Union organizers Richard Leung and Jean Quan have discovered some new weapons in their efforts to recruit members in the Bay Area--cappuccino and croissants.
When Leung and Quan were recruiting clerks, sales people and other employees at the Flax art supply store here, many of whom were college educated, they decided they had to take a different approach than they use to organize Korean immigrant janitors working for the minimum wage.
Quan decided that the art store workers whom she fondly refers to as “DUMPIES,"--downwardly mobile urban professionals--might be more receptive to hearing about the union while sipping cappuccino in a cafe here, as many of them are wont to do, than at the union hall. Then, just before the vote on unionization, Quan and Leung handed out roses to the workers as they entered the store and sent out Christmas cards with a message from Albert Camus, the existentialist French writer: “In the depth of winter, I finally learned that here was in me an invincible summer.”
They also circulated a leaflet that said having a union would not suppress individuality and told the workers they would attempt to set up a joint labor-management committee to consider merit pay increases for employees. Such a committee would be a departure for most unions, who traditionally regard such efforts as attempts by management to pit workers against one another.
“It was a different style of organizing,” said Thomas Lacey, a painter who works in Flax’s order department here. Store workers had been unresponsive to several earlier organizing campaigns at the store, but Local 87 was voted in by a narrow margin 15 months ago. Negotiations toward a first contract are still under way with the store owners.
These are difficult times for union organizers, the toughest era since just before the Great Depression.
Quan and Leung are among hundreds of union organizers throughout the country going through a painful re-examination of their strategy and techniques. Their ability to find ways to appeal to a new generation of workers and the degree of support they get from their leaders may well determine whether organized labor rebounds from its current low ebb or continues its downward slide. Among the signs of decline:
- Organized labor’s share of the private sector work force has dropped to 18%, down from 23% in 1980 and 35% in 1955, and it will decline to 10% by the year 2000 if current trends continue, according to studies by Paul Weiler, a Harvard law professor, and Richard Freeman, a Harvard economics professor
- Unions won only 43% of representation elections held by the National Labor Relations Board last year and have not won a majority of such elections since 1973.
- Unions are able to negotiate contracts in only 63% of the elections they win.
- In recent years, unions won only 24% of the elections held in units of 100 or more workers and secured contracts at only 14% of those units.
Union leaders cite a number of factors for the decline, including increased antagonism of companies to unionization, manifested by the fact that one in every 20 people who participates in an organizing campaign is fired; growing pro-employer sympathy of the National Labor Relations Board; the anti-union sentiments of the Reagan Administration; indifference among young workers and structural changes in the economy that have diminished sectors where unions traditionally have been strong, such as heavy manufacturing.
But union officials also are beginning to point fingers at themselves. Within the last year, union leaders have been forced to admit that they have not devoted enough time, energy, people and money to organizing and that this has played a key role in the decline of the labor movement.
“The labor movement permitted a generation of time to elapse, approximately 1955-1980, without preparing--by education and training--for this current generation of organizers,” Vincent Sirabella, 64, a 47-year veteran of the labor movement, said in a speech at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations last year.
“Labor must make organizing its principal priority for the balance of this century and well into the next century,” Sirabella said in the speech, which has been widely quoted in union circles.
Sirabella is organizing director of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union, which last year set up special organizing projects in four cities--Santa Ana, Boston, Chicago and Washington--and staffed them with young, idealistic, organizers. “We don’t expect big victories right away,” he said. “We’re building for the future.”
The Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union is one of the few that can point to notable victories in the last five years--including the 1984 strike against Las Vegas hotel owners and the organization of 2,700 white-collar workers at Yale University.
But there have been other successes:
- A special organizing project of the AFL-CIO’s Industrial Union Department won 70% of the elections it held in six Southern states last year, adding 4,000 new members, said Harold McIver, director of the project.
- The United Food & Commercial Workers, the largest union in the AFL-CIO, added 71,000 new members last year according to organizing director Doug Dorrity.
- The National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees has won 75% of its elections in the last two years, according to its organizing director, Robert Muehlemkamp.
- The Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers quietly won more than a dozen elections in Colorado in recent years in a wide range of industries. The organizers who spearheaded those campaigns have begun to have success organizing employees in Southern California in recent months.
100,000 New Members
- The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees grew by nearly 100,000 members in 1985, highlighted by the addition of 40,000 state workers in Ohio, according to Phil Sparks, the union’s public relations director.
