With union membership at record lows nationally and unionization challenged in Ohio and locally, Harry Williamson takes over as Lorain County AFL-CIO president at a difficult time.
From historic highs of about 35 percent in the 1950s, union membership nationally reached an all-time low in 2012 of 11.3 percent — 6.6 percent for private sector unions — according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The rate was the lowest since 1916, the New York Times reported citing Rutgers University economists Neil Sheflin and Leo Troy. The rate was 20.1 percent in 1983.
Besides deindustrialization shrinking union ranks over the last 30 years, unions have been targeted by Republican-led state legislatures the last few years. While Ohio voters in 2011 repealed a law that would have stripped public sector union workers of most of their collective bargaining abilities, Wisconsin passed a law requiring annual recertification of unions and barring the voluntary deduction of union dues.
Indiana and Michigan have both passed “right-to-work” laws. The laws effectively de-fund unions by removing the automatic withdrawal of union dues from non-union workers at union workplaces. The Ohio Senate in May killed right-to-work legislation proposed in the House of Representatives.
Despite the rejection, Williamson concedes he has his work cut out for him. Williamson clashed with Lorain Mayor Chase Ritenauer in March when City Council members altered a Project Labor Agreement for city projects, saying it was increasing costs and unfair to nonunion companies.
The Lorain agreement guarantees 25 percent of workers on city projects of $2 million or more are city of Lorain or Lorain County residents. The previous agreement said
75 percent of workers on projects of $100,000 or more must be city or county residents.
Lorain Schools, citing an edict by Gov. John Kasich, in March backed out of a labor agreement for the $73 million new high school. The reneging triggered a July 11 lawsuit by the Sandusky-based North Central Ohio Building and Construction Council.
Williamson called the dilution of the Lorain agreement a “slap in the face.” He said they ensure projects are done well and guarantee local workers — many of them union members — spend more money in Lorain County.
Williamson said politicians and the public need to be educated about the value of unions, which helped create child-labor laws, the 40-hour work week, living wages and greater workplace safety.
“We need to get back to the basics of what we stand for, what we support and unfortunately, we’ve gotten away from that for much too long,” Williamson said.
Williamson, a 53-year-old Lorain resident, husband and father of four grown daughters, grew up in a union household. His late father was a member of the United Auto Workers who worked at the former Ford Plant in Lorain and later at the plant in Avon Lake.
When Williamson joined the Communication Workers of America Local 4370 in 1978 — he was elected president in 1999 — unions were far more powerful. However, deindustrialization has meant a generation unfamiliar with unions unlike Williamson’s generation or his father’s. He said unions have to reach out to people 30 and younger.
“We have a generation there that unfortunately doesn’t realize the importance of organized labor and what we can do for the middle class,” Williamson said. “Without organized labor and without unions, there is no middle class.”
Williamson, who ran unopposed, succeeds Joe Thayer Aug. 8 as president of the union, which represents about 25 unions with a combined membership of about 7,000, according to its website. Thayer, a 37-year-old organizer with Sheet Metal Workers Union Local 233, chose not to run again.
Thayer, elected president in 2007, said his organizing job has required him to spend more time in Toledo in recent months. He also wants to spend more time with his
12-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son in addition to doing local political work.
“It was a very hard decision to make,” Thayer said. “I’ll always be a delegate to the Lorain County AFL-CIO. I will always be as involved and as supportive as I possibly can, regardless of where I’m at in the state.”
Williamson said he’ll spend the upcoming months talking to area mayors about the value of labor agreements and unions in general. The AFL-CIO presidency is an unpaid position, and Williamson said it can be a thankless job, but he wants it.
“You don’t do it for the money. You do it because that’s what you believe in,” he said. “That’s what’s true to your heart.”