Assignment: Education-Are Unions Relevant Today?

Terry Hicks has been the president of the Western Wisconsin AFL-CIO for 17 years. He's also been a union member for more than 40 years. In 2009, Hicks published a book on the history of labor unions in La Crosse called La Crosse Labors. There are both public and private sector workers within the AFL-CIO.

Don Salyards is a professor of economy at Winona State University. He started his career at WSU in 1975, the first year a union was established at Winona State. Salyards is a public employee who is required by Minnesota law to be represented by a union. For 35 years, Salyards has been a Fair Share member of the faculty union on campus. This means he chooses not to be a member and therefore only pays 85-percent of the monthly union dues, and does not participate in union activities.

As you can imagine, both men have very different views on whether unions are relevant in today's society. We'll hear their thoughts and learn a little bit about the history of organized labor which today makes up about 12-percent of the work force in the U.S.

"Industrial unions started way back. And when you went through the industrial revolution, businesses got bigger and employees were often mistreated-treated. So there were historical reasons to have unions," said Don Salyards, Winona State University Professor of Economics.

In fact, in the late 1800s and early 1900s very young children were working long hours, women made far less money than men, and safety in the work place was a huge issue.

"Workers lives were thrown away they didn't care if you died inhaling coal dust, because there were no laws to protect you," said Terry Hicks, Western Wisconsin AFL-CIO president. "And if you died, they'd replace you with another body."

So, most people don't dispute the fact that historically unions fought for many of the worker protections we have today. But whether we still need unions to represent groups of workers to negotiate wages and working conditions, which we call collective bargaining, is what is being debated so passionately in Madison.

"So there were historical reasons to have unions. Most of those reasons are non-existent today. The kind of exploitation that happened 100 years ago doesn't take place today," said Salyards. "As we've gone from a manufacturing to a service economy and now a global economy, unions have just lost their relevance."

The Western Wisconsin union president disagrees.

"Every fast food restaurant in La Crosse has what I would call children working there from 16-17 years old," said Hicks. "We've had to fight for laws to keep those industries from forcing them to work longer hours without overtime still in this modern era."

And Hicks feels without unions, workers will be taken advantage of again.

"If we had no unions what-so-ever, would you like to be thrown on the world free market and have your wages driven down to 21 cents an hour like they are in China," asked Hicks.

Lisa Klein: "Do you think that's what would happen without unions?"

"Not immediately," said Hicks, "but even with unions we have seen wages... Productivity in America has continued to go up amongst the workers, particularly union workers, where we keep statistics, and wages have not kept pace."

But Salyards feels the economy would benefit from people representing themselves. He believes for companies to stay competitive in today's market-place they'll need to meet the needs of the worker because workers are much more mobile today.

"You have to keep people happy and pay them as much as you possibly can relative to the competition to keep them," said Salyards. "So, the idea that regular non-unionized people don't have power is ludicrous. They have power in the skills they bring to the table. Nobody can run a business without labor."

But Hicks argues what happens to the wages and the jobs of the laborer whose competition is making low wages in China? Without a union, who protects those workers?

"It's a global economy," said Salyards. "And if wages get too high, then people either buy from Mexico or China or open up plants in China and Mexico. While, unions are going to say that costs us jobs... everybody likes to go to Walmart and buy something cheap that was made in China that's good quality. So, everybody wants Chinese prices and they want $20 an hour wages. Well, it doesn't work that way.

The core of this issue boils down to protecting a workers job and compensation. Hicks believes a union provides a checks and balances-type system. And if unions are removed from our work force the wages and benefits of all workers, union or non-union, will be reduced or eliminated.

"Unions benefit all workers whether you're in a union or not. It's like that famous economist said, 'a rising tide lifts all boats.' By the fact that unions exist and have negotiated an hourly wage and benefits, vacations, days off, non-union employers have to come close to that or why would their employees not leave them for a unionized employer," said Hicks. "Remove us entirely from the mix and you're putting your trust in corporate figures who have already proven they have no inhibitions on their bonuses and salaries despite the sinking wages of their employees."

Salyards, who also owns his own company, says employers don't need a union to provide a checks and balances system. The workers bring that to the table themselves.

"I have a check against my own people," said Salyards. "If I don't keep them happy, if I don't keep them satisfied, I'm going to lose them. When I get a skilled person to walk out the door, it's going to take me years to replace them. And so, if we do have somebody quit that's skilled it's painful. So, painful."

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