Public Sector: Unions’ Last Stand?

August 22, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — With Labor Day just around the calendar’s corner, local unions are making plans to celebrate the American work ethic. Their annual festivity includes a parade and a day-long gathering of union workers, their families and friends with food, music, and games at John Ball Park on Monday.

But this year, like in recent years, the revelers may again be smaller in number because the number of workers represented by labor groups continues to shrink as it has for the past two decades. In 1983, the proportion of union members in the nation’s work force was a solid 20 percent. This year that number stands at 13.2 percent.

Manufacturing is the industry that has hit union representation the hardest. U.S. labor organizations lost 240,000 members in just 12 months, as production work seemingly became the nation’s leading export item. And the immediate future for unions involved in manufacturing doesn’t look too bright.

Ford Motor Co. threw some salt on the wounded United Auto Workers union last week when word leaked out that the company’s new Futura and new line of sport wagons would be built in Mexico and Canada, respectively, instead of Atlanta. That news follows on the heels of the automaker’s announcement last year that it would eliminate 12,000 hourly jobs, with many coming from the closing of two U.S. plants in New Jersey and St. Louis.

Consider both decisions from Ford a double whammy for the UAW, which had 1.5 million members in 1979. Now it has roughly 639,000 members, a plunge of 57 percent since then. The UAW lost 10 percent of its membership just last year.

From 2001 to 2002, unions only made slight gains in two of nine industries: agriculture and government. The public sector may be the unions’ last stand, where workers represented by a labor group were 42 percent of the government work force last year. That representation is even higher at local levels across the nation, where unionized employees make up 47 percent of that labor force. But local numbers are even higher — much higher.

At Kent County, a dozen unions represent 82.5 percent of the county’s 1,947 employees. All but 340 county workers belong to a union. Those units range in size from seven for the attorney referee’s union to the UAW with 1,032 county workers. The UAW contract with the county expires at the end of this year and County Administrator and Controller Daryl Delabbio said negotiations with the union would get started this fall.

“We’ll probably start in a month or so. We have contracts with the road patrol and captains and lieutenants. The attorney referees expired at the end of last year, but we’re in negotiations and we don’t expect any significant issues to arise,” he said.

“The contract with court reporters also expires at the end of this year, as well as the one with the Teamsters public health nurses.”

City Manager Kurt Kimball said 14 organized bargaining units represent nearly 1,800 of the city’s 1,900 workers, or roughly 95 percent of all city employees.

“Five percent are not unionized and 95 percent are,” he said of the city work force.

The city is currently negotiating labor contracts with all 14 units, as every agreement has expired. Some contracts ran out on Dec. 31, others on June 30. Kimball said the city has three permanent staff members on its Labor Relations Committee. But when time comes for contract talks a few other non-unionized city employees join in the discussions.

“It’s a five- or six-member team on the city’s end,” said Kimball.

Despite dwindling numbers across the U.S., unions are still a force in government and in the voting booths. Although union workers only comprise 13 percent of the nation’s work force, union households make up 26 percent of the nation’s voters.

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