Freeman of Harvard says these triumphs have been engineered by “stars on a losing team.” But while these successes are still in the minority, union leaders throughout the nation are attempting to learn from them.
In their renewed commitment to organization, union recruiters are using some new strategies and reviving ones that worked in the past. They are targeting sites more carefully, forming coalitions with other unions, using polls and videotapes, purchasing television and radio advertising, forging alliances with community groups and churches and attempting to avoid the National Labor Relations Board.
Some unions--such as the American Federation of Teachers--also have begun to lure recruits with “associate memberships,” enabling them to receive some union benefits, such as a dental plan, even though their work site is not covered by a collective bargaining agreement.
Dealing With Employers
Other unions--particularly those representing government employees--are redesigning their organizing appeals on the assumption that many workers, especially in government jobs, want help in dealing with their employer but are initially wary of unions. In recent campaigns in California, Ohio and Illinois, the union’s expensive television and radio advertising campaigns described the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees as a countervailing organization to protect workers’ independence against arbitrary treatment from supervisors, Sparks noted. The ads did not use the word union. the federation defeated several other unions in each of the states, picking up 84,000 new members.
In fact, the one area in which unions have consistently made gains in the last 30 years is among government workers. Only 5% of them were organized in 1956. Now 35.8% of public employees belong to unions, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The gains are attributable primarily to legislative changes but there is opportunity for future growth.
Currently, only 22 states, inclu- ding California, have statutes requiring public employers to engage in collective bargaining with an exclusive bargaining agent. Labor is seeking to expand the number of states with such laws.
Among the other success stories in union organizing over the last five years are Mike Lucas of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Karl Lechow of the Hotel Employees and Richard Bensinger of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers.
Lucas, 45, has been particularly successful at targeting firms on the brink of expansion. He tries to establish a beachhead in a company early enough so that the organizing job is manageable and the union is then able to benefit from the growth.
For example, AT&T; Technologies built a new semiconductor plant in Orlando, Fla., that opened with five employees in February, 1984. “I started working on people when they came in the door,” he said. Months later, when there were 85 employees, Lucas filed for an election. By the time of the election there more than 100 and the electrical workers union faced opposition from the Communications Workers of America and the company, which urged a no-union vote. The electrical workers union prevailed in a close ballot. The plant is projected to have 2,500 employees in the near future. Lucas organized another AT&T; facility in Denver several years ago when there were 70 employees. Now, there are more than 1,000, he said.
Lucas believes in aggressive organizing that calls on the employees to do a good deal of the work themselves. “A leaflet by itself never organized anyone,” he said.
Lechow, the principal engineer of the Yale organizing drive, agreed. He stresses to the organizers working with him on the union’s special project in Washington that they are not “social workers” who do things for other people. “Your job is to push people, to get them to go a step further than they’re ready to go.”
At the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union in Los Angeles, Bensinger, the union’s Southern California organizing director, looks at himself as a teacher as well as a recruiter.
“The issue is how to empower people to have a say in their work lives, teaching people the skills to deal with management on an equal basis,” said Bensinger, who joined the union a dozen years ago while working at the Denver factory where Head skis and tennis rackets are made.
Head had been considered impenetrable by many in the labor movement, but the union won. “We had a teacher who taught us to form our own organization,” Bensinger said, referring to organizer Richard Rothstein, who is now the union’s California director. “He taught us how to hold a company accountable, how to get a contract, so we had a basis to challenge the company.”
Soon Bensinger became an organizer and he used those same techniques to help workers win elections at companies making auto accessories, backpacks, crystal ornaments, greeting cards, high-technology electronic products and ski clothes.
In Los Angeles, he has participated in successful organizing campaigns at companies making baseball caps and toy trains in the last few months and has several other campaigns in progress. Bensinger, 34, also has been spending considerable time training other organizers, particularly women such as Berta Silva, 28, who went to the union from the American Friends Service Committee. There, she worked on the problems of Mexican and Central American immigrants. Virtually all of the people the union is organizing come from that group, and increasingly union organizers view the Latino immigrant community--legal and illegal--as fertile ground for organizing.
Sharing of Experiences
Bensinger also attempts to utilize union workers who can share their experiences with potential recruits. “Critical to the ability of a union to organize is whether it’s doing a good job at its already organized plants and its ability to communicate that,” Bensinger said.
At a meeting of toy train workers recently, Silva introduced Alberto Cisneros, a repairman at a Xerox factory who has been a member of the Clothing Workers for 13 years. At a meeting in Compton, Cisneros answered a series of questions from the workers, all in Spanish.
