Spurned by legislature, unions look to impact next council

Monday, July 4, 2011 at 10:05pm
Lewis Beck (Jude Ferrara/SouthComm)

From coast to coast, labor unions — particularly those that represent public workers — have faced increasing pressure over the past year, with politicians charting new legislative courses to curb their influence. The Republican-dominated Tennessee state legislature helped carry the movement. 

Leading the list of anti-union efforts that prevailed in Tennessee this year is a new law that strips local teachers’ unions of their collective bargaining abilities with school boards. A less-publicized reform, among the others signed into law, overhauled workers’ compensation policies to give greater
protections to employers, while another eliminated labor disputes as a reason for issuing injunctions under the state’s workplace violence law. 

“Tennessee under Gov. Phil Bredesen and past governors has had a great pro-business climate,” Democratic state Rep. Mike Stewart said. “But it was not until this legislative session that you saw an effort to gut workers’ rights at every opportunity.”  

On the heels of Tennessee’s 107th legislative session, union leaders aren’t calling Capitol Hill a lost cause. But it’s quickly become unfriendly territory, the culmination of consecutive years of sweeping Republican electoral victories. 

In contrast, Nashville’s labor leaders continue to find friends in the 40-member Metro Council, a body that while nonpartisan operates more to the political center-left. And that political atmosphere — a state legislature hostile to unions versus a more receptive council — has Nashville union organizers eyeing the upcoming Aug. 4 Metro election to shore up the local influence they say they still enjoy, while still looking ahead to issues the next council could help settle. 

“I’ve heard it termed by labor and incumbent council people that we’ve got two islands in Tennessee — one in Davidson County and one in Shelby County,” said Lewis Beck, president of the Central Labor Council of Nashville and Middle Tennessee, which has 35 local unions under its political umbrella. “We’ve got to protect our island.” 

With early voting beginning July 15, union leaders are going through the typical election rituals at a time when they say the importance of local races has heightened. They’ve submitted questionnaires, interviewed candidates and announced endorsements that, not surprisingly, tend to include the names of left-leaning members, and not their conservative counterparts. (An exception seems to be the local Services Employees International Union, which endorsed several conservatives.)

Though he declined to identify individual races, Beck said he believes labor could “take a hit or two,” but could make advancements elsewhere in the next council. He said the current council approved the majority of labor-backed ordinances with large majorities.  

“I think we’ll still come out with a progressive council,” Beck said. “But there are some races that we’ll have to watch closely.” 

Like previous election years, unions have organized political action committees and 527 groups to direct money to candidates they support. Meanwhile, notable local Republicans have targeted the council’s handful of conservatives and assisted in fundraising events to help their re-election bids. A clearer fundraising picture should be available after July 11, when financial disclosures for the most recent period are due. 

Tennessee is a right-to work state and has never had the strong union identification of the Rust Belt. But the upcoming elections come as labor membership in Tennessee and Nashville continues to decline steadily. 

Eddie Bryan, retiring this fall after a 32-year run as treasurer of the Tennessee AFL-CIO, estimated that 7 percent of Tennessee workers belong to unions today, down from 12 percent not long ago. He chalked the reduction up to various manufacturing plant closures across the state. 

In Middle Tennessee, recent layoffs at the Saturn plant in Spring Hill, the closure of Peterbilt Motor Co. in Madison and cuts at Bridgetown in La Vergne have contributed to the Central Labor Council’s membership reduction by some 25 to 30 percent over the past five years. 

“We’ve become a service country instead of a manufacturing country,” Bryan said. 

Union members in Nashville are broadly divided into three camps: public employees, building trades and industrial/factory workers. Those who represent the three areas are generally, but not always, on the same page. 


Recent Metro actions dealt one major blow to organized labor. At the request of Director of Schools Jesse Register, the Metro Nashville Board of Education and later the council approved a budget last year that privatized more than 600 custodial positions, which effectively reduced salaries and hours. In the years ahead, union heads fear the privatization of school bus drivers could be next and are already advocating against it. Halting the privatization trend is a major labor goal for the unions, along with the continual pitch to raise public employee salaries. 

On the construction front, most union leaders privately acknowledge they were “late to the game” in advocating for union involvement in the building of the $585 million Music City Center, the state’s most expensive municipal project ever. Nonetheless, today there’s a general — but not universal — sense that organized labor is benefiting 18 months into the center’s construction. 

