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Sticking With the Unions

12:00 AM, Sep 21, 2013 • By IRWIN M. STELZER
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One result was a wave of protests this summer by non-union workers in fast-food shops. Their demand: an increase in the minimum wage from the level prevailing in most states--$7.25 per hour–to $15. Their argument: Fast-food shops are no longer staffed by teenagers looking for pocket money with which to buy the next video game, but in half the cases by workers over the age of 23, and in one-third of the cases by workers with the responsibility of supporting at least one child. The protestors received generous support from the Service Employees International Union.

Trumka is also forging alliances with “workers centers", organizations exempt from various legal restrictions on union picketing and from financial reporting requirements by a quirky law that allows them to make non-negotiable demands on employers, but prohibits them from bargaining on behalf of their members. A representative of one such non-union center, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, has been elected to the AFL-CIO executive council, a first.

But it is the UAW’s Bob King who might be on the verge of the biggest win for private-sector unions in decades: the first-ever organization of a foreign-owned auto plant in the South, a region largely free of unions. Most southern states have laws that allow workers to refuse to pay union dues, have prevailing wage rates of $12-$16 per hour (compared with about twice that in northern plants), and have attracted factories and tens of thousands of jobs from almost every foreign car maker.

King plans to narrow the North-South wage divide. He claims more than half of VW workers have expressed a desire to join the UAW, but public expressions to tough union organizers don’t always translate into secret pro-union ballots, so King is not pushing for a union-recognition election, at least not yet. Instead, he is counting on a combination of German law that requires big companies to have work councils, and U.S. law that requires companies with such councils to have its workers represented by a union. He hopes to persuade VW, “a great company… to sit down [with him] and talk about what’s the best path”.

Whether these developments are harbingers of a union revival is far from certain. Equally uncertain is whether the winners would be union treasuries, job-seeking workers, or both.

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