Labor In a Non-Union Town
Rochester's labor unions have existed for so long in a company town, a lot of their members are resigned to being treated as if they aren't here. Lately, though, events have turned in their favor: the Communications Workers of American won a long battle with the Frontier Corporation. Workers at the Nortonian voted to be represented by the SEIU. The Teamsters won a nation-wide battle with UPS.There's a growing sense among union members that now's the time to do what they've wanted to do for so long: build a widespread sense of solidarity among local workers. "Now is as good a moment as any," says Steve George, an organizer for UNITE in Rochester. "This is the most talk there's been about labor issues in God knows how long. I think for the first time in a long time, people are saying we can stand up for ourselves and demand more."This is a particularly optimistic statement coming from George; his union recently lost its campaign to organize 150 workers at Eldre Corporation, a manufacturing plant in Henrietta. But George says the failed campaign at Eldre can build solidarity by illustrating some of the strategies used to erode it. George says Eldre used the same union-busting strategies that expensive "preventative labor relations specialists" have been pitching to companies for years. Among other things, Eldre issued memo after memo denouncing the union. Its management required workers to attend meetings to hear anti-union speeches and watch anti-union videos. Management misrepresented UNITE's successes and focused obsessively on dues and strikes. These company tactics are formulaic, but they're effective. So effective, in fact, that they can persuade workers to accept a premise that defies common sense and historical record: that unions exist to exploit workers, and that the companies are the best guardians of workers' rights. It's a line of reasoning, George says, "that makes you feel like you've just walked into a Salvador Dali painting. Everything's distorted."The Eldre anti-union literature that workers collected during the campaign is rife with slurs against organizers; according to the company, unions are nearly demonic. One employee handout, for example, accuses UNITE organizers of using "obnoxious foot-in-the- door tactics" to trick workers into "signing away your individual rights" because "they want your money." The company offers their workers no proof of any of these assertions, except to point out that the union will charge them dues ß $4.92 a week. "Union organizers are continuing to get Eldre employees to go to meetings and sign cards," reads a May 8 company memo to employees. "Sometimes they harass you in your own home. We certainly believe this invasion of your privacy is totally uncalled for, but indicative of how these people operate." Ringing someone's doorbell hardly constitutes harassment. The company letter, of course, doesn't explain that union organizers have to visit workers in their homes, because the company won't allow them on the premises. The company, meanwhile, has a captive audience of workers all day long ß and in the workplace, employees don't have the option of saying ßno thanks' and shutting the door on management.Meanwhile, at National Labor Relations Board hearings, George says, company lawyers dragged out the process as long as they could, buying more time to wage their anti-union campaign. When UNITE filed its petition in June, more than 80 workers had signed cards asking for union representation; by August, support had dwindled to the point where the union decided to withdraw the petition.Labor organizers like Steve George face opposition not only in individual workplaces, but in a larger culture that's steeped in profound misunderstandings about unions. Political leaders, sociologists, and social agencies ß liberal and conservative alike ß spend endless hours debating the need for stable neighborhoods, adequate health care, racial inequalities, and a thriving economy, but they seldom make the connection between those things and labor unions. It's as if they're ignorant of these salient facts: Organized workers have more money to spend on the products and services that companies have to offer. Overall, union workers make 25 percent more than non-union workers. Unions have proved effective in correcting racial inequities in income. On average, unionized African-American workers earn 30 percent more than non-unionized African-American workers. Hispanics who belong to unions earn 38 percent more than non-union Hispanic workers. Organized workers are far more likely to have health-care coverage. Eighty-five percent of all white union workers are covered by health-care plans, compared to only 57 percent of white workers. While only 53 percent of all black workers have health- care coverage, 80 percent of black union workers do. In the Hispanic community, 80 percent of all Latino union members have health-care coverage, compared to only 41 percent of Latinos overall. Union workers are less likely to need government assistance in their old age. Eighty-two percent of union workers have company pensions, compared to only 43 percent of the general population. Unions could even be said to ameliorate the problems of "personal responsibility" and "family values" that conservatives keep yammering about. According to the Urban Poverty and Family Life Study conducted by the University of Chicago, there's a strong relationship between the income of young black men and their marital status.The study, conducted in 1987, looked at young black men between 18 and 29 who earned $20,000 a year or more. Fifty percent of them, the study found, were married; the percentage declined steadily for those earning less than $20,000. (Of those who earned between $7,000 and $15,000 a year, only 29 percent were married; only 10 percent of the men who earned less than that were married.) The Chicago study was conducted under William Julius Wilson, a respected sociologist and author of several books, including his most recent, When Work Disappears. Wilson, however ß like so many other progressive social critics ß seems blind to the possibilty than union organizing might solve some societal problems. Wilson acknowledges that income disparity has increased as union membership has declined. He calls for a "broad based political coalition" that focuses on the economic issues common to all Americans, regardless of their race or ethnicity. He even spends considerable time talking about how much better child care, health care, and education are in France and Germany ß but never mentions those countries' high rate of union membership, or their strong sense of solidarity among workers. Steve George no longer expects any help from progressives, liberals, or politicians of any stripe. Workers, he says, can count only on one thing: themselves. And if unions want to organize workers, he says, they'll have have to do all the "heavy lifting." "Right now, the problem is, not enough unions are organizing," George says. "We have to understand that people who aren't organized now don't understand organized labor. "The community needs to have a lot more organizing activity going on before people get the idea and figure out that ßthis is ok, this is good, people knocking on my door. I expect it.' One or two industrial campaigns a year doesn't raise the consciousness level. UNITE can't do it alone; SEIU can't do it alone. The UAW has to get out there, the machinists, the chemical and atomic workers have to get out there."George has been an organizer for a year; before that, he worked for 12 years as a union welder at Xerox. Eldre was the first campaign he's handled on his own, but he says he's not discouraged by the outcome."People say this is a company town. I'm not convinced that it is," George says. "It has the values of a company town right now, but that's because we're not asserting ourselves. Unions need to stop looking inward, stop trying to rear-guard ourselves, trying to protect what we've got. It isn't going to be easy, but we have to and go out and organize."