Unions Lead the Way by Ed Burgess
I am a carpenter, a proud union carpenter. This blog is a mea culpa of sorts for the follies of my youth. Earlier in my life I didn’t always have a good opinion of unions. In reality I didn’t know much about them.
I moved to Wisconsin with my family from Washington D.C. in 1995. Prior to that I had my own remodeling business for a period of ten years. To put it bluntly I was not a good businessman and constantly struggled to make ends meet. I tried to keep my overhead down by treating my employees as subcontractors even though I knew that was wrong. I cheated my employees by neglecting to do any withholding or pay a share of their FICA. I had no benefits and paid low wages. This sometimes put them in a bad situation when it came time to pay their taxes. It troubles my conscience to this day. Anyone who aspires to own their own business should pay heed to ethical and legal standards, which I did not do.
I moved to La Crosse to escape that whole scene and determined to find work here as a carpenter. I got hired by TCI, a design build firm. All their carpenters had to be in the union so they facilitated the process of having me join. I passed a written test in lieu of having to do an apprenticeship.
Looking back, I now appreciate how incredibly fortunate I was. I made a good wage and had excellent medical and dental plans through the union, for me and my whole family. To top that off I had a retirement fund. Up to that point I had never been able to save any money for the future.
I am now retired after working for over twenty years as a union carpenter for TCI. I have an excellent pension through the union that allows me to live in dignity. I have stayed involved by attending their monthly meetings and continue to support the union by paying dues. I am oh so grateful for everything that the union has done for me. I should also mention that TCI was a great company to work for.
I am troubled by the Republican Party’s war on unions. I remember going to a carpenters’ legislative conference in Madison. This was after act 10 and the union was tiptoeing around trying to be careful not to piss off the Republicans. Robin Vos spoke that day and, of course, he lied to us. He said that after reining in public unions, our private unions were safe from legislative interference. He subsequently joined forces with Scott Walker to enact laws that made Wisconsin a right to work state and eliminated prevailing wage requirements for state projects. Other anti-union legislation followed.
At its heyday in 1983, 24.6 percent of workers in Wisconsin were unionized, at a time when the national average had dropped to 18 percent. At present it is difficult for unions to organize or to even compete with non-union companies. The decline of unions is a key reason the United States now has the biggest wealth gap in at least a century between the super-rich and everyone else. Labor unions have functioned historically to even help prop up wages for nonunion jobs. This helped to promote a strong middle class. The repeated assault on unions and worker rights may help explain the reduction in average wages paid by manufacturers in recent years and the fact that Wisconsin now has the greatest level of income inequality since 1929.
In recent years workers’ rights and wages have suffered. If we want to build back the middle class, we need to look to unions to lead the way. In order for that to happen we need the return of strong union legislation in Madison and Washington D.C.