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An uphill battle: Labor Day a reminder labor movement still fights for workers

Members and supporters of AFSCME Local 66 march by Duluth City Hall during an informational picket in March 2010. File / News Tribune

Scanning through Bureau of Labor Statistics reports, a few recent headlines might cause some concern for labor organizers.

"Union membership declines in 2010."

"Union membership declines in 2012."

"Union membership rate 10.7 percent in 2016."

Though the Twin Ports remains highly unionized, at least compared with much of the nation, the story here is much the same. That's not to say there aren't people trying to fight the decline.

"There have been people beating the drum talking about the demise of the labor movement for a long time — ever since it was created," said Larry Sillanpaa, editor of Duluth's Labor World newspaper. "We still have a labor paper in this town. We still have a very viable labor temple in this town, and we're not going away."

He pointed to new signs on the London Road union headquarters; labor candidates for School Board and City Council; recent organizing and contract efforts; and the high-profile push for paid sick and safe time.

"The labor movement isn't anything if it isn't trying to help other members of the working community," Sillanpaa said.

Yet not every decision affecting workers has been — or will be — local.

"The 2016 elections were not good news for labor, and I do not see any immediate prospects for change," said Richard Hudelson, author of "By the Ore Docks: A Working People's History of Duluth." "But there's clearly some dysfunctionality in the economy and politics, and that creates a very volatile situation. So I fear slow, continued decline, but I think the conditions are so unstable that some breakthrough could happen."

New book

Hudelson was working on the index of his new book on labor, "Legacy Costs," when he talked to the News Tribune last week.

"The general idea is that choices we made in the past are now bearing down on us," he said. "The Scandinavian countries picked a better post-World War II strategy, and they're doing better than we are."

Looking at changes in national labor law here compared to what has happened in Western Europe, Hudelson makes the case that income inequality, poverty and economic insecurity is tied to the weakening of unions and a more insular approach by labor to addressing workers' issues.

"The problems we face are not unique to the United States, but they're sharper and producing more negative consequences," he said.

National union affiliation was more than 20 percent in 1983 and has dropped to 10.7 percent as of 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In Minnesota, the rate has fallen from 23.2 percent in 1983 to 14.2 percent last year. In that same time frame — and especially since the turn of the century — wage growth has slowed notably.

One silver lining for organized labor: BLS data shows that in the Twin Ports region union wages remain higher across every occupation compared to nonunion pay.

And nationally, 61 percent of Americans approve of labor unions, according to a Gallup poll released Wednesday, the highest percentage since 2003. A new high of 39 percent of respondents also said unions should have greater influence.

"The unions played a historic role in saying, 'Hey, wait a minute, we need to share the wealth that's being produced.'" And they managed to do that," Hudelson said. "There was greater sharing from roughly 1940 to 1970. But as unions have declined in power, there's less sharing."

Hudelson said "Legacy Costs" is due late this fall from Hard Ball Press, though he did not have a firm date yet.

No rest

If you see Larry Sillanpaa today, it won't be for long. As is his usual tradition, he'll be running from event to event to cover Labor Day in the Northland with all its picnics, parades and politics.

"Duluth is my hometown, and I'm embedded in labor movement," he said. "I've worked out of the labor temple since 1974 — these are my people."

As evidenced by the push for sick and safe time, labor here has a more encompassing view than in other corners of the country — that is, solidarity is shared among all workers, not just fellow members.

"We're big supporters of that effort," Sillanpaa said. "Even though most of our union members have those kind of protections in their union contracts."

Alan Netland, president of the North East Area Labor Council, said labor locally has lately been on the same page, and "that is not always the case."

He also said a younger generation is stepping up just as a wave of Baby Boomers is set to retire from the workforce, union or not.

"I am personally encouraged by younger workers getting more involved in our unions locally," Netland said. "Realizing they have a stake in determining our future and taking action is great to see.

Beyond growing, organizing and contract negotiating, as is happening at Whole Foods Co-op, at the University of Minnesota Duluth, in Duluth public schools and elsewhere, advocates say the biggest challenge for the state's labor community will be electing a governor whose party has "labor" in its name.

"The 2018 elections are in everybody's face, because without Mark Dayton being the DFL governor, we would have been a 'right to work' state a couple of years ago," Sillanpaa said.

That Minnesota isn't speaks to its much higher union participation rate than its neighbors to the west, south and east, which have all passed laws that limit the ability of unions to require dues or membership. Sillanpaa said Wisconsin has been a "petri dish" to study in the wake of Gov. Scott Walker's pushback on unions there.

"The struggle continues," Sillanpaa said. "We are here to accept the challenge and do what we can to improve the lives of working folks."

Brooks Johnson

Brooks is an investigative/enterprise reporter and business columnist at the Duluth News Tribune.

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