Matthew Walberg is a Chicago Tribune journalist working to unionize the newsroom. His father, Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.), is a vocal advocate of Republican measures that unions consider a threat to their survival.
Observers generally divide Congress into two camps on labor issues: Republicans are pro-business and Democrats are pro-labor. But the apparent chasm between the father’s record and the son’s current participation in an organizing drive reveals the shades of gray coloring the issue. It also provides insight into the thinking of a lawmaker who is chair of a House subcommittee with jurisdiction over labor matters.
Walberg is up for election this year, and one of his opponents has made unions a part of his campaign.
“Congressman Walberg has a long record of standing up for the rights of all workers,” a spokesperson in his office told Bloomberg Law. The spokesperson noted that Walberg has repeated in multiple hearings that “both employees and employers need to have a seat at the table.”
The younger Walberg is a member of the Chicago Tribune Guild’s organizing committee. He told Bloomberg Law he isn’t necessarily “pro-union” and referred to himself as “union-skeptical.”
“Unions can do some really great things and some not-so-great things,” Matthew Walberg said. “In my case—given the circumstances in which we find ourselves—I wholeheartedly support unionization and believe it is the best path forward.”
Rep. Walberg and some of his supporters have maintained that he isn’t anti-union just because he supports some legislation to limit and scrutinize labor groups’ activity.
“Despite the talking points from Big Labor, there is no contradiction at all between seeking to roll back the coercive powers granted by government to union officials and supporting the right of individual workers to join labor unions, Patrick Semmens, a spokesman for the National Right to Work Committee, told Bloomberg Law.
But the lawmaker has introduced legislation that would likely hamper organizing campaigns like the one in which his son is currently involved. He also co-sponsored a national right-to-work bill that AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said is meant to “destroy unions” altogether.
“This to me is not atypical of public postures that elected officials take at times that don’t necessarily bear out in their own lives,” Celine McNicholas, director of labor policy at the progressive think tank Economic Policy Institute, told Bloomberg Law. McNicholas formerly served as a special counsel at the National Labor Relations Board and a staffer on the House Education and the Workforce Committee.
“I think we’ve seen a fair amount of that this Congress where you’ve seen folks stake out positions that don’t necessarily seem to jibe with what they’d support for themselves and their family,” she said.
‘Growing Shift’ in Attitudes
The seeming divide among the Walbergs “illustrates a generational shift that seems to be taking place on political issues in general and issues of unions and the economy in particular,” said Joe McCartin, a historian at Georgetown University who studies the intersection of labor organization and politics.
“Despite the fact that the Republican Party, which once included a significant number of union supporters, has become increasingly anti-union over the course of the last generation, more young people who identify as Republicans view unions favorably than unfavorably,” McCartin said.
A 2017 Pew Research Center poll found that three-quarters of Americans age 18 to 29 had a favorable view of unions, compared with about half of those over 50.
“We see this in teacher strikes and many instances of unrest in workplaces,” McNicholas said. “More and more workers are looking for a solution to the inequities they experience everyday in the workplace, and what you see at the Tribune is workers availing themselves of the organizing process to work for the betterment of their workplace.”
McCartin said that younger Americans “see that increases in productivity are not being translated into increases in income; they see plenty of evidence for employers mistreating and exploiting workers; and they see that the union movement in its weakened state can’t really be credibly blamed for what ails the economy these days.”
“In many ways, then, this Walberg story is symbolic of a growing shift,” he said. “We are likely to see more such stories in the times ahead.”
Advocates: Walberg Has Poor Record on Unions
A spokesperson for the Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor and Pensions, told Bloomberg Law that “Chairman Walberg has a long and valued record of standing up for working Americans whether they choose to be union members or not.”
Labor advocates and unions wouldn’t call the four-term lawmaker a champion for workers’ rights.
“You can take a look at the hearings he’s convened and interests he’s advanced as chairman, and those to me are in direct conflict with someone trying to advance union rights and workers coming together to address their workplace terms and conditions,” McNicholas said.
Walberg co-sponsors the National Right to Work Act, which would prohibit unions from collecting fees from nonmembers to pay for expenses related to collective bargaining. The fees are crucial to unions’ funding. The bill has repeatedly stalled in the Senate.
Right-to-work supporters say the bill would give workers the freedom to choose not to support a union. Semmens of the National Right to Work Committee told Bloomberg Law that “the National Right to Work Act wouldn’t stop a single worker at the Tribune or anywhere else in America from joining a union if they choose, but it would protect workers from being forced to support a union against their will.”
Many union arrangements require members who don’t voluntarily sign up to nonetheless pay a smaller fee for the union’s cost in bargaining for their employment terms and conditions.
McNicholas said the right-to-work measure is part of “a suite of bills that are really designed—at the end of the day—to frustrate workers’ ability to work collectively to improve their wages and working conditions.”
Issue Isn’t Black and White
The congressman’s family has roots in the labor movement. His father helped organize steelworkers, and Rep. Walberg himself is a former union member and U.S. Steel employee.
“I appreciate the fact that there were unions” working to put measures to protect workers in place “back in the ‘40s and ‘50s,” the congressman said during an April 26 hearing on union elections where he mentioned his son’s role in labor organizing.
“But I also know that times have changed and we have laws in place because of some of those efforts,” Rep. Walberg said. The congressman’s comments seemed to suggest that unions may have less of a role to play in today’s workplace, though he noted that he supports his son’s efforts.
Matthew Walberg also spoke with caution about the role of employee unions.
“I believe unions have an important role to play in providing leverage and balance for a workforce when they’re faced with gross inequities from leadership or ownership—that doesn’t mean unions can’t abuse that leverage,” the younger Walberg said.
“My reasons have to do with the fact that for the past 10 years, we’ve seen companies own us, strip us of our wealth and assets while they’ve enriched themselves” and management, he said.
The newsroom staff at the Chicago Tribune has gone years without cost-of-living raises while their health-care benefits became more costly, Walberg said. Tronc, the paper’s parent company, recently inked a deal to sell the Los Angeles Times weeks after journalists unionized that newsroom.
“I don’t begrudge any company or owner that wants to make as much money as they can,” Matthew Walberg said. “But I also think it needs to be balanced with reasonable provisions for the people that produce the product bringing them that money, and there’s a real imbalance at the Tribune.”
The organizing committee has collected signed authorizations cards in favor of the union from more than 84 percent of journalists in the newsroom, including at smaller affiliated publications, Charlie Johnson, another committee member, told Bloomberg Law.
—With assistance from Tyrone Richardson
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