Maryland labor unions struggle to hold their own -- Gazette.Net


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As Maryland’s workers prepare to celebrate another Labor Day, they face stagnant wages, declining benefits and an increase in the wage gap between higher-and lower-paid employees, union leaders say.

“I don’t believe the average worker in Maryland has seen an improvement in the past year or so,” said Merle Cuttitta, president of Service Employees International Union Local 500, which represents about 17,000 workers in Maryland and Washington, D.C., in industries such as child care, education and nonprofits.

SEIU Local 500, which is based in Gaithersburg, has seen its membership increase since Cuttitta became president in 2001, when the only union in the SEIU local was one for Montgomery County support staff. That counters a statewide and national trend that has seen a decline in members in the past decade.

Last year, unions in Maryland saw membership increase for the first time since 2006. The 316,000 members in the state is still 26,000 below the level of 2006. Those numbers represent workers in both public- and private-sector jobs.

SEIU Local 500 has added more than a dozen groups since 2001 and more than doubled representation to about 17,000.

“We made a commitment to organize and bring other folks in,” Cuttitta said. “Now our numbers outside the school system are as many as those inside.”

The level of earnings is not always the top concern of workers, she said.

“They often want employers to respect the job they are doing and value what they are contributing to the organization,” Cuttitta said.

Declining unionization is responsible for about one-third of the growth of wage inequality among men from 1973 to 2007, according to a new report from the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. The wage gap between white- and blue-collar workers grew some 10 percentage points from 1978 to 2011, while the gap between college and high school graduates increased 24 percentage points.

Nationally, the share of the work force represented by unions declined from 26.7 percent in 1973 to 13.1 percent in 2011.

“Unions reduce wage inequalities because they raise wages more at the bottom and in the middle of the wage scale than at the top,” Lawrence Mishel, president of the institute, said in a statement. “It is unsurprising that efforts to weaken unions have exacerbated both wage inequality and the divergence between overall productivity and the compensation of the typical worker.”

Certain workers have done quite well, researchers Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute and Jason Richwine of the Heritage Foundation said in a recent report. They argued that the average public school teacher is compensated considerably better than comparably skilled private-sector workers and are on average overpaid.

“Ideally, teacher compensation should be determined by capacity to help students advance toward their potential,” Biggs and Richwine said. “A comprehensive system of merit pay could reward the best teachers and encourage the least-effective teachers to leave the profession.”

Unions in general have to look in broader terms at how they can uplift all workers, not just their own members, Cuttitta said.

“It’s about everybody who is a working person,” she said. “This is about restoring a middle class.”

kshay@gazette.net