Launch Slideshow

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Coming together

Coming together

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    Photo: Richard Falco/Black Star

    Bob Pierre's Cohoes public works colleagues George Hebert and Randall Snedecor compare notes on an upcoming job while preparing to start the day. Having a choice in day-to-day job activities ranked third among survey respondents in job satisfaction.

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    Source: PUBLIC WORKS

    Why do you like being in a union? Though compensation always plays a big role in any employee's life, the benefits offered by unions can far outweigh the lower pay. Many unions offer free or low-cost health insurance and pension plans that the city funds.

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    Photo: Richard Falco/Black Star

    Cohoes public works employees George Hebert (left), Bob Pierre, and Randall Snedecor (in truck) use a Vactor truck to clean out a sewer. Pierre said that he likes the varied work he does on a daily basis.

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    Photo: Center for Policy Initiatives

    Joan Raymond, president of AFSCME Local 127, speaks at a rally for “Living Wage.” A big part of her job is making sure her fellow union employees are fairly represented.

Those pensions and health benefits are the strongest incentives unions have to offer their employees. Though monetary compensation may be lower than that of private industry, the benefits can make up for it. “We in CSEA are enrolled in the state retirement system,” said Pierre. “Above the regular health benefits we receive (from the city), we have a dental and eyeglass program through CSEA.”

Many of the respondents to the PUBLIC WORKS survey indicated that the main reason they like being in a union is the benefits. One of the leading goals that AFSCME has is to improve upon these benefits. “Usually, the employer offers them and AFSCME helps negotiate,” said Dennis Houlihan, labor economist with the Washington, D.C.-based group. “An advantage to being a part of or working with a national union is that we provide technical assistance to the local unions,” he said. This may include assistance in collective bargaining, selecting the best insurance benefits, or helping to negotiate pension plans.

THE NEXT GENERATION

Even though they may offer improved work conditions, many people are reluctant to join a union—and some states don't even allow unions to form. The PUBLIC WORKS survey showed that 60% of nationwide respondents are currently in a union. For those areas that do allow unions, hurdles to increased membership include the level of apathy among public works employees and the lack of understanding of what unions really do, according to both Pierre and Raymond.

“I think that some non-union people think that we in unions have too many benefits or get paid too much,” said Pierre. “If there was never the union movement, most people would be making sub-standard wages and benefits today. Sweat shops would still be around.”

Raymond, previously a sanitation driver in San Diego, echoed these thoughts. “They forget that if it weren't for unions, we would still have child labor in the United States and would not have the eight-hour workday,” she said. “The word ‘weekend' wouldn't exist if it weren't for unions.”

Many young union members haven't experienced the labor struggles that older members have had. Though they may be union members, the younger generation's union knowledge is fairly shallow, and they know only what they read about in history books or see on TV. “They forget that a union brother has helped them somewhere along the line,” said Pierre.

Part of every local president's job is to encourage younger people to join the union. “The best way to get people involved is a slow process,” said Raymond. “It starts with a one-on-one conversation that establishes a common ground—the fact that if your job is secure and you don't have to worry about job issues, the rest of your life, and that of your family, will go a lot smoother.

“We try to get people involved at a small level at first—give them a task, for instance, to attend a rally or to pass out a newsletter, and build from there. Then they can use their experience to get someone else involved. The real strength of the union is in the amount of participation at the jobsite. The stewards at the jobsites are the backbone of the union,” she said.