The Union: "Organize of Wither"

There's that telling scene from the movie Roger and Me , when, during a parade in Flint, Michigan, the president of the United Auto Workers (UAW) waves to unemployed auto workers from behind a smoked-glass, partially opened limo window. Until recently, it was difficult to discern big labor from big business -- they all seemed to be hiding behind smoke and mirrors, all carrying identical briefcases with documents undercutting the economic vitality of American workers.However, when AFL-CIO president John J. Sweeney visited Cleveland recently, his message, backed with money, was that labor's voice is a growing and increasingly important one for workers in all types of jobs. "Organize or Wither" is labor's new mantra; Sweeney's Cleveland visit is one of several regional organizing conferences he's conducting around the country. The 63-year-old former head of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) was elected president of the AFL-CIO in 1995 and brought with him a slate of officers who, for a change, don't resemble a gaggle of CEOs (all white, all male).In a Free Times interview, Sweeney acknowledged it was time for "the faces at the top to be representative of the faces of the rank-and-file."Not only does Sweeney appear to be diversifying the leadership's ranks within the AFL-CIO, he combines the hindsight of labor's previous lessons with an energetic vision that "the wage and wealth gap are the civil rights issue[s] into the next century."To close that gap, Sweeney has committed an unprecedented 30 percent of national funds for worker-organizing programs and has called on unions within the federation to do likewise. When asked why organizing funds had comprised only 3 percent of unions' budgets during decades of layoffs, mergers, shutdowns and corporations shipping jobs overseas, Sweeney said, "we all have to share -- those of us in leadership positions, the responsibility -- and we need to take some risk. What we were doing wasn't working."Indeed, America's union membership has dwindled from an all-time high of more than 35 percent of all workers in the early 1950s to approximately 14 percent now. Over the last forty years, the nature of work has changed, with an explosion of part-time jobs, temporary jobs and service sector jobs amid increasing economic insecurity for American employees. Whether one wears a blue or white collar to work these days doesn't guarantee that a specific skill or college-degree training will withstand corporate maneuvers."We don't have physical violence in the workplace, we have economic violence," said John Ryan, executive secretary of the Cleveland AFL-CIO Federation of Labor. "The new goon squads are management consultants."Ryan, who was elected head of the local AFL-CIO last year in a bitterly contested election, represents the local reflection of changing leadership determined to transform union issues into a labor movement. Such an effort harks back to the 1930s, when union organizing efforts often involved clergy, community activists, intellectuals, friends and families to confront rapacious employers, who were usually backed by politicians, judges and bankers. Cities like Cleveland, Toledo, Minneapolis, Seattle and Brooklyn experienced organizing victories in the 1930s because of such broad-based coalitions.It is that unified community response both Sweeney and Ryan want to repeat, but with some '90s twists. Labor's organizing gains in the '30s were often marred by vicious jurisdictional battles between the craft unions of the AFL and the industrial unions of the CIO. And while the federations have been united since 1955, for decades, unions competing with one another for workers has served management's interests of a divided workforce.Sweeney says he is proud of today's solidarity among various unions and the resulting commitment to organizing. Some models of solidarity: the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) and the Laborers unions with southern poultry workers; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the Teamsters Union with state employees; and UNITE (the needle trades' union) and SEIU with nursing home employees."The focus on organizing is to build a strong labor movement and a similar culture (of the '30s)," said Sweeney. "There is a new spirit of unity."Besides union efforts, new groups of workers are increasingly being cultivated to bargain collectively. Recent labor wins can be measured with now-unionized groups such as Sony Theater and Red Cross workers in New York City, and nursing home employees in Ohio. These successes are related in part to a new organizing approach of prospective union members signing membership cards or petitions, rather than voting in protracted workplace elections that usually give employers time to undermine organizing efforts. Also, both nationally and locally, countless union rank-and-file members are volunteering after work to visit prospective members at their homes, another '30s organizing tactic."The level of fear and intimidation in the workplace is incredible; one worker an hour is fired in this country for trying to organize," said Ryan, who cited several local unionizing efforts in which "the employer holds captive-audience 'scare' meetings, and the people who are pro-union get the worse assignments. Our people have overheard firing conversations right before [union] elections."Unions are increasingly using research techniques to find out what their members want, said Sweeney."We learned from focus groups with our rank-and-file that union members don't want to be told who to vote for; they want background on the issues to hold politicians accountable," he said, citing federal budget debates, the government shutdown and social program attacks as recent examples of membership education.While wage and benefit levels continue to spur workers to act collectively, Ryan said "the biggest issue with organizing isn't wages, it's dignity on the job. People have no say in how to do their job and they have problems with the boss and want to know how to express them."Another '90s AFL-CIO priority is a recently-established web site, www.paywatch.org, where users can obtain Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) information on corporations and determine how much money a particular CEO makes -- and how many millenniums it would take one worker to earn that same amount of money. For example, according to the web site, Gilbert Emilio, CEO of Apple Computer, laid off 4,100 workers last year and took home a salary of $23.3 million -- or $5,690 per laid-off worker.Sweeney called Cleveland "a very important city" for union organizing, citing its existing strong labor base and coalitions such as Jobs With Justice. "At the heart of where we're going to be successful is building coalitions with educators, labor leaders and civil rights leaders."He cited the recent battle for raising the minimum wage, a pay scale well-below union salaries, as an example of labor building alliances. "We couldn't have passed minimum wage without a coalition," said Sweeney, who noted such solidarity will yield future payoffs for organized labor. "We're here for them today," he said. "They're here for us tomorrow."

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