CASTLE ROCK — Rising technical automation and internal strife threaten union membership nationwide, but local labor leaders said Monday their voice and their solidarity remain strong in Cowlitz County.
“It really seems like we’re getting some more life breathed into the (local) labor movement,” Kyle Mackey, president of the Cowlitz-Wahkiakum Central Labor Council, said at a Labor Day celebration at Toutle River RV Park.
About 100 people gathered for the barbecue, which the labor council resurrected two years ago. The event was intended for families, with two bouncy houses near the picnic tables, a game of giant croquet in a nearby field and live classic rock music played by FYI.
Across the United States, technical advances have made some union industrial jobs obsolete or pushed them overseas. Nationwide, union membership has fallen to nearly 10 percent of all workers — the lowest level since the 1930s — and labor leaders are scrambling to maintain their political power while the economy is still recovering.
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Labor leaders also are struggling to maintain within their own ranks.
On Thursday, the San Francisco-based International Longshore and Warehouse Union said it was pulling out of the AFL-CIO, the largest U.S. labor federation. ILWU officials said they were frustrated that members of other AFL-CIO affiliated unions have crossed their picket lines during an ongoing dispute over grain-handling contracts at the ports of Vancouver and Portland.
At the picnic, longshore union members and AFL-CIO union trade workers celebrated, but people on both sides expressed surprise and dismay at a split that could have a huge impact on the national labor movement.
The central labor council is chartered by the AFL-CIO, and Mackey — serving his second term as president — is an ILWU member. Mackey admits he’s in an awkward position, but he said he expects no change in how unions operate locally.
“We’ve always been really tight here. We’ve always had good relationships,” he said.
Cowlitz County Commissioner Dennis Weber, a retired teacher’s union president, said the central labor council has accepted non-AFL-CIO unions in the past, and he’s always been impressed with the group’s working relationship.
“I think it’s pretty extraordinary,” Weber said.
Double-digit unemployment in Cowlitz County is extending into a fifth year, and trade union officials say they’ve been under greater pressure from members just because jobs haven’t been there.
“It would be better if everybody had more work,” said Jeff Washburn, president of the Longview/Kelso Building and Construction Trades Council.
Washburn added that commercial construction has been picking up in Cowlitz County and creating jobs for union trade workers. Other proposed projects, including the Millennium Bulk Terminals coal dock west of Longview and a Port of Kalama power plant, could bring thousands of union jobs to the area if they are built, he said.
Washburn acknowledged unions are fighting an uphill battle for workers when businesses are trying to keep costs down as much as they can.
“If it keeps going in the direction that it is, it’s going to be tough for people to have the lifestyle that we’re used to,” Washburn said.
While people should enjoy themselves during their three-day Labor Day weekend, union leaders said people should also learn more about the history of the labor movement and how past struggles have led to higher wages, better benefits and safer working conditions.
“Hopefully, (people) look at Labor Day as a time for family. For me, growing up in Longview, union is family,” Weber said.