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Is Collective Bargaining at Risk?

March 21, 2011
KEYWORDS business / management
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The resolution of the weeks-long standoff in a Wisconsin state-employee union contract “negotiation” has all union locals and contractors paying close attention throughout the country. All have been wondering what the ramifications will be for them.

We asked a sheet metal union executive and a unionized HVAC contractor a few questions to compare their points of view - with the hopes of finding that they are not so very far apart.

POSTURING

George “Butch” Welsch, of Welsch Heating & Cooling Co., St. Louis, said that a lot of the problems in Wisconsin were originally caused by the overuse of hard-line posturing, which is rather typical of contract negotiations.

“Nobody wants to seem to give in too easily,” he said. “It’s a fact of negotiation to look like they’re fighting tooth and nail.”

Regarding the actions there to remove collective bargaining, “I don’t see that ever happening [in this industry],” Welsch said. “That’s probably the most sacred thing the unions have.

“Where is the need to be together if there is no collective voice,” asked Patrick Landgraf, president and business manager of Sheet Metal Workers’ International Association (SMWIA) Local 18, Waukesha, Wis. He agreed that the union’s greatest strength is in its numbers.

FACING PROBLEMS

Unions and contractors are facing challenges that stem from the current economy and changing member demographics.

“We’ve got to get a control on welfare and pension costs,” said Welsch. (Among this contractor’s several hats, he is the cochair of pension and welfare committees for his local.) “People are living longer”; they are using their pensions, prescription coverage, and welfare benefits longer. “There are simply more retirees supported by fewer people.

“We have a great union,” he continued, “but we’re going to ask for things that they don’t want to hear,” and that is the nature of the bargaining process. When it’s time to negotiate, “let’s agree there is a problem and sit down.”

Wages, Welsch said, need to be similar to those in the nonunionized workforce. “The big difference can be in the benefits package,” which he said tends to favor unionized employees.

“We have had some members calling,” said Landgraf. “When it first started, they were wondering what the local was doing about it. We have had people on the ground at the Capitol most days.”

There has been concern among members, he said, regarding discussions of Right to Work legislation. He explained that this strips all closed-shop collective bargaining clauses. “With a stroke of a pen, it can all be gone.”

Belief in unions is “a philosophical thing,” he said. “You either believe in it or you don’t.” He called the reduced bargaining rights “a race to the bottom.

“We know we could be next in line,” Landgraf continued. “I’ve seen some areas wanting give backs.” In building trade unions, “we pay for our total benefits package,” he said. “It comes out of the negotiated wage. I pay 100 percent of my pension and health care. It makes it easier in a multi-employer scenario.”

“Here in St. Louis, we have had some discussion regarding the situation already as we are beginning negotiations on our contract,” said Welsch. It expires July 31, 2011. There also is a strong push in Missouri to pass right to work legislation. The unions, he said, see this as Big Government trying to reduce and/or eliminate the power of unions.

That’s an accurate assessment of the situation in Madison, Landgraf said. “This bill in its entirety is a union-busting tactic,” he said. “The national Congress introduced a bill stripping all funding to the National Labor Relations Board.

“We’re not giving up,” Landgraf said. “We’re gonna stick with these guys.”

“I think the unions have a place,” Welsch said. “The union is a good source of labor for us. In nonunion residential, it is hard to get good people.”

Publication date: 03/21/2011

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