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-oldÂ forklift driver from Kenosha whoÂ 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 â€” union or nonunion â€” but they’re also looking for a work environment in which they have some standing, she said.
UnionsÂ have gained, or at least maintained, strength in recent years, said Dresser, a labor economist. The percentage of U.S. workersÂ who belong to unionsÂ slightly increased in 2007 and 2008, reversing a decades-long decline in union density, she said. However,Â the numbersÂ remain historically low,Â with about 12 percent of the U.S. work force unionized, Dresser said.
Unions, including many of the construction trades,Â 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 wouldÂ 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 saidÂ the new lawÂ wouldÂ let organizers coerce workersÂ into making a decision they don’t really want to make.
“If the employee is pushed one way or the other,â€ he said, â€œwhat 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,â€ Maranto said, â€œthere’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 DepressionÂ 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 saidÂ 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,Â working for the union means answering to two bosses. At his union jobs, heÂ worked throughÂ difficult labor negotiations and even had to strike.
“Sometimes,â€ he said, â€œyou feel like the union and management are both against you.”