Unions voice still heard in political circles

NWI Times

Union membership may be declining nationally but their voice in political circles has not grown quiet.

Even as the country's labor landscape continues evolving and some jobs move offshore, mostly in manufacturing and traditional union strongholds, unions have not let up on advocating for their members. The National Institute for Labor Relations Research’s 2016 Election Cycle Analysis of big labor political spending estimates unions spent $1.7 billion during the 2016 election cycle.

While unions mostly are associated with labor, the reach of unions extends beyond that traditional group, said Marie Eisenstein, associate professor of political science at Indiana University Northwest.

"Unions have a huge voice in electoral politics," Eisenstein said. "What people don't always consider is that unions don't just cover blue collar labor. There are public sector unions who are likely to (have members who are) college educated, including teachers, police and firefighters and government employees."

Eisenstein said when people think of labor in the historical sense, unions can be credited for improving working conditions, better pay and securing benefits for workers. During the past four decades, other industry sectors, including some white collar positions, followed suit with labor unions, got organized and also realized benefits.

"Pay and even benefits in many instances for the federal government workforce generally is better than what people who may hold similar positions in the private sector (receive)," Eisenstein said.

U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Merrillville, said he regularly meets with labor groups to remain updated on their concerns. He said in August he met with Region representatives of the Teamsters, carpenters union and United Steelworkers.

"Their greatest concern is the retention and creation of good paying jobs and growing the Northwest Indiana economy," Visclosky said.

He said through meetings with labor groups, it's provided him with more insight on fair trade, which has led to successes in improving trade enforcement laws and implementing "Buy American" requirements.

"I will continue to do all I can to amplify the voice of workers in Washington, D.C.," Visclosky said. "I (also) will continue to support organized labor in their quest for fair wages, a sound retirement, a safe workplace and good affordable health care."

Eisenstein said as membership in traditional union groups decline, whether their voice remains heard is uncertain.

"'Will it be sustainable?' That's the more difficult question to answer," she said. "Where will they be 10 years from now as their ranks get smaller and older."