New labor law pinches unions
By Karen Caffarini Post-Tribune correspondent September 1, 2012 7:15PM
Members and supporters of USW local 1010 stage a practice picket Monday August 27, 2012 at Arcelor Mittal in East Chicago. | Jeffrey D. Nicholls~Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 3, 2012 6:18AM
It’s only been about six months since Indiana legislators passed the so-called right-to-work bill and already its adverse effects are being felt at the union hall and negotiating table, according to union leaders and labor experts.
Tense negotiations under way between the United Steelworkers and ArcelorMittal, and one union’s new experience of having members opt out of paying dues are two examples of how the legislation is working to hurt unions, Thandabantu Iverson, lecturer and coordinator of the statewide Indiana University Labor Studies program, said.
The collection of union dues also was one of the sticking points that resulted in a six-week strike by the Merrillville-based United Union of Roofers, Waterproofers & Allied Workers Local 26 this summer. The strike was settled in early August.
“The climate at the bargaining table is significantly different from the last contract talks, when Indiana was not a right-to-work state,” Iverson said. “The employer is now much stronger.”
Iverson said with the law, and the poor economy behind it, ArcelorMittal has been able to make a number of demands that would result in an inequity in the workplace, including a two-tier system of pay and benefits with new employees having less than current workers.
Other demands include the hiring of more contractors to do work instead of its own employees, allowing the company to implement layoffs and 32-hour work weeks at its discretion and weaker seniority protection, according to the United Steelworkers website.
Local union officials are at the negotiating table and could not be reached for comment.
“What ArcelorMittal is demanding at the table goes back to pre-Wagner Act days. Before that, it was a rough-and-tumble situation in the U.S. Workers had no say,” Iverson said.
“I absolutely feel the company feels more confident giving demands as a result of the legislation,” Iverson said.
The Wagner Act, or National Labor Relation Act, was enacted in 1935 to eliminate employers’ interference with the organization of workers into unions.
The assistant professor also said that the Service Employees International Union, whose members tend to be lower paid with fewer benefits than steelworkers and those in other unions, is having problems with dues collection since passage of the bill.
Under right-to-work legislation, unions have to provide protection for all their members, even if they don’t pay dues.
Other union officials said it is still too early to tell how the act will affect them as they haven’t had to renew their contracts since the bill was passed. However, both union workers and officials say they know problems could occur.
“Do I think there will come a time when some members will try to get something for nothing? The answer is yes,” said David Fagan, financial secretary for Operating Engineers Local 150.
Fagan said the local will continue to fight the legislation, whose real objective, he said, is to undermine labor organizations, not help boost the economy as the Republican-led legislature claimed when passing it.
“A lot of people are scared. They don’t know how right-to-work will go,” said Sandy Hennrich, a member of Carpenters Local 1005 in Hobart.
“But everyone I know chooses to continue to pay their dues. I do. I even have a bumper sticker that says I do,” the 16-year member said.
Raymond Kasmark, business manager and financial secretary of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 697 in Merrillville, said their contract doesn’t expire until 2015.
“Hopefully by then all the mystery will be taken out of the bill,” he said.