Political Horizons: Unions could help develop workforce

Gov. Bobby Jindal last week said “workforce development” would be his big push for the upcoming legislative session.

That means bills to develop, fine-tune, and fund programs that train workers will be the main theme when the Louisiana Legislature convenes in March, much as school vouchers and teacher tenure were in 2012.

Over the next few years, the state is expecting $60 billion to $90 billion in industrial investments that could create 250,000 new jobs. “The next big challenge is to make sure that we have the best skilled, the best educated, the most productive population,” Jindal said.

It’ll be interesting to see how much of a role unions will play, given that worker training has been organized labor’s mission for more than a century.

But unions — along with gays and lawyers who represent victims against corporations — also are the designated bogeymen of Louisiana politics.

In that same news conference, Jindal dismissed public school teacher unions as part of a “coalition of the status quo.”

Most of this, of course, is politics.

On a tactical level, unions are used to scare up money and solidarity in the business community.

On a practical level, organized labor has worked for years with corporate management on long-term training programs to teach workers a needed craft.

Louis Reine, president of Louisiana AFL-CIO, says the Jindal administration is proposing short-term training of about 12 weeks through the vocational-technical college system. The problem is that would train them to a “helper” level, but not to the “journeyman” status that unions do.

“If you’re going to build a multibillion dollar plant, you’ll need ‘helpers,’ but how many helpers do you need?” Reine said. “The truth is, there’s probably enough work coming that it’s going to be a challenge to man it with the union and the non-union sector.”

Inertia being what it is in politics, mutual objectives probably won’t divert what has been a continued attack on organized labor since the business community coalesced to enact Louisiana’s “right-to-work” laws in 1976.

LABI’s past president, Dan Juneau, in July 2012 likened some union members to “parasites feeding off of the organism.” The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry is a powerful Baton Rouge-based trade group that lobbies government on behalf of the business community.

LABI’s president, Stephen Waguespack, in December touted the need to further curb the influences of unions as part of its push to improve the state’s workforce. He spoke of the need to achieve “cruise-control growth;” you know, like New York, California, Texas and Florida.

Low-cost natural gas and a rebounding national economy were factors in Louisiana’s anticipated boom, he said, but so were the policies of the Jindal administration, in which Waguespack once played a significant role.

Yet the states with the highest percentage of union members — like New York and California — were the fastest to rebound after the recent recession.

Louisiana’s membership in labor unions averaged about 7.5 percent of the 1.7 million-strong workforce, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That percentage is in line with Texas’ rate of 6.8 percent, and Florida’s 7.3 percent of employed wage and salary workers who are affiliated with unions.

Alabama, another state Louisiana likes to compare itself with, has 10.5 percent of its workforce unionized.

The truth is that the influence of organized labor has declined significantly since the 1980s. About a third of the nation’s employed people belonged to unions in 1945. By 1980, that percentage had dropped to less than a quarter, and by 2011, that portion was slightly more than one-tenth of the wage earners.

OpenSecrets.org, a Washington, D.C.-based database that collates campaign finances, determined that business interests contributed $15 to political candidates for every $1 donated by organized labor.

Most of the business dollars go to the Republican Party, and most of the union dollars go to Democrats.

Jindal adamantly opposes Washington imposing standards on locals, like what a minimum health care insurance policy should cover or what amount of academic knowledge a student should master before graduating high school.

But that individualism doesn’t extend to minimum wage for workers. “We should continue to comply with the federal minimum wage, the federal law,” Jindal said.

Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is mballard@theadvocate.com.