Labor’s pain

Last week’s overwhelming vote against unionization at the Vallourec Star pipe mill may have come as a surprise to some in the traditionally blue collar, Democratic Mahoning Valley, but the result doesn’t necessarily buck the trend reflected in freshly released labor statistics.

Union membership has been trending downward consistently since 1983, the earliest year when comparable union data was tracked, but 2013 data released Friday show, for the first time since 2008, the percentage of unionized American workers – 11.3 percent – did not drop.

Union membership in Ohio last year also remained on par with 2012 – 12.6 percent of all Ohio workers are unionized.

Despite last week’s 2-1 vote against unionizing at Vallourec Star, local union leaders and labor experts are quick to point out the Mahoning Valley and Ohio still remain among the highest union strongholds in the nation. In fact, since at least 1989 Ohio has consistently topped the national average in union membership.

Glenn Johnson, president of United Auto Workers Local 1112, which represents about 3,200 workers at the General Motors Assembly Plant in Lordstown, said the Democratic strength of the Mahoning Valley and a few other pockets of the state correlate with the union’s density.

“In that sense, I would say, yes, union density is still alive and well in the Mahoning Valley,” Johnson said.

Still, the percentage of American workers who are union members has trended downward since 1983 when more than 20 percent of all workers were members of a labor union. Likewise, the portion of unionized workers in Ohio has declined since it was 21.3 percent in 1989, the earliest Ohio statistics readily available.

Johnson attributes much of the ongoing decline in union membership numbers to anti-union campaigns run by companies and from the push by those with political agendas opposing Democratic union views.

Karen Hardin, international representative for the United Electrical Workers Union the union attempting to represent workers at Vallourec Star attributed the declining number of union membership to repeated attacks by corporations and government.

But Vallourec Star lab technician Chuck Lepowsky, who lobbied in favor of last week’s union vote, said he believes union ideology is alive and well.

“Over the past, this whole Valley has been predominantly union, and there’s still this feeling of solidarity,” said Lepowsky of Boardman. “I am a complete believer in unions because they provide a better lifestyle. Government has allowed too many jobs to leave our country. I seriously believe we need to fight back against that. We have got too many people out of work.

“There has to be some effort to create solidarity in the work place,” he said.

Local labor and industry expert John Russo attributed Vallourec Star’s 2-1 rejection of unionization during a three-day election last week to the current comfort level of workers, and not necessarily to the decline of a desire for union solidarity. In fact, it may be just the opposite.

“My sense is that the wages and benefits are pretty good, and given the current climate, workers may be satisfied with their current wages and benefit structure,” said Russo, former Labor Studies professor at Youngstown State University. He was quick to point out, however, that without other unions in the area to raise the level of local wages and benefits, non-union companies may be likely to drop their wages.

“The unions provide a floor for wages,” Russo said. “What companies do is they watch to see what the union facilities are paying and they try to keep their wages and benefits close to that. Workers may not see an attractiveness of joining the union if the company is paying close to union wages already.”

Friday’s release of 2013 labor information indicates that, on average, unionized American workers in private industry earn $153 per week more than non-union workers. In the public sector, unionized American workers are paid $160 per week more than their counterparts who are not union members. That comparison does not hold true, however, for white-collar or professional workers. In that case, non-union workers earned, on average, $14 more per week than their counterparts in a labor union.

“The union movement has constantly set the bar for maintaining a level of pay structure,” Johnson said. “Every time there is a threat of unionization, all of a sudden these companies come up with bettter pay for their people and better benefits.”

That is not an issue between the UAW and Detroit automakers, Johnson said.

“The people in the Big 3, they understand the relationship and value the union’s input into things,” he said.