Out of Control Policy Blog

When unions do the žexploitingÓ

An Ohio carpenters union targets contractors and property-management companies, which it says don't pay carpenters a standard wage of $22.50 an hour, pick up health-insurance premiums or offer pension packages. So they picket these establishments and engage in all the usual activities: they holler, hold signs, and pass out fliers.

But union members don't actually do the rabble-rousing themselves. They're too busy working, so they outsource the jobs to low-wage workers:

    The Ohio and Vicinity Regional Council of Carpenters has hired more than 160 central Ohioans who are down on their luck, homeless or between jobs.

Somehow the traditional union scorn for part-time, low-wage, zero-benefits jobs (not to mention outsourcing) disappears. The union hires these workers for 10 hours per week, at 8 bucks an hour, and apparently no benefits.

This isn't the first time this has happened. In Henderson, Nevada the UFCW recently targeted Wal-Mart and outsourced the picketing duties. The temporary workers protested in 104 degree heat, earned 6 bucks an hour and received no benefits. The "exploited" workers inside Wal-Mart enjoyed higher pay, benefits, and air conditioning.

This kind of union outsourcing happens fairly often, says Jim Graham, a Whitehall councilman who oversees the carpenters council's organizers.

    "This really isn't unusual. It's been done in Baltimore, Denver, San Diego, Miami, Atlanta, Louisville and Indianapolis." [See Russell Roberts for more of the same.]

    As the practice spreads, some people question whether the union's tactics are any better than the companies it criticizes [...]

    "How can they justify paying just above minimum wage when they're demanding more than $20 an hour for their members?" asked Dewey Phares, a 37-year-old carpenter from Hilliard who works at one of the picketed buildings on Capitol Square.

    "Shame on them. They should look in the mirror."

To be fair the union is paying well over minimum wage, but to borrow a common union refrain: "You can't support a family on 80 bucks a week!"

    "We're not taking advantage of anyone," Graham said.

He justifies the low wages by saying that picketers may have no prior work experience. Exactly. And even low wage jobs have value for they give workers some place to start:

    "They're giving people who are underemployed, unemployed or simply unemployable because of an addiction, disability, mental illness or other problem, a leg up," said Kent Beittel, executive director of the Open Shelter. "At the very least, our clients are making enough money for basic needs such as food. At the most, they're saving enough money to move into apartments or getting enough experience to move to better jobs."

In a 1995 court case a group called ACORN gave a very good summary of why mandated wages are a bad idea:

    According to ACORN, this adverse impact will be manifested in two ways: first, ACORN will be forced to hire fewer workers; second, its workers, if paid the minimum wage, will be less empathetic with ACORN's low and moderate income constituency and will therefore be less effective advocates.

BTW, as you may know, ACORN is one of the nation's most outspoken proponents of living wage legislation.

More on that here; via Russell Roberts.

Ohio article here; thanks to my colleague Geoff for the tip.

Ted Balaker is Producer


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