Some facts about Rochester workers this Labor Day from my story that aired today on 13WHAM:
In 1997, 19 percent of Rochester workers were in a union, including 12 percent of the private workforce. In 2011, 13 percent of local workers were in a union. Only 3 percent of private sector workers were unionized. The figures come from unionstats.com.
The entire Rochester workforce has struggled since the recession hit. Unemployment is above 8 percent. Wages have fallen about 7 percent since 2008, with the average worker bringing home $53 less a week. Weekly wages might be creeping up, as the Bureau of Labor Statistics report they went up .7 percent between July 2011 and July 2012.
Fifteen percent of Monroe County residents live in poverty, according to the census, up four percentage points since 2000. Median household income here neared $50,000 in 2010, but if it had kept pace with inflation, it would be closer to $58,000 or $59,000.
Meantime, the gap between the rich and poor is growing. The majority of newly-created jobs are low wage. Is the decline of labor unions partly to blame and could income inequality revive the labor movement?
Maybe not. Americans are increasingly skeptical of unions’ ability to help them. A poll showed unions have a 52 percent approval rate. Many are resentful of what they see as perks afforded to union workers, especially those who work in the public sector. The Times-Herald Record reports:
Union members who’ve heard complaints like these say the criticism is not only unjustified, but also offensive. They say unions are blamed for problems they didn’t cause.
“This was an economic crisis caused by greed, and people who didn’t cause it are being blamed for it, and that’s not fair,” says Paul Ellis-Graham, president of the 100,000-member Hudson Valley Area Labor Federation and a Monroe-Woodbury High School teacher who’s on the state board of the New York State Union of Teachers.
“The issue isn’t that public workers don’t deserve pensions,” Ellis-Graham says, “it’s that everyone deserves a decent wage, a decent retirement, decent access to health care.”
As for why unions are losing ground, Gannett reports:
“The resistance to private sector unionization is much sharper and has been for several decades,” said Lee Adler, faculty member at Cornell University’s Industrial Labor Relations School. “Part is based on employers’ imagined need to increase their profitability and part has to do with a tremendous growth in law firms and consultants that specialize in breaking private unions.”
The third issue, Adler says, is the enforcement mechanisms of National Labor Relations Board are “inadequate to address the illegal violations directed at the private sector.”
“If it turns out the employer doesn’t follow the National Labor Relations Act, it might take a year to reach that conclusion,” Adler said. “With no expedited resolution of critical issues when employers violate the law, workers then worry if they try to organize they will get fired.”
Many labor leaders talk about the “social contract” companies used to have with workers to pay them a living wage. The Kodak of decades past is remembered as a company that took care of its workers for life. Those days are over.
Should they be?