Top AFL-CIO leaders haven’t gotten much beyond the talking stage in their promised overhaul of the American labor movement, but they received an encouraging signal Thursday: A new, labor-financed poll shows that Americans are starting to warm up to the idea of joining unions.
That finding, delivered on the final day of the AFL-CIO’s executive council session in Los Angeles, could provide an important shot in the arm to the nation’s unions.
The apparent beginning of a shift in public opinion comes, to be sure, in the face of economic and social forces that have continued battering U.S. unions since their heyday in the 1950s.
Indeed, in recognition that revitalizing the nation’s unions will require a massive effort, AFL-CIO leaders spent their four days of meetings here sketching out a multi-pronged comeback strategy.
The new poll provided hope. The figures--based on a national survey of 400 nonunion, nonsupervisory workers--showed that 44% would support forming a union at their workplace. That was up from 39% in a similar poll taken in the spring of last year, and up from 30% in 1984.
Based on that finding and related data from a broader sampling of 1,002 American adults, Washington pollster Geoffrey Garin concluded that “there’s a new environment that creates opportunities for the labor movement.”
“The labor movement situation is analogous to where the Democratic Party was in 1990, when the public was wondering if we’d ever have a Democratic president again,” added Garin, president of Peter D. Hart Research Associates in Washington.
The Hart survey showed that nonunion, nonsupervisory workers who would oppose a union at their companies still constitute a 52% majority, versus 53% last spring and 65% in 1984.
While the overall change on that point was slight over the past year, Garin said the poll showed that intensity of the opposition to unions has diminished.
Garin said that while unions still need to sell themselves to the public, younger workers clearly are less hostile to organized labor than their elders. In general, he said, Americans are less likely to describe organized labor “as too confrontational, too powerful or too strike-happy.”
Hoping to capitalize on that long-hoped-for shift in the public’s attitudes, AFL-CIO leaders this week worked on an array of plans to step up recruiting of workers into unions. John J. Sweeney won the presidency of the AFL-CIO in October 1995 in a historic campaign largely based on his vow to step up organizing efforts.
The strategy unveiled this week marks a departure from the way union business typically has been done over the last several decades. Instead of largely ignoring the poor, union leaders pledged to organize people who, under welfare reform, will be pushed off public assistance and back into the work force.
Rather than treat immigrants as competitors for scarce jobs who bring down the wage scale, labor leaders are stepping up efforts to recruit them.
The new strategy also calls for public relations campaigns that will zero in on workers’ frustrations and attack companies that are fighting to keep out unions.
Organized labor also vows a more disciplined, businesslike approach, doing such things as setting specific recruiting goals, exploring more mergers between unions and leveraging financial resources for the maximum impact in the workplace.
Still, there’s plenty of room for skepticism. Organized labor has always talked a good game, only to watch its influence and membership numbers continue to dwindle. While the AFL-CIO says the number of workers in its member unions edged up slightly to 12.91 million last year, government data showed the percentage of the work force in unions declining to 14.5%, from 14.9% in 1995.
Leo Troy, an economics professor and union specialist at Rutgers University in New Jersey, said the AFL-CIO strategy is doomed to fail.
He said organizing poor workers such as California’s strawberry pickers, the target of a United Farm Workers organizing campaign, will be undermined by their high job turnover.
Troy also faulted unions for largely ignoring the most promising area in the emerging economy, technical and professional workers. What’s more, Troy said unions are paying too little attention to manufacturing workers,
“Why, then, does the labor movement talk about strawberry workers, the poor on welfare, when you have over 80% of manufacturing workers who are nonunion, and when their industry has traditionally been the backbone of unionism?” he asked.
The AFL-CIO’s plans, Troy contended, are “not a strategy of the future. It’s a strategy of disappointment and acceptance of the twilight of private sector unionism.