Being a Labor Democrat

Tom Suhrbur

Tom Suhrbur
Illinois Education
Association (retired)
Special to the Fox
Valley Labor News
Thursday, Jan. 22, 2015

In this second of a 4-part series, retired IEA member Tom Suhrbur examines the labor movement and how its successes improved individual and family prosperity.

In addition to a vibrant labor movement, the federal “safety net” programs have been essential for the working class and lower middle class. Minimum wage laws put pressure on business to pay higher wages, especially for low paid workers. The federal minimum wage in 1968 was worth 48 percent more in spending power than it is today.

Social Security provides workers with disability insurance, death benefits for their families and a modest pension in retirement. It was the only income for my grandmother. After my father died, it was the sole income for my mother. Two of my brothers would be homeless today without it. A younger brother is on Social Security disability and receives food stamps.

Social Security is the major, if not exclusive, source of income for most family members. Like most moderate and low-income people, family members are just (or barely) getting by on Social Security. Likewise, Medicare is keeping most retirees alive and out of poverty. Medicaid covers many people, especially in old age, not just the poor.

When all of her savings ran out, my mother ended up on Medicaid. Medicaid and her Social Security benefit paid for nursing home care until her death. In the 1960’s and 70’s, life was good for many working class families. Much has changed since then.

The election of President Ronald Reagan was a watershed in American politics. Over the last 35 years, the Republican Party has moved increasingly to the right in its politics. Today, most Republicans support policies that undermine unions, attack the social safety net and shift wealth and income to the wealthiest Americans.

Republicans are unabashedly anti-union. Unions now represent less than 12 percent of the workforce. Since more than half of all union members are public employees, states controlled by Republicans have enacted various schemes to undermine their unions. They support outsourcing public employment for everything from prisons to toll roads and parking meters. They also have stripped public employees of their bargaining rights, cut state pension benefits, passed “right to work” legislation, lowered unemployment benefits and reduced workers’ compensation benefits.

Public education is a special target. About one third of all union members work in public education. Republicans have backed tuition vouchers for private and parochial schools. Their support for charter schools is largely based on creating a union free school system.

At the federal level, Republicans have sponsored various proposals to weaken (or eliminate) OSHA, unemployment insurance, unemployment compensation and workers’ compensation. During the Reagan and the two Bush administrations, appointments to the federal bench and the National Labor Relations Board have been anti-union. They too avidly support privatization of public employment to create investment opportunities for their corporate sponsors and to diminish labor unions.

Being a Labor Democrat

Tom Suhrbur

Tom Suhrbur
Illinois Education
Association (retired)
Special to the Fox
Valley Labor News
Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015

In this first of a 4-part series, retired IEA member Tom Suhrbur examines the labor movement and how its successes improved individual and family prosperity.

“The victim of mind manipulation does not know that they are a victim. To them, the walls of their prison are invisible, and they believe they are free. When it comes to the current mental conditioning process, it’s hard to break free when you are repetitively told you are free.”
—Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited

Politics is all about how wealth and income are distributed throughout the economy. Put simply, politics decides who gets what. This fact is often obscured by the shallowness of the political discourse. Fear, nationalistic fervor and prejudice guide many voters. As a result, people do not necessarily vote their pocketbooks. Instead, such issues as race, abortion, gun control, Ebola, and terrorism overshadow class interests. How much media attention was given to the absurdity of the “birthers.” A friend of mine even told me she voted for George W. Bush in 2000 because he seemed “nice” and “was cute.” In the 2014 election, 65 percent of the white, working class voted Republican. This is amazing since the party has supported policies that would hurt their families.

I was raised in a working-class family. My mother stayed home caring for seven children. My father was the sole income. He was a pipefitter at Campbell Soup in Chicago and a union member. He worked hard, but our family enjoyed a decent standard of living. We had a modest home and car. We had good food, family health insurance and an annual vacation. In 1973, our dad retired at 65 with a defined benefit pension and social security that guaranteed my parents a comfortable retirement. Can you imagine a working-class family with seven children surviving today on a single income?

