Standing Firm in the New Workplace : Labor: In an era when unions seem to be in trouble, the AFL-CIO remains optimistic that trainees can become instruments of change--and challenge the system.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Signs on the walls read "Union = Mafia" and "No On Strikes--Vote No." Four dour ushers wear anti-union buttons. Lights dim, and an executive on film urges the 22 people in the small meeting room to vote against being represented by a labor union.

Foreign competition makes the company's upcoming revenue uncertain, the executive says. Workers' interests will come first with supervisors in the future, he promises. He says the union often resorts to violence and loses when it strikes.

As the film ends, an usher says, "Sorry. We don't have time for questions."

The "ushers" are actually labor union representatives. The film is part of a role-playing exercise at a training session for aspiring union organizers sponsored by the AFL-CIO Organizing Institute of Washington, D.C., and San Francisco.

After the film, the group walks upstairs to a meeting room, where a teacher asks how the film defined the union. Powerless, money-hungry, uncaring and violent, the aspiring organizers say.

"If the employer gets the jump and defines the union, the workers are starting at a big disadvantage," instructs Chris Woods, director of campus recruiting for the institute.

In an era when unions are in trouble--they represent only 15.5% of American workers, down from 35% in the 1950s--the trainees have traveled from as far away as Texas to attend the three-day event in an El Segundo hotel.

They have marched in Inglewood in red Justice for Janitors T-shirts, attended lectures, heard case studies and engaged in role-playing exercises.

Developing representatives who can think on their feet and win organizing drives are the goals of the seminar, which the institute offers about 35 times a year nationwide.

"If unions do not organize, they die," Woods says. In general, "Less than 6% of union resources go to organizing. About 94% goes to a little declining pie of current membership. Some locals spend 25% to 30% on organizing and they're growing."

The institute particularly seeks women and minority students, who match the new face of American labor and account for about two-thirds of the El Segundo candidates.

About 2,000 people have taken the sessions since they began in 1990. Of those, about 20% have completed internships and apprenticeships and been hired as organizers, usually at salaries between $25,000 and $35,000 a year.

An early graduate is Tanya Wallace, 27, who was hired as an organizer for the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers in Atlanta and came to this meeting as an instructor.

At Loyola University of Chicago, Wallace had wanted a career that would help minorities empower themselves. She also thought everyone should have the right to make a decent living. "Everyone should have the opportunity to provide for their family and grasp the American dream," she says.

"People would look at me and say, 'You can't do anything. That's the way the system is,' " Wallace recalls.

She found little acceptance of her beliefs until she attended an institute training session in 1991.

"When I met the other organizers, it totally clicked," Wallace says. "I felt like this was home for me. This is what I want to do."

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Wallace, who has won eight of 10 campaigns for the union, describes tasting the joys of organizing on her first campaign for the textile union.

Four women were handing out union leaflets one morning at the door of the rural Mississippi plant where they worked. When the manager told them to get off the property, they ran down the hill to where Wallace watched.

"They had never done it," Wallace says. "They were afraid they'd lose their jobs. The law says they can be on the property to organize as long as they do it on their own time. This was before work, and I told them they had to go back up the hill. And they did.

"At that point, I felt how much they trusted and believed in me and I knew I couldn't let them down."

Students in the El Segundo class include rank-and-file union members, college students and community activists.

Occidental College senior Randy Ertll, 22, came to find out if a career in organizing could help build his community in South-Central Los Angeles.

"I can't make changes alone, so I want to join a bigger organization," says Ertll, who works on organizing drives for Justice for Janitors.

Myriam Escamilla, 26, a field representative for the Service Employees International Union in San Francisco, is at the class to sharpen her organizing skills. She believes gaining control of the workplace reduces workers' alienation and leads to political change.

"The minute you see that you can control this part of your life," she says, "you start seeing that you have more power to control the nation's future."

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Martha Cody-Valdez, a personnel analyst at UC Santa Barbara, says that even though the labor force has changed, unions are still needed.

"Labor is no longer steel mills and auto plants. More and more there are people in service, professional or clerical occupations," says Cody-Valdez, a part-time organizer for the University Professional and Technical Employees at UCSB.

"But the needs that organized labor was founded on still exist. Workers want control over their lives and a voice in their workplace."

Perry Ossian, 53, a retired industrial engineer, is now a Las Vegas cabdriver and recording secretary of a union of cab, bus and limousine drivers. He wants to establish partnerships between labor and management.

"You can get so much more done when there is a partnership between management and the people who actually do the work," he says. "When people are talking 'we,' you know it's a company that works with its people. When it's 'us' and 'them,' you know there's a problem."

The appeal of union organizing is especially strong to a generation of financially struggling college students who may end up less secure than their parents, according to the institute.

"They will make less than their parents, have less job security and struggle longer and harder to buy a house," says campus recruiter Woods. "The reality they live as students is very much the reality that workers live before they organize--low pay, no benefits, no voice. So when we say here's a way to change things, it resonates with them."

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Once potential organizers reach the training sessions, instructors look for good interpersonal skills, says Allison Porter, director of recruiting and training for the institute. "Are they charismatic people who are outgoing and like people and people like them? Can they go into a situation where they don't know anybody and quickly get into a position of leadership?"

"I know how to scream and agitate people, but I have no knowledge of how to organize," Escamilla says. "I got very good training here."

Along with organization, the training includes confrontation tactics.

It begins with persuading individual workers. "The first principle is that you organize one on one," Porter says.

Meetings and other parts of the first stage of the campaign must be conducted secretly, instructors advise, to prevent management's defeat of the drive before it gains strength.

The organizers should ask the National Labor Relations Board to conduct an election for union representation only if they believe the workers have an excellent chance to win, Brett Nair teaches. " They are taking the risks, not you." He is project organizer for the Communication Workers of America in Los Angeles.

Once management finds out about the drive, it's important to take on the boss, the institute's Woods says. It shows you can get knocked down and get back up.

If management requires workers to attend "captive audience" meetings to persuade them to vote against the union, supporters can wear pro-union buttons and spread out to talk with undecided workers, the class learns.

Some of the students will go on to share in the ultimate experience of the organizer--a successful unionizing campaign. When that happens, Wallace says, "There's this huge feeling of relief and total ecstasy and everybody's shouting and crying, and it's the first major victory. I call it a first step because after that, you have to get the contract.

"But you know where you're going. You've secured unionism for people."

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