Quad City unions face future with mandate to mobilize

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These are trying times for unions in the Quad Cities. As Teamsters Local 371 pulls the plug on its strike at Nichols Aluminum in Davenport, the company turns more than 100 temporary non-union positions into full-time jobs.

"The decline of unions is an undeniable reality," said Dr. Lendol Calder, Augustana College.

50 years ago, one out of three people in the workforce carried union cards. Take away public service jobs, these days union membership is down to about 7%.

"When only 7% of private sector workers are in a union, the union voice is just not that loud any more," Dr. Calder said.

This is the future of unions. Inside the Plumbers and Pipefitters local hall in Rock Island, the next generation of union members is training for careers.

"It's going to be a big challenge," said Brett Utz. "I think union members right now are under attack like never before."

Utz, an AFSCME member who works as a correctional officer, is leading the QC Next-Up monthly meeting. Made up of younger members, it aims to create fun events that will energize them about being involved with their unions.

"Our labor movement needs a future," he said.

That inspiration is more timely than ever. Vice President Joe Biden used the theme "Bringing Back American Jobs" during a recent stop in Davenport. But in an ironic twist, he spoke at a non-union shop.

"Don"t tell me that Americans can't make things anymore, can't compete in the world market anymore, can't lead the world anymore," Biden said.

Give unions credit for creating 40-hour work weeks, workmen's compensation and even paid vacations. These are innovatons that benefit all workers, not just union members.

"As an organization they created the middle class," said Carlene Erno, AFSCME Local 2615 president. "They will maintain the middle class. Without unions, I don't believe there will be a middle class."

Dr. Lendol Calder is an award-winning History professor at Augustana College. He says that unions are in for challenging times.

"We are not ever going to go back to the glory days of the 1950's when unions were at their strength," he said. "The economic conditions that created that kind of prosperity, they're gone."

The lengthy lockout at Grain Processing Corporation in Muscatine brings home that point. After more than 300 workers were turned out nearly four years ago, the company seems to be functioning just fine with non-union replacements.

"Unions are a group of people who say, 'We sat down at the table. We negotiated. We've made a deal. Let's live up to it -- both sides," said UniServe Director for the Illinois Education Association Jeff Conrad.

For the next generation of union leaders, the future starts now.

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