The labor movement was the key to the prosperity that my family enjoyed. Strong unions raised the standard of living for members and non-members alike. In 1968, about 28 percent of U.S. workers were covered by union contracts. Union agreements typically raised the level of compensation for others. Non-union employers would often pay wages competitive to the union scale and provide benefit packages that including pensions and health insurance. They did so not only to dissuade their employees from organizing unions, but also to hire and to keep workers from leaving to higher paid union jobs.

Meaningful morning leads to lasting laughter

By Dan Richardson
Thursday, Nov. 13, 2014
Email Dan Richardson at danrichardson@foxvalleylabornews.com

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven . . . a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4).”

Tornados, cancer, financial meltdown and ensuing anger give reasons to grieve. Yet, for the most part, suffering brings people together. Even when the media reports of strained political tensions, acts of compassion going on behind the scenes. We cope with suffering and look for the light at end of the tunnel.

As far as purpose goes, the post-modernism “whatever” mind-set avoids the deeper significance of suffering. Naturalism takes the day: “All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return. Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the Earth? (Eccl. 3:20-21).” Leave eternity up to uncertainty and the best you hope for is a good job, some money and constant entertainment.

The reason why secularism can’t offer a sufficient response to suffering is because it is committed to leaving God and eternity out of the equation. Something terrible happens and in the mind-set of the kindness and support, today’s whatever mind-set says, “It doesn’t make sense to turn to God because no one can be sure of those kinds of things.” Why are we so committed to uncertainty?

The answer is both shocking and comforting. The hard reality is we were given a beautiful world to inhabit; and our rebellion brought sadness and misery to it. Our Creator obligates us to bear His image; and we by nature, are unable to obey. God’s response is material with spiritual implications. Wild weather, sickness and corruption should remind us of our sin. God uses these reminders to lead us to Him. Yet, we refuse because we don’t want to be obligated to Him. We only want His benefits.

Honest grief leads to comfort. If we see suffering as a result of global sin, then we’ve come a long way in our thinking. Please understand, I am not saying a tornado that killed a 60-year-old woman was the result of a specific sin on her part. It is not right to tell someone with cancer, “Hey buddy, you sinned and now you got cancer.” It is to say, “No one is good. Our sin leads us to misery. But God turns misery into joy.”

It’s difficult for us to see holiness in God’s just anger towards sin. Yet, it is the right response to evil. The suffering we see today is only a glimpse of what His enemies will endure for eternity. Yet the comfort and healing is also a foretaste of what He offers to those who trust in Him. “You have turned for me my mourning into dancing; You have loosed my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness, that my glory may sing Your praise and not be silent (Psalm 30:11-12a).”

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted (Matthew 5:4).” The Lord Jesus Christ confidently said those words because He was going to absorb and satisfy God’s just anger on the cross for the world. The only way the death of Jesus suffices is if He indeed is God. We have His word and the resurrection to rejoice and say, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).”

If we only would take time to think and mourn over our sin, then we’d see the purpose of it all. Then we’d see laughing and dancing a part of a forever-life with God.

Godly Heritage Quote of the Week
“For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.”
—The Apostle Paul, 2nd Letter to the Corinthians, 7:10.

What’s a union boss?

By Mike Matejka
Special to the
Fox Valley Labor News
Thursday, June 19, 2014

Throughout the primary, Republican nominee Bruce Rauner has targeted what he calls “union bosses.” The Illinois Education Association (IEA) the state’s largest teachers’ union, had a Representative Assembly meeting in Chicago a few months ago, where Democratic Governor Patrick Quinn faced off against Rauner. IEA elected President Cinda Klickna asked Rauner who he meant by union bosses. He replied directly to her, “You’re one.”

It was a gutsy move by Rauner to reply to Klickna in that way. But did he forget that Klickna was elected by the people in the room?

