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William Brennan Institute for Labor Studies


Published by Omaha World Herald, Friday, December 30, 2011

Midlands Voices:

Unions Play Critical Role as Champions of Workers

By Chris Callihan

The writer, of Lincoln, is a business representative of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

David Chapin, in his Dec. 21 Midlands Voices essay, has a narrow understanding of the proper role of government and labor unions. He does not appear to understand the benefits that unionization has bestowed upon the nation by expanding democracy, humanizing the workplace and improving our national standard of living.

Surprisingly, conservative columnist George F. Will has a different take on organized labor than does Mr. Chapin. Will has said, "I think American labor unions get a large share of the credit for making us a middle-class country."

We believe government, at all levels, has a responsibility to protect and empower the public. Protecting the public does not end with the role of our military and police forces. Government has a moral responsibility to protect Americans from the intended and unintended excesses of businesses pushing to maximize profits.

In this area, government protection properly extends to include the oversight of food and drugs, the regulation of child labor, the establishment of a minimum wage and overtime, and the passage of laws that create a social safety net and establish workplace rights for employees.

Mr. Chapin advocates national legislation that would "turn back the clock" and "lower the bar" when it comes to U.S. employment law. We believe that unions introduce meaningful democracy into a place where employers, like the masters who preceded them, want to maintain absolute and unilateral control about everything.

In the construction trades, responsible union employers understand the reality that we all do better when we work together. Union contractors for the IBEW and the other building trades partner with the union to ensure that an apprenticeship program addresses the knowledge and skill levels required to compete in today's construction market. The partnership provides not only decent wages and fringe benefits but also high productivity, good-quality work and a professional attitude.

Consumer spending is the single largest component of our gross national product. Putting decent wages in the pocket of union workers puts more money into the economy. Because Mr. Chapin has to compete in the same labor market for employees, union wages indirectly improve the wages for his workers.

This spillover effect is well known by non-union employers but rarely appreciated by the public. In companies where only part of the work force is or- ganized, union wages also have a "trickle up" effect.

Increasing union compensation indirectly raises the pay package of the employer's non-represented employees as well. More money in wage-earners' pockets translates into an increased demand for goods and services and grows the economy.

The passage of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) protected employees and empowered them by establishing the right to workplace democracy.

In 1937, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the NLRA to be constitutional and organized labor to be a public good. The court understood the basic inequality at the core of the employer/employee relationship and the NLRA. But the law is 76 years old and is viewed by union avoidance attorneys, as Martin Levitt wrote in his book "Confessions of a Union Buster," as a greater help to employers than workers trying to unionize.

The legislation Mr. Chapin advocates would take the remaining teeth out of the NLRA and return labor/management relations back to the Gilded Age, when employers had the power to require workers to toil for 10 to 16 hours a day and six to seven days a week. We believe that is anti-democratic, anti-wage earner, anti-middle class and not good for the Main Streets of Nebraska.