Like many of you, I’m kicking back and enjoying some downtime on this Labor Day weekend. We can thank labor unions for creating this annual three-day holiday, which pays tribute to the contributions and accomplishments of American workers and has been a federal holiday since 1894.

Organized labor in the U.S. has suffered major setbacks over the past few decades, but unions still remain a powerful force in many industries, as well as in the public sector. Yet among the millions of people employed in the optical industry, relatively few are union members.

To find out how unionized optical workers are faring in today’s economy, I spoke with Jason Johnson, president of the Optical Workers Local 408, which represents workers in the Northeast. An affiliate of the IUE-CWA, and an industrial division of the communication workers union, Local 408’s members are licensed opticians, optical assistants, lab techs, call center workers and others who work in the vision industry. As stated on its website, the union stands up for “better pay and working conditions, better patient and customer care and respect at work.”

Jason Johnson

Johnson works for Davis Vision, now part of Versant Health, at the Information and Technology Center. In 22 years with the company he has worked as a customer service representative, claims processor and most recently worked as a senior mail processor. He has served the union as a shop steward for six years, the recording secretary for two years, and the vice president for three years.

The following excerpts from our conversation have been edited for length and clarity.

Karp: How many members does Local 408 have, and where are they located?
Johnson: We represent about 1,350 members in five states in the Northeast: New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania. We might be the only ones that represent vision workers. The other areas in the country don’t have representation. There are some labs that are unionized, as well as a call center in Sacramento. But, by and large, not too many optical workers are unionized.

Has membership remained steady in recent years?
Yes, it has. But recently, we’ve had significant losses. A unionized lab was closed in June, and we lost about 80-plus jobs. You’re talking about 7 percent of our members in one swoop.

Members of Optical Workers Union Local 408 wear their red shirts to celebrate “Solidarity Red Friday” at Balester Optical in Wilkes Barre, Pa.
Have any new unionized optical jobs been created lately?
We’re hopeful that the future of telehealth will lead to more unionized jobs. Currently, there’s not enough doctors to go around for the amount of patients that there are, and we believe that more locations will use telehealth as an option.

We’ve organized a new telehealth job to be a union position at one company that we do business with. Right now, it’s on a trial basis with 10 employees. But we’re thinking long term, if this works out, it could be an opportunity for that business to provide eye exams from folks who are not doctors. There still needs to be someone who facilitates that relationship between the doctor and the patient. Those positions, at least with this company, would be unionized.

What impact has automation had on optical workers, particularly lab workers?
Automation has not hurt us particularly, at least directly. It’s more about online sales of glasses, which is hurting us more than anything else.

That being said, automation allows employers to have fewer employees in a manufacturing facility. It also limits career advancements. Even if a factory needs the same amount of workers, many of them are low wage workers. Instead of the average payroll being $30,000 or $35,000 a year, it's more like $25,000 or $27,000 a year, because there's less of those skilled positions due to automation. It may not impact numbers, but it impacts dollars.

Jason Johnson, president of Local 408, speaks to union members at their general membership meeting.
Have wages and benefits been fairly constant in recent years?
One of our struggles is the optical industry can be on the low end of the pay scale. What helps us is the licensed states, where you’re required to have a license to dispense eyewear. That definitely brings up the average rate of pay for that particular position. We would love to see all states require licenses because that would not only benefit union members in our local, but it would benefit the optical industry all around. It brings up the quality of care you’re getting as a consumer, but it also bring up the pay scale.

How would you characterize the outlook for optical workers today?
I’m optimistic. There are always going to be people who need glasses. In the U.S. alone, about 70 percent of people wear glasses. The question is, how are they going to obtain them? Is it going to be done by these online places? This is a low wage industry, and we’re competing with online and non-licensed states. Obviously, there’s competition, but this is an encouraging industry to be in.