On the job, we don’t get to elect our boss. When we go to work for someone, they are in charge. They rule and we obey, though sometimes we do talk back. However, a labor union is not a business. Union leaders are elected, not self-appointed. Unions are owned by their members, who vote for their leaders.

In that IEA assembly were 1,200 teachers and support staff. Most were building representatives, elected by their fellow workers. The majority still works full-time in schools, but after hours, they represent their fellow workers. This basic workplace democracy is what a union is all about.

In McLean County, the Mitsubishi workers have voted for United Auto Workers representation. Since the union organized at the plant, there have been six different union presidents. No one is the boss and owns the union. Members who feel they can do better run for the office. If they can find support, they win. The union president serves at the workers’ discretion. Every three years the members vote whether or not to retain or replace their elected leadership.

If politicians want to criticize labor union involvement in Illinois politics, feel free to do so. But using the term “union boss” is a cheap shot. Union leaders are elected by the workers, who must approve spending any union funds or contract ratification. In the workplace, we don’t get to elect our boss; but in the union, you do get to elect your leader. I hope candidate Rauner, political commentators and other public voices will respect that basic workplace democracy a union brings and drop the term “union boss.”

Mike Matejka is the Governmental Affairs director for the Great Plains Laborers District Council, covering 11,000 union Laborers in northern Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota. He lives in Bloomington with his wife and daughter and their two dogs. He served on the Bloomington City Council for 18 years, is a past president of the McLean County Historical Society and Vice-President of the Illinois Labor History Society.

The delivery worker’s risk of injury

By Dexter Evans
Guest writer
Woodruff Johnson & Palermo
Thursday, June 19, 2014

Most people take for granted the plight of the delivery person. Especially when we make that easy phone call to the local pizza parlor so we can have a nice, comfortable and warm dinner at home.

The people who deliver that pizza or our packages encounter some of the worst weather and road conditions, not only while driving, but also when bringing that package to the front door of homes or offices. Whether driving or walking, if you are injured when making a delivery, you could have a case for workers’ compensation or personal injury.

Assuming your accident arose out of and in the course of your employment, you likely have a claim against your employer who is legally obligated to have workers’ compensation insurance. One of the many benefits of a workers’ compensation claim is you don’t need to show your employer was negligent in causing your injury. If you were doing your job and the injury happened as a result thereof, you are likely covered. The easiest example in the context of the delivery business would be if you were injured in a car accident, regardless of who is at fault. Other examples would include injuries resulting from a slip and fall at a house or business.

You could have a workers’ compensation claim even if you were going to get lunch or dinner at the time of your injury and were involved in a car accident, or if you slipped and fell in the parking lot of the restaurant. Illinois’ courts have interpreted the “arises out of and in the course of employment” standard in favor of the injured worker to allow for claims due to a diversion from one’s job using what are known as the “traveling employee” and “personal comfort” doctrines.

In essence, because the delivery person’s job is to travel, it makes sense the law would protect such workers when they have a slight deviation from their delivery schedule.

Unlike a workers’ compensation claim, a personal injury case requires you to prove you were injured due to someone else’s negligence. However, even if a police officer tickets you as the wrongdoer for the accident, you may still have a claim if you can show the other driver was at least 50 percent negligent. Likewise, even if there was no other car involved, you may still have a case if the accident occurred due to some other negligent conduct. For example, the negligent placement of road signs or errant road construction could support a case against a municipality or construction company for your injury.

Proving negligence becomes more difficult when you suffer an injury due to a slip and fall. This is because you have to show not only someone was negligent, but also they had notice of the condition. Another important distinction is the way in which an injury is treated, depending on whether it occurred on residential property (homes/apartment buildings) versus commercial property (stores).

While there are many hurdles one most overcome to bring forth a case, there are often theories of negligence the layperson would never even consider. In winter months, this includes theories due to negligent plowing/parking lot design or roof leakage, which causes ice to develop. There could be many potential defendants in these types of cases such as the homeowner, property owner, property manager, roofing contractor, snow and ice removal company, etc.

