Archive for Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Union schism may seep into town

July 27, 2005

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The effects of a bombastic schism driven this week between stalwarts in organized labor soon could trickle into Lawrence, cutting into efforts on both sides to support workers, a labor leader said Tuesday.

Robert Vodicka, who has helped negotiate contracts and organize graduate teaching assistants at Kansas University and three other campuses, said that the AFL-CIO's loss of two of the nation's largest unions could lead to financial and membership losses at the local level.

"Anytime there's infighting within the labor movement, it hurts everyone within the labor movement," said Vodicka, who has been active in the Graduate Teaching Assistants Coalition at KU, which represents about 900 GTAs in negotiating wages, contracts and work rules. "If there is some national weakening of the labor movement, then we would feel that."

Much of the anticipated pain would be indirect, Vodicka said.

Because the GTAs' union is affiliated, through larger organizations, with the AFL-CIO, GTAs in Lawrence could end up seeing increases in their $16.30-a-month dues, he said. The national federation also may be unable to funnel as many resources back to local efforts, thus cutting into recruiting by reducing subsidies for rent, phone calls and other programs.

"If there's some budgetary tightening, we could experience some of that," he said.

But area representatives of the Teamsters - the union juggernaut that joined this week with the Service Employees International Union to take their 3.1 million members and $20 million in annual dues away from the AFL-CIO - said that rank-and-file employees would notice little, if any difference, in their daily work lives.

Retaining local ties

But national Teamsters leaders will focus their own efforts on boosting membership, instead of helping the AFL-CIO continue its traditional path of concentrating on the backing of political candidates, said Dan Johnson, a business agent for the Teamsters Local 41 in Kansas City, Mo. The local has 7,000 members, including dues-paying shop workers at Progress Vanguard in Lawrence.

"All of this is up on a national level," he said. "It has to do with the difference between politics and organizing. And in actual fact, (Teamsters President James) Hoffa has requested that we keep the same ties - as far as with the local AFL-CIO, the building trades, any of that - and just keep that as it is.

"If we belong to the local AFL-CIO group - which the Local 41 does, (to) the Central Labor Council here in Kansas City - he wants us to continue to belong to that and participate. It's just that we're not going to participate and pay any dues on the national level."

Membership in the Local 41 has declined from about 10,000 to about 7,000 during the past 20 years, even as the number of Teamsters organizations in the area has been consolidating, Johnson said.

Alan Hamblin, plant manager at Progress Vanguard, said that dues-paying membership at his plant has declined from about 80 percent of shop workers three years ago to about 50 percent today.

'Not affecting anything'

Hamblin is preparing to enter negotiations with the union on a new three-year contract, to replace the one that expires in September. He expects the national union split to mean little at the plant that assembles engines and wheels for railroad locomotives.

"It's not affecting anything at this facility," he said.

Teamsters also represent drivers of concrete trucks, operators of heavy equipment and general laborers at LRM Industries in Lawrence, where president Steve Glass is taking a wait-and-see attitude.

"I don't know that it's something I'm going to lose any sleep over," said Glass, who figures that about two-thirds of his 110 employees are represented by Teamsters unions. "Whether it changes anything on the national level, that's beyond my ability to speculate on."

Johnson, who has been a member of Teamsters Local 41 since going to work at UPS in 1973, said that Lawrence's union presence had sagged since the shuttering of the Farmland Industries fertilizer plant in May 2001. That closing left dozens of union members out of work, and their ranks have not been replenished.

"It's not a strong union town, as far as numbers," Johnson said. "If your companies are treating people correctly - providing a livable wage and decent benefits - that makes it difficult to organize. And, in some cases, it's not necessary to organize. If I can't go in and organize them and give them something that's beneficial, then I'm wasting my time."

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