Our Views: Economy, not unions, boosts labor

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Sunday, September 3, 2017

The online news site Wall St. 24/7 highlighted last week 15 communities that have lost the most union membership since 2006, and it should come as no surprise Janesville is near top of that list.

The Janesville-Beloit metropolitan statistical area, which largely matches the boundaries of Rock County, ranks No. 2 nationally in percentage decline of unionized workers, falling from 23.8 percent in 2006 to 6.1 percent in 2016.

During that time, one of the largest union shops in the state, Janesville's GM plant, closed, likely explaining the massive decline. Laws adopted by the Walker administration, Act 10 and right-to-work legislation, also explain the big drop-off in union membership across the state.

On the eve of Labor Day, some readers might mourn the loss of union strength, but we cannot claim the economy is worse off for membership declines. Indeed, poverty rates statewide have fallen to the lowest level in years, while unemployment rates are also near record lows. The labor market now favors skilled workers employers are competing for and struggling to find.

Government remains the last bastion of union influence, and despite the passage of Act 10, some local officials remain determined to return Wisconsin to a bygone era.

Hangers-on in local government include Janesville School Board member Carla Quirk and Janesville City Council member Jens Jorgensen, who've been pushing union-backed policies, notably just cause provisions.

Both the school board and city council adopted just cause policies last year, making it more difficult for the school district or city to terminate incompetent employees. While some observers might believe these policies signal renewed union strength, we view the situation as a last gasp.

In fact, the Janesville City Council on Aug. 28 repealed its just cause ordinance on the advice of an attorney who cautioned the policy could open the city to lawsuits. Most employers nowadays are at-will, meaning an employee can be dismissed for any reason except for those prohibited under state and federal law, such as racial discrimination.

Before Act 10, unions typically negotiated just cause agreements into their contracts, but with most forms of collective bargaining now prohibited, unions have tried to get just cause embedded into local policies and ordinances.

Just cause advocates say these measures protect employees from unjustified termination, and we agree employees should only be fired for good reason. But in too many instances, unions drag out and delay the termination of poor-performing employees, hurting both productivity and employee morale.

The best protection for employees isn't union membership or just cause policies but a thriving economy. A robust job market has given workers all the leverage they need to land good-paying jobs and command good treatment from employers.

True, many available jobs are part time and no longer come with the benefits they once did, but employers are eager to hire skilled and responsible workers. The best and the brightest have more opportunities today because fewer positions are reserved for only union members. Labor Day is no longer so much a celebration of worker rights as it is a recognition of economic opportunity, and from an economic standpoint, labor's outlook today has rarely been brighter.

This editorial has been corrected to reflect that the city council repealed the city's just cause ordinance on Aug. 28.

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