Is The Workplace A Democracy?

Recently, Senator Bernie Sanders and some of his colleagues in both the House and the Senate introduced legislation called  The Workplace Democracy Act to help with union organizing drives at workplaces and eventually narrow income inequality.  This week blogged about workplace democracy.   The blogger revived some workplace democracy thoughts of Senator Robert F. Wagner who, in 1935, sponsored the current legislation known as the Wagner Act that has given unions the ability to organize for collective bargaining rights.

According to U. S. Senate history, Senator Wagner created legislation that continues to profoundly impact us both as a society and at workplaces.  Not only is he responsible for the Wagner Act, Senator Wagner introduced the legislation for the Social Security Act which, of course, is now something we all rely on to provide benefits in retirement.

While on an oversight committee to review the tragic fire of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in 1911, Senator Wagner realized change was absolutely necessary and he believed giving workers a voice in the workplace was important.  As Hitler was beginning to make his moves in Germany, Senator Wagner, a German immigrant in his childhood, also thought unions could be a model to help workers, who were also voters, understand the importance of a democratic system.  What he considered as workplace democracy was also a fight against evil dictators and fascism.

What did Senator Wagner envision when he wrote about workplace democracy?   There have been a number of interpretations of his idea of a democratic workplace but many see it as social justice and the ability of workers to be free to vote for union representation.  He believed workers should have a voice as to their pay and working conditions.

The OnLabor blog sites low union membership has diminished the ability for workplaces to be the models of democracy Senator Wagner wanted.  The blogger says another problem with the workplace democracy model is that it can’t happen until after an election for union representation because unions may not be successful.  Employers  sometimes put relentless pressure on employees against unions and that, according to the blogger, isn’t a fair democratic process.

The blog compares workplaces to kingdoms with the manager or CEO as a king who makes all the decisions and the shareholders as a governing body based on the number of shares they own.  Comparing workplaces to kingdoms and CEOs as dictating monarchs can be somewhat harsh especially when the other side is not always innocent in their tactics.

Yet there are some employers who will threaten and intimidate employees with anti union information during organizing drives and that not only gives the impression the workplace environment is autocratic, which is what Wagner was trying to counter with his legislation, but it does remove the ability of employees to make their own clear and free choice.

All workers, both management, non-union employees and unionized employees, should be respected and allowed to have a voice in the workplace.  Worker voice can be such a tremendous tool for workplaces to change culture, be more productive and develop new ways to increase business.  But what about this idea workplaces should be democracies?  Can a true democracy exist in the workplace?  For a democracy to exist within the workplace, it needs to be beneficial for everybody.  Can that happen for both employers and employees?

We can focus on the other side of a union gaining representation.  What’s the perspective of the owner or CEO of the workplace who has just experienced a vote from the employees?  Does that owner or CEO think they have a voice?  Some obviously do especially those that use extensive anti-union strategies.  While it may not allow the worker to make a good decision, it does provide the employer an opportunity to have a say. But what about the owner or CEO who tries really hard to do the right thing and doesn’t resort to the scare and intimidation tactics while under the pressure of an extremely aggressive union organizer.  Is that democracy for that owner or CEO?

What about supervisors who may have some concerns about a specific problem or issues related to their job classification but they’re not comfortable about voicing those concerns or talking about issues. They also may not even be asked for an opinion on workplace problems.   Is the workplace a democracy for them?  Supervisors are in very awkward positions.   They must address concerns and help subordinates with their issues but they may have to take those issues to another level and respond to the needs of their boss even when they may not feel supported.  Does that sound democratic?

Workplace democracies can also be bad for the very people trying to create that environment.  Workplace democracy can become a very high pedestal for unions to achieve.  In other words, some members may have a completely different expectation of what workplace democracy is compared to their leadership.  Unless the union has been explicit in just exactly what workplace democracy means, it can be very destructive for the union.  We’ve had more than one  experience where leaders wanted to go one direction and members another or didn’t understand why leaders were making decisions for them they didn’t necessarily agree on.   Sometimes leaders have to make decisions without taking it to members for a vote.  Some members may see that as contradicting workplace democracy.  There can be issues just among leaders, too, which causes them to disagree and that can pull a union apart.

Workplace democracy sounds great!  It’s a very powerful term!  But it can be treacherous when not applied as everybody envisions. The term may be well intended but the nuts and bolts of it can be very difficult to uphold and manage.

Using a term like worker voice has a little more explicit meaning plus doesn’t hold people to a standard they may not be able to deliver.  Both Senator Wagner and Senator Sanders had good intentions and focused on helping employees with union representation, allowing them a voice and be more involved in issues such as pay, benefits and working conditions and that’s good.    It’s also important for workers to be able to decide whether to be part of a union or not without aggressive interaction from either side.  That may be more democratic but it doesn’t necessarily identify as workplace democracy and that’s important.   Using another term might be a better idea!



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This Week – A Look at Two Recent Events in Columbus

This week, we want to report on two events that happened this month in Columbus. Both focused on workers from a different perspective.

