In Idaho, unions try 'to get our stick back'

Losing membership and prominence since 1985, they look to rebuild

zklyle@idahostatesman.comJune 13, 2014 

Rian Van Leuven remembers signing his first union card in 1979. He'd worked at the Potlatch Corp. paper mill in Lewiston for one month. He didn't think much about it at the time, but he signed the card, joining United Steelworkers Local 608.

Van Leuven has thought about few things more than unions since. He worked 33 years in various union leadership positions before becoming president of the Idaho AFL-CIO in 2012. The AFL-CIO is an umbrella organization representing many of the unions in the nation.

Van Leuven has watched unions lose power while negotiating wages, benefits and working conditions. AFL-CIO membership in Idaho dropped from 41,300 in 1985 to 11,000 in 2012. In 2013, 29,000 Idahoans were members of unions, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Some, such as teachers, aren't affiliated with the AFL-CIO. An additional 7,000 Idahoans who weren't dues-paying members received union representation. Less than 6 percent of Idaho workers are unionized, down from a peak of 25 percent in 1968.

Nationwide, the percentage of wage earners who were union members was 20.1 percent in 1983, according to the Pew Research Center. That fell to 11.3 percent in 2013.

AFL-CIO membership in Idaho has grown a little recently, but unions need faster growth to regain some of the muscle they once flexed at the bargaining table and in the Legislature, Van Leuven said.

"It's nothing like what it was when we had more than 40,000 members," he said. "We also had a balanced Legislature. It wasn't one-sided."


Union membership in Idaho began declining in the mid-1980s with the passage of Right to Work. Idaho became the 20th state to outlaw union shops, which required all workers to pay dues as a condition of employment. That was the case at the mill where Van Leuven started his career.

Voters affirmed the law, 54 percent to 46 percent, after Democratic Gov. John Evans' veto. Unions never recovered, said Martin Orr, chairman of the Boise State University Department of Sociology.

"It's really union-busting legislation," Orr said. "The express purpose was not to increase employment, but rather to weaken unions and put pressure on wages and benefits. Idaho has been a tough environment for unions for some time."

Mark Briggs, 57, principal officer of International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 483 in Boise, signed his first union card at age 12. His local office has about 700 Teamsters, down from 900 before the Great Recession and from at least 4,000 before Right to Work, he said.

Unions for bricklayers, glazers, cement mixers and other trades have left Boise to merge into offices in Montana and Utah, he said.

"Right to Work has worked," Briggs said. "If you go into our Labor Center building in Boise, there used to be bricklayers, cement mixers, glazers. None of those are in the building anymore. It's been hard."

The transition has been easier on unions representing government workers. Membership in the private sector shrank nationwide from 11.9 million to 7.3 million from 1983 to 2013, but in the public sector it rose from 5.7 million to 7.2 million, according to Pew.

Orr said Idaho's strongest unions are local chapters of the National Education Association, International Association of Firefighters and the International Brotherhood of Police Officers.

"Government workers have one of the last bastions of unionism," he said. "We can't ship those jobs to China with our manufacturing."


Leaders at the annual Idaho State AFL-CIO conference in Boise this week were optimistic that a turnaround is ahead.

Construction trades have rebounded since the building doldrums during the recession. Membership in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 291 in Boise rose from 600 last year to 660 this year, said business manager Mark Zaleski, a 30-year union member. The union has 70 apprentices enrolled in its five-year program, he said.

"The time couldn't be better," Zaleski said. "People are finally starting to understand you don't have to work for the same boss who said he has to cut your insurance or your wages. People are getting tired of that."

Unions can tap into the political discussion about Idaho ranking 49th in the country for per-capita income as a foothold to climb back into the political arena, Briggs said. The same holds true for supporting a higher minimum wage, even though union members already make well above $7.25 an hour, Briggs said.

"We can try to make ourselves visible to the public to say, 'Hey ... we're still relevant,' " Briggs said.

Orr said discontent over wages could stimulate union membership.

"The worse the environment gets, the easier it is to get folks to recognize the value of unionizing," he said. "But I don't see huge growth coming, particularly in manufacturing."

The Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry represents employer interests in the state. Its president, Alex Labeau, said IACI worked well with unions in negotiations in recent years, though collective bargaining has become less common.

"Unions at one time served a valuable purpose for Americans," LaBeau said. "I think in a state where employers and employees are working together in a team effort toward prosperity, sometimes things evolve."

Eleven of the speakers on the agenda for the three-day AFL-CIO convention either held political positions as Democrats or were running for public office as Democrats. Boise Mayor Dave Bieter got laughs when he joked, "A union member voting Republican is like a chicken voting for Colonel Sanders."

Van Leuven said the AFL-CIO was nonpartisan prior to Right to Work. That's changed. Today, unions will be unable to regain clout unless Democrats can gain legislative influence, he said.

"How are we going to get our stick back?" Van Leuven said. "By getting people out to vote."

Zach Kyle: 377-6464@IDS_zachkyle

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