Working for the workers

June 21, 1996|By Eileen McNamara

SHE HAS NEVER been inside the institutional laundry in South Boston, but the workers have drawn Robin Clark a mental picture.

She can see the dirty washroom, the overhead pipe where the women warm their meals, the heavy overcoats they wear inside all winter when the heat never seems to be on.

She conjures up those images when the days are too long or the work she chose too discouraging.

If the labor movement has a future, it is in the hands of people like 23-year-old Robin Clark.

Two years ago, when her Yale classmates left for law and medical school, Robin enrolled in the Organizing Institute, established in 1989 by the AFL-CIO to train union organizers.

Most recruits these days are women and minorities, signed up straight from college. They come to the labor movement long on idealism and short on obligations that could interfere with the many demands on a union activist in an anti-union era.

Declining unions

Twenty-five years ago, 30 percent of all American workers in private industry were unionized. That figure is now around 11 percent, the lowest since the 1930s. In the last six years alone, unions have lost 1 million members.

The problems are clear enough -- 8 million industrial jobs lost since 1980, real wages down by 28 percent since 1973 -- but whether unions will be the solution in the new service economy is not as clear. Of recent campaigns overseen by the National Labor Relations Board, about half ended in union wins.

For Robin Clark, there is no uncertainty. Organized labor, she says, is "the only movement that really addresses the root of our problems: economic injustice."

Hers is the unionism of the Depression-era AFL-CIO, unrelated to the corruption and Mob ties that came later.

She is from an Iowa union family. Her father was a postal worker and she remembers the improvement in their lives after the U.S. Postal Service organized in 1970.

She was drawn into the labor movement herself at Yale, where the university seems to be in perpetual battle with its support staff: "The correlation between social and economic injustice was so clear. The kids we were teaching in a literacy program in New Haven, their parents worked at Yale."

Now, she is an organizer for the United Needle Trades Union; many of the workers she is trying to reach are young and female.

"A lot of workers want to do something to improve their condition. We hear the same problems everywhere: people aren't being heard. There is a lack of respect, a lack of dignity in workplace. The process of forming a union gives them a say. I'm not afraid to help people demand that."

Workers pay price

She knows that workers often pay a price. At Royal Laundry, some of the more demanding have been dismissed. Others complain of intimidation.

It is against the law to retaliate against workers for organizing, but appeals of dismissals can take years. Three laundry workers who wrote to Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino to complain about working conditions were fired. Royal says their dismissals were unrelated to their union activities, but even the mayor suspects otherwise.

The other day, the mayor stood in front of the laundry on Dorchester Avenue and warned Royal's owners that their $1.5 million contract with Boston City Hospital is in jeopardy if the "sweatshop" conditions are not cleaned up.

Fifty cents more than the minimum wage -- itself at a 40-year low in