On May 2 CALMC held our regular membership meeting. Our audience of management leaders, union officials and members, neutrals, and other interested people enjoyed breakfast and networking with each other, along with the opportunity to hear a presentation on difficulty in finding skilled employees in Central Ohio. Cheryl Hay, the Director of Workforce Development for JobsOhio, described some of the ways they are helping new and existing employers find the kind of workers they need. JobsOhio is a not-for-profit organization established by Governor Kasich to replace to role originally played by the Department of Development in recruiting new employers to Ohio.

Cheryl began by contrasting the ways employees used to find jobs with the process in use today. Employers who previously advertised in newspapers or relied on word-of-mouth today need to be more actively involved in the recruitment process. This includes the reliance on technology to find workers.

Cheryl mentioned some of the methods being used by JobsOhio to get the most from the use of information systems in finding employees. She mentioned the use of social media, noting the type of job determined which platforms worked best. For example, if candidates are needed for jobs involving coding, Twitter is the best way to reach them. On the other hand, some management positions are best filled using LinkedIn, while other positions can be found with Facebook.

Other issues required a more complex process. Combatting the “brain drain” issues of educated college graduates leaving Ohio has proven to be a challenge.JobsOhio is exploring ways to not only keep recent graduates from leaving the state, but also encouraging former Ohio residents to return to the state.

Cheryl also discussed to need to begin the recruitment process for some jobs in high schools. They have been encouraging school districts to publicize the needs of new employers in their regions, urging students to build their skills in the areas needed. They also use apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship programs to build necessary skills for new employees.

A couple of weeks ago we reported on the difficulty employers have getting new employees in this time of low unemployment. In this presentation we heard of proactive methods available to employers in Ohio that help attract new employers to the state.

The Workers’ Memorial, Columbus, Ohio

The other event was the rededication of the Workers’ Memorial in Columbus. Located in Riverfront Park in downtown Columbus, the memorial remembers workers who lost their lives at work and union leaders who recently passed away.

Theo James reads the names being added to the Memorial Wall

This year, the ceremony recognized four individuals, including Billy Boyce, former Sub-District Director of the United Steelworkers and member of the CALMC Board of Trustees. Speakers included Theo James, President of the Central Ohio Labor Council, AFL-CIO, Walt Workman, Executive Director of the Labor Council, Dr. Ned Pettus, Jr., City of Columbus Safety Director, and Michael Stinziano, member of the Columbus City Council. Each highlighted the importance of safe workplaces and the hope that next year there would be no names to add to the wall.

It was great to see the number of union members, public officials, and others who gathered to pay their respects to those we have lost. It was a moving ceremony in a beautiful setting. We hope you will have an opportunity to visit the Memorial.

Ohio AFL-CIO President Tim Burga

City Council Member Mike Stinziano speaks about the importance of worker safety.



To see more pictures of our Membership Meeting and the Memorial Ceremony, take a look at our Facebook page.

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Worker Voice Is A Shared Responsibility

We came across an article from Forbes Magainze about the need for employees to speak up at work.  The author said workers are not speaking up enough and that can have a definite impact on how a worker is perceived.  When workers speak up, he says, it shows the knowledge and expertise they bring to the job and organization.  There are other reasons the author says it’s important to speak up and mentions ideas on changes can also be made in meetings as well as initiating changes to go forward.  The author is absolutely correct about the need for employees to speak up but is it up to only the employee or does the employer have some responsibility with worker voice?

In order for employees to offer their thoughts on workplace issues, employers need to encourage it, too.  As we’ve said many times, who else but those who do the job know better as to what needs to happen.  The more involved employees are in workplace decisions increases productivity, reduces turnover,  helps the organization be more competitive, plus many other great reasons.

The problem with worker voice is it’s not always as easy as what the article implies.  An environment has to exist where employees feel comfortable to speak out.  It’s the same about meetings, too, when  the author includes them as a means to present ideas.  Not all meetings are intended for idea sharing.  A meeting could be set up for one-way  information only.  If employers want employees to speak up, they need to let them know it’s okay to speak up or employees are empowered to start new ideas.

In a report on worker voice published this year from MIT’s  Sloan Management School, a number of reasons are cited as to why workers don’t speak up.  One reason is an increased use of temp workers in the workplace.  Temp workers don’t  feel they have the same voice as the regular workers that work with them.  The study also said that many workers feel insecure and are uncertain about the future so they don’t think speaking up is necessary or that they should.  Those who conducted the survey raised questions as to why workers believed that.  They suggested it could be workers no longer think they have the ability to speak out or it could be all the different channels they have to go through discourages them from trying.  The results of the study  verifies that if employers want to have a culture that appreciates worker voice, they too have some work to do to let employees know their ideas are welcome and it’s okay to speak up with an easy flow of communication.

Employers also need to create a culture that is free of fear and intimidation.  They  need to demonstrate to workers it’s okay to have a voice.  In other words, walk the talk.  This also requires creating a trusting environment and, for some workplaces, that can take a long time and some work.  It’s not something that happens overnight or with an on-off switch.  If the culture didn’t allow worker voice and participation before, it can take awhile.  It will mean patience is needed by everybody.  It also means mistakes will probably happen along the way by everybody which means people will have to acknowledge mistakes happened and make amends.