“How is the union going to help me?” a woman asks. “The union is us,” Cisneros responds. “We have to unite to get what is important. In 13 years, we got health insurance, wage increases and other benefits.”
Another woman asks: “Will we get sick pay?” Cisneros responds: “You have to decide what’s important and work to get it. When I started at the plant, we got the minimum wage. Now people start at $9.” Another woman shouts out: “How can I get a job there?” Everyone laughs.
Two days later, the workers voted 71 to 17 to be represented by the union. The next week they selected a bargaining committee and they are now in the midst of their first contract negotiations.
An Open Question
Whether Lucas, Lechow and Bensinger will remain “stars on a losing team,” or role models whose methods can be replicated throughout the movement is an open question. “I’m a first-generation computer,” Lechow said. “The people I’m training will be a lot better than I am.”
But Marshal Ganz, who played a key role in the early organizing victories of the United Farm Workers and has been studying organizing for the last year on a foundation grant, said most unions are not devoting nearly enough energy to organizing or to training organizers.
Ganz applauded the recent wave of self-examination and the search for new solutions but added a significant caveat. “Solving the organizing problem is not one of technique but one of commitment,” he said.
In particular, Ganz said, the extent of organizing among office workers and other growing sectors of the economy is still quite minimal.
That is particularly significant in view of recent studies that indicate women are more inclined toward unionization than men and that women comprise a high percentage of the clerical work force. An analysis of 200 recent union elections by the Cambridge-based National Bureau of Economic Research showed that unions won half of the campaigns in which women made up 75% or more of the work force but only 40% of those where less than half of the workers were women.
Ganz said that most unions do not use enough women as organizers. Only one union, the Teamsters, has a woman organizing director--Vicki Saporta.
He also said that many unions do not have a clear concept of how to organize. “Organizing is a process of identifying leadership, building community around that leadership and developing power around the leadership,” Ganz said. “Leadership development is virtually a lost art in the labor movement today.”
Another major problem, said Ken Gagala, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Labor Center, is that “some unions have used their organizing departments as a dumping ground for people who are washed up politically or have lost effectiveness in servicing contracts,” he said.
Leo Troy, a Rutgers University economics professor who specializes in labor relations, agrees that unions have not devoted many resources to organizing. But he thinks the union slide is likely to continue regardless of what they do. “American unionism has apparently entered a new stage in its long history, a stage of permanent and irreversible decline.”
But Joe Herman, a Los Angeles lawyer who represents many large companies in contract negotiations and other labor relations matters, doesn’t think that is necessarily true. “Unions and collective bargaining are not dead in this country,” Herman said. “But union organizing is at a low ebb. The jury’s out on whether it will increase in frequency and success.
“One of the great unanswered questions for unions in the future,” Herman added, is their ability to organize the nation’s growing army of clerical workers. “If they would start to have success, it would be a dramatic development,” he said.
Only 2.9% of the nation’s clerical workers are organized. The Service Employees have moved into this area, particularly through the efforts of its 6,000-member District 925, which works closely with the National Organization of Working Women, also known as 9 to 5.
Jackie Ruff, the director of the union’s clerical division, said workers’ fear of job loss is still the major impediment to clerical organizing.
In fact, more than a dozen organizers in various industries around the country said that workers’ fear of job loss is the major obstacle in organizing.
Those fears are understandable, said William Cooke, an associate professor of industrial relations at the University of Michigan’s Graduate School of Business Administration. He said that one out of every 20 workers who gets involved in a union organizing drive is fired, according to National Labor Relations Board statistics.
“Although there is a law against this (discrimination against union supporters), it appears to be ineffective in blocking discriminatory discharges,” Cooke said. He said the penalties that are imposed--such as back pay or reinstatement or both--are ineffectual. And he said the number of such cases is rising steadily.
No Foolproof Solution
Organizers around the country said they spent a considerable amount of time dealing with “the fear issue” and none of them said they had a foolproof solution. “There is no single way to deal with fear,” said Jerry Tucker, assistant regional director of the United Auto Workers in St. Louis. “We try to use general reinforcement against fear,” Tucker said. “It goes to the heart of what a union is--people integrated in each other’s work lives for support.”
Leung, the Services Employees organizer here, agreed: “The role of an organizer is to know what motivates people to stand up for themselves--looking at their hopes, fears, aspirations and to frame the campaign in a way that relates to their experience. The question of motivation--what leads them to stand up for their rights, our ability to do that is what makes or breaks a campaign.”