Anthony Nicholson, president of the Nashville Building and Construction Trades Council, said more than 50 percent of workers at the Music City Center site are union members, though he acknowledged not all unions were successful in getting work. As of April, 62 percent of all Music City Center workers were residents of Davidson County and 74 percent of Tennessee, according to Convention Center Authority spokeswoman Holly McCall. 

“We feel fortunate that we’ve got 50 percent of the work,” Nicholson said, adding workers are being paid state-prevailing wages. “The local participation is there because the union crafts that are down there are working local people.” 

The second component of the Music City Center project is just under way, with last month’s groundbreaking for the adjacent $273 million Omni Hotel. But given the private nature of its construction, unions seem to be conceding the possibility that they might not play a major role. Brasfield & Gorrie has been tapped as Omni’s general contractor. 

“We’re working on that,” Nicholson said, “but we’re not having a lot of dialogue with Brasfield & Gorrie. That hotel being a privately funded entity makes it a little harder to have a dialogue.” 

Future large-scale municipal construction projects could arise during the next four years. The ownership group of the Nashville Sounds is angling for a new downtown stadium, and Mayor Karl Dean has commissioned a study to look at potential sites. In addition, several entities have approached the mayor’s office about a new amphitheater. Unions would want to supply the workforce. 

“Construction work, and having local hires on construction jobs, is a priority,” Beck said. 

In a break from other labor groups, leadership of the SEIU Local 205, which represents Metro public workers, advocated against financing the city’s new convention center prior to the council’s final approval. They worried bankrolling an expensive convention center would come at the expense of sufficiently paying public employees. 

“We don’t want Nashville to fail,” said Freda Player of the local SEIU. She added that the focus is on union and local participation now that the project has begun. “We hope the convention center sustains itself,” she said.  

During the next council, Player said the SEIU’s priorities begin with strengthening Metro’s anti-privatization laws to protect bus drivers and other city workers. She said the goal is to pass legislation that would prevent Metro commissions, board and authorities from outsourcing public workers, a measure that would have safeguarded custodians last year. Instead, Player said the average custodian salary has gone from $13 to below $9.

Though Dean’s recently approved budget for the 2011-2012 fiscal year instituted a onetime 1.5 percent bonus for city workers, Player pointed out that Metro employees haven’t received a full raise in four years. She said increased pay for public workers would continue to be something the SEIU pushes during the next council term. 

“Some [city employees] have volunteered to take pay cuts to prevent layoffs, and now they’re feeling the pinch, too,” Player said. 

As directed by the Metro Charter, the mayor in March appointed a five-member committee to review the benefits and soundness of Metro’s disability, retirement and medical plans for government workers. The panel includes one union representative, Steve Farner, assistant regional manager for the Laborers’ International Union of North America. [Some public employee unions had pushed for the appointment of someone with a public employee background.] 

Metro Finance Director Rich Riebeling told The City Paper last week the committee has met two times and would likely produce recommendations within “six to nine months.” Catching the attention of labor unions is the possibility of Metro returning the city’s pension-vesting requirement to 10 years, as opposed to the current five-year mandate for receiving pensions. 

“It’s on the table,” Riebeling said. “It’s a public policy, a philosophical issue. Historically, it was 10 years. It was changed to five and has stayed five. It’s something that just needs to be talked about. I don’t know if it’s a good idea or a bad idea.” 

If a proposal for a 10-year vesting period for Metro pension goes before the council, expect most unions to fight it. 

“That is a big concern for us,” Player said. 

14 Comments on this post:

By: titm on 7/5/11 at 5:10

There was a time when unions were needed, those days are long gone. Now, its just greed, corruption and politics. Unions are most of the reason our jobs are going to other countries, unions are why our Auto manufacturers are bankrupt, unions are why our kid are not getting the education they need. When will they learn that our economy cannot keep pace with their redicules demands. Here's a clue..General Motors. As for elected offecials, if they are for unions they are either corrupted or idiots. Either way I would want them in any office.

By: imdyinhere on 7/5/11 at 5:26

"Unions are most of the reason our jobs are going to other countries, unions are why our Auto manufacturers are bankrupt, unions are why our kid are not getting the education they need."

Bull. Accountants, CEOs and stockholders are responsible for making those decisions which, each year, strip more and more financial and political power from the working classes.

By: richgoose on 7/5/11 at 5:33

Labor unions can only thrive where labor is in short demand. In a few years our unemployment rate will be no better than today and possibly worse. The underemployment rate will stand at about 15%. This means that the sum total of those people (25%) would gladly forego a union in order to have a decent paying job. Union jobs work well in Germany and Europe because because the birth rate is declining.