The article mentions employees need to recognize how they project themselves at the workplace and this is important.  Both employers and employees need to understand they each have a responsibility to be respectful of each other and the worker voice process.   It isn’t about finger pointing or calling each other out.  It’s not about personalities but focusing on concerns or issues.  It’s also important for workers to understand worker voice isn’t necessarily about  wish lists and getting everything that’s wanted.  This is where unionized workplaces are  beneficial because a good staff rep will meet with members to help them understand this and what issues they can and cannot work on.  In non-union workplaces, there may not be anybody to help workers.

Meetings, which the article’s author suggested is a good way to give voice to issues, may be the starting point for culture change.  The meetings could be departmental or cross-functional or both.   A trained facilitator for the meetings can help because they have specific techniques that can bring out participation and focus on meeting process.  It can also demonstrate the employer’s willingness to create the appropriate culture.  Managers and supervisors can take on the role of facilitator but they also provide valuable perspectives to meeting issues so acting as a facilitator could take away their focus on process and allow them to be part of the discussion.

The author mentioned employees should be able to start projects when they bring them up.  That’s great but whether it’s an employee or a group, it’s important for employers to let them know they can make decisions to start projects or they are only to make recommendations.  There’s a big difference between the two, and if individuals or groups think they can make decisions or start projects, when they can’t, it leads to frustration and trust levels also break down which is why it’s important to be upfront about this.

While the author puts more emphasis on individual accountability, it’s important employers provide the tools for employees to succeed so they have that ability to be accountable if need be.  Whether it’s as individuals or as a group, they will be more successful if they have the tools to do so.

If a workplace starts their worker voice process through meetings, it’s good to remember the great myth that exists we’ve blogged about before, putting individuals together doesn’t automatically make them a team.   A team simply doesn’t happen when people may already be part of a department.  In our team development training, we talk about the stages of group development and why it’s important for everybody to understand about them.  A group can appear to be a team one day and the next time they’re not.  Training  gives individuals and groups a better understanding of group process and how to adapt to different situations, especially the more difficult ones.  Training, too, can let people know employers are serious about creating a more conducive atmosphere to worker voice and want their workers to be successful.

Finally, all of this creates the underlying goal the author is conveying, leadership.  He mentions worker voice can lead to career advancement which also means it helps create leaders within organizations.  Time and again, we’ve seen leaders emerge from groups.  They do a great job of communicating and inspiring others to accomplish tasks.  It not only helps individuals but it’s also another positive reason for employers to encourage worker voice. It becomes leadership development.   It wasn’t too long ago, there were a lot of people saying they couldn’t find leaders.  Worker voice helps to eliminate that problem.  By encouraging workers to speak up and providing them with the proper tools, it’s an investment for the organization’s future.   It saves a lot of time and money looking for future leaders.

We can go on and on about the great things we’ve seen when workplaces provide a culture for worker voice to thrive but the truth is, it takes commitment and practice for it to be a successful process.  Employers can’t start and stop it when they feel like it.  It’s the same for the workers, too.  It takes commitment to go through the good AND the bad.  It also takes practice to overcome the imperfections.  Think of sports teams.  They don’t go out there on game day and are perfect.  They’re committed to practice before the big game.  Sometimes their plans work, sometimes they don’t but they learn from their mistakes and apply them.  It’s the same with work teams.  Employers and employees need to realize mistakes will happen but that doesn’t mean the process has failed and it’s time to stop.   Just as we have mentioned and the author wrote, it takes time, trust and a consistent message that worker voice is important.

Workers can sit back if they want just like those identified in the survey and think it’s not worth it but if no one tries, nothing will happen and it eventually could be too late.  There’s another way to look at too.  Worker voice might provide an opportunity for an idea that helps develop that next big product or service that makes the organization successful!  Employers, it’s to your benefit to encourage worker voice.

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Can Employee Engagement Help Address Workplace Drug Issues?

Even with an improved job outlook, workplace problems remain. Some of them can hinder job creation and economic development.

Charleston, South Carolina is in the midst of an economic boom. The Charleston Professional Development Alliance estimates 34 people move to Charleston County every day. Even with this rapid growth, the unemployment rate in the Charleston Economic Development Area still dropped from 9% in 2009 to 3.1% in Nov. 2017.

Even with the population growth, new and expanding employers are having problems finding workers. Volvo Cars is experiencing problems finding the 4,000 workers they need for their new plant. The advanced manufacturing skills required for many of the jobs is one impediment, but not the biggest factor.

The Charleston Post and Courier reports the most significant problem is finding workers who can pass drug and background screening. ReadySC is the state-run training program charged with hiring most of the workers for the new $1.2 billion Volvo facility which is scheduled to start production this summer. They report 70% of candidates cannot pass these checks.

Prior to the drug and background screening a job skills assessment test eliminates 50% of candidates right off the bat. Following the entire screening and interview process, only 3.75% of applicants for jobs with Volvo have gotten an offer.

South Carolina is not the only area to experience this problem, In surveys done by the Federal Reserve last year, employers cited an inability by applicants to pass drug tests among reasons for difficulties in hiring. According to Quest Diagnostics, a leading provider of workplace drug testing, the national average failure rate is 4.2%. Bloomberg News reports the large number of drug test failures combined with a tight labor market has led some companies to abandon the employment screening method. These employers report drug testing restricts the job pool, and in the current tight labor market, that is limiting productivity and growth.

