From coast to coast, labor unions — particularly those that represent public workers — have faced increasing pressure over the past year, with politicians charting new legislative courses to curb their influence. The Republican-dominated Tennessee state legislature helped carry the movement.
Leading the list of anti-union efforts that prevailed in Tennessee this year is a new law that strips local teachers’ unions of their collective bargaining abilities with school boards. A less-publicized reform, among the others signed into law, overhauled workers’ compensation policies to give greater
protections to employers, while another eliminated labor disputes as a reason for issuing injunctions under the state’s workplace violence law.
“Tennessee under Gov. Phil Bredesen and past governors has had a great pro-business climate,” Democratic state Rep. Mike Stewart said. “But it was not until this legislative session that you saw an effort to gut workers’ rights at every opportunity.”
On the heels of Tennessee’s 107th legislative session, union leaders aren’t calling Capitol Hill a lost cause. But it’s quickly become unfriendly territory, the culmination of consecutive years of sweeping Republican electoral victories.
In contrast, Nashville’s labor leaders continue to find friends in the 40-member Metro Council, a body that while nonpartisan operates more to the political center-left. And that political atmosphere — a state legislature hostile to unions versus a more receptive council — has Nashville union organizers eyeing the upcoming Aug. 4 Metro election to shore up the local influence they say they still enjoy, while still looking ahead to issues the next council could help settle.
“I’ve heard it termed by labor and incumbent council people that we’ve got two islands in Tennessee — one in Davidson County and one in Shelby County,” said Lewis Beck, president of the Central Labor Council of Nashville and Middle Tennessee, which has 35 local unions under its political umbrella. “We’ve got to protect our island.”
With early voting beginning July 15, union leaders are going through the typical election rituals at a time when they say the importance of local races has heightened. They’ve submitted questionnaires, interviewed candidates and announced endorsements that, not surprisingly, tend to include the names of left-leaning members, and not their conservative counterparts. (An exception seems to be the local Services Employees International Union, which endorsed several conservatives.)
Though he declined to identify individual races, Beck said he believes labor could “take a hit or two,” but could make advancements elsewhere in the next council. He said the current council approved the majority of labor-backed ordinances with large majorities.
“I think we’ll still come out with a progressive council,” Beck said. “But there are some races that we’ll have to watch closely.”
Like previous election years, unions have organized political action committees and 527 groups to direct money to candidates they support. Meanwhile, notable local Republicans have targeted the council’s handful of conservatives and assisted in fundraising events to help their re-election bids. A clearer fundraising picture should be available after July 11, when financial disclosures for the most recent period are due.
Tennessee is a right-to work state and has never had the strong union identification of the Rust Belt. But the upcoming elections come as labor membership in Tennessee and Nashville continues to decline steadily.
Eddie Bryan, retiring this fall after a 32-year run as treasurer of the Tennessee AFL-CIO, estimated that 7 percent of Tennessee workers belong to unions today, down from 12 percent not long ago. He chalked the reduction up to various manufacturing plant closures across the state.
In Middle Tennessee, recent layoffs at the Saturn plant in Spring Hill, the closure of Peterbilt Motor Co. in Madison and cuts at Bridgetown in La Vergne have contributed to the Central Labor Council’s membership reduction by some 25 to 30 percent over the past five years.
“We’ve become a service country instead of a manufacturing country,” Bryan said.
Union members in Nashville are broadly divided into three camps: public employees, building trades and industrial/factory workers. Those who represent the three areas are generally, but not always, on the same page.
Recent Metro actions dealt one major blow to organized labor. At the request of Director of Schools Jesse Register, the Metro Nashville Board of Education and later the council approved a budget last year that privatized more than 600 custodial positions, which effectively reduced salaries and hours. In the years ahead, union heads fear the privatization of school bus drivers could be next and are already advocating against it. Halting the privatization trend is a major labor goal for the unions, along with the continual pitch to raise public employee salaries.
On the construction front, most union leaders privately acknowledge they were “late to the game” in advocating for union involvement in the building of the $585 million Music City Center, the state’s most expensive municipal project ever. Nonetheless, today there’s a general — but not universal — sense that organized labor is benefiting 18 months into the center’s construction.
Anthony Nicholson, president of the Nashville Building and Construction Trades Council, said more than 50 percent of workers at the Music City Center site are union members, though he acknowledged not all unions were successful in getting work. As of April, 62 percent of all Music City Center workers were residents of Davidson County and 74 percent of Tennessee, according to Convention Center Authority spokeswoman Holly McCall.
“We feel fortunate that we’ve got 50 percent of the work,” Nicholson said, adding workers are being paid state-prevailing wages. “The local participation is there because the union crafts that are down there are working local people.”
The second component of the Music City Center project is just under way, with last month’s groundbreaking for the adjacent $273 million Omni Hotel. But given the private nature of its construction, unions seem to be conceding the possibility that they might not play a major role. Brasfield & Gorrie has been tapped as Omni’s general contractor.
“We’re working on that,” Nicholson said, “but we’re not having a lot of dialogue with Brasfield & Gorrie. That hotel being a privately funded entity makes it a little harder to have a dialogue.”
Future large-scale municipal construction projects could arise during the next four years. The ownership group of the Nashville Sounds is angling for a new downtown stadium, and Mayor Karl Dean has commissioned a study to look at potential sites. In addition, several entities have approached the mayor’s office about a new amphitheater. Unions would want to supply the workforce.
“Construction work, and having local hires on construction jobs, is a priority,” Beck said.
In a break from other labor groups, leadership of the SEIU Local 205, which represents Metro public workers, advocated against financing the city’s new convention center prior to the council’s final approval. They worried bankrolling an expensive convention center would come at the expense of sufficiently paying public employees.
“We don’t want Nashville to fail,” said Freda Player of the local SEIU. She added that the focus is on union and local participation now that the project has begun. “We hope the convention center sustains itself,” she said.
During the next council, Player said the SEIU’s priorities begin with strengthening Metro’s anti-privatization laws to protect bus drivers and other city workers. She said the goal is to pass legislation that would prevent Metro commissions, board and authorities from outsourcing public workers, a
measure that would have safeguarded custodians last year. Instead, Player said the average custodian salary has gone from $13 to below $9.
Though Dean’s recently approved budget for the 2011-2012 fiscal year instituted a onetime 1.5 percent bonus for city workers, Player pointed out that Metro employees haven’t received a full raise in four years. She said increased pay for public workers would continue to be something the SEIU pushes during the next council term.
“Some [city employees] have volunteered to take pay cuts to prevent layoffs, and now they’re feeling the pinch, too,” Player said.
As directed by the Metro Charter, the mayor in March appointed a five-member committee to review the benefits and soundness of Metro’s disability, retirement and medical plans for government workers. The panel includes one union representative, Steve Farner, assistant regional manager for the Laborers’ International Union of North America. [Some public employee unions had pushed for the appointment of someone with a public employee background.]
Metro Finance Director Rich Riebeling told The City Paper last week the committee has met two times and would likely produce recommendations within “six to nine months.” Catching the attention of labor unions is the possibility of Metro returning the city’s pension-vesting requirement to 10 years, as opposed to the current five-year mandate for receiving pensions.
“It’s on the table,” Riebeling said. “It’s a public policy, a philosophical issue. Historically, it was 10 years. It was changed to five and has stayed five. It’s something that just needs to be talked about. I don’t know if it’s a good idea or a bad idea.”
If a proposal for a 10-year vesting period for Metro pension goes before the council, expect most unions to fight it.
“That is a big concern for us,” Player said.