By: Nitzche on 7/5/11 at 6:28

jimmy hoffa, where art thou?

By: Radix on 7/5/11 at 7:22

Mike Stewart just lost my vote. Worker protections are one thing, but modern unions are shakedown operations, full of greed, and they are quicksand to the job creators in the economy. I hope Stewart and others will start to see that.

By: Radix on 7/5/11 at 7:25

"Eddie Bryan, retiring this fall after a 32-year run as treasurer of the Tennessee AFL-CIO, estimated that 7 percent of Tennessee workers belong to unions today, down from 12 percent not long ago. He chalked the reduction up to various manufacturing plant closures across the state. "

Hello....? Case and point.

By: GammaMoses on 7/5/11 at 7:30

If you want to see the effect of unions on city business, look at Chicago's McCormick Place. The union wages are so high in Chicago, trade shows have moved their business to Las Vegas, Florida. Does Nashville want the same thing to happen to them?

By: Moonglow1 on 7/5/11 at 9:52

Moonglow1: The key here is the following comment: “Tennessee under Gov. Phil Bredesen and past governors has had a great pro-business climate,” Democratic state Rep. Mike Stewart said. “But it was not until this legislative session that you saw an effort to gut workers’ rights at every opportunity.”

What this means is that Tennessee can have a pro labor market and economic growth. It is simply untrue that the unions are the cause of all evil in the world. No the unions are not causing companies to move to China, but greed is motivating multinationals to outsource to China. No the unions are not irrelevant in today's society, but multinational corporate greed should be irrelevant. No the unions are not driving up the cost of goods, but highly paid non performing CEOs are driving up the cost of goods.

Pay the middle class and lower middle a decent wage. They will spend the money and stimulate the economy. Instead, we have only the wealthy and then every one else.

And those of you working a 40 hour work week with paid overtime thank the unions. With the greed permeating the Tea Party Republicans, unions are needed more than ever. It is actually worse for labor than it was in the 1930s.

Based on the comments which are probably representative of the middle class in TN, it seems most of you appreciate your low wages, long hours, and having no voice or right to collectively bargain unlike the corporations who have their lobbyists. You like being in the bottom of the economic ladder. If so, well then you got the government you want.

You want it baby you got it!!!!

By: localboy on 7/5/11 at 9:54

I think a lot of people trip up over the results of union involvement ie if you want to work on a job site as a sub you have to be union approved or your work force has to be union members. If non-union contractors can work alongside at the job site, much less backlash would be evident. This insistence on exclusivity is like beating the goose that laid the golden egg - you haven't killed it yet but you're getting there...

By: pswindle on 7/5/11 at 12:03

We need unions. They protect more than wages. Since the Teacher's Unions in TN was done away with. The first thing that I read was that classs sizes will increase. You bet they will. This is just the beginning.

By: govskeptic on 7/5/11 at 1:38

Nice long article with lots of quotes, but really said nothing to improve the lot of Unions.
The Metro Council push is to keep the Service Employees Union strong within
Metro Government and hopefully add to it with other taxpayer funded union members.
Thanks, but no thanks, and the above statement on increasing class sizes-silly!

By: bfra on 7/5/11 at 6:17

Moonglow1 - No the unions are not driving up the cost of goods, but highly paid non performing CEOs are driving up the cost of goods.

Best comment on the board - That could start with TVA's CEO & his million $ bonuses.

By: pswindle on 7/5/11 at 6:31

Metro has already said that class size will increase next year. govskeptic, keep up.
A family member taught school with 42 children in her 2nd class room. This was before Unions. I can't beleve that the school board has already given the Director two more years on his contact. When he gets through, all service people will be cut.
And who is hired for low, low wages, you got it. Is the work well done? What do you thnk? How many is added to the unemployment? I have never understood why no one in Nashvile is capable of being Director? No one knows Nashville like a native.
Unions are needed bcause most employers will not play fair.

By: cashnthings on 7/5/11 at 7:58

It amazes me how many people still buy into the corporate propaganda that Unions are the worst thing in the world. I geuss if workers would just be happy working for nothing the big mega company's would not have to ship our good paying jobs overseas so they can pay slave wages. And since when is small goverment only cutting workers pay not getting rid of red light cameras on every corner or stoping the TSA from grouping everyone at the Airport. I recon in third world countrys Unions are not realivent so since we are fast approching that status they really are irrealvent for us to. We don't need them getting in the way of big profits for the Mega Corporations.