LIBN: Unions thrive on Long Island

by Gregory Zeller, Long Island Business News
Published: February 15, 2013

The percentage of American workers belonging to organized labor unions is at its lowest level since the 1930s – just don’t mention it to Long Island labor leaders.

As national membership averages continue their decades-long decline, New York unions, including Island-based collective bargaining units, remain robust. The Long Island Federation of Labor, an affiliation of 32 local unions, claims over 250,000 members – it’s largest-ever roster – and while some individual Island unions have recorded dips, most are holding steady.

That’s in stark contrast to national trends, as states like Wisconsin and Michigan adopt “right-to-work” laws or otherwise seek to weaken the collective bargaining unit. Thanks to belt-tightening by cash-strapped government entities and substantial private-sector declines, national union membership hasn’t been so low since the Great Depression.

Union membership was 13.2 percent when FDR signed the National Labor Relations Act in 1935. Membership peaked in the 1950s, when roughly one in three workers was unionized, but by 1983 only about 20 percent of U.S. workers paid union dues.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, membership has been nose-diving ever since. The bureau reported in January that only 11.3 percent of salaried U.S. workers belonged to labor unions, down from 11.8 percent the year prior and well below that Depression Era baseline.

New York, however, has the highest union-membership rate in the land, according to the labor office, at 23.2 percent. That doesn’t surprise Jim Castellane, head of the Nassau-Suffolk Building Trades Council and a member of the LI Federation of Labor’s Executive Committee, who thinks those national statistics “mean absolutely zero.”

“They’re talking about Missouri, the woods of Alabama, down in Texas where President Bush lives, and we know how much he loves unions,” Castellane said. “They’re not talking about union-saturated areas.” That includes Long Island, he added, which has organized labor “in every trade” and remains a collective-bargaining bulwark. The Island labor boss, who has announced plans to retire in June, is also not shocked that more sparsely populated regions have seen union-membership declines. In areas that “don’t have the population we do, it becomes a lot harder to organize,” Castellane said. It’s also no coincidence, he added, that the quality of living is generally higher in these union strongholds. “When you drive through the woods of Alabama, does it look like it looks here, with the beautiful houses and fancy high-rises?” he asked. “Do you think the union density we have in better-class areas like Long Island is a coincidence?”

Organizational challenges
Not every Island-based union has been able to grow like the LI Federation of Labor. Jim Brown, assistant business manager of Hauppauge-based Local 1049 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, said his membership levels have remained steady over the last few years but are down significantly from when he joined the local 23 years ago. Local 1049 – which represents National Grid utility workers, LIPA line workers and other “outside craft groups,” such as Asplundh Tree Expert Co. employees – boasted over 5,000 members when Brown signed on in 1990. This week, he reported about 3,300 members. Brown cited several reasons for the decline. For example, “how we put gas mains in the ground is different from how we did it 23 years ago. And there’s been a major paperwork reduction, so there’s a definite impact there.”

Making sure membership levels don’t drop lower has become Job One for many locals. George Bloom, president of Communications Workers of America Local 1104, said his Farmingdale-based union started confronting declining memberships over a decade ago. “We saw that technology was taking over the telephone industry, so to stay in business we merged with two other locals,” Bloom said. “We’ve basically been in an organization drive for the last 10 years.

Because of its extreme diversity – Local 1104 represents Stony Brook University research assistants, North Babylon public librarians and employees at about 20 New York telephone companies, among others – Bloom’s union has faced myriad anti-labor challenges. Government agencies, long counted as union feeders, have offered “enhanced pensions to get people off the payroll,” Bloom said, while Verizon’s 2010 layoff of 330 New York employees also put a dent in Local 1104’s membership. But the local, which peaked at about 9,800 members, still has over 9,000 members, according to Bloom, who also sits on the LI Federation of Labor’s Executive Committee. “We’ve stuck together out there,” he said. “We’re still fighting to make sure our members are employed and earning a decent wage.”
Strength in numbers
Make no mistake, unionized workers earn decent wages – more, at least, than their unaffiliated coworkers, according to the labor bureau. In 2012, full-time hourly and salaried union workers had “median usual weekly earnings” of $943, compared to $742 for nonunionized workers. Whatever the statistics say about declining memberships, that pay disparity should confirm collective bargaining’s continuing clout, according to Castellane. “We fight industry constantly to protect wages,” Castellane said. “We fight to protect benefits. The rat’s not out there doing nothing.”