YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Providing a pipeline of trained workers to fill current and future job openings remains a challenge that organized labor and management recognize will not be overcome soon.
Bill Padisak, president of the Mahoning-Trumbull AFL-CIO Labor Council, points to projects in the Mahoning Valley such as the Ultium Cells plant in Lordstown and the Meijer store under construction at the Eastwood Mall Complex in Niles that are keeping local trades busy.
“Just wait until the Intel plant goes together,” he says.
The $20 billion Intel project in central Ohio, which is expected to require 7,000 construction workers, will tap the local labor pool as well.
Labor leaders and state officials acknowledge there isn’t an available pool of an extra 7,000 workers in central Ohio, where the two Intel chip factories will be built.
Other projects underway in that part of the state include a 28-story Hilton hotel near downtown Columbus, a $2 billion addition to The Ohio State University medical center and a $365 million biomanufacturing plant, plus three or more Google and Amazon data centers.
Everybody is “fairly busy,” says Marty Loney, president of the Western Reserve Building and Construction Trades Council and business manager for Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 346. In the last two years, the local has taken on its largest class of apprentices ever and launched heating/ventilation/air conditioning training to accommodate upcoming needs, he says.
Nor is construction the only organized labor sector being stretched thin. Public education is looking at a “looming educator shortage,” as Scott DiMauro, president of the Ohio Education Association, puts it. School districts across the region have unfilled positions amid “smaller pools of candidates for positions,” he says.
In 2021, the number of wage and salaried workers belonging to a labor union fell to 10.3% nationwide, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistic. (See story page 36). In Ohio, union members accounted for 12.0% of the workforce; in Pennsylvania, 12.9%.
By comparison, union members numbered 17.7 million nationwide in 1983 – or 20.1% of the workforce.
Whether workers at Ultium Cells in Lordstown or Lordstown Motors Corp. will add to these numbers remains unknown. In June, Ultium rejected the United Auto Workers proposal for a card-check agreement that could lead to organizing workers at the $2.3 billion plant under construction.
“Our union remains committed to organizing Ultium along with every electric vehicle component supplier and electric vehicle joint venture,” UAW Vice President Terry Dittes said in a statement. “We continue to encourage all employers to recognize the majority will of their workers rather than to follow the counsel of anti-union consultants who want to put workers through the gauntlet of an anti-union campaign.”
Meanwhile, local labor leaders say membership is stable in the trades and teacher unions.
“We’ve pretty much kept steady with the numbers,” losing and adding members, says the AFL-CIO’s Padisak, also staff representative with the Ohio Association of Public School Employees.
“We have held pretty steady over the last few years,” around 120,000 members statewide, adds the OEA’s DiMauro. Membership in affiliated locals in the Mahoning Valley – which include area school systems as well as three bargaining units at Youngstown State University – also has been stable, he says.
The same is true at Pipefitters Local 396, which has just under 700 members, a number Loney describes as “fairly consistent” over the past few years. Members of the unions in Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties that comprise the Western Reserve Building Trades total around 8,500.
Local 396 has a good relationship with the area’s mechanical contractors association and has negotiated agreements so its members earn a livable wage, favorable pension, and health and welfare benefits, Loney says.
“We know how much work is out there. They know how much work is out there,” he says.
“We’re almost at full employment – real close,” says Brian Wydick, business representative for Operating Engineers Local 66, District 2. “If we could get this Trumbull Energy Center off and running, I would be looking for people,”
Membership of the seven districts that make up Local 66 – which covers three Ohio counties and 33 in Pennsylvania – totals 7,500. It was at 8,000 during the height of construction at the Shell ethane cracker plant in Monaca, Pa.
Wydick says there was “heated argument” over wages during the last contract negotiations and the environment now favors the contractors.
“Who knew that inflation was going to go up like this?” he asks. “It’ll be interesting to see what we can do in 2024 when our contract is up again.”
Over the last several years, the relationship between labor and management has “really improved,” according to Kevin Reilly, executive vice president of the Builders Association of Eastern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania. The association negotiates about 20 collective bargaining agreements with the building trades.
“The negotiations have gone really smooth,” Reilly says. The common issue for both sides is workforce. “Trying to attract enough workers into the [construction] industry to replace those that are retiring and to have enough workers for the amount of work that we have and to allow employers to be able to expand their businesses,” he says.