If you are a delivery person and you have suffered an injury, you need to contact an injury lawyer immediately. There are many potential pitfalls that may damage your ability to bring forth a case only an injury attorney can appreciate. Even if you think you might not have a case, consult an injury attorney to make sure your rights are adequately being protected.

Information obtained is not, nor is it intended to be, legal advice. The material is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. The material is not guaranteed to be correct, complete, or up to date. You should consult an attorney for advice regarding your individual situation. We invite you to contact us and welcome your calls, letters and electronic mail. Contacting us does not create an attorney-client relationship. Please do not send any confidential information to us until such time as an attorney-client relationship has been established.

Restoring the building trades to their former prominence

By Stan Lesniewicz
Special to the
Fox Valley Labor News
Thursday, June 19, 2014

As part of acquiring his Bachelor of Arts in Construction Management from the National Labor College, Stan Lesniewicz researched and wrote a paper examining factors which contribute to the decline of union membership, ways membership can be grown and examine the public’s view of unions.

Portions of his paper will be published in installments in the Fox Valley Labor News. This is the final installment.

“It was determined, based on the answers presented in the survey, there is a negative perception of unions among the general public. There is a plethora of reasons for this discontent. However, the greatest example shown for this is a resentment of high wages and benefits that accompany union employment, which are believed to be incommensurate with the work produced. The common retort extolled by the survey takers to counter this perception is to publicly promote the good unions do for America, including raising working standards through higher wages and better benefits.

“I discovered people see unions as only being for themselves, and not for helping better the community or giving back to the community. Of the survey takers, most stated they thought the public perceives unions members make too much money, feel jealousy towards unions, and feel unions are ‘bullies.’

“Media/news coverage of unions striking, along with political outlash towards unions, reinforces the public’s negative view towards unions. Unions can reverse this negative view by showing the public that unions care about them as much as they care about its members. When unions give back to the community, it has a long-lasting effect and begins to change the public’s negative view into a positive view towards unions.

“Along with doing good in various communities, union also need to remind the public how unions provide better working conditions. Unions should start with educating its own members about its history and the changes unions have made over the past century. Union members who understand the concepts of what unions have done to progress our country, along with educating the public about the inner workings of a union, can pass this critical information to the public. In turn, this will educate more people on the changes unions have made to this country in regards to government laws, rules and safety in the work place.

“The American has never been really educated on how bad working conditions were in the early 1900’s. While in school, we were briefly taught about these horrific working conditions, but we were never really educated regarding how hard workers and unions fought, or what workers and unions endured in getting better working conditions. I believe that a well-educated union member can pass on this critical information and educate the American people by giving them examples from our history. Once we are able to educate the American people on this, I believe we will see an upward climb in the favor of unions.

“As long as unions have opportunities to make them look better to the American public, I believe they should take no cost at doing anything possible to make changes for better perception of unions. It all starts within local and international unions making changes in becoming favorable with the American people.

“Unions should consider giving surveys to the public to see how they are perceived and what they could do for their community. They can distribute literature to the community, which explains what unions already do and how they already help their communities. With this literature, they can also educate the public about the history of unions and how unions were able to get laws passed that established the working conditions we enjoy today.

“Unions can only blame themselves for the negative perception the public has for them. Unions must start working together and come up with a solution that is going to work to win back the hearts of the public.”

Stan Lesniewicz is a second generation Sheet Metal Worker with Local 73. He has been a proud union member for the last 14 years. Lesniewicz decided to go back to school when the economy went bad, attending the National Labor College from 2010 to 2013 where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Construction Management.

Protecting you and your family with proper insurance

By Jenny Robinson
Guest Writer
Rittenberg, Buffen, Gulbrandsen,
Robinson & Saks, Ltd.
Thursday, June 12, 2014

In my article last month, I explained how Uninsured Motorist (UM) coverage and Underinsured Motorist (UIM) coverage protects you and your family.

