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posted: 3/2/2014 6:47 AM

Shift in unions raises questions about future

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The Star Press

MUNCIE, Ind. -- Once a mighty labor union town, Muncie now has more police officers and office workers in organized labor than welders and auto workers.

With the closing of Muncie's last two big auto industry plants -- and union strongholds -- now several years back in the rear view mirror, can Muncie ever recover its footing as a labor-friendly town?

And should it?

New figures released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that union membership is half what it was a generation ago. And much of the modern-day organized labor force can be found in government jobs and not in the private sector.

Mike Jones, a former official for United Auto Workers Local 499 -- which represented workers at Chevrolet and its successors -- said a lot has been lost locally with the loss of unions.

"With labor unions, workers have the right to earn a higher wage rate and a better benefits package," Jones told The Star Press ( ). "As a result, the workers would spend more available money than the current workforce has to dispose of. That keeps restaurants open and retail outlets open and cars selling and the whole nine yards.

"When higher-paying jobs are present, it raises the local economy," Jones added. "A rising tide lifts all boats."

But Michael Hicks, a Ball State University economist, said that while organizations representing the interests of workers in the workplace are a good thing, the "one size fits all" approach of labor unions was counter-productive.

"Private sector labor unions have been failing at a remarkable rate," Hicks said. "At a time when manufacturing employment is strong or stabilized, their membership is plummeting."

Union membership in 2013 was about 11.3 percent of the U.S. workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That's unchanged since 2012. So is the number of workers who belong to unions: 14.5 million.

But union membership is much smaller than it once was. In 1983, when the government began keeping track, union membership was 20.1 percent of the workforce and 17.7 million people were union workers.

The flip-flop in who's part of a union is dramatic. Public-sector workers, like those in government jobs, had a union membership rate of 35 percent compared to 6.7 percent for private-sector workers.

The modern-day union battleground has been playing out in two cities in Tennessee.

In Memphis, workers at a Kellogg plant where Frosted Flakes and Froot Loops are made have been locked out for months pending ratification of a new collective bargaining agreement. Kellogg says labor -- at $28 an hour, and workers don't have to pay for their own health insurance -- is too expensive and wants to expand its hiring of non-union workers who would make $6 less an hour, according to the New York Times. Workers fear their employer is trying to oust them and replace them with cheaper labor.

While the Memphis lock-out has been low-profile, the recent failure of workers at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga to vote in sufficient numbers to join the United Auto Workers was seen, by some, as a huge loss for labor. After all, the company itself had been agreeable to the labor organizing attempt. But virtually on the eve of the vote, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker said publicly that if workers voted no, VW would expand operations at the plant. (VW denied that.)

The end result? Workers voted 712 to 626 against joining the union.

The long history of large-scale organized labor in Muncie culminated in two years: 2006, when the doors closed for the last time at what had, for decades, been the local Chevrolet plant, and 2009, when auto parts supplier BorgWarner Automotive was closed by the company, two years after United Auto Workers members declined to renegotiate their contract and make concessions years early.

With giant auto plants employing thousands of workers gone from the Muncie scene, local union membership these days includes workers who are seeded throughout the community on a variety of construction projects. These laborers include carpenters, plumbers and steamfitters and electricians.

As for concentrations of organized labor, you won't find many in the remaining local manufacturers. Instead, you'll find them among educational institutions, local public safety forces and highway departments.

Hicks said that while it's important for workers to have a voice in working conditions, organized labor's efforts to take on national issues hurt its standing with the public.

"At the end of the day, that's where the problem is," Hicks said. "You would want to see a voice representing workers because management is representing shareholders. But the same people who represent workers at a Detroit General Motors factory probably aren't going to work the same type of model in a factory producing carpet in Georgia. It's different issues and a different scale."

Jones believes that unions have not outlived their usefulness.

"When I was hired in my first job, my goal was to have a home and family and car and live the American dream," he said. "I would challenge people to go out, even with a college degree, to go and find a job today where the wife can stay home and raise family if she chooses to, the home is warm and the kids are well-clothed and fed. Those jobs are few and far between without unions."


Information from: The Star Press,

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