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A ‘Perfect storm’ for organized labor is forming over Texas

by on
in Employee Benefits Program,Employment Law,Human Resources

For Texas employers, the long-range forecast shows an unstable union atmosphere over the next several years, with pressure building from health care costs, outsourcing and immigration reform. As the united front of the AFL-CIO and the new Change to Win union blow through the state, damage may be significant.

As Congress and President Bush wrangle over immigration reform, unions are attempting to exploit the immigration issue in targeted industries. Labor leaders have been at the forefront of the immigration debate, arguing that all workers—American or foreign-born—are entitled to a lengthy list of rights. Organizers have made inroads with claims of job security, increased benefits and higher pay.

In workplaces employing large numbers of immigrants, employers walk a tightrope. Nothing illustrated that better than last spring's "Day Without an Immigrant" protests. Many employers closed or gave immigrant workers the day off to participate in the protests. Employers realized that they are under scrutiny from unions, immigrant workers and immigration authorities.

The employer response to the protests highlights the complex and potentially explosive immigration reform issue. Unions see this too.

Unions focus on ‘immovable' jobs

Frustrated by years of declining union membership, a coalition of six unions broke away from the AFL-CIO last year. The so-called Change to Win group is fueling new interest in organizing and campaign fund raising. New statistics show both groups exhibiting a record fund-raising pace for the 2006 elections.

Both organizations are flexing their political and organizing muscles. "Change to Win" concentrates on jobs that can't be sent out of the country. For example, one target in Texas, Durham School Services in Austin, provides bus service to several local school districts.

Health care workers present an especially tempting target for union organizers. Because of staffing shortages, hospitals often ask nurses to work long hours. Unions also target other immovable employees, including security guards and teachers.

The health care issue plays nicely into organizers' hands as well. Sporting the highest rate of uninsured workers in the nation, Texas may be breeding worker discontent.

Unions push legislative action

As unions escalate organizing efforts, their legislative initiatives continue as well. Union-backed health care bills have been proposed in 30 states. They use the most common approach, the so-called "Fair Share" bill, in which large employers would be required to allocate a certain payroll percentage to health care, or else pay a fine.

For instance, a bill pending in New Hampshire would require businesses with 1,500 or more employees to spend 10.5 percent of their payroll on employee health care or pay into the state's Medicaid fund. Kentucky's bill would require employers with 10,000 or more workers in the state to pay 8 percent of payroll in health care.

The Maryland legislature passed such a bill, which adopted Kentucky's 10,000/8 percent formula. The lawmakers aimed the bill squarely at Wal-Mart, the only employer of that size in the state. But a court in July overturned the first-of-its-kind legislation, saying the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act pre-empts such state action.

Bottom line: Expect unions to promise job security in an era of downsizing, health care for the uninsured and higher wages for workers shouldering record energy costs. It's an attractive message that you'll be fighting against in the years to come.  

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