To recap, when you are involved in a car accident, you make a claim to recover for your damages under your UM coverage where an at-fault driver has no insurance (or hits you or your vehicle and drives away). If the at-fault driver has insurance, but not enough insurance to cover your damages, and you have higher limits than the at-fault driver, you can seek to recover additional money under your UIM coverage to compensate you for your damages.

With UM coverage, how much you can recover is limited by the extent of your damages, but also the extent of your UM coverage limits.

With UIM coverage, how much you can recover is limited by: the extent of your damages; the at-fault driver’s liability insurance limits and; how much additional UIM coverage you have. Generally, the maximum you can collect under your own UIM policy is the amount of your UIM policy, minus the amount of the at-fault driver’s liability policy. In a collision where you are the only one injured as a result of the underinsured driver’s negligence, if the at-fault driver has $20,000 per person liability limits, $40,000 per occurrence and you have $50,000 per person, $100,000 per occurrence UIM limits, the most you can recover under the at-fault driver’s policy is $20,000 and the most you can recover under your own UIM policy is an additional $30,000 ($50,000 total).

If your two children were also injured in the collision, $50,000 is the most anyone of you could recover and $100,000 is the most all three of you together can recover. It does not matter if one of you loses a limb, becomes handicapped, sustains brain damage or dies. The policy limits are what the policy limits are.

The sad truth is many people do not have sufficient UIM and UM coverage. Even after a settlement or award for one’s entire UM or UIM policy limits, many people are poorly compensated for their damages and left with debts. Notwithstanding, insurance companies remain, and will remain, quite happy to sell you automobile insurance with bare bone coverage ($20,000 per person, $40,000 per occurrence, which is Illinois’ mandated minimum coverage limits). Doing so provides them, NOT YOU, with the most bang for your buck. After all, they are in the business of selling insurance to make a profit.

While buying an automobile insurance policy with lower limits costs a little less money, it could turn into the most costly mistake. For very little money, you can and should increase your policy limits to protect yourself, your family, your passengers and anybody else you allow to drive your vehicle.

How much one’s insurance costs depends upon many factors, including the insurance company, driver’s age, marital status, driving history, number and type of vehicles insured, each vehicle’s main use, annual mileage, family members insured, etc. Therefore, everyone’s insurance rates will differ. Using myself and my husband as an example, I can show you just how little it costs to increase one’s coverage and better protect yourself.

My husband and I own two vehicles, a new Jeep Cherokee limited and a 2007 Honda Accord. USAA provides us with our insurance. We have liability, UM and UIM limits of $1,000,000 per person, $1,000,000 per accident (1 mil/1 mil) for both vehicles.Based on my family, every month, the difference between coverage limits of $20,000/40,000 (20/40) and $1,000,000/$1,000,000 (1 mil/1 mil) totals only $15.99. Over the course of a year, we pay only $191.88 year (or approximately 53 cents a day) more for $1,000,000/$1,000,000 than we would if we took the state’s minimum of $20,000 per occurrence, $40,000 per vehicle. While your own rates will vary based upon numerous factors, I urge you to call your insurance company so as to insure you are adequately protecting yourself and your family.

Accidents are a horrible thing, but, when tragedy happens, failing to have adequate UM and UIM limits to protect yourself and your family is a double tragedy. It is something you can easily prevent. Increasing your UM and UIM coverage limits cost very little.

No matter what coverage limits you or the at-fault driver has, there are certain steps you must take within a limited amount of time to protect your right to recover against the at-fault driver and/or under your own insurance policy. Failure to do so could bar you from ever recovering any money for your damages.

Therefore, if you get injured as a result of a motor vehicle incident, whether the driver has insurance or not, or flees the scene, please call me as soon as possible so that I can help to protect your rights. You can reach me at my law office, Rittenberg, Buffen, Gulbrandsen, Robinson & Saks, Ltd., 309 W. Washington, Ste. 900, Chicago, IL, 60606, 312-332-5400, or on my cell phone 773-501-7232. I would be happy to meet with you at my office in downtown Chicago or in Aurora.

