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Unions Putting Hard Labor Into Recruitment

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Organized labor has faced many enemies over the last several decades, but one of its worst problems has been the lethargy of most of the nation’s unions themselves in recruiting new members.

To turn that situation around, national AFL-CIO leaders meeting in Los Angeles on Monday put the spotlight on successful union-organizing drives and announced new initiatives to expand recruiting by their affiliated unions.

Workers, labor leaders said, generally are eager to join unions--sometimes even when they fear they could lose their jobs for supporting a labor-organizing effort.

For instance, officials of the Service Employees International Union reported that more than 70% of low-paid, home-health-care workers contacted by their organizers in Northern California have expressed support for the union.

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When organizers approach these workers, the reaction commonly is, “ ‘Where have you been? I’ve been waiting for the union. Where can I sign up?’ ” said Kristy Sermersheim, executive secretary treasurer of SEIU Local 715 in San Jose.

Over the last two years, Sermersheim’s local has signed up 4,600 such workers as members in Santa Clara and San Mateo.

To take advantage of the apparently growing interest among women in labor unions, the AFL-CIO also unveiled a program called “Ask a Working Woman.” The initiative will involve polling of thousands of working women about changes they want to see on the job.

Union officials will meet with working women in 25 cities throughout the country--including Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco. In addition, a national conference will be held in Washington in September to map out an agenda for organizing working women.

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The AFL-CIO backed up its plans by citing polling evidence that women are more supportive of union ideals than men, along with government figures showing that the percentage of union members who are women jumped from 22% in 1972 to 39% last year.

Separately, AFL-CIO officials said they are working on a “Senior Summer” program to enlist senior citizens in union-organizing efforts. The program would be modeled after Union Summer, an initiative started last year in which college students and young union rank-and-file members helped out on picket lines and elsewhere to boost union recruiting.

The initiatives come as AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney and other top AFL-CIO officials applied pressure on union leaders to boost their spending on organizing. The national AFL-CIO itself has pledged to spend $30 million on organizing this year, up from about $2.5 million in 1995.

However, the payoff from the extra organizing effort is still modest, at best. The AFL-CIO released figures showing that its affiliated unions’ membership rolls totaled 12.91 million last year, up just over 12,000 from the year before.

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In the 1970s, the United Farm Workers antagonized supermarket chains and their union workers by staging boycotts and protests against stores selling table grapes.

But now the old rivalry between the farm workers and the dominant union in the supermarket industry, the United Food and Commercial Workers, appears to have been buried.

These days, farm worker union leaders are focusing on organizing California’s 20,000 strawberry pickers, and the UFCW is pledging to urge the employers of its roughly 800,000 members to support the cause.

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Currently, there are no plans to boycott strawberries in connection with the organizing effort. Instead, union leaders are counting on pressure from the supermarket chains and community and religious groups to persuade growers to improve conditions for workers.


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