Lancaster Sunday News

by Gail Rippey

September 2, 2001

Today’s labor unions are no longer your father’s image of collective bargaining.

“The purpose of unions today is not the same as when they started, to protect workers from the sweatshops,” said Ira Wolfe, owner of Success Performance Solutions, a business consulting firm that studies work force trends.

Lancaster labor relations, attorney Eric Athey said the federal government has taken up the role of workers’ rights, leaving labor unions without the traditional reasons to organize workers.

Money, especially, is no longer a major issue in the workplace as wages have increased.

Meanwhile, workers care more about long-term job security and most unions typically have little power to stop job cuts unless they want to align themselves with management.

“Federal workers’ rights have taken some thunder from the unions, particularly in industries where unions have been strong, such as those with unskilled workers,’ Athey said. “Federal protection legislation has made it a little more difficult to organize those low-skilled, low-paid people, because the government has kind of taken care of their problems.”

Most collective bargaining now, he said, is for job security, especially in states such as Pennsylvania, which has an employment-at-will doctrine that permits employers to fire workers for any cause, as long as it is not based on sex, race, age, religion or a disability.

“The just-cause clause is important now,” he said, explaining unions want employers to be required to have “a just reason” before they decide to fire someone.

Along with the federal protections and the changing needs of workers unions also face diminishing influence because of member apathy.

Armstrong World Industries Inc. retiree Donald Eves Sr., president of the Armstrong retirees club, and a member of Local 285 of the United Steelworkers of America, said many workers take what unions have given them for granted.

“Our father’s fathers fought brutally for unions,’ Eves said. “The things they fought for
are what the younger generation gets on a silver platter.

I’m very much disappointed by the decline in union activism.”

Eves said that needs to change, and quickly.