Pre-employment testing is only one of the drug related issues in the workplace. They do not help with any workers who pass the initial screening, then begin or return to drug use.

Short of abandoning drug testing completely, what can employers do to deal with this problem? It will not surprise our regular readers that we believe employee engagement is one of the ways to mitigate the problem.

Listening to the worker voice can help everyone better understand the scope of any drug problems in their workplace, develop ways of dealing with any issues that exist, determine the types of drugs that cause problems (such as, should marijuana testing be used to disqualify employees in states where marijuana use is legal?), find better means of recruiting employees who are more likely to pass the initial screening, and seek appropriate means of identifying and helping workers with drug problems.

Why would employees, particularly in a unionized environment, participate in this process? There are many reasons, not the least of which is a desire to be able to work safely without being jeopardized by employees who abuse drugs. They also recognize the need for the public to view their products as safe and reliable. Without this, sales drop and their jobs might no longer exist.

By engaging employees, companies can help establish drug programs that have an initial focus on helping employees with problems, not on absolute punishments for everyone. Employees will be more likely to see the value in these programs and buy into them if they are part of the development process.

CALMC can assist your organization or union to develop an employee engagement process to address these concerns. Contact us to discuss how we can help.


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Ripped From The Headline!

An article several weeks ago from Business Journals, or Business First in Columbus, ran a headline that included this: “… Union Membership in Ohio Sinks…”  The author was supposedly comparing data that had just been released from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to 2008 data.  The problem with the headline, it’s not entirely true.

It is true union membership in Ohio has decreased since 2008 by almost two points but the problem is the headline is extremely misleading.  To give the impression unions are on the decline, the author has emphasized that information not just in the headline but in bold print in the article.  The author fails to mention  the increase of union workers that has occurred in the last year in both Ohio and other states according to the same source he sites.   In some cases, the increases were significant and that has helped to increase union membership nationally.

The increase in Ohio union membership was small, only about .1%, but when you consider what the author is trying to imply, this is very good news.  In two states there was a substantial increase of almost 2% which also is good when you take in other negative influences unions have faced.  New Hampshire and Hawaii each saw increases of 1.8% and 1.5% respectively.  Instead of membership sinking as it was implied, it must mean New Hampshire and Hawaii membership is escalating!  States that already had high union membership also saw increases in one year.

While it would be great to say everything is improving, and to counter the negative information the author proclaimed, there still appears to be some problems for unions.  The rate of membership continues to decline since the first year data was collected in 1983 about union membership.  At that time, union membership was about 20% compared to almost 11% today.   The good news, though, is the decline in numbers is at a much slower pace.  The other piece of good news is it appears there are two  other specific groups of employees that  are seeing steady increases in union membership.

The first of the two groups is the Millennial age group.  They had the biggest increase among the age groups.  Almost three-fourths of that employee population is unionized.  According to a recent Pew Research poll, unions appeal to this group and there are a variety of reasons for it.  One reason is the millennial group likes to have a voice in the workplace.  They feel they have the greatest influence on customers since they work with them directly so unions provide them with an opportunity to be more involved with workplace decisions.  Millennials also like unions in the traditional sense that they will help with job security, pay, benefits  and other workplace issues.  Another reason is unions are involved in social issues beyond the workplace and that appeals to millennials.  They like unions because they work on legislative issues needing to be changed such as homelessness and poverty, healthcare, childcare and other needs. We’ve blogged before about the George Meany banquet that recognizes the achievements of young people working on community issues.  There can be other reasons, too, this age group has greater union representation.  It could be unions are able to organize workplaces where more millennials work or it could be more millennials are working in more unionized environments.  Whatever the reason, this is a growth sector for unions.

The other group that’s gaining in union representation is the professional sector such as attorneys, engineers, teachers and nurses.  Recently, media outlets have also seen more organizing drives as younger workers who work in these venues see unions as a means of help for the issues they are facing such as job security, pay and benefits and others.  More professionals are joining unions for reasons like the other group.  They  want their voices heard.  Some are concerned about quality of work issues, they want to  make improvements to those they serve, and they want to address training issues that help maintain standards and credentials.  Professionals associated with unions are seeing more of an increase than those who have not been associated with a union but even that is changing as others see the need for assistance on work related issues.  Professionals, like the millennials, see unions as social change agents which again is exemplified at the George Meany Banquet with professionals either helping students or being involved with community needs.

The headline and the Business First article seemed to signal a death blow to unions.  They linked two significant issues for unions that’s related to their ability to survive.  One was membership levels and the other was a Supreme Court case that could also impact the financial resources of unions.  It was almost as if everything had already been decided.  That could be but looking further into that data from the author’s source gives a completely different picture.  According to that data and other information, unions are still very much in demand.  There may be shifts in membership such as age groups, locations, and professions but all indications are the same.  It’s also backed up by a poll from Pew Research that shows a more favorable opinion of  unions is growing among Americans.  The challenge for unions is how to capture these shifts and the momentum that is occurring.

One thing that is particularly important for unions to do is counter negative and false messages such as that of the Business First headline and article.   Union members are proud people but they also need to let everyone know about the great things they do.

