Laborers salute union as it reaches 100 years

Chicago Post-Tribune

Dennis Ward was raised in a union family, and thought it was important to attend Laborers' International Union of North America Local 81s 100th anniversary celebration.

"It's a big accomplishment for the working class for a union to be around 100 years and still striving," he said last week at the union hall on Valparaiso's southeast side, surrounded by more than 400 fellow members and their supporters.

Ward, of Griffith, is the superintendent for a labor contractor at U.S. Steel in Gary. Unions, he said, have brought workers better wages and benefits that they wouldn't have otherwise, even in the face of negative stereotypes and right-to-work laws.

"My grandfather was in this union in the 1950s. He came from Yugoslavia and he was in this union. It was a family thing. We were raised a certain way," he said, adding his father was a 50-year worker at Bethlehem Steel, now ArcelorMittal in Burns Harbor.

Before the official celebration began with speakers and applause, LIUNA representatives said their numbers both locally and nationally are up over past years.

They credited responsible bidding ordinances passed by local municipalities and the $305 billion in federal funds for road and related infrastructure projects through the Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act, signed into law by then-President Barack Obama in December 2015.

Local 81 has 1,258 members in Porter, Starke, LaPorte and part of Lake counties, said Mike Campbell, the union's business manager. Membership has gone up since the state passed right-to-work legislation several years ago, he said.

A growing number of municipalities, including Porter County, have passed responsible bidding ordinances, which set standards for how well a contractor’s employees are trained and other measures.

"We're a big part of that," Campbell said. "We haven't lost one member. We fight for the middle class and that's what it's all about – a living wage."

LIUNA has 421 locals across North America, said Terry O'Sullivan, the union's general president, and that includes 510,000 members, mostly in construction.

"As an entire organization, we will exceed our all-time high membership," he said, adding the growth started a couple years ago with the FAST Act, which provided long-term funding for large infrastructure projects, including bridges. That membership here also has increased with the state's gas tax, which provides funding for roadwork, he added.

LIUNA was chartered in 1903 and Local 81 followed in Gary 15 years later, one of the union's first locals, Campbell and O'Sullivan said.

At the time LIUNA got its start, construction workers and laborers belonged to independent unions tied to the company they worked for across the U.S. That changed with LIUNA.

"They finally had a banner, a chartered entity they could join," O'Sullivan said.

Out in the meeting room, members gathered at tables festooned with orange tablecloths and grabbed a bite to eat, chatting and shaking hands as the program began.

U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Gary, congratulated the members on their accomplishment.

"You don't last as an organization for 100 years unless you serve each other, unless you anticipate the future, unless you leave the world a better place," he said. Local 81 was recognized last week by the U.S. House of Representatives, he said.

The celebration, said David Frye, business manager for the Indiana State District Council, was about Local 81 and what it stands for.

The reputation the local has built "is absolutely second to none," he said, going on to note the union's move in recent years from a small building downtown to its new building in the Eastport Centre business complex.

"Look at this room. Look at the diversity in this room," Frye said. "You should be proud you will be here another 100 years."