"Professional workers have, in many cases, the reach to see how others are doing so much better," he said. "Their supervisors have gotten raises, and the [employees] are marginalized. That difference in status can be particularly grating."
Professional healthcare workers in California picketed across five UC medical centers Wednesday, for example, protesting raises for executives in the face of cuts to wages and benefits for employees.
Still, for many professionals, there can be some culture shock in getting involved in unions. Recently organized workers at New York's Urban Justice Center who went to a public union meeting were treated to singalongs of "Solidarity Forever" and Woody Guthrie's "Union Maid," according to a newsletter.
Some professional organizations want to avoid such old rituals and look for a different relationship with unions — one more focused on advocacy and less on solidarity.
For example, members of the National Assn. of Professional Allstate Agents elected to join the AFL-CIO in 2011 when they faced a pay cut. But the agents are part of a guild, rather than a union, meaning that members don't collectively bargain. Not all agents are members; only about 10% of them pay the $350 annual dues to be a guild member.
Knowing that many independent business owners such as Allstate agents don't like unions, the guild keeps its activities relatively quiet because "a lot of independent businesspeople, like Allstate agents, are really anti-union," director Jim Fish said. "We'd love to have them all as members, but they can't see it's in their interests to pay."
Union leaders hope that attitude will evolve over time.
Gordon Deane, president of the National Organization of Legal Services Workers, said interest is growing. As the Legal Services workers show, he said, professionals will stand up for their rights, if pushed.
"People are aware of how management decisions are affecting their work life," he said. "They are taking a stand and saying enough is enough."