Union membership is changing.   It is much more diverse than in the past but according to The Department of Professional Employees(DPE), which is an arm  of the AFL-CIO, the need is the same –  increase for wages.  No matter what the occupation is, EVERYONE has a basic need for economic well being.  In a 2018 Guide To Organizing Professionals, the DPE suggests a different message focused around specific groups such as age, gender, or race;  or to increase support for those already in a union; or to build an organizing drive around a specific issue.  Some unions have said their best organizing strategy is to start with a social issue and others have said labor legislation needs to be updated.  All of those are great ideas but it’s important to limit the negativity and focus on new ideas because it’s always tempting and easy to do things the same way they’ve always been done.

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What Do Statewide Teacher Strikes Teach Us About Labor-Management Cooperation?

In the last few weeks we have seen the return of general strikes as teachers in West Virginia and Oklahoma left their classrooms. The phenomenon appears ready to spread to other states as educators seek better pay and improved working conditions, particularly in those state which do not have collective bargaining with teachers and other school staff.

General strikes and wildcat stoppages were once more common. In 1934, walkouts hit San Francisco and Minneapolis, and smaller wildcat strikes spread across the country. The labor relationship was in tumult.

What brought order to the process? In 1935, Congress passes the National Labor Relations Act which established the rules and procedures governing unions and management. While there were still strikes, they were smaller in scope and limited to specific bargaining units.

In Ohio, we saw a similar change following the passage of the public sector collective bargaining law in the mid-1980’s. Prior to this legislation, teacher and other public-sector entities conducted walkouts in locations across the state. While the new law gave public employees the limited right to strike, it also brought order to the process. The number of work stoppages dropped significantly. Prior to the act, there were average of 60 public sector strikes each year in Ohio. Since then, the number of walkouts is significantly less, with only three teacher strikes from 2010 to 2017.

A statewide strike in Ohio is neither necessary nor realistically possible as districts each have their own collectively bargained contracts. These agreements, along with real labor-management cooperative efforts in many districts, ended the chaos we saw in the past.

This illustrates a key factor that contributed to the statewide strikes we have seen. In West Virginia, Oklahoma, and others where there is no local collective bargaining for salaries and benefits. Salaries are set by their legislatures, leaving school employees (and overall funding for education) to political whims and agendas.

As a result, wages for teachers in these states are very low, and conditions for students are deteriorating. In West Virginia, the average K-12 teacher salary was $45,662. Nationally, the average was over $58,000. This large disparity was an obvious cause of the strikes, but so were declining opportunities for students in these states.

Oklahoma teachers shared stories and photos of crumbling textbooks, broken furniture, and districts so poor they could not afford to keep classroom lights on. Substandard learning conditions hurt opportunities for students. The response from Oklahoma Governor Mary Falin (R) showed her contempt for educators, as she stated the teachers were like “a teenage kid that wants a better car.” It would appear the destruction of the public education system is high on her agenda.

Collective bargaining and labor-management cooperation in schools do not necessarily make things wonderful. They do provide districts and employees the opportunity to negotiate contracts and resolve problems through labor-management partnerships. Decisions can be made locally by those impacted by the problems, not legislators with little understanding or even desire to correct problems.

Some may assume educator negotiations or collaborative efforts have little to do with student needs, but this is not true. Teachers, school staff, and administrators often work collaboratively to address student concerns such as class offerings, teaching strategies, minimizing the impact of standardized testing on instruction, and other needs specific to their districts or building.

Schools benefit from the opportunities provided by employee involvement and worker voice. States that permit teachers and districts to bargain collectively and work collaboratively are less likely to have conditions that contribute to statewide strikes. While teacher unions are unjustly criticized for their impact on education, labor-management cooperation between them and school districts benefits Boards of Education, school administrators, teachers, and students.


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What Memphis Sanitation Workers Had To Endure In 1968

Last week was the 50th anniversary of the death of civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.   Many  media outlets showed him giving his speech in Memphis before he was assassinated but only a few have explained why Dr. King went there.  While we attribute Dr. King to the significant work he did for civil rights, we don’t always think about how it impacted work life, too.  This week’s blog looks at the events in Memphis before his assassination and what African American workers experienced on a daily basis.

In Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968 and before, it was difficult for African Americans to find work. Racial discrimination  prevented them from finding jobs.  Even though one Memphis sanitation worker had risked his life as a soldier in Korea, he still had difficulty finding a job when he came back.  It was the worst possible job but someone had to do it and he had to support his family.  It was with the sanitation department in Memphis.

The working conditions for the Memphis sanitation workers was pitiful.  Workers had to show up for work whether there was work or not.  They were paid $2 or less an hour, some less than $1,  for picking up the garbage for Memphis residents.  In 1968,  garbage wasn’t collected in trash bags as it is now.  Garbage was collected in big drums or containers the men would pick up over their heads as garbage leaked down around them and maggots crawled down into their shoes.  They had no uniforms so this was  their clothes that collected the debris, maggots and odor.  The odor was so bad that one of the wives of the workers wouldn’t let him in the house at the end of the day.

