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William Brennan Institute for Labor Studies


Published by Omaha World Herald, Friday, January 17, 2012

Midlands Voices:

Unions level the playing field for workers

By Ken E. Mass

The writer is president/secretary-treasurer of the Nebraska State AFL-CIO.

There is too little in the news about the reasons why unions exist and what they do to increase levels of fairness and justice in the workplace. The stories that appear are generally about conflict, and they usually portray organized labor as the problem.

Indeed, most Nebraskans do not know that labor unions, in the private and public sectors, establish a level of workplace democracy over and above any found in an at-will employment relationship.

Even with the news coverage concerning the Legislature's changes to public sector labor law last session, most Nebraskans know little about public sector collective bargaining and the role the Commission of Industrial Relations (CIR) plays in ensuring fair, reasonable, comparable and equitable contract settlements after labor and management deadlock in negotiations.

In that light, I was happy to read a Jan. 4 news story and Jan. 9 editorial describing the challenges facing the City of Omaha in coming to a fair and equitable contract with the union representing the city's professional firefighters. I found myself agreeing when I read there is a need for serious, reasonable, good-faith negotiations between the union and City Council.

A serious problem arose when members of the City Council in August essentially rejected a contract already containing some important union concessions. The council was updated 17 times during the 150 negotiating sessions it took to iron out the proposed contract.

Anyone on the council who understood labor relations should have known that such a rejection, as well as the substitute of the City Council's negotiator for the City of Omaha's negotiator, would lead to starting contract negotiations over again from step one. The additional delay, together with the possibility of deadlock and taking the case before the Commission of Industrial Relations, seems shortsighted.

In fact, according to testimony given before the City Council this summer, rejection of the contract would prove more costly in the long run than acceptance of the tentative agreement that had been worked out.

As a result of the rejection, the union felt strongly enough to charge members of the City Council with bad-faith bargaining. The Jan. 3 decision by the CIR said that while it was a close call, the union did not have enough facts to prove its case.

The decision went on to say that, after reviewing the facts, the CIR agrees with the union that the "City shows a long-term pattern of hard bargaining and unilateral decision-making, which is, to say the least, not conducive to creating an atmosphere in which a negotiated agreement could be reached."

We just celebrated the national holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He spent his lifetime advocating for increased levels of fairness and justice in the workplace and community. Dr. King knew labor unions played the lead in humanizing the employment relationship.

Organized labor also led the push to establish laws creating employee rights and workplace protections that benefit both union and non-union employees. In the labor market, union contracts become the benchmark, and they have "spillover" and "trickle-up" effects that improve wages and fringe benefits of non-represented employees in the economy. In fact, U.S. courts have determined that having a meaningful say over wages, fringe benefits and working conditions serves the public good.

Dr. King was in Memphis helping public sector employees form a union and collectively bargain a contract when he was assassinated. Seven years before his death, Dr. King knew that winning civil rights without economic rights was a hollow victory. He wrote, "History is a great teacher. Now everyone knows that the labor movement did not diminish the strength of the nation but enlarged it. By raising the living standards of millions, labor miraculously created a market for industry and lifted the whole nation to undreamed-of levels of production. Those who attack labor forget these simple truths, but history remembers them."

Let's remember those prophetic words, and let them guide our understanding of what unions have done to benefit this city, state and nation.