Information obtained is not, nor is it intended to be, legal advice. The material is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. The material is not guaranteed to be correct, complete, or up to date. You should consult an attorney for advice regarding your individual situation. We invite you to contact us and welcome your calls, letters and electronic mail. Contacting us does not create an attorney-client relationship. Please do not send any confidential information to us until such time as an attorney-client relationship has been established.

Restoring the building trades to their former prominence

By Stan Lesniewicz
Special to the
Fox Valley Labor News
Thursday, June 12, 2014

As part of acquiring his Bachelor of Arts in Construction Management from the National Labor College, Stan Lesniewicz researched and wrote a paper examining factors which contribute to the decline of union membership, ways membership can be grown and examine the public’s view of unions.

Portions of his paper will be published in installments in the Fox Valley Labor News. This is the third installment.

“The construction industry has been responsive with technological advances in the relationship between management and workers. Construction trade unions have attempted to remain relevant and viable by adapting how they are perceived, as well as how they interact with contractors. The construction industry in the U.S. has undergone tremendous changes throughout the years in its means and methods of how a project is constructed and in the way management and workers interact. These two areas must be managed to ensure delivery of a finished project that promotes quality for the owner, profitability for the contractor, and balances the workers desire for efficiency, equity and voice.

“Included in Lesniewicz’s paper was a survey titled Public Perception of Unions, which was constructed and distributed for the purpose of ascertaining working; union construction trades people’s opinions on the current state of the general public’s perception of unions. A 2011 New York Times article indicated unions are held in a negative light, according to popular opinion. The survey of 10 questions was used to determine if a targeted group of union trades people concur with that sentiment. It also asked participants to offer solutions which may influence a transformation of this attitude toward a more positive public sentiment of unions. The survey was distributed to 47 union members, comprised of 13 trade unions. What follows are excerpts/summaries of that survey:

“Question No. 4 asks participants if their views on unions have changed since they have become union members. The results show 26 answered their views on unions changed after joining. A response indicative of the general sentiment explains: “I used to have a bad perception of unions until I saw how hard and respectfully they work together in the construction field.” The respondents that did not exhibit a change in view were among those coming from a union household or joined the union at a young age and never experienced the transition from non-union to union. They did not have the viewpoint of the respondents that have seen the workplace from both perspectives.

“In response to questions No. 5 and No. 6, (Why do you think unions have a negative perception in the public? and Do you have any suggestions on what needs to be done in order to change negative views of unions in the public?) survey takers overwhelmingly answered there is a negative public perception of unions, with only one response to the contrary. Reasons ranged broadly, although the most often cited cause pointed toward union’s high wages and benefits, with nearly 33 percent indicating so. Some other causes mentioned included “jealousy” and misinformation, indicating: ‘The only press unions ever receive is bad press and there is too much word of mouth rumors spreading unions faults and short comings.’”

“It is clear participants are convinced a negative perception of unions exists in the public’s mind. Opinions on how to remedy the situation varied, including turning an eye inward upon the unions themselves and to respond quickly when attacked in the media. Though the common thread appeared to be to inform the public on the good unions do.

“Replies to question No. 7, (How much do you think the public perceptions of unions have hurt unions over the years?) indicate there is a divergence among survey taker as to whether or not public perception has hurt unions. Nearly 49 percent believing unions have been hurt a little. Just over 44 percent indicated unions have been hurt a lot, and nearly 7 percent signified unions were not hurt much. This is a curious result, as all, save one respondent, felt there is a negative perception of unions among the public.

“Predominate responses to question 10, (What would you tell people — or what things would you focus on — if you were trying to make the case to non-union members regarding why unions are good for America?) directed the public to witness how unions enable members to earn good and livable wages, along with abundant health and retirement benefits.

“One reply suggests to “. . . tell them how much good unions have done for families and how unions built America and gave them many of the laws pertaining to work (such as the 40hr. work week).” Another indicates “union wages buoy the entire labor force’s wages.”

