A national atmosphere that has often been hostile to unions and the union movement has also eroded the membership of local unions, whose numbers dropped as unemployment rose during the recession.
Still, local leaders say they’re encouraged and that there are signs that more employees in areas not known as labor strongholds are looking at union representation. On Thursday, fast food workers across the country — few of which are represented by unions — demonstrated in favor of the right to unionize and an increase in the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour, which is about $15,000 a year for full-time employees, to $15 an hour.
“It’s really an open door in the country right now,” Tom Willett, recording secretary and business agent for Teamsters Local 331, said of unions. “I’m surprised more working-class people aren’t walking through it, the way society and the economy is going right now.”
Local 331, based in Egg Harbor City, has about 1,500 members representing 70 contracts, Willett said.
“We do white collar, blue collar, county (workers), UPS, Coca-Cola, the beer industry, buses, construction and trade shows.” Willett said. “It’s not historically what people envision the Teamsters would be, but that ship sailed long ago.”
The Teamsters have recently done organizing drives at the Caesars Entertainment casino properties, Willett said, adding that he expects membership to increase by 500 or more by the end, “depending on the dynamics of the industry.”
The problem, Willett said, is that with the downturn in the casino industry since 2007, “we’re almost regressing to before casinos came to the area and are becoming a seasonal area.”
The union that represents about 12,000 casino employees, Local 54 of UNITE-HERE in Atlantic City, is down about 3,000 members since its height in 2006, President Bob McDevitt said — making up about a third of the 10,000 total jobs lost in that time.
“We’re not going to come back to a $5 billion-a-year industry, but we should have some stabilization,” McDevitt said. “As casinos add nongaming amenities, we should see some growth.”
While its contracts don’t allow casinos to open nonunion restaurants, a few grandfathered, pre-existing agreements allow labor to be subcontracted to nonunion workers at certain locations, including Margaritaville, which occupies the space once held by the nonunion restaurant Taboo at Resorts Casino Hotel. Tropicana Casino and Resort also has one more subcontract available to them, McDevitt said.
Bartenders at Resorts are unionized, however, and all other new restaurants and clubs, including Scores at Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort, are and will be unionized. Local 54 has also partnered with Teamsters Local 331 and the United Auto Workers Region 9 in an effort to unionize Revel Casino-Hotel.
McDevitt was critical of some properties for their downsizing over the years but said that “for the most part, casinos have kept as much staff as they could. It is a service industry.”
The key to union strength, McDevitt said, is that “the more a union spends on organizing, the more successful it’s going to be. We believe Revel will be union, Sugar House casino in Philadelphia will be union. That doesn’t happen because politicians made it happen. It happens because unions focus on organizing.”
Then there are the trade unions. While the Teamsters and Local 54 organize workers in different locations, unions such as Ironworkers Local 350 in Atlantic City and the United Association of Plumbers & Steamfitters Local 322 in Winslow Township, Camden County, depend on apprentice classes to grow their membership.
Local 322, which has a membership of about 1,900, has lost about 150 members since 2008, business manager Jim Kehoe said.
Meanwhile, Ironworkers Local 350 is still “holding our own,” said business agent Will Pauls, who is also the Republican candidate for an at-large Atlantic County freeholder seat. “Hiring for casino jobs right now has been pretty slow in the area, but after Labor Day, many bridges in South Jersey all the way down to Cape May will start (to be renovated), so construction guys should be going back to work.”
After casinos, one of the biggest growth industries in the area is the medical field, but union representation there is a mixed bag.
More than 400 registered nurses at Shore Medical Center in Somers Point voted in 2012 to continue to be represented by the New York State Nurses Association.
AtlantiCare in Galloway Township and Atlantic City has no union representation. The most recent organizing effort, by the Teamsters in the 1990s, was unsuccessful.
Health Professionals & Allied Employees (HPAE), however, has seen a huge increase in membership during the past 10 to 15 years, including nurses at Inspira Medical Center in Vineland and Inspira Health Center in Bridgeton, Southern Ocean Medical Center in Stafford Township, and hospitals in Camden, Gloucester and Salem counties.
“We have about 12,000 members,” HPAE Policy Director Jeanne Otersen said. “This union started almost 40 years ago ... as an independent union at Englewood Hospital” in Bergen County.
Richard Perniciaro, director of Atlantic Cape Community College's Center for Regional and Business Research, described the growing hospital sector as one of the places where unions could expand in the area. But for many working class, trade and hospitality unions, these days, “there’s not a lot of bargaining power.”
“Even in teachers unions, now the consolidation of districts tends to weaken bargaining power when things are shrinking,” Perniciaro said. “In South Jersey in particular, these are problematic trends.”
One factor contributing to the anti-union feeling in much of the country, Willett said, is the lack of education about what benefits and changes unions have brought to the average worker, dating to the eight-hour workday.
“Young people today are all told, ‘Unions are the cause of the problems in the country right now,’” Willett said.
Workers, he said, “are kind of being told this is the way it is, deal with it. And you look around and see different corporations making huge profits, and the increase of the housing industry. I don’t understand how this is all going on. Do we just have a messaging problem? ... No union, certainly not this one, is going to negotiate a contract (a company) can’t afford. That would put them out of business. The middle class — everybody — should be able to make a fair wage and a standard salary.”
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