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June 08, 2005

Labor Unions: The Folks That Brought You The Middle Class

(Reprinted From Confined Space)

File this under "Why We Need Unions."

The Wall St. Journal had a front page article yesterday about how it's becoming increasingly difficult for workers with limited education to start a job at an entry level and use in-house training opportunities to gain promotions that would eventually push them into the middle class. (The article is for registered WSJ subscribers only.)

The article itself was interesting, but probably most interesting was the positive things the Journal had to say about unions:

The MTA was once full of jobs like motor inspector or turnstile repairman -- jobs that a person with limited education could jump to with some training. As in the corporate world, many of those jobs have disappeared, often because technology upgrades mean fewer people are needed. At the MTA, for example, new subway cars last 138,000 miles between overhauls, compared with 8,000 miles in 1982. Around the system, the jobs that do open often require a college education and computer skills.

Overall, the pace of hiring has slowed since the 1980s, as the MTA reduced its staff by 13%, to 48,000. When the MTA does fill new jobs, it is less likely to promote from within because it believes it will attract better talent on the outside. In the 1990s, insiders got half the new jobs; today they get fewer than 40%. Car cleaners used to have the inside track for promotion to motorman, tower operator and token-booth clerk. Since 2001, those jobs have been thrown open to outsiders.

"For too many of our people, entry-level no longer means entry-level. It means dead-end," says Rodney Glenn, director of training for Transport Workers Union Local 100, to which 30,000 MTA employees belong.
Part of the reason that the advancement opportunities are disappearing is that the power of labor unions is disappearing.
Traditionally, unions helped unskilled workers attain middle-class lives. But organized labor now represents only 11% of the work force, down from one-third in the 1950s. The fastest-growing unions, in the service industries, represent both low-wage workers and skilled professionals, but it's hard for members to move from one category to the other. On-the-job training may turn an orderly into a nurse's aide, but not into a nurse.

New York's MTA, with an annual operating budget of $8 billion, has been a haven for African-Americans seeking upward mobility since the 1940s, when Adam Clayton Powell Jr. joined other Harlem activists in pressing city-owned and private transit lines to hire more blacks. The Transport Workers Union's legendary president, Michael Quill (1905-66), was active in the civil-rights movement and once brought Martin Luther King Jr. to address workers, then mostly white, on the subject. Today, about half of the membership of the union's Local 100 are either African-Americans or West Indians. The local's president, Roger Toussaint, arrived in New York from Trinidad in 1974 and started at the MTA as a subway cleaner, as did several of the top MTA managers with whom he negotiates.

.Even in their weakened state, however, unions are still about the only means for workers to move up:

In 2002, the MTA started requiring that new entrants in the subway-car maintenance program either have a recent degree from a vocational high school or a community-college degree in technology because so many jobs demand electronic skills. Ms. Beatty, with her 20-year-old diploma from a regular high school, probably wouldn't make the cut today.

Over the past four years, the training center has graduated just 40 apprentices for various skilled jobs, with fewer than a dozen of those graduates coming from the Transport Workers Union. Three months ago, under pressure from the union, the MTA started a new subway-inspector training course with 13 students, all from the union's ranks. Of the 13, six are former cleaners, and all of them have the technical degrees. The others came from skilled jobs such as forklift operator or signalman's assistant.


Both sides agree that improved productivity at a system that was once notorious for breakdowns and graffiti has reduced the pool of new jobs to which cleaners and security guards can aspire. Staff at a big maintenance depot in Coney Island has been cut to 650 workers from 1,000 over the past five years. When the MTA replaced subway tokens with prepaid Metro Cards, 120 skilled-machinist positions were eliminated, estimates the union. It persuaded the MTA to retrain the workers to repair card-vending machines.

The distressing thing is that at the same time that rising health care costs, globalization, the disappearance of well-paying industrial jobs, and bankruptcy legislation are all consipring to knock more and more people out of the middle class, more barriers are being raised to keep people from climbing up into the middle class. Meanwhile, the historical force that knocked down those barriers -- the labor movement -- is itself declining into ineffectiveness.

I think if I was the President, or a congressional representative, I might be concerned about some of these issues.

And speaking of those who are really concerned, check out speeches by Bill Moyers and John Edwards at the Taking Back America Conference last week. And while you're at it check out the other speeches too.

Posted by Jordan Barab at June 8, 2005 12:44 AM