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U.S. unions starting to flex muscle

Published: Sunday, 2/22/2015 - Updated: 17 hours ago

Labor movement makes use of income-disparity dissatisfaction

BLOOMBERG NEWS
union rally at the entrance to the Marathon refinery in Catlettsburg, Ky. Eleven sites are affected, including the local plant in Oregon. DAILY (ASHLAND, KY.) INDEPENDENT"> Representatives from the United Steelworkers union rally at the entrance to the Marathon refinery in Catlettsburg, Ky. Eleven sites are affected, including the local plant in Oregon.
DAILY (ASHLAND, KY.) INDEPENDENTEnlarge

NEW YORK — After years of avoiding confrontation, the U.S. labor movement is reasserting itself. From the ports of Los Angeles to the car plants of Detroit, unions are demanding payback for sacrifices they say helped revive the economy.

Oil workers have walked off the job for better working conditions. Dock workers have snarled West Coast ports. Personnel staffing oil terminals at the Port of Long Beach, Calif., are threatening to strike. In Detroit, union leaders girding for contract talks this year will push for the first raise veteran autoworkers have received in a decade.

Union leaders are taking advantage of a tightening labor market and favorable political environment. With middle-class wages stagnating and the rich getting richer, income inequality has become a rallying cry from President Obama to GOP presidential aspirant Jeb Bush. Reviving opportunity for all resonates with Americans who feel left out as growth picks up and the market hits record highs.

“Employers seem to think that they can push unions, the roots of the American-working class, off a cliff,” said Dave Campbell, whose local represents oil-terminal workers at the Port of Long Beach. “Well, these corporations have made a significant miscalculation in our ability to fight back. There’s a lot of labor strife now, and they could have a major confrontation on their hands.”

Mr. Campbell’s combative rhetoric evokes an era when unions had the clout to win significant lifestyle upgrades for their members. Wielding the threat of strikes and work slowdowns, organized labor helped generations join the middle class and stay there.

In recent years, however, globalization and weak economic growth have hollowed out union power. In 1979, 21 million American workers belonged to a union. By last year, 14.6 million did. In the 1980s, major strikes averaged 75 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Last year, there were 11.

Harley Shaiken, a labor professor at the University of California at Berkeley, has watched the ebbing of union power and wondered if walkouts were an endangered species. The surge of labor unrest has caught his attention. Mr. Shaiken said the main catalyst is inequality.

A 2011 study linked the decline in union membership since 1973 and expanding wage disparity. The trends have continued, said Bruce Western, a sociology professor at Harvard University who co-wrote the study.

Union workers say they took a hit on wages and benefits after the financial crisis to help keep companies and the economy afloat and expect to be rewarded for their sacrifice.

“You don’t want to be the senior partner in failure and the junior partner in success,” said Gary Chaison, a professor of labor relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.

Since 2009, management compensation has grown about 50 percent faster than union workers’ income. In the auto industry, real wages have fallen 24 percent since 2003, according to the Center for Automotive Research.

The United Steelworkers are striking 11 plants nationwide, including the BP-Husky facility in Oregon, near Toledo.

Jim Savage, the USW local leader at an oil refinery in Philadelphia, hasn’t walked out yet. But he’s ready.

“People are nervous,” he said. “We picked a fight with the wealthiest, most powerful people in the history of the world. So we’re either very courageous, or the stupidest people walking.”

It’s the oil workers’ biggest strike since 1980. Leaders say it isn’t about pay. While incomes for many Americans have stagnated or fallen, refinery workers’ pay has kept pace with inflation in the last decade, staying about $62,000 a year in current dollars, plus health-care and retirement benefits.

The Steelworkers say it’s about safety. Not enough people are working in the plants, they say, and firms work around industry standards to keep employees on the job more days in a row than they can handle.

The Steelworkers also are upset by the number of maintenance jobs that have been contracted out, coming in for temporary jobs rather than staying the year-round. Though those workers are often union too, the Steelworkers say outsiders aren’t equipped to do the best job.

In Detroit, Dennis Williams, the United Autoworkers’ new president, has made getting his members a raise a top priority in contract talks this summer with General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co., and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.

He’s not above rattling the strike saber. During the last contract talks in 2011, the UAW gave up that right at GM and Chrysler to help automakers recover from their bankruptcies. Now, that power has been restored. This four-year auto contract expires Sept. 15.

The Detroit Three prefer to reward workers with profit-sharing checks that can shrink or disappear in tough times. Autoworkers have received record profit sharing for the last five years.

But automakers may have to boost wages, said Art Schwartz, a former GM labor negotiator who now runs Labor & Economics Associates, a consulting firm in Ann Arbor. And if the UAW wins traditional wage increases, “that will embolden other unions to try and get more,” he said.

The Pacific Maritime Association, which represents port employers, says dock workers make $147,000 a year. Craig Merrilees, a longshore union spokesman, calls the calculation “demonstrably false.” Workers earn about $80,000 a year and can reach the higher wage only by working maximum overtime.

“Workers are seeing the high pay chipped away, and they’re concerned about outsourcing,” said Mr. Shaiken, the Berkeley professor. “It’s not that they’re lower paid, but they gave up a lot to get there. That’s why you’ve got this collision.”

The Washington Post contributed to this report.

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