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Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
A crowd gathers outside Citizens Square before the City Council meeting May 13, when proposals to ban collective bargaining for city workers were to be introduced.

Collective bargaining still divisive

City put end to union negotiations, but issues raised remain unresolved


– Bluffton resident David Dahl believes he’s standing on the shoulders of union giants.

The 31-year-old home-goods salesman credits organized labor for better wages and benefits for all workers.

“It really is what (middle-class) America was built on,” Dahl said. “I’m not in a union, but I know their importance. Getting rid of collective bargaining like they did was just another potshot. There’s no protection against overbearing or unfair employers.”

Fort Wayne City Council voted last month to override Mayor Tom Henry’s veto of the new prohibition on collective bargaining for municipal employees who are not police or firefighters.

The council’s decision ends negotiations with the unions that represent about 500 city employees.

The move comes as union membership in the Hoosier State is declining, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. There were 249,000 represented workers last year, a 17.5 percent drop from 302,000 union members in 2011, the best showing in the past five years.

The issue has been divisive, to say the least, and it sends a negative message about the area to those living outside the Summit City, said labor advocate Heather Boushey. She works in the nation’s capital as executive director and chief economist at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, a research and grant-making institution. She also is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.

“It’s just more chipping and hammering away at employees’ right to have a voice at work,” Boushey said. “Ending collective bargaining gives the employer enormous power. Basically, they have all the power.”

Boushey said it’s not just about wages: The end of collective bargaining muzzles any chance at meaningful dialogue between employer and employee, she said.

“They won’t have any real input on decisions about safety, who gets fired first or anything like that,” she said. “You’re taking away the ability to have discussions to improve working conditions.”

Bruce Getts is treasurer of the Northeast Indiana Central Labor Council AFL-CIO, which assists unions and workers in the region. He said organized labor is unquestionably under assault, but he isn’t conceding a victory to foes.

“We’re not going to just walk away, and it’s too early to say what all of this will mean,” said Getts, also business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 723, which represented 62 of Fort Wayne’s parks workers.

“This whole thing is an attack by the Republican establishment to break unions in the public sector like it’s doing in the private sector.”

Councilman John Crawford, R-at large, disagrees.

He and Russ Jehl, R-2nd, authored the proposal to end collective bargaining. All six Republicans – Crawford; Jehl; Tom Smith, 1st; Tom Didier, 3rd; Mitch Harper, 4th; and Marty Bender, at large – were in favor of ending collective bargaining; all three Democrats – Geoff Paddock, 5th; Glynn Hines, 6th; and John Shoaff, at large – opposed it.

Crawford maintains that the change won’t automatically cut wages and benefits down the pike. Once people have a chance to calm down, they’ll see the changes aren’t as bad as they imagine, he said.

“On his first day in office, (former) Gov. Daniels ended collective bargaining at the state level, and we seem to be doing just fine,” Crawford said.

In 2012, Indiana became the first Rust Belt state to enact right-to-work legislation, which prevents unions from requiring nonunion workers to pay dues. It was – and still is – seen as a devastating defeat for organized labor in a state where unions once wielded much influence.

But Crawford said Hoosiers are faring well, as unemployment is on the decline and business activity is strong.

Besides, there are other ways workers and their employers can interact, including bipartisan groups and company think tanks, he said.

Perhaps, but the absence of collective bargaining means city administrators don’t have to negotiate with the six unions that represent city employees. Supporters say the change is crucial because unions force taxpayers to pay workers above-market wages and benefits.

Kroger Co. believes it has balanced its union and nonunion workforce.

John Elliott, public affairs manager for the Cincinnati chain’s central division, which includes 136 stores in Indiana and Illinois, said 75 percent of Kroger’s 375,000 U.S. employees work under collective bargaining agreements.

“Like with anything else, if you’re open and honest with people, you get a better outcome,” Elliott said.

The retailer obviously has something going for it. Last year, it recorded $98.4 billion in sales, a nearly 2 percent increase. And the company has had 42 consecutive quarters of same-store sales growth.

Boushey finds it hard to believe that part of the success isn’t due to employees who have a bargaining table.

“You can’t say you want the best and the brightest and then dis your present workforce,” she said. “That’s ludicrous, and it’s stupid to think you’re going to get people to work for you.”