“These responses are interestingly incongruous when juxtaposed against the responses in question No. 5, which indicated the public’s negative perception of unions is caused mainly due to the union’s high wages and benefits. The public believes union workers make too much money and the union survey respondent’s counter to that is to explain higher wages are the main benefit of unions for America. This paradox must be reconciled if the unions are to truly change public opinion.”

Stan Lesniewicz is a second generation Sheet Metal Worker with Local 73. He has been a proud union member for the last 14 years. Lesniewicz decided to go back to school when the economy went bad, attending the National Labor College from 2010 to 2013 where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Construction Management.

Restoring the building trades to their former prominence

By Stan Lesniewicz
Special to the
Fox Valley Labor News
Thursday, May 22, 2014

As part of acquiring his Bachelor of Arts in Construction Management from the National Labor College, Stan Lesniewicz researched and wrote a paper examining factors which contribute to the decline of union membership, ways membership can be grown and examine the public’s view of unions.

Portions of his paper will be published in installments in the Fox Valley Labor News, the first of which begins today.

“Over time, union’s reputations has been declining in the public’s favor. Building Trades workers have seen work that has been traditionally built using skilled union craft workers now being completed with unskilled or semi-skilled non-union workers. With this decline, union construction workers and the contractors who employ them need to figure out what led to this loss of market share versus the open-shop segment.

“Certain negative stereotypes and perspectives on unions promoted by politicians pandering for votes or the communications media looking to create an agenda for their followers have been allowed to develop in the U.S. to the extent that even union members tend to believe in their truth.

“There is a perception among the public the main purpose of labor unions is to selfishly pursue the interests of their members and a general ignorance of their purpose and power. In modern trade unions, older members educated younger workers about struggles that were fought to win higher standards of living. Back then, trade unionism was as much an advocate of social responsibility as economic justice. However, while the labor movement continues to press for social responsibility on the part of corporations, the success of the business union model has led to the abdication of the unions’ necessary role as an advocate for social change.

“In the past, where the labor movement offered its members a sense of family and a passion for bettering society and themselves, it now presents itself as little more than another anonymous bureaucracy and another complication to an already complex life. Enabling union members to be more articulate advocates for goals of organized labor, public opinions of the usefulness of unions will change to the positive. They will begin to see the current negativity created towards unions is unwarranted.

“In addition to the public misunderstanding the role of unions, unions need to work with capitalism and the established employment relations system. Unionism in the United States has become conservative, even reactionary. Rather than growing its memberships by organizing the unorganized workers that were increasingly encroaching on their historical territory, the building trades unions have grown more insular and fight among themselves over jurisdiction of the available projects.

“By using jurisdictional claims to grow their memberships at the expense of another building trades union, they are ignoring the larger problem of the non-union contractor taking this work out of the union sector. Infighting led to a change in attitude among clients, contractors and the public, which included the establishment of several policies that led to the loss of union construction market share and the growth of the non-union “merit shop” segment.

“On the political front, state government efforts to repeal the “little Davis-Bacon Acts,” became a popular tactic among politicians go after voters who were eager to blame unions for government’s economic problems. By individual unions using jurisdictional disputes to grow their power, they have lost the greater power inherent in a unified and cohesive building trades organization.

“By adopting an “us against them” mentality, the building trades have alienated the very contractors that are essential to the growth of the union construction sector. By creating roadblocks and difficulties for fair union contractors whom employ their members, trade unions have unwittingly given the non-union builders a back door pass to come in and take away projects. By building on historical labor-management groups, such as joint apprenticeship committees and creating new organizations to address the common problems faced by labor and management in the construction industry, contractors and unions have been able to identify and implement win-win solutions to their mutual problems.

Stan Lesniewicz is a second generation Sheet Metal Worker with Local 73. He has been a proud union member for the last 14 years. Lesniewicz decided to go back to school when the economy went bad, attending the National Labor College from 2010 to 2013 where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Construction Management.

What’s wrong with the economy?

