Union Leaders Facing Setbacks

Tuesday, February 13th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Union members, in the minds of many, are older, white, male blue-collar workers. It's a stereotype the AFL-CIO is trying to change — in fact believes it must change to survive.

For the nation's labor leaders gathering here this week at the AFL-CIO's winter meeting, the challenge is how to expand membership and organization in a changed economy.

Last month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the percentage of American workers belonging to unions fell last year to 13.5 percent — or 13 million — the lowest in six decades. Unions blame a decline in heavily unionized industries, accompanied by job growth in nonunion parts of the economy.

``That's very bad news for the American labor movement and in our view, very bad news for the economy and for those important programs and values that we fight for,'' said Mark Splain, AFL-CIO organizing director. ``There's nothing more important to us than building a larger and stronger labor movement.''

Last year, 400,000 new members joined unions, and the AFL-CIO wants to double that this year, Splain said.

It will be a tough road, said Richard Hurd, director of labor studies at Cornell University. For starters, unions must do a better job of showing how they are relevant to the lives of all workers and their families.

Immigrants and minorities represent a large opportunity, Hurd said. He cited an AFL-CIO town hall meeting Monday in Los Angeles that included a large Hispanic audience.

``If they could project this — the culture that's here — and spread it, it would help people see the diversity of unions,'' he said.

The AFL-CIO has started pressing for immigrant workers' rights and has held forums across the country calling for laws that criminalize employer exploitation and amnesty for undocumented workers in the United States.

Also, unions must tap into the growing white collar sector by changing the blue-collar, laborer image and making themselves relevant to those workers, Hurd said. Progress is being made in such areas as medicine.

``Health care workers are having a feeling of losing control of what they do on the job,'' he said. ``They see their control dwindling and it creates a need to join a union.''

Andrew Stern, president of the Service Employee International Union, the second largest union under the umbrella of the AFL-CIO, said unions should work together instead of competing for those new members.

The SEIU also is aggressively focused on health care issues and is pursuing ``health care only'' legislation in states like California and Maryland. The proposal would prevent health care funding from being used to break or fight unions by corporations and require it be spent on health care, Stern said.

``We have to change where we are because of what our members want — a 21st century partnership with their employers,'' Stern said.

The SEIU has spent about $100 million on organizing efforts — about $1,000 per person. It has increased new membership to 70,000 to 80,000 a year, up from 20,000 to 40,000 new members. Stern said the goal is 150,000 a year.

Unions also see a new generation of activists on campuses across the country, where students are concerned about workers rights and graduate students have formed their own unions.

``There's more and more community, political and religious support around these organizing campaigns, which is really where the battle is waged,'' Splain said. ``It's less a focus on Washington.''

The AFL-CIO's strategies for increasing membership include:

— Helping affiliate unions with their national organizing efforts through research, recruiting and training.

— Linking politics and organizing. In the next two years, 36 governorships and control of the House and Senate will be determined.

— Election reform. Workers ``are bitter and angry about the election outcome and the way it was determined. It is the job of union leaders now to turn the passion that was poured into the 2000 election into positive change,'' the AFL-CIO's 2001 program said.


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