The sanitation workers were subject to ridicule.  The job of a sanitation worker was considered one of the lowest jobs in city work.  The ridicule the workers endured wasn’t just because of the job.  It was because the supervisors in the sanitation department were white.  The white workers drove inside the truck cabs.  The African-American workers weren’t allowed in the cabs and had to ride outside the trucks.   The white drivers didn’t  pick up the trash yet they were able to take a shower after their shift but their African American colleagues could not.  So not only was the job horrible in what they did, they were humiliated and treated less than human by others.

Safety was also a problem.  If a worker became injured on the job without any fault of their own, it could mean being fired.  Workers complained to supervisors about faulty equipment but they were ignored.  One afternoon everything came to a climax.  Because the sanitation workers regularly hopped into the back end of the garbage trucks, it wasn’t too unusual when two workers got in the back to escape a bad thunderstorm.  Unfortunately, when they did, there was a  switch malfunction on the compactor which caused the two workers to become trapped and killed as the compactor crushed them.    This created  the impetus of the sanitation worker strike that eventually brought Dr. King to Memphis.

Even though these workers were part of  the union,  American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the union wasn’t recognized.  The mayor, Henry Loeb, refused to recognize it and therefore wouldn’t listen to the demands for better pay and safer working conditions.  The sanitation workers went on strike even though the mayor told them they couldn’t.

The strike started peacefully.  The sanitation workers marched and  carried signs that said, “I Am A Man”.  Local church leaders provided support to the workers and recognized racism was the larger part of the problem.  They encouraged others in the community to join the support.  AFSCME leaders, including the national AFSCME leader, also came to help their members.  Several weeks went by and the strike continued.  In order to hopefully boost worker morale, one of the church leaders invited Dr. King.  As many pictures have shown, he went to Memphis and marched with the workers.

Dr. King’s presence was both good and bad.   Here are some of the words Dr. King said to those workers in 1968 which still have meaning today:

“You are demanding this city respect the dignity of labor.  So often we overlook the work and  the significance of those who are not in professional jobs, of those who are not in the so called big jobs,  but let me say to you tonight that whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity and it has worth.  You are reminding not only Memphis but you are reminding the nation that it is a crime for people to live  in this rich nation and receive starvation wages.”

The strike did not continue as the peaceful demonstration.  The president of the Memphis city council thought he had enough votes to support the striking sanitation workers but because many white citizens resented Dr. King coming it pushed council members to vote against the sanitation workers.  After the vote at the city council meeting, the sanitation workers felt betrayed and became angry.  The police were called in and that caused even more anger from many people.  Some threw bricks into business windows and the situation became worse when police killed a 16 year old.  The Tennessee National Guard was called in to restore order.  Dr. King was blamed nationwide for the violence and it wasn’t long after that, Dr. King was killed by a sniper.

Several weeks following the death of Dr. King, Memphis city council voted to recognize the union of the sanitation workers and promised wage increases.  Unfortunately, though, three people had to die before something was done.

What those workers endured was horrific.  Not only did they have poor working conditions but they were treated with less than dignity.  They were disrespected, abused and denigrated even though they were willing to do one of the filthiest of jobs for the citizens of Memphis.

Today, there have been some improvements. Memphis sanitation workers are still represented by AFSCME.  Safe working conditions is something they still fight for and another carry over from 1968 is the sign workers still need to remind people:  I AM A MAN!  While the pay is higher than it was in 1968, it has been stagnant for nine years.  One of the workers from 1968 still works there and he is finally able to drive the truck instead of being on the back end.    Despite the work they do, they are paid less than other city departments.

The current mayor recognizes some of the problems from 1968 and today.  He knows things are far from perfect.   Last year, he defied state laws to have Confederate statues removed.   He paid lump sum payments of $70,000 to the remaining 1968 sanitation workers because they lacked a pension system.  The mayor also says education for everybody needs to improve and poverty is still too high.   Over 80% of workers who hold management positions are white workers.  Over 70% of blue collar jobs are held by African Americans.  There’s still A LOT of work to do.

In 1963, Dr. King and others including labor leader, A. Philip Randolph, organized the March on Washington.  The march was not just about civil rights but also about equality in work.  The full title was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.   It was at this march that Dr. King gave his I Have A Dream speech.  The organizers of the march met at United Auto Workers’ Solidarity House in Detroit to plan the event.  Walter Reuther, president of UAW, would later march and speak at the event.

Organizers of the March on Washington  had six focal points:  1) the need for civil rights legislation, 2) the elimination of segregation in public schools, 3) public works project that employ both the negro worker and the white worker 4) legislation that would prohibit hiring discrimination based on race, 5) a $2 an hour minimum wage, and 6) an executive order that would end housing discrimination.  The March on Washington was one of the largest demonstrations, if not the largest, in Washington D. C.

For more on Dr. King and the Memphis sanitation workers:

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Initiatives to Build Skills for New Jobs

While I’ve been at CALMC there have been significant swings in the Central Ohio job market. We have seen periods where jobs have been plentiful and others of high unemployment. In either case, it is important to plan for ways to handle any situation.

Fortunately, the Columbus Metropolitan Region has one of the lowest unemployment rates in this part of the state. Jobs are fairly plentiful, but that does create its own set of concerns.

