Ed Boltik is out of work, out of patience and out to organize workers he says are put at risk because they lack such benefits as medical coverage and pension plans.
Boltik, an unemployed construction worker who moved to Coeur d’Alene two years ago, recently formed Concerned Workers for North Idaho to try to stop what he calls “the erosion of worker rights.”
He said the group has 15 members, including workers from construction, retail, service and medical care industries.
“It’s all been pretty grass roots, with me doing the legwork,” said Boltik, adding that members found each other through word of mouth and have kept in touch using a phone tree.
They plan to meet in person for the first time on Feb. 16, at a 7 p.m.
gathering in the Iron Horse Restaurant on Sherman Avenue in downtown Coeur d’Alene.
One of the group’s main concerns is a perceived shift toward temporary and part-time hires. According to Boltik, that hiring method forces many workers to piece together an employment patchwork by holding down two or three jobs.
The hiring trend to temporary and part-time work is growing, said Don Caruth, a retired professor of management from East Texas State University, who is a principal in Human Resource Management Systems near Dallas.
“Nationwide, we’re going to part-time workers,” Caruth said, citing interviews his company conducts with employers, as well as his observations while teaching management. “One reason is that it’s a lot easier to get rid of them when you want to lay people off.
“It’s also a way of avoiding benefits,” he said, noting that medical insurance, retirement plans and other items make up more than 30 percent of payroll costs.
But David Larson, a law professor at Creighton University in Omaha who specializes in labor issues, said providing benefits is more a matter of custom than law. While benefit packages can be tools to attract and retain employees, there is no legal requirement to provide them to hourly workers.
“Just by making somebody part-time doesn’t mean you’ve freed yourself from any obligation,” he said. “You didn’t have any obligation to begin with.”
“Benefits are not entitlements,” said Brent Olmstead, vice president of the Boise-based Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry. “This whole conspiracy theory about shifting to part-time workers (to avoid paying benefits) is silly, in my book.”
Coeur d’Alene Job Service labor market analyst Kathryn Tacke said employee demand has increased the frequency of part-time hiring.
“It’s important to remember that a lot of people work part-time because they’ve chosen to, not because they couldn’t find anything else,” she said. “For a significant number of women, part-time employment is still preferred.”
Still, events such as last summer’s United Parcel Service strike - where 185,000 Teamsters walked off the job demanding conversion of part-time jobs to full-time status and protection of pension benefits - show what a volatile matter this has become in the work force, according to Tacke.
“I think it’s going to be the employment issue of the future,” she said.
Boltik said his group hopes to keep the issue in the forefront by presenting a unified front.
He acknowledged his unemployed status may present credibility questions, but said Concerned Workers for North Idaho members will elect officers they feel are qualified to lead the group.
“It’s true you’re talking to an outof-work carpenter, but I’m not just some disgruntled worker,” Boltik said. “I think there’s a need for a forum here.
“Throughout history, when workers were pushed to the point where they weren’t making a living, the only way they could make a change was to come together and stand up,” he added. “This is a cry for change.”
Any attempt to organize in Idaho would have to happen outside the boundaries of traditional labor union movements, Larson said. He called the state’s right-to-work law and the logistical difficulties of organizing part-time workers “a one-two punch” against such efforts.
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