February 22, 2013

Check out any media story about American labor unions and you’ll find stories of gloom and doom.

Only about 11.4 per cent of all U.S. workers are protected by membership in a labor union today, and among private-sector employees the number is less than 7 per cent—the lowest since the great organizing drives began during the Depression and a massive slump from the peak of 34 per cent in 1954.

But that’s already starting to change, according to UTU Asst. State Legislative Dir. Joseph Ciemny.

“The labor movement has recognized the reality of the situation and has started to acknowledge that it’s actually an opportunity,” said Ciemny, of UTU Local #1534 representing workers at CSX Corp.’s Barr Yard in Riverdale.

Ciemny made his observation after attending a February 8 meeting of the Chicago Federation of Labor’s Cook County Cooperative Organizing Committee (CCCOC). The CCCOC meets quarterly to develop strategies for building union membership in the CFL area.

“The committee took no action at the most recent meeting, but we had a wide-open round-table survey of non-union shops in the Chicago area that would make good candidates for organizing,” Ciemny said.

Tops among those candidates were school-bus fleets.

“You’d be amazed how few of them are organized,” he said. “There are dozens of companies operating school buses, and the drivers are not paid well.”

Ciemny said retail-industry employees also are beginning to recognize the need to bargain collectively with their employers for better wages and benefits.

“Costco warehouse workers are in the final phase of organizing in the Chicago area,” he said. “By May they should be signing Teamsters Union cards at their warehouses in Bedford Park, Bloomingdale, Hoffman Estates, Orland Park, Oak Brook and Naperville.”

Ciemny said CCCOC also is planning to target other big-box retailers, including Target and Wal Mart, and that after the warehouse workers are organized the drive will target employees in the retail outlets.

Ciemny said that because the Class I railroad industry has been unionized for over a century, “the idea of organizing non-unionized workers was sort of new to me.” He said he had never thought much about organizing until UTU Illinois Legislative Director Robert W. Guy appointed him to the CCCOC.

Since then he’s started taking a harder look at the non-unionized part of the industry—the short lines.

“I’ve targeted the Kankakee, Beaverville & Southern,” he said. “They’ve got about 50 employees.” Ciemny said early estimates suggest a strong chance employees at KB&S will choose to join the union, so he plans to reach out to UTU International Organizer Rich Ross for help in setting up an election..

Ciemny said the CCCOC meeting showed him the biggest challenge to organizing is the negative impression of unions propagated by the media.

“The portrayal of unions is just—down,” he said. “The only union stories you see in the media tend to be about corruption, or about the shrinkage in union membership.”

What the media continually neglect to point out, he said, is the glaring difference between earnings and benefits of union members compared with non-unionized workers.

“You look at the 22 right-to-work states—not including Indiana, which just voted for right to work, but the 22 states that already had it—and you see that workers in those 22 states are at the bottom of the national income scale,” Ciemny said. “‘Right to work’ means the right to work for less.”

Ciemny said he’s looking forward to going out with Ross and doing more organizing, and he’s glad the UTU rejoined the CFL and gained access to its organizing skills.

“A lot of people are glad to see us back again,” he said.