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BusINess » BusINess Story of the Week Workforce » Unions working to capture attention, support of working families

Unions working to capture attention, support of working families

Gary city worker Antoine Brown, 38, Brown poses for a portrait on his recycling route. The Teamsters Local 142 member says he and other union members are fighting for survival. Attempts to weaken labor unions have roiled Democrats in Indianapolis and Madison, Wis., leading them to flee to Illinois rather than vote on the measures. (Photograph by Jonathan Miano/The Times)

Gary city worker Antoine Brown, 38, Brown poses for a portrait on his recycling route. The Teamsters Local 142 member says he and other union members are fighting for survival. Attempts to weaken labor unions have roiled Democrats in Indianapolis and Madison, Wis., leading them to flee to Illinois rather than vote on the measures. (Photograph by Jonathan Miano/The Times)

City of Gary employee Antoine Brown worries about the American Dream becoming unattainable for many families.

Brown said he and other workers struggle to avoid thinking about not receiving a pay raise in five years and how budget cuts could further reduce salaries and personnel.

But Brown is one of the lucky ones. He’s still employed.

Brown and thousands of other workers in recent weeks have filled the Indiana Statehouse to voice their frustrations about conditions for the country’s middle class and legislation they say is aimed at attacking their livelihoods.

In response to the legislation, unions for public employees, construction trades and manufacturing workers are coordinating fights to galvanize labor in different states in a manner some historians say harkens back to the early 20th century.

“We’re actually in a war right now,” said Brown, a driver for the Gary Recycling Department and member of International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 142. “It’s a war with the working man versus big business, and unions are in the middle since they represent the working man.”

A ‘tough period’

Labor historian Ruth Needleman said the protests in Indianapolis, Madison, Wis., and Columbus, Ohio, are borne of fear and discontent. She said people see their economic situations as fragile while businesses continue to receive government subsidies and companies continue to invest money overseas.

Teamsters President James Hoffa said the recession has hurt millions of workers and many have yet to fully recover financially and emotionally from job and income losses. But the “machete attacks” on workers’ rights are part of a coordinated strategy to reduce the influence of unions, Hoffa said. Although the labor movement is going through a “tough period,” he said unions are becoming closer and less concerned about self-interest.

Since the recession ended in June 2009, the nation’s unemployment rate has fallen less than 1 percent, but the Dow Jones industrial average and S&P 500 index have had gains of more 40 percent. The rate of underemployment in Indiana and nationwide also is falling, but about 17.4 percent of the Hoosier labor force is without work, has stopped looking for work or is employed part time for economic reasons.

“Unions have been making concessions since the ’80s,” said Needleman, who is director of the Working Class Studies program at Calumet College of St. Joseph and professor emeritus of labor studies at Indiana University Northwest. “All these concessions pushed more money to the top and that money doesn’t get reinvested anywhere in this country. That is a fundamental problem.

“What has happened is that working people, not just union activists, are understanding that if they do not raise their voice politically, they will lose their voice economically … and then they’ll lose their voice politically.”

Making their voices heard

Union leaders say the voice of the labor movement continues to be strong, despite membership being on the decline for years. Indiana ranks No. 25 among states with 10.9 percent of employees in the state belonging to unions, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Ten years ago, 15 percent of workers in the state were unionized. Likewise, the nation’s union membership rate has fallen to 11.9 percent in 2010 from about 20 percent in the early 1980s.

Don Lutes, Griffith resident and Inland Steel retiree, said a person would be hard-pressed to find a worker at his former union hall, United Steelworkers Local 1010, who doesn’t believe leaders are working in their best interest. He said unions are important to help people remain politically informed and fight for fairness in the workplace.

House Democrats in Indiana and Wisconsin became darlings and demons among workers for leaving their respective states to halt votes on legislation they didn’t support. Attendees of rallies at the Indiana Statehouse lauded the actions Democrats took and in both states described the Republican Party as not being attentive to issues of workers.

Eric Holcomb, chairman of the Indiana Republican Party, counters that controversial legislation, namely the right-to-work bill, is off the table and now members of the General Assembly can focus on issues of immediate concern to Hoosier families.

“All Republican leaders in the Statehouse are all focused on an ambitious agenda to balance our budget, improve our education system and continue to make Indiana a great place to create and grow jobs,” Holcomb said.

Randy Palmateer, business manager for the Northwestern Indiana Building and Construction Trades Council, said any effort to improve conditions for workers has to begin locally. He said regional leaders, regardless of their political affiliation, should develop a framework to increase employment.

“The region needs to put aside the petty politics and come together for the families of Northwest Indiana to create jobs,” Palmateer said.

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