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Employment trumps union vs. nonunion debate

Dustin Block

Matthew Cushing has worked in a union and worked without a union. Now, he just wants to work.

“In this day and age, I just want something decent,” said the 46-year-old forklift driver from Kenosha who was laid off from his job at a chemical company.

Workers such as Cushing might trump the looming fight over proposed changes in federal law that would make it easier for employees to organize, according to labor experts. While lines are drawn over the Employee Free Choice Act introduced into Congress this week, unemployment is rising and workers are just looking for a way to earn a living.

Laura Dresser, associate director of the Center on Wisconsin Strategy in Madison, said the deteriorating economy cuts both ways for labor unions. Workers are ready to take the first job that comes along — union or nonunion — but they’re also looking for a work environment in which they have some standing, she said.

Unions have gained, or at least maintained, strength in recent years, said Dresser, a labor economist. The percentage of U.S. workers who belong to unions slightly increased in 2007 and 2008, reversing a decades-long decline in union density, she said. However, the numbers remain historically low, with about 12 percent of the U.S. work force unionized, Dresser said.

Unions, including many of the construction trades, could make significant gains with the Employee Free Choice Act. The federal legislation would let workers form a union by getting a majority to sign cards. It also would create a system for binding arbitration if the union and company cannot reach a contract within 120 days.

Both changes would eliminate well-established barriers to workers organizing, Dresser said.

“It’s very hard to move through what ends up being a long process,” she said.

But opponents counter the Employee Free Choice Act would harm workers and companies. Steve Stone, president of Associated Builders & Contractors of Wisconsin Inc., said the act would let union organizers pressure workers into signing cards, and it would eliminate the need for secret-ballot elections.

Stone said the new law would let organizers coerce workers into making a decision they don’t really want to make.

“If the employee is pushed one way or the other,” he said, “what is he going to do if he doesn’t have a place to decide?”

Stone said the law also would let a third-party arbitrator force hours and salaries on companies after a relatively brief negotiation period.

But Marquette University professor Cheryl Maranto said opponents have an outdated view of unions as organizations that tie employers’ hands and run them out of business. While that might have happened in the 1970s, she said, today’s union leaders are more willing to work with businesses for a fair deal.

Research shows businesses can increase productivity by working with a union, Maranto said. A good labor-management relationship can lead to savings because workers can share ways to improve efficiency.

“If there’s no protection,” Maranto said, “there’s no reason to help management become more efficient.”

She said history suggests increased union activity can aid economic recovery. One of the country’s major labor laws was passed during the Great Depression and helped with the recovery, Maranto said.

“If people make more, they’ll spend more,” she said. “It’s a way to get the economy back on its feet.”

For his part, Cushing said he feels more comfortable working for a union because he could talk openly about his job without fear of retribution. When he worked for a nonunion employer, Cushing said, he stayed quiet even as employees inhaled dangerous chemicals and suffered injuries. He didn’t want to risk losing his job.

“It’s a necessary evil,” he said. “It just seems like you do get taken advantage of (without a union).”

But, Cushing said, working for the union means answering to two bosses. At his union jobs, he worked through difficult labor negotiations and even had to strike.

“Sometimes,” he said, “you feel like the union and management are both against you.”

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