Labor: Bright Spots Amid Troubles : AFL-CIO Meeting Concedes Setbacks, Looks to Better Era

Times Labor Writer

Ronald Reagan is gone, but Frank Lorenzo is still around.

This blend of the bitter and the sweet greeted the leaders of organized labor as they met for the annual winter meeting of the AFL-CIO executive council here the past week. After eight years of setbacks under the most anti-union President in half a century, most of the union officials said they are looking forward to a better era.

"It couldn't get any worse," said Gerald W. McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, one of the few unions that grew during the Reagan era. Perhaps, but on many fronts it has not gotten any better and there are few signs that it will in the short term.

Unions are not gaining members as fast as they are losing them. Companies are still moving manufacturing jobs overseas in search of lower-paid workers. Public confidence in labor as an institution remains low, and plenty of employers are quite prepared to take on unions, either in organizing campaigns or at the bargaining table.

'Serious Problems'

"The labor movement has serious problems," problems that may be more intense than those they faced a decade ago, said Harley Shaiken, professor of work and technology at UC San Diego. "Unions, in the 1990s, will increasingly be faced with a global economy," so that wages in key industries such as automobile and electronics manufacturing will be subject more than ever to competitive pressures, he said.

And then there is Lorenzo, the chairman of Eastern Airlines' parent company, Texas Air Corp., perhaps the corporate official who most symbolizes labor's recent afflictions.

Lorenzo broke union contracts at Continental Airlines in 1983 by declaring bankruptcy and the carrier has been operating non-union since then.

For the last several years, a new dispute has seemed to erupt at Eastern at the time of this gathering. Union officials briefly blast Lorenzo and turn their attention to a host of other issues. Not this year.

Union officials gathered at the Sheraton here wore anti-Lorenzo buttons constantly, fired verbal buckshot at him incessantly and last Thursday afternoon, in an unusual move, spent an hour demonstrating at a large Miami Airport rally in support of 8,500 Eastern Airlines mechanics and other ground personnel.

Heading for Showdown

Those workers are heading for a showdown at the end of this week in their protracted battle for a new contract with Lorenzo. A 30-day, government mandated "cooling off" ends, and if there is no settlement, a strike is a strong possibility.

Lorenzo is demanding that the unions accept steep wage and work rule concessions. He argues that the concessions are needed to make the airline viable because it has lost more than $400 million in the last two years. The Machinists Union said it will accept a wage freeze and some work rule changes but balks at additional concessions. They also say that they have given up $1.5 billion in pay in the last 10 years and assert that Lorenzo has stripped Eastern's assets and transferred them to Continental in recent years.

AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland excoriated Lorenzo as "one of the most irresponsible and avaricious employers in the country." But he insisted that the Eastern clash was not a watershed. "We'll survive, regardless of the outcome," he said.

"Listen, I do not see Armageddon for the labor movement every other day," Kirkland, 66, said responding to a question. "This trade union movement has been through a lot of struggles. We were born to trouble. . . . If there were no troubles, if there were no need for working people to be aggressively and effectively represented, we wouldn't exist."

The Eastern battle may not be a crucial event in labor history, but it is another example of how labor does indeed have its troubles, some quite serious.

Share Declined

During the Reagan years, organized labor's share of the nation's work force dropped to 16.8%, down from 23% in 1980 and 35% in 1954.

If current trends continue, said Harvard economist Richard Freeman, organized labor will represent only 10% of the nation's workers by the year 2000, which will further weaken its hand in bargaining and in Congress.

Unions lose about 3% of their members to attrition yearly and they are not replacing all of those through new organizing. They are initiating fewer representation elections than they used to, winning less often and generally at smaller workplaces.

For the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, unions won 49.5% of the 3,508 representation elections, covering just 211,432 workers, conducted by the National Labor Relations Board. That is a slight improvement over fiscal 1987, but it is a far cry from the 74.5% victory rate in elections covering 890,374 workers in 1950 or the 56.2% victory rate in votes covering 588,214 employees in 1970.

Also, in 1988, the NLRB held 644 elections, covering 32,254 workers, where petitions had been filed by employees seeking to oust their union. The unions won only 185 of those votes.