One of the problems facing this region is the need for job candidates who have the skills necessary to fill newly created jobs. Prospective employers have raised concerns about the need for skilled applicants. This week, we would like to highlight two initiatives that will help develop needed skills in new employees.

The first one provides increased opportunities for high-school students to learn more about the skilled trades and apprenticeship opportunities. When I was a teacher, our students had many opportunities to learn about colleges,  many of which sent representatives to make presentations at school. Students were offered time during the school year to visit schools they considered. What was missing was information about opportunities other than traditional four-year colleges.

The school at which I taught sent around 60% of graduating seniors to some type of post-secondary education. Unfortunately, only about half of them completed a degree. These numbers indicate approximately 70% of our graduates did not complete college. These students would have benefited from learning more about opportunities for well-paying jobs that do not require a four-year degree. Unfortunately, information about these options is not always available to students.

To help remedy this, Ohio State Representative Mike Duffey (R-21) sponsored ”The Ohio High School Career Opportunity Act,” which guarantees representatives from the skilled trades and other type of career recruiters a minimum of two opportunities per year to speak to students about career paths in their fields. This can include information about apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship programs available to them

The bill recently passed the legislature and was signed by the Governor. Rep. Duffey also cited the support of organized labor, including Walt Workman of the Central Ohio Labor Council, AFL-CIO (and CALMC Labor Co-Chair), and Dorsey Hager, ‎Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the ‎Columbus/Central Ohio Building & Construction Trades Council.

We would like to thank Rep. Duffey for his sponsorship of this bill and the opportunities it opens to better provide access to information about job options for Ohio students.

We were also pleased to learn about the first graduating class of the Building Futures program. This initiative, which was funded in part by Franklin County, provides training to enable students to enter the construction trades.

Sponsors of the program include the Franklin County Department of Job and Family Services, Impact Community Action, and the Columbus Building Trades Council. The program is designed to help low-income residents enter the construction trades, including electrical and iron work, carpentry, painting, plumbing, and other fields.

Each of the twenty-one graduates will begin an apprenticeship through one of the local unions who sponsored the program, including Iron Workers Local 172, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 683 and Carpenter’s Local Union 200.

County Commissioner John O’Grady attended the graduation, and we want to commend him and the other commissioners for the support of this first class and the others to come this year.

These are two examples of how we can prepare students and others in the community to have the skills needed to fill the job openings in Columbus and Franklin County. Combined with the job training and recruitment efforts of the Workforce Development Board we reported a couple of weeks, ago, our area will be better prepared to attract more jobs.

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Improving The Lives of Others

That’s what unions strive for.  Many of us think it’s only about union members at the workplace but what we don’t always realize is how much that extends to the work many union members do in our communities for all of us.

A couple of weeks ago we attended the 59th Annual George Meany Awards banquet hosted by the Central Ohio Labor Council AFL-CIO and United Way of Central Ohio.   This event never ceases to amaze me.  It  is truly an inspirational event to hear the stories of how people help others.  These stories are truly great but unfortunately the public rarely hears about union members helping in the community.

People who provide services in their every day jobs are also community volunteers.  Katie Coplin is a teacher for second and third graders.  After being with the second and third graders all day, she doesn’t stop.  Katie  helps girls in this same age group by being a Girl Scout leader for a Brownie troop which means she probably uses multiple free time opportunities to continue to help children.  This even happens in the summer as she helps with Girl Scout Day Camp.  There’s also something else Katie has done in her limited spare time.  She has been a building representative for her union.

Jeremy Matthew Thoma also helps people every day at his job.  Jeremy is a firefighter-paramedic and in his limited spare time he helps with children, too.  He is a cub scout leader.  That’s not all he does with the Boy Scouts.  He helps boys earn their badges and teaches first aid and CPR.  Even though he enjoys being with his family  and has a busy career, he still is devoted to helping improve the lives of others.

Then there’s another one who we’ve been very lucky to know.  Walter “Butch” Deems has been a steelworker and he, too, helps with those who need assistance.  Butch has given his time to help with St. Stephens Community House and providing food for families in need not just at Christmas time but all the time.  Butch was a union leader and participated on a number of union committees and worked on  presidential and legislative campaigns.   He has also engaged with legislators on issues important to ALL workers and communities.  We are especially pleased  to have Butch on our board as we look at labor-management issues that face our community.  Congratulations, Butch, on receiving the George Meany Award for 2018 in central Ohio!

In addition, Bexley High School was the recipient of the 2018 Youth Services Award.  Students wanted to help homeless people so they set up a non-profit organization and spent time educating their fellow students on the importance of the project.  Multiple unions provided support and local businesses also helped the students raise over $10,000 for several homeless shelters.

Outside of Columbus, unions have helped with disasters.  In hurricane areas, unions were there to volunteer their services to help bring back those communities.  New York unions helped in Puerto Rico.  Unions reported in Minnesota the amount of assistance that was provided for Hurricanes Harvey and Irma victims.  All over the United States labor unions help wherever help is needed.  When the 9/11 attack occurred, hundreds of union members, including one of our former board members, helped with recovery efforts and  ended up with related health issues.