By Tom Suhrbur
Special to the Fox Valley Labor News
Thursday, Nov. 28, 2013

In an earlier issue of the Fox Valley Labor News, I wrote “What’s Wrong With the Economy,” about how the systematic suppression of wages for the working class and lower middle class wages since the late 1970s have contributed to the anemic recovery from the 2008 Great Recession. I cited several major factors that have contributed declining wages including:

A 28 percent decline in the minimum wage since 1968 (when factored into inflation),
Curtailing Defined Benefit Pension Plans
Free trade/capital flight to low wage nations,
Suppression of union organizing campaign,
Legal and judicial assaults on labor union rights and
Hiring of part-time and temporary labor.

I e-mailed the article to a retired economics professor at a major university. He was the valedictorian of my high school class. Included with my e-mail was the following personal note from me:

“In 1970, a younger brother dropped out of high school and enlisted in the Navy. While in the service, he obtained a General Educational Development (GED) certificate. He also learned welding and other mechanical skills while in the service. When his tour of duty ended in 1974, he took a job at Pepperidge Farm as a maintenance mechanic. At the time, he was paid $12.75 per hour. In today’s dollar, his wages translates into $62.47 per hour.

“In an interview for this article, I asked him whether it was a union job? He responded, “No, but they paid the union rate.” What about benefits, I asked. He stated he had health insurance, a (defined benefit) pension and other benefits that union workers received. Much has changed since then!

“Another close relative lost his full-time job in the 2009. He has a graduate degree in biology. For several years, he worked a seasonal full-time job and supplemented his income with several part-time jobs. The most he made was $12.75/hour with no health insurance. Last year, he found a full-time job. It pays $11.25/hour with no health insurance. He is 40-years-old and looking for something better.

In his response, the professor stated: “Here are a couple of thoughts about your essay:”

“A defined benefit pension is, I believe, inferior to a defined contribution pension.  There are several reasons — here are two. A defined benefit pension tempts the employer to underfund the pension. This is not possible with a defined contribution. And a defined benefit pension provides too little diversification for the employee.

“It is an empty accusation to blame free trade for the loss of manufacturing jobs. What is the alternative — how good would U.S. autos be if we had protected the auto industry from imports. And how many auto exports would we have? It is a fact there are many semi-skilled workers in Asia and elsewhere. The right strategy is to adapt to that fact, not to ask our government to make it go away.”

In my response back, I said, defined contribution plans such as 401(k) work well for those who make enough money to save for retirement and understand the basics of investment. For a highly compensated, career-minded employee, a 401(k) makes sense. They have the ability to save and the 401(k) are portable as they move up the corporate ladder from employer to employer.

Employers also like defined contribution plans because they shift pension risks to the employees. An employer contribution to a defined contribution is not guaranteed. Many employers contribute nothing and pay so little that the employee cannot save. Workers often retire without any pension but social security.”

Employers are always tempted to cut labor costs no matter what kind of pension they have. 

Working class people are better off with a defined benefit plan. A working class cousin had a defined benefit plan through Bell South. When he retired, he took out a cash settlement and put it in an IRA in 2007. Not knowing anything about investment, he lost it all when the stock market crashed. His broker did OK, since he made commission, even as my cousin loss everything. DCPs are a win-win for Wall Street.

ERISA does provide protection from under funding by the employer for defined benefit plan. In private industry, ERISA requires employers to contribute to the plan or face fines.Unfortunately, ERISA does not apply to state and local government plans.

On the free trade issue, I wrote I am not a protectionist. Trade can benefit everyone, but there should be enforceable environmental and labor standards as a condition for trade.

I support fair trade not unregulated “free” trade. International groups such as the UN, World Bank and IMF should closely monitor factories that collapse killing 1,000, the murders of labor organizers, unchecked pollution, child labor and other inhumane conditions.

Transnational corporations and the countries that allow such conditions to exist should be severely sanctioned. The current trade agreements have created a race to the bottom for many American workers.