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A family of unions

Labor unions endorse political candidates
while also protecting workers’ families
Tuesday, April 20, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:15 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

It’s that time again. Each election year, labor unions come into the forefront as they endorse candidates on a national and local level. But this isn’t all unions do. They are helping working families every day through lobbyists, labor councils and individual labor unions.

Here is a brief guide to how labor unions work and how they help workers and employers. It also provides a glimpse of what labor unions do in mid-Missouri.

Who joins labor unions?

Unions represent workers in industries across the board from actors and teachers to electrical workers and miners. There are 16 million union members nationwide. The AFL-CIO, an umbrella organization for unions, has 65 affiliate unions representing 13 million members. In Missouri there are 332,000 union members, about 13 percent of the state’s workers.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, men are more likely to be members than women, and blacks are more likely to be members than whites, Asians and Hispanics.

The AFL-CIO reported that 50 percent of union members are white-collar workers.

“White-collar workers have begun to organize in the last few years,” said Suzanne Ffolkes, spokeswoman for AFL-CIO. “In the wake of corporations such as Enron being forced to file bankruptcy, white-collar workers want to be able to protect themselves in the event of losing severance pay and other benefits owed to them.”

In mid-Missouri, building and trade unions — carpenters, pipe fitters, electricians and plumbers — have the largest memberships, said Herb Johnson, secretary-treasurer for the Missouri AFL-CIO.

Some of the unions in mid-Missouri represented by the labor councils in Jefferson City and Columbia include the United Food and Commercial Workers, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Sheet Metal Workers International Association.

How are unions organized?

Unions are nationwide organizations that have local chapters — aptly called “locals” — in cities across the country. Locals can represent workers in a company or an entire industry.

For example, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers represents CenturyTel workers and workers at the Central Electric Manufacturing Plant in Fulton. The union also represents apprentice, journeyman and signatory electrical contractors, said Jim Winemiller, business representative for IBEW Local 257. The AFL-CIO has representatives at the national, state and city level.

The Central Labor Council in Jefferson City meets monthly with delegates from 16 different unions representing workers in central Missouri. Guy Ott, president of the Jefferson City labor council, said the council assists the AFL-CIO in addition to other activities that include endorsing candidates and sponsoring the labor parade each year.

What do unions do for members?

Unions offer workers a voice in their workplaces and on average, better wages and benefits.

Union members earn 25 percent more than workers who aren’t unionized. The percentage rises for women and minorities. Union members are also more likely to have pension and health care plans, according to the AFL-CIO.

Providing good wages and more benefits for working families is a priority for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, said Mark Bruemmer, secretary-treasurer of the local IBT.

The IBT represents a variety of occupations, the transportation industry being the largest in mid-Missouri, Bruemmer said. Recently, the union has been able to increase benefits in contracts in the dairy industry, for Redi-Mix workers, the trash-haul industry, the beer-distributing industry and for Yellow Freight workers, he said.

The IBEW aids workers by negotiating contracts, referring members to local contractors and settling labor disputes, Winemiller said.

What is the purpose of union dues?

Members of unions pay dues to the union, typically around two hours of wages per month.

For the local Teamsters union, a percentage of the workers’ dues go to the international organization and a percentage to the local union, Bruemmer said. The percentage that goes into the local union is used primarily for covering the cost of representing workers, as well as paying for the day-to-day costs of operation.

What does a union do for employers?

“We feel that if a workplace is organized, then workers are more productive because they have good wages, benefits and overall better working conditions,” Ffolkes said.

Unions help boost morale, lower absenteeism and encourage good corporate citizenship, she said.

Don’t unions organize strikes?

In reality, strikes aren’t that common, Ffolkes said.

“We want to come to the negotiating table in good faith to avoid a strike,” she said.

The AFL-CIO reported that 97 percent of contract negotiations are settled without a strike.

What is the relationship between unions and the economy?

During the recent downturn of the economy, 2.7 million manufacturing jobs were lost. This has been a major factor in the decline of union membership, Ffolkes said. But workers are continuing to organize, with 1 million workers organizing in the last two years, she said.

While the number has stayed steady over the past 50 years, the work force is growing, so union members make up just 13 percent of the work force, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

What political roles do unions play?

Unions play a role in politics at every level. For the past seven years, Johnson has worked as the chief lobbyist for the Missouri AFL-CIO at the state capitol. The AFL-CIO has lobbyists at each level of the government working to elect labor-friendly leaders and promote legislation that helps working families, he said.

Labor unions and larger organizations also put their support behind candidates that support working families. The United Working People of Mid-Missouri, a labor club, recently organized to give a voice to workers in central Missouri, said Russ Unger, treasurer of the organization. The leaders felt there was a need for workers to be more active in politics.

The group held its first event in February and will be planning more events . The group will also be interviewing candidates and voting on who to endorse for upcoming elections. The money raised at events will go to support those candidates through donations and at the grassroots level.


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