Such decertification elections are frequently initiated about a year after a union has lost a strike and the bulk of the work force--and the voters--is composed of new employees who replaced the strikers. The increasing willingness of companies to permanently replace strikers is one reason why there were fewer major strikes in 1988 than in the 41 previous years.

Labor's critics charge that unions are out of touch with contemporary workers, overly rigid in holding on to outmoded work rules and present an overwhelmingly white male leadership face to a work force that is increasingly composed of women and minorities.

But "there are some bright lights," despite all the gloomy figures, Shaiken stressed. He, and others, said labor's biggest organizing victory last year--literally and symbolically--was the vote of 3,300 clerical and technical workers at Harvard University to be represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, after an 11-year battle. Negotiations have just begun for a first contract.

Zeal Needed

Unions must not only campaign at more places and use more sophisticated techniques, they must possess the same zeal the successful organizers of the past did, said Vincent Sirabella, organizing director of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union (HERE), which recently won the right to represent 225 workers at a Radisson hotel near Los Angeles International Airport.

The union has a campaign on at another airport hotel and eventually hopes to unionize all the new hotels in the area of LAX, virtually all of which have large numbers of Latino immigrant workers. "All our organizers there are bilingual," Sirabella said. "They are smart, dedicated people," he added, but cautioned that he is not predicting overnight success.

Kirkland has acknowledged that immigrants are not the only types of new workers who have presented vexing challenges to union recruiters. Last month, he said that 25% of U.S. workers currently have only part-time or "casual" jobs. They are not easy to organize and neither are the millions of new workers in service sector jobs who currently are unrepresented.

Three years ago here, heads of eight unions announced that they were launching a coordinated campaign aimed at garnering 50,000 Blue Cross and Blue Shield workers. But the campaign fell apart. "It was a tougher nut than we had anticipated," said a person involved in the campaign who spoke on condition of anonymity.

New Opportunities

Still, there are organizing opportunities in areas where unions have not had much previous success, said Kim Moody, author of the recently published book, "An Injury to All: The Decline of American Unionism." He said that more than half of the 1.8-million non-supervisory employees in the department store industry worked at large chains and were ripe for unionization if the right approach was taken.

"These places concentrate large numbers of people doing menial work, subject to technology that is like manufacturing technology," he said, referring to the increased use of video display terminals and complicated cash registers.

But about one in 20 workers involved in an organizing campaign is discharged, firings that have quite a chilling effect, according to Harvard labor law professor Paul Weiler.

William T. Dickens, a UC Berkeley economics professor, told a Senate subcommittee last year that the National Labor Relations Act would fall short of its pledge to give workers the right to decide on union representation until penalties are stiffened, union access to workers is increased and opportunities for companies to utilize "unfair tactics" are curtailed.

Kirkland and other union leaders agree. But he acknowledged that labor does not have the votes in the Senate to pass reform legislation, even though there is a Democratic majority.

Jo-Ann Mort, public relations director of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, said "the key items on labor's legislative agenda now are child care, the minimum wage and parental leave, all issues of importance to women." McEntee said unions must "get out on the point" for such issues.

Sources of Innovation

But more is needed than a legislative agenda, said Ralph Whitehead, a University of Massachusetts professor who coined the term "new collar" workers. He said a key task for unions in the 1990s will be to show that they are sources of innovation.

Weiler of Harvard raised with the AFL-CIO the possibility of endorsing West German-style "works' councils" whereby the government would require companies to consult with employees regardless of whether there was a union. The possibility also was raised that unions should consider representing workers at some companies where they have yet to gain enough support to have a collective bargaining agreement. For example, the union might help workers monitor compliance with safety laws.

Some members of the AFL-CIO committee considering such proposals expressed enthusiasm about the idea, noting that it could open doors now closed. They pointed to the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor's immigrant assistance project, which has helped many workers gain amnesty, as a small-scale model of what could be achieved.

But others said it was impractical, might tend to discourage organizing in the long run, or is simply unsuited to this country. William Bywater, the president of the Electronics Workers, said the idea "smacked of company unionism."

For the moment, any consideration of such a plan is on the back burner, said Tom Donahue, the AFL-CIO's second ranking official, who chairs the future strategies committee. He said he still remained troubled that millions of American workers still do not have "the basic right" of having a meaningful voice in their workplace and said there were serious "hurdles" to achieving this right.

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