Labor Day & Other Activities

  • September 7th, 2009


    Updated: 9/8/2009



    Labor council sees strength in unions amid recession

    By Blythe Wachter

    Leader-Telegram staff

    The weak U.S. economy has hurt American workers, but some say it hasn't diminished the strength of labor unions.

    "I think we're more aware that we need unions because of the economy. It's always been when the economy gets tougher, it seems like the workers will stick together more," said Laurie Gruber, a member of the Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 277 and secretary of the Greater Eau Claire Area Labor Council.

    Gruber, of Hammond, was among 240 adults attending the council's Labor Day picnic for union members and their families Monday at Riverview Park. The council includes 60-plus union groups from Chippewa, Eau Claire, Dunn, Clark, Barron, Pierce, Pepin, Polk and St. Croix counties.

    "I think it's an exciting time for labor unions," said Jack Connell of Eau Claire, president of the council and Local 1914 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Workers.

    Connell, who works in the maintenance department at UW-Eau Claire, pointed to recent state legislative and presidential elections in the Eau Claire area as positive for unions. "We elected representatives that respect working family issues and values ... good-paying jobs, good benefit packages, an income where you can sustain a family," he said.

    Connell noted the economy has cast a spotlight on employers asking for concessions from workers. That includes the union at Mercury Marine's Fond du Lac plant just approving sweeping wage and benefit concessions that the boat engine maker said it needed to keep 850 manufacturing jobs from moving to Oklahoma.

    "I'm disappointed that the employer forced those concessions on the union. That was an ultimatum. That wasn't negotiating," said Connell, who added he also could see the company's point that there is a shrinking market for recreational boats and motors in this economy.

    Employers "can't just give ultimatums in my opinion," agreed Charlie Martenson, a retired Eau Claire millwright.

    Both Connell and Gruber, who works for American Income Life Insurance Co., said the Employee Free Choice Act being debated in Congress, which would make it easier for workers to form unions, would strengthen unions if passed.

    But if the measure fails, "we're not going to go away," Connell said.

    Despite the economic downturn, he is optimistic about the future. "I'm thinking we're going to climb out of this, and organized labor will have a role in the recovery of our economy."

    Wachter can be reached at 830-5828, 800-236-7077 or