Timothy J. Jacob says he’s seeing negotiations become more contentious of late. An attorney with Manchester Newman & Bennett in Youngstown, Jacob practices labor and employment law on the management side and has represented employers in several sectors, including health care, broadcasting, manufacturing and retail.
Beginning in the early 1990s, labor and management realized they “were never going to be best friends,” he says, but needed to work together.
Since the onset of the pandemic in early 2020, relations have become more frayed, Jacob says. Employees complain they are understaffed and have to work overtime. Employers respond they are doing everything possible to hire more people but can’t find anyone.
“It seems like neither side understands that the other side didn’t cause the current issue,” Jacob says.
Press coverage of organizing efforts involving Starbucks and Amazon also is “firing up some of the masses,” as he describes it, and causing relations to be more contentious.
Common issues Jacob has negotiated, include keeping people on the job, working conditions and compensation. Now negotiations are focusing on issues related to lack of staffing. “Wages are always what it comes down to,” he says. “That’s usually the governing issue.”
Jacob says the shift to more traditional issues comes as COVID-19 becomes less of a concern.
Health care will be a big issue in upcoming contract talks because unions will want to bargain for reducing the share employees pay, he says. At the same time, employers will “try to shift the burden a little bit.”
The new issue, especially among employers with younger workers, is work-life balance. Workers are less willing to work overtime and want more flexible schedules and fewer hours, Jacob continues.
“It’s a tough problem to overcome when there doesn’t seem to be the same number of employees than there were before COVID,” he says. “If employees want more time off and employers can’t hire anybody, that creates a big gap that has to be bridged.”
Padisak agrees. Past negotiations mainly involved wage, pensions, severance and retirement packages. Now employees want more time off – holidays, vacation time and personal days.
“Because of COVID, they’ve taken a look at their life and thought, ‘I don’t want to work all the time. I want to spend more time with family,’” he says.
There are “quite a few vacant positions” across the Mahoning Valley, Padisak says. His AFL-CIO council represents public employees, the building trades and school employees. In particular, the building trades “can’t get enough people” and every school district he works with can’t find bus drivers.
“A lot of people aren’t going back to work yet or have decided not to go back to work or moved away,” he says. The start of construction on the Intel complex will draw upon the local pool of workers and make “things a little worse here.”
Because of the tight labor market, school districts have had to raise their starting pay rates to attract people, he says. Some schools have a starting rate of $19 per hour for paraprofessionals with state certifications such as bus drivers, he reports.
The “looming educator shortage” is “one of the overarching concerns,” OEA’s DiMauro says.
Despite the lean toward the Republican Party in the Ohio, none of the labor leaders nor Reilly or Jacobs anticipate any serious effort to make Ohio a so-called right-to-work state, or for it to be successful if it were initiated.
“You’re always going to have some legislators that are going to bring it up,” Loney says.
Since S.B. 5 was overturned more than a decade ago, a couple of factors have prevented its resurrection, DiMauro says. One is that voters “overwhelmingly” rejected it, sending “a message to politicians that this is the third rail in Ohio politics,” he says.
Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, also has given no sign that trying to weaken collective bargaining rights is on his agenda.
Second, unions have worked to cultivate relationships with Democratic and Republican legislators, who recognize the value of collective bargaining and “giving public employees a voice,” he says.
The relationship between organized labor and Democrats and Republicans in Ohio “has never been better,” and legislators “understand the issues that are important to us,” Loney says. Unions have solidified their relationships with members of both chambers of the Ohio Legislature, building “a nice firewall,” he says.
Despite the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Janus v. AFSCME that public nonunion government employees can’t be required to pay union fees as a condition of working in public service, there haven’t been “massive amounts of people dropping out,” Padisak says.
“There are groups actively campaigning to try to get people out of unions,” he says, often using deceptive practices. “We’re constantly fighting
The best strategy for defeating those efforts is demonstrating to incumbent and potential union members how being part of a collective effort and “having that voice that provides influence at the bargaining table, in the legislature and in our communities” makes union membership valuable, he says.
“So far, I think we’ve done a good job getting that message across.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.