrity.

In July, the House Appropriations Committee released a draft of the 2013 fiscal year budget that included last minutes tweaks by House Republicans. The alterations would prevent the Mine Safety and Health Administration (or MSHA) from implementing new restrictions on coal dust and the use of new technology to monitor coal dust levels. The Hill reported that Jennifer Hing, a spokeswoman for Republican House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers said that, "It is the chairman's position and the position of the subcommittee that that particular regulation is harmful and costly to the industry and to the economy in general." UMWA president Cecil E. Roberts responded to the draft calling it "a potential death sentence for thousands of American miners."

The US Department of Energy reports that in 2011 there were 88,000 miners in the United States working in 1,300 mines.

Manufacturers
United Steelworkers have been deeply involved in the push to bring jobs that were moved overseas back to the US. Their campaign "Bring Jobs Home" supported the Bring Jobs Home Act, sponsored by Michigan Democratic Senator Debbie Ann Stabaenow and introduced to Congress on July 9, 2012. Its goal was to provide tax credits to companies that brought their manufacturing back to the United States and end tax credits to businesses that moved their production abroad. Unfortunately, the bill died in Congress on July 19.

While there have been signs of growth in manufacturing over the past year, many feel the slight increase is due, in part, to low wages that are not in step with inflation. Sadly, lower wages allow American-based businesses to compete with companies that produce their products overseas by keeping the price of the product competitive.

Currently, only 11% of US manufacturing workers are represented by unions and many of those unions are often complicit in the low wages of their members. When negotiating with employers, wages are one of the many concessions unions have had to make in order to save jobs. An unfortunate side effect to job creation is that new hires are often paid lower wages than existing employees. But will this tactic lead to the end of the already shrinking middle class? Let's hope that this is a temporary trend to create jobs, and not a long-term solution.

Service Employees
A strike involving hundreds of Houston janitors represented by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) gained national attention in June when JPMorgan (JPM) CEO Jamie Dimon was in Washington to testify to Congress about the company's trading losses. With C-SPAN cameras rolling, Adriana Vasquez, a janitor at JPMorgan Chase Tower in Houston, stood up and asked Dimon why janitors cleaning his offices in Houston are denied a living wage. A stunned, yet composed Dimon responded that she call his office, but Public Radio International's Marketplace reports that Vasquez is still waiting for someone to return her call.

While JPMorgan and most corporations don't hire their janitorial staff directly, this tactic of the SEIU put the janitors' battle for a living wage in the national spotlight. The average annual salary of the striking Houston janitors is a meager $9,000. Another chief concern is the length of their shift. In the large office buildings of JPMorgan, Chevron (CVX), and Shell (RDS-A), workers have to complete their work during a six-hour shift. According to the SEIU, the standard number of hours for janitorial staff to complete their work in most major cities is eight hours, which allows workers to be more thorough.

Pilots
When USAirways (LCC) captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger safely landed his Airbus 320 in New York's Hudson River in 2009, he became a national hero. The last thing the public expected was for him to become a spokesman for labor unions, especially at a time when their popularity is declining. Sullenberger, a longtime member of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) and also a safety investigation expert, testified before Congress in 2009 and moved the conversation to labor and management issues and how they affect overall airline safety. He discussed the importance of collective bargaining in retaining exceptional pilots and underscored the hardships pilots are now facing. He personalized his testimony by mentioning that his pay had been cut by 40%, and his pension eliminated. He also reported that he had started a consulting business as a second job.

In 2011, Sullenberger also spoke out against an FAA bill amendment proposed by Rep. Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania that many pilots felt would put airline safety at risk and have a detrimental effect on labor. The amendment was eventually withdrawn by the congressman in response to the mounting criticism.

Home Care Workers
The health-care arm of the Service Employees International Union (or SEIU) is working around the clock to secure a living wage and other benefits for home-care workers and child-care providers who traditionally lack the benefits and job security that most American workers have come to rely on. Successful campaigns have recently taken place in California and Connecticut. This past June in Los Angeles, for example, in-home care workers were given a $0.65 living wage increase in a vote by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors after weeks of growing protests by home-health-care workers, patients, and community activists outside City Hall. The raise will effect 130,000 workers in Los Angeles County. A month earlier in Connecticut, state legislatures passed a bill that will allow 11,000 home-care and child-care workers the right to unionize so they will be able to negotiate their pay and benefits, in addition to having access to better job training programs.

Professional Sports Players
In 2011, the failed negotiations between the NBA and its players union, The National Basketball Players Association, resulted in a lockout that generated a lot of attention -- but little sympathy -- from the general public. It's hard for the average worker to relate to athletes who often make millions of dollars a year. However, when it comes to the much more physically demanding sport of football, it's impossible to ignore the safety concerns facing players. The most serious risk is of severe head injury; it's well-documented now that repeated blows to the head can lead to the degenerative disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which in turn can lead to symptoms of dementia, mental instability, and a high risk of suicide. The injuries and deaths of many high-profile players, including Junior Seau, have raised the profile on the hazardous side of the sport.

So when football players brought up their safety concerns, the public paid closer attention. The NFL Players Association (NFLPA) is focusing their efforts on public education and awareness of head injuries and they recently held multiple seminars on the prevention of concussions in preparation for the upcoming 2012 season. Unfortunately, there are many who feel the players' union could do more to protect their members. A New York Times article recently reported that a number of NFL retirees are requesting that the AFL-CIO expel the NFLPA because of their lack of action concerning head trauma cases among players, and because they've been ineffective in securing strong retirement and disability benefits. The NFLPA responded with statements saying it's doing all it can to support current and retired players. A.F.L.-C.I.O president Richard L. Trumka, dismissed the retirees' request, saying the claims are "simply misguided and unfounded."

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