Bill Grant Column October 21, 2008

Amendment 47 would weaken unions that workers need desperately now

When the Wall Street bailout was in process, politicians flocked to the media to voice their support for propping up banking and financial institutions with public funds.

When a thousand union workers marched on Wall Street to protest a bailout that included no extension of unemployment benefits or other relief for working Americans, no politicians showed up to address the crowd.

This could not have happened during the 1950s, when American union membership was at its apex.

Blue-collar workers emerged as the newly affluent middle class. The power of unions made workers a powerful political force.

In recent years, especially after President Reagan busted the air traffic controllers’ union in 1981, union membership generally has been in decline. Thanks to successful corporate and government efforts to weaken unions, membership as a percentage of the work force today is less than it was in 1932.

In 2007, Colorado union membership followed a national trend slightly upward, though state union membership at 8.7 percent of the workforce was still below the 1990 high of 10.5 percent of wage earners. Amendment 47 is an attempt to reverse this trend by undermining financial support for unions.

No phrase sounds more fundamentally American than the “right to work.” If, indeed, the right to hold a job was at the heart of Amendment 47, it would be hard to argue against it. But this amendment is not about jobs; it is about wages.

Amendment 47 would not require anyone to join a union. In Colorado, if a labor organization has signed a binding contract with an employer, all covered workers are required to pay the percentage of union dues that support negotiations of working conditions such as insurance, pensions and wages.

Non-union employees’ dues cannot be assessed for political, social or charitable union activities against their wishes.

Amendment 47 would remove the dues requirement from these non-union workers, though they would continue to benefit from union negotiations. This disparity would create needless tension in the workplace, while undermining effective union negotiations. Unions already in place would lose significant financial support, while it would become more difficult to negotiate new union contracts.

The effect would be to drive down wages and weaken union rules for health, safety and other working conditions.

Economically, both union and non-union workers are better off in non-right-to-work states. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2002 workers in the 28 states with “right to work” laws earned about $5,333 less than those in states without such anti-labor legislation. Minority and women workers in particular benefit from union protections, with union-covered Hispanic workers earning 45 percent more while both African-American and female workers earned 30 percent higher wages than their non-union counterparts.

Passing Amendment 47 would threaten not just wages, but other protections such as medical benefits, paid overtime, workplace safety and annual vacation that were secured by unions. Workers who directly benefit from union activities should pay their fair share for the benefits they gain.

But the bigger lesson of the bailout should not be lost on Colorado workers and voters. The priorities of Congress are in direct proportion to the power of “special interests.”

While speed was of the essence for bailing out Wall Street, any relief for Americans will come only sometime in the next administration, with all the due deliberation of the democratic process.

When bankers and industrialists form associations to further their individual and collective interests, they are called corporations. When working men and women form associations for the same purpose, they are called unions.

Now, just when Colorado workers most need to be heard by their congressional representatives, is no time to weaken the unions that represent them in Washington. Vote “No” on Amendment 47.

E-mail Bill Grant at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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