Union members march in Milwaukee ahead of 14 months of courting from politicians
It's a big month for organized labor. Not just Labor Day this past Monday, but more events in the coming weeks.
Some union members say they're doing pretty well. But, a Wisconsin researcher who closely follows the labor movement has good news, and bad news, for unions.
Hundreds of union members gathered in downtown Milwaukee's Zeidler Union Square just prior to Monday's Laborfest parade, and one sound dominated. Ironworkers demonstrating an old-style system of attaching rivets to a metal girder.
Frank Prevort stood a few feet away. He's a foreman with Ironworkers Local 8, currently working on renovating a Case manufacturing plant in Racine. He says his next project will be at a Racine school.
Prevort says things are busy. "We're really busy right now. So, that's good," he said laughing."Sometimes you want a break, but as long as we're staying busy, we're doing pretty well."
Nearby, there was a group from Plumbers Local 75. A woman who gave her name as Gabriella says she does service and repair work in people's homes
"I'm active. I go to like maybe five calls a day. Monday-Friday. We're pretty steady," Gabriella says.
Gabriella says for her household, the economy is going well. She says her shop is mindful of inflation and tries to hold down prices so people can afford plumbing repairs.
The Teamsters Local 200 also had a significant presence at the Laborfest parade. Retired truck driver Ken Stribling is still active with the union and is happy that in 2021, Congress and President Joe Biden OK'd a $36 billion payment that provided security for more than 200 distressed multi-employer pension plans.
But Stribling mentions the recent shutdown of trucking giant Yellow Freight, also called YRC, that nationwide is costing thousands of Teamsters their jobs.
"The shock of what happened with YRC is still reverberating. That's got that stale feeling in the air. But we're going to be Od because we're Teamsters. We're going to survive. We always survive, and we'll get through this like we always have in the past," Stribling says.
Researcher Laura Dresser of the UW-Madison think tank Center On Wisconsin Strategy (COWS), says U.S. unions have both advantages and problems. Dresser says on the plus side, federal spending is starting to fund a lot of projects with union labor.
"Especially in infrastructure, and the climate bill — Inflation Reduction Act. You can see real commitment to structures that help support labor demand and skilled workers on jobs. Additionally, unions are really popular right now in public polling," Dresser says.
But Dresser says forming and joining a union is hard in some states, including Wisconsin, partly due to the Act 10 law Republicans passed more than a decade ago hobbling many public sector unions. The GOP claimed many things, including that employee benefits had grown too large.
A new report Dresser helped complete shows that over the last 12 years, the state's union decline is the worst in the Midwest, slipping from 14% of workers to 8%.
But as Laborfest showed, politicians continue to court the support of unions. Wisconsin U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D) pledged to keep trying to pass legislation known as the Protecting the Right to Organize or PRO Act.
"Because workers everywhere deserve the freedom and opportunity to organize a union in their workplace, and advocate for fair working environments," Baldwin says.
But with Republicans now controlling the House of Representatives, they may say "negative" to the PRO Act.
Dresser says between now and Election Day 2024, look for more attempts to gain union backing.
"Even as weak as they are, diminished from 40 years ago and before, they are the strongest organized site of a non-corporate view in the political economy. At the core of that is who represents workers, and there isn't a location better than labor for that," Dresser says.
Leading Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump made his own pitch to labor this week, claiming Biden's push for electric vehicles will harm the United Auto Workers.
Any steps Biden takes to avert a UAW strike in the next ten days may give Biden a boost or some criticism from organized labor.