How About This? In Rhode Island, ‘Unions Still Rule’ - Membership May Be Down, But As Construction Sector Eyes Rebound, Labor's Political Power Remains Formidable
(PROVIDENCE, RHODE ISLAND) - When a proposal to build the first new hotel in Providence in nearly a decade ran into opposition last summer, a few hundred Unionized Contractors and Laborers filled the City Council's ornate chambers. They squeezed together on the elegant wooden benches and stood along the back of the room. Half of them were unemployed during the peak season for construction, Michael Sabitoni, a Rhode Island Union Leader, told council members. Most Union Workers live in Providence, and 67% of them voted in the last election, he said pointedly. "We need to get it rolling with all construction," he said. "Not just ‘limited’ or ‘select’ construction, but ‘all’ construction."
Everyone in the audience understood the message.
Despite membership numbers that have ebbed in recent years, Unionized Workers have clout, beyond a single project or issue.
In Rhode Island, Union Votes get people elected, and can get them knocked out in primaries, according to professors at several universities who have expertise in Organized Labor.
Unions are politically savvy and in the digital age have become more sophisticated in using technology to reach their audience and Members, according to Scott Molloy, a Professor of Labor and Personnel Relations at the University of Rhode Island” "If you go into a primary election where the turnout is usually very meager, if the Labor Movement ‘gets all of its folks together’ - they can ‘make the difference in a very tight race.’ They've been ‘doing that for a long time.’"
Nationally, Union Membership is dropping, to just 11% of the workforce in 2015, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Rhode Island, which remains among the Most-Unionized States, had 14% of its workforce counted as Union Members, a decrease of 1% from 2014. That still ranks the state 12th nationally for percentage of the workforce that's Unionized – the second-highest in New England.
Rhode Island's membership rate has held relatively steady over the past decade, though its makeup has shifted, according to George Nee, who serves as President of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO, even as the National Union Rate has fallen: "We have a ‘very high percentage’ of the Public-Sector Workforce that’s organized. We're still having growth in that area." In just the past year, 500 Adjunct Faculty at Community College of Rhode Island were organized, he said.
New growth in Union Membership has also come from the Service Unions, including at Rhode Island hospitals. In the past 20 years, he said, that movement has grown in force, even as other industries, such as manufacturing, have shed Union Positions. "It's not like people ‘leave’ the Labor Movement," Nee said. "It's that the companies ‘they worked for leave.’ There's always the ‘inference,’ that there's ‘less’ members because people ‘don't want’ Unions. That's not the case."
One of the Union Segments that has lost members, but whose leaders say has retained its power, is in Organized Construction Labor. The number of Union Workers represented by the Rhode Island Building Trades Association has decreased since the economic recession, from a height of 11,000 pre-recession, to about 8,500 this year.
That doesn't mean the political influence has waned, said Sabitoni, who is president of the organization: "The numbers are market-driven. The fact that we've lost membership is the impact that the recession had on the construction industry, which then affected the demand for skilled tradesmen and women in Rhode Island."
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