Originally created 11/05/99

Study: Workers gaining power



ATLANTA -- Low unemployment is giving more power to labor unions as workers grow weary of overtime and employers scrounge for qualified people to hire, experts say.

"It gets in the way of your family. You can't watch your kids grow up," said Ron Mullis, former steward for the Teamsters Union in Augusta, who said occasional after-hours work is OK. "When you get beyond that, you get disgruntled workers and disgruntled spouses."

The average manufacturing worker's weekly overtime has swelled 24 percent, from May 1990's 3.7 hours to May 1999's 4.6 hours, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Worker annoyance was reported in the most recent edition of the Beige Book released Wednesday by the Federal Reserve Bank. The bank's Open Market Committee, which meets Nov. 16, will rely on the report and other data when deciding whether to raise interest rates.

Normally, higher overtime signals potential inflation because employers eventually have to raise wages to attract more workers. Economists also contend it gives employees increased bargaining power.

"As long as the productivity keeps pace, it won't be inflationary. But there is no guarantee that productivity will continue," said Roger Tutterow, chairman of the Econometric Center at Kennesaw State University.

"With unemployment so low, the balance of power has definitely shifted to the workers," Mr. Tutterow said. "So it's not surprising that they would flex their muscle."

And unions across Georgia are doing just that. Mandatory overtime and uncompensated overtime are issues unions have brought up with AT&T and in an ongoing strike at Overnite Transportation Co. in Richmond, Va.

"You hear a lot about there are no workers in Savannah, but they haven't called the union halls," said Meddy Settles, a business representative for the Carpenter's and Millwright's Savannah local. "The unions are starting to fight back a lot more than they used to."

Reach Walter Jones at (404) 589-8424.