Most of us have a favorable opinion of unions and it’s easy to understand why.  Not only do  millennials prefer unions because of traditional labor issues but it’s also  because of their community service and social justice.  Some employers, too, according to the Washington Post,  say unions help with problem resolution and employer-employee relations.  Just like the businesses and the unions that helped Bexley High School students, other employers and unions around the country partner on community issues to show good will.

Yet despite all the help they provide to so many people in distressing situations, there is a problem that continues to gravel me.  It’s the negative stories that seem to be louder.  Why do some people want to paint unions as bad?  The American Postal Workers Union tells it best in a  blog about 9/11 union responders.  The blog states union members are treated as if they are scoundrels.

On their website, Heritage Foundation  in 2015 never talks about the great things unions do.  Are they jealous of labor’s ability to help others?  Their biggest complaint about unions seems to be unions are about themselves and only want to increase wages at workplaces.  Part of that is true.  Unions do want to increase wages for members  but it also helps to  increase wages at similar nonunion workplaces.  And if you think about it, who would ever disagree to a higher wage.  I’m sure those at Heritage Foundation wouldn’t turn down a little extra money.    Heritage Foundation, though, extends the wage complaint to say unions hurt industry growth and the example they use in  one article is the auto industry which really isn’t a good example.  In a Business Insider article, the problem with union wages doesn’t appear to hurt profitability for automakers.   The years of 2015 and 2016 were record years for the Big 3.  While things have recently cooled off for them, the auto manufacturers still are not complaining.  The other thing, UAW and the Big 3 have worked together on a number of issues.

It would be easy to counter the negative messages of Heritage Foundation and others with the great community service stories but unions don’t.  Maybe they don’t because it’s a matter of pride or it’s just a natural part of them.  Whatever the reason, wouldn’t it be nice if  it helped to silence or at least temper those who have such disdain for them?   It’s hard to say it would work but with all the enormous evidence on the good things unions do not just in central Ohio but all over the country, why is it necessary to vilify these people?  Isn’t it time we all just got along?

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CALMC Membership Meeting – Job Placement and Worker Development

Our February CALMC Membership Meeting focused on issues of job placement services and employee development in Central Ohio. Our presenter, Lisa Patt-McDaniel, is the President and CEO of the Workforce Development Board of Central Ohio.

We worked with Lisa several years ago when CALMC was part of a State of Ohio grant program for the Ohio Labor-Management Cooperation Program. She was a strong supporter of CALMC and our sister organizations. Although she has since moved on from state government, her strong commitment to work on behalf of employers and workers remains.

When she was hired by the Workforce Development Board she was faced with a daunting task. The WDB supports the alignment of workforce investment, education, and economic development systems. They seek to provide workers with the skills and credentials to secure and advance employment.

However, when Lisa was hired, their worker training and placement services were not functioning effectively. Lisa oversaw the redevelopment of the Board programs and selection of new vendors for service delivery. In slightly more than one year, the new delivery system is working much better and meeting peoples’ needs more effectively.

Although job creation in Central Ohio has been good, there are still challenges that must be met. Lisa pointed out half of the Franklin County population earns less than 200% of the Federal poverty level or less. The 2017 Poverty Level for a family of 4 is $28,290.

Lisa reported the wage required to provide a worker with a one-bedroom apartment and food is $17 per hour, or approximately $35,260 per year. For a family with 2 children, the amount increases to an hourly wage $27, or around $56,510. This roughly twice the Federal poverty level. Remember this is for only housing and food, and certainly does not represent the living wage goal established by many groups.

To help workers secure jobs that will provide for their needs, the Workforce Development Board focuses on four skills for workers:

The ability to think critically

The ability to communicate well.

Effective collaboration skills

Knowing how to continuously learn

These skills are the same as the ones CALMC has for participants in our training and other services. They are certainly essential to success in today’s workplaces.

Lisa also stated the population growth of Franklin County exceeds that of the entire state. This means with the exception of Franklin County (including Columbus), the rest of the state is losing population. This growth places further stress on organizations like the Workforce Development Board to meet the needs of the new workers.

One of the methods Lisa and her organizations are using is pre-apprenticeship programs. Pre-apprenticeships provide opportunities for members of underserved populations, including high school age students and others entering or reentering the workforce, to learn more about well-paying job opportunities and begin a career entry path into these fields.

Lisa noted that while wages in Central Ohio are rising, benefits are not. Employees are facing higher costs in premiums and out-of-pocket expenses that often exceed their pay gains. (This is exacerbated by the current trend of giving employees one-time bonuses that do not produce lasting pay increases or additional benefit assistance.)

Lisa’s presentation and the accompanying discussion shed light on the current issues facing our job market along with the efforts of the Workforce Development Board to address these needs. We want to thank her for her willingness to share this information.

This is an example of the kind of presentations that take place at our membership meetings. We hope that you will be able to join us at our next session, May 2, 2018, 8 AM, at the CALMC offices. Our topic will again focus on the Central Ohio job market, and will feature a presentation from JobsOhio, the not-for-profit organization established by the Kasich administration to help create new employment in Ohio. Contact us if you are interested in attending or to be placed on our email list for future meetings.

You can see more pictures from the meeting on our FaceBook page.

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