Sunday, September 20, 2009

Workers' fears hinder unions

Workers' shifts were changed willy-nilly. Promised raises never came through. Bosses weren't even letting employees get a drink of water during the workday.
Those were complaints from some of the workers at the American Red Cross who recently asked a local labor union to represent them.

When the election was held earlier this month, though, the union lost in a close vote.

It's not the first time a union has tried to organize blood collection workers in Nashville. This time, though, the weakened economy may have played a part in the organizing effort's defeat, said John Ledwell, membership development coordinator with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 429.

Union activity has slowed down in Middle Tennessee, despite forecasts that workers' fears about layoffs and corporate cost-cutting might actually rejuvenate organized labor. Labor experts say the opposite may be true with workers unwilling to rock the corporate boat when jobs are scarce.

So far this year, local unions have filed just four petitions with the National Labor Relations Board to organize workers in the Middle Tennessee area for collective bargaining.

By this time in 2008, some 19 petitions already had been filed. In collective bargaining, unions negotiate contracts with employers to set wages, hours and other employment conditions.

Furthermore, union membership is shrinking with thousands of union jobs in Tennessee disappearing as factories shut down, said Jack Irby, AFL-CIO labor coordinator for Middle Tennessee.

Already in 2009, nearly 4,000 union jobs have vanished due to plant closures and layoffs, according to an AFL-CIO analysis. The number of workers represented by unions overall has dropped in recent years to about 175,000 statewide, Irby said. The United Steelworkers lost some 800 members at Bridgestone Firestone Inc., for example, as some work has moved overseas since December. The United Auto Workers will lose 140 union jobs at Cummins Filtration in Cookeville, Tenn., as announced layoffs occur in the next few months.

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