Friday, May 25, 2007

Sort of helps our image?

The LA Times reported earlier this week on gang members entering the building trades to gain a secure economic future. It's a fairly run-of-the-mill human interest story, as they go, but a great primer for anyone trying to understand how some unions allowed their industry power to evaporate, and how they've responded.

There's some important subtext here as well. On the positive side, the story offers excellent evidence of how the fight to win and maintain high labor standards isn't about greed -- it's about opportunity, and those opportunities can create real change in peoples' lives. I wish the story had been a little more upfront about the fact that the non-union contractors who were eating up the jobs were also paying low wages with no benefits & protections. So the building trades' efforts to regain some of that share of the workforce, while perhaps motivated by self-interest, does drive the standard up and make the jobs available to gang members and undocumented workers good ones...which in turn can help strengthen and stabilize communities.

On the negative side, the article glosses over the fact that non-union contractors and the existence of a poor, available workforce were not shocking surprises to the building trades or anyone associated with the LA construction industry. The switch from 80% union density to 20% was not some magical, overnight occurrence impossible to predict or combat. It happened because the building trades were unable or unwilling to organize the workforce and the employers that flooded the industry. The article suggests that racial issues and insularity may have played a part, but I think complacency is probably more to blame than anything else. What's remarkable is the degree to which some unions will tolerate having their industry power and density stripped from them, as long as what's left of their piece of the pie still feeds their existing membership fairly well. When they get down to around 20% density (or perhaps much sooner) they start to see a real erosion of standards and loss of guaranteed security for their own membership.

If you're paying monthly dues to an organization and have authorized it as your exclusive bargaining agent, you'd hope for a little more foresight. I'm happy to say that this erosion hasn't taken place to the same degree in every sector -- due to a combination of circumstance, foresight, and outright resistance. Others have responded aggressively and are making small gains. But you'd be hard-pressed to find a union that hasn't struggled with density problems in some form.

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