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Organized labor's big moment

How much clout do Rhode Island's unions wield, circa 2011? We're about to find out
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  September 15, 2011

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The public discussion around organized labor's influence on Rhode Island politics is a crude business.

Tune into talk radio or thumb through the editorial pages and you'll find a narrative that sounds something like this: corrupt union bosses, hellbent on bankrupting the state, own Smith Hill.

The caricature of an all-powerful labor movement is easily dismissed; in an age of austerity, the story of union power is a story of decline.

But the discussion shouldn't end there. There is still an important question to consider — a question that, ironically, gets short shrift in the overheated debate: how much juice do the state's unions actually have, circa 2011?

There is no easy answer. The labor agenda is broad, after all, its progress best measured in years, not months.

But if you were looking for a single indicator of organized labor's power these days, the looming battle over the state's $6.8 billion pension crisis is about as good as you could find.

With public employee retirement costs eating an ever-growing hole in the budget, Rhode Island Treasurer Gina Raimondo and Governor Lincoln Chafee are planning to unveil their Big Fix in the coming weeks.

While the precise contours of the proposal are unclear, significant cuts in retirement benefits seem likely. And if the General Assembly signs off on the plan next month, thousands of teachers, janitors, and secretaries could be in for a life-changing jolt.

"It is the fight" for Rhode Island's unions, says one well-placed State House insider. A real test, he says, of "how much clout they still have here."

A real test, in other words, of how far labor has fallen.


'WE TOOK THINGS FOR GRANTED'

Nationwide, the organized labor is in sharp decline.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in January that union membership dropped to 11.9 percent in 2010.

That's just one-third the peak unionization rate of 35 percent in the mid-1950s, following major organizing drives during the Great Depression and the post-World War II boom years.

Labor has taken a particularly big hit in the private sector. In 2009, government employees made up more than half of the nation's unionized work force for the first time.

In Rhode Island, public- and private-sector labor has fared better than elsewhere. Last year, 16.4 percent of the state's workers were unionized, ranking ninth in the country behind New York, Alaska, Hawaii, Washington, California, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Michigan.

But the figure still represents a significant drop-off from 21.5 percent in 1983, the first year for which state-specific data are available.

George Nee, president of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO, says the decline in membership comes as the state's Democratic establishment, beset by a series of budget crises, has tacked to the right on fiscal issues.

And with shrinking constituencies in the union halls and the State House, he says, labor has been forced to work smarter. "We took things for granted in the past," he says. "We don't anymore."

Lately, unions have placed a greater emphasis on collaborating with environmentalists, women's groups, and other liberal advocates. And operatives are making increasingly sophisticated use of voter databases to target supporters in local and statewide races.

Last year, labor played a key role in ousting four conservative Democratic state legislators in primaries. And it helped deliver Chafee's victory in a four-way gubernatorial race.

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  Topics: News Features , Politics, Rhode Island, Pensions,  More more >
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