Monday February 4, 2013

ZEKE WRIGHT

Staff Writer

HOOSICK, N.Y. -- Although labor union numbers are in decline nationally, Teamsters Local 294 reports a string of local units including the town of Hoosick highway department that have recently organized.

Union contract negotiations -- while not acrimonious -- remain ongoing between the town and local bargaining unit, which is comprised of eight members of the highway department. The two parties have agreed to ground rules that include not commenting on the status of negotiations.

Hoosick town officials transferred $4,000 from an unassigned highway fund balance to a line item for attorney’s fees incurred through negotiations at their year-end meeting last December. At a Jan. 14 meeting, town officials passed a resolution authorizing an additional budget transfer of $5,000 to cover the cost of continuing negotiations.

The right for public employees to organize and be represented by a union is granted under New York’s 1967 Taylor Law, or Act 14 of Civil Service Law.

Nationwide, there has been a long-term downward trend in union membership since 1983 according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor. In 2012, New York continued to have the highest union membership rate in the nation at 23.2 percent of workers. A total 15.9 million wage and salary workers were represented in the U.S., and the median weekly salary between full-time union members compared to nonunion workers was $943 versus $742 -- a difference of $201. In its Jan. 23 summary release, the Bureau of Labor Statistics points out a variety of factors on earnings unrelated to collective bargaining, including the distribution of union/nonunion workers by occupation, industry, firm size, and geographic region.

The Capital Region’s Teamsters Local 294 has seen some decline over the past decade, according to mandatory annual disclosure reports published by the Center for Union Facts, a nonprofit that bills itself as a "union watchdog." But new groups are joining, and other recent additions to Local 294 include town highway departments in Milton and Ballston and the town of Malta recreation department according to Tom Quackenbush, a union business agent who acts as "point person" between Local 294 and local bargaining units.

Quackenbush would not speak to specifics in Hoosick, but he did say that any workers’ group that wanted to organize, whether public or private, is able to do so.

"If they decide they want to organize, they organize," he said by telephone Thursday. "They have the right to do that and that’s the law of New York State."

Organizing is slightly different depending on whether the employee unit is private or public. The latter workers can become a bargaining unit either by voluntary recognition by the employer or by certification through the state Public Employment Relations Board upon petition.

The local employee group joins the union after meeting where they discuss their reasons for organizing. "Every place is different. ... People come to us for all different reasons," Quackenbush said. In general terms, he said employees can be looking to protect rights they have or could lose, improve working conditions, and for economic reasons related to pay and benefits.

After a controversial 2011 law in Wisconsin that severely restricted collective bargaining rights (since struck down in court), Quackenbush said there was an uptick in union interest. "People want to have the right to organize, if they want to," he said.

Formed in 1903, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters represented an approximate 1.3 million members in 2011, comprising both blue-collar and professional workers in the public and private sectors. Local units include highway departments, warehouse workers, and delivery drivers.

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