Corporate breaks or a good wage?

By Courtney Sherwood, Columbian freelance writer

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With big piggy banks to back their lobbying, unions are powerful players in Olympia and Washington, D.C. But as manufacturing has become an ever-smaller part of our economy, I’ve assumed that unions’ influence in ordinary people’s lives has diminished.

It turns out that I was wrong, at least in Washington state.

Nationwide, unions have contracted nearly 10 percent in the past 25 years, with 1.7 million members leaving since 1985.

But unions operating in this state have actually grown by 41.5 percent in the same period, adding more than 168,000 members. One in five working people in Washington is in a union.

Many are public employees, such as teachers or firefighters, but a good number of them work in the private sector as electricians, longshoremen or in manufacturing jobs.

Wherever they work, union supporters feel under fire. People frustrated with the quality of schools blame unions for protecting ineffective teachers. Business lobbyists bash unions as bad for competition.

In Clark County and across the state, unions are being asked to agree to pay more for health insurance, accept weaker pension plans and forgo raises on which they had counted.

Wisconsin’s governor wants to take away many bargaining rights altogether, which has spurred tens of thousands of union members there to walk off the jobs and storm the state house.

With so many nonunion workers facing furloughs, layoffs and benefit cuts, it’s hard to have too much sympathy for the Vancouver firefighters who pushed for 8.2 percent raises from a cash-strapped city. (They’re in arbitration discussions right now.)

If the state is slashing everything in the face of a fiscal disaster, it’s got to seek concessions from union workers, right?

I asked Brad Clark, president of International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 4 in Vancouver, to defend organized labor. He made some pretty compelling points.

Unions brought an end to child labor, fought for eight-hour work days and pushed for workplace safety laws when horrible accidents were common. Weekends were a union initiative. It’s no coincidence that in the past 25 years, as unions have waned nationally (if not in Washington), the gap between rich and poor has grown ever bigger.

Clark says people have the right to band together to ask for decent pay. “I make a good living,” he said. “But I don’t make as much as the people who run these businesses, and I’m the one that does the work.”

He also points out that some of the business groups that bash unions for draining state budgets turn around and ask for handouts for themselves. Businesses operating in the state keep $4.5 billion every year because of tax breaks. Get rid of those, and you’d eliminate the entire 2011-2013 state budget deficit, with money left over.

We shouldn’t eliminate all the state’s business tax breaks, of course. Tax incentives can create jobs by luring companies or spur them to grow.

Still, it’s odd that tax breaks for wealthy corporations are off the table, but not the retirement plans of middle-class folks who’ve spent decades on the job.

Courtney Sherwood is The Columbian’s business and features editor. Reach her at 360-735-4561 or courtney.sherwood@columbian.com.