The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

January 27, 2013

State of the unions

Despite government figures, some say picture not so 'bleak'

By Rebecca Croomes

— Government figures from Wednesday showed the percentage of the national workforce participating in labor unions is at 11.3 percent, its lowest level in 76 years.

But Chuck McDonald of Tanner begs to differ.

“We’re not bleeding as bad as they want us to.”

McDonald, who started working for General Motors in 1965 and began working at Delphi in 1979, is chairman of the United Auto Workers retirees’ union near the old Delphi plant in southern Limestone. The UAW Local 2195 may be defunct, but McDonald said he still meets with some 1,500 members give or take. Some were here when Delphi closed its doors in 2009; others are GM retirees who have relocated to this area.

“We’ve got a large contingency,” McDonald said.

With Republican-lead governments passing union-busting legislation across states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio, laborers have been joining political discussions to ask about their future.

According to Reuters, the drop in union memberships comes from industry-heavy states that have passed “right to work” bills that prohibit organized labor organizations from forcing people to pay dues and other kinds of restrictions.

McDonald did admit things have been better for the workforce, but he said the current statistics are misleading.

The issues with industries, he said, are not the unions, but technology and automation. When workers have their jobs replaced by machines, the figures change. Since there are fewer jobs in the country’s main industrial areas like coal, steel and automotive manufacturing, there are fewer people to join a labor group.

“There’s still a large number of union members in the U.S.,” said McDonald. “It’s not as bleak of a picture that they’re trying to paint.”

For lobbying groups like the Alabama Education Association, the problem is more serious.

AEA District 5 Director, Donna McDaniel, who teaches at Julian Newman Elementary School, said the problem in her industry isn’t technology, but politics.

“When the state loses teachers, we lose members,” said McDaniel. “The AEA is still in the 100,000 range of members. We lost around 10 (thousand) to 12 thousand over the last five years due to proration cuts.”

In ongoing budget battles in Montgomery, McDaniel said teachers are drawing the short straw.

“We do lobby for benefits and salary because our state is set up that way,” she said. “Every dime that is spent (on) education in our state is voted on by our legislature. We do not even get a cost of living raise unless they vote on it. Right now we are going on six years without a cost of living raise even though our salaries have been reduced by five-and-a-half percent because of increases in what we pay for health benefits and retirement.”

Lobbying is a hard feat to accomplish when the deck is stacked against organized labor in the public eye; especially, McDaniel said, when people who have no clue what it’s like to do her job call out the AEA in Montgomery.

“I have come to the place where I pray a lot for elected officials,” McDaniel said. “I know what I do is important.”

The future looks murky for people like McDonald and McDaniel, but they plan to hold their ground.

“I am passionate about education, children, and teaching,” McDaniel said. “And this is just the tip of the iceberg about what I have to say.”