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Office Hours

Wed., June 15, 2011, 9:51 a.m.

Union speakers try to rally the troops

A Chinese company wants to build a factory in Idaho and import employees from overseas.

That’s just one of the threats facing unions as they try to preserve fair compensation for Idaho workers, according to those who spoke Tuesday to about 100 attending the Idaho State AFL-CIO Convention in Lewiston.

The Lewiston Tribune reports that one of the biggest worries is a bill introduced in the most recent legislative session that would have ended collective bargaining for state, county and municipal workers as well as school teachers, said James Kerns, president emeritus of the Idaho AFL-CIO.

The bill was never voted on. But it will surface again in 2012, Kerns said. “If they start taking away your union rights, they’re going to start taking away your civil rights. They’re going to take away every right you got.”

That’s not the only challenge labor organizers will likely see next year. Idaho employers pay the highest unemployment taxes in the nation so workers can receive a portion of their wages if they get laid off, said Roger Madsen, director of the Idaho Department of Labor.

That will probably trigger a move to end extended benefits, Madsen said.

Idaho’s lawmakers have already shown their lack of sympathy for labor, Kerns said. They passed laws that curtail contractors who employ union members from getting jobs and allow child labor in certain circumstances.

One law would prevent school districts and library boards from specifying union labor for construction projects, said David Whaley, president of the Idaho AFL-CIO.

Such groups of elected officials did so because they found union training programs result in better quality work performed safely, Whaley said.

Another new law eliminates a practice where unions pay into funds that were used to supplement their wages. The idea was to help contractors that employ union members to bid competitively against those who don’t, Whaley said.

Both measures face legal challenges, Whaley said.

At the same time, children as young as 10 years old are being allowed to work as many as 10 hours a day for school districts, Kerns said. The law specifies the work must be voluntary and with the consent of the parents.

The problems go beyond the fact the youth labor could be taking jobs away from adults, said Kerns, who noted if parents want to build work skills in their kids they can pay them to mow the lawn.

The law doesn’t limit the type of work kids can do, Kerns said. “They can be a janitor. They can be anything (the school district) wants. You have to be involved and get this law taken care of.”

The convention ends today with votes by delegates on resolutions. The content of the resolutions will be released today.

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The Spokesman-Review business team follows economic development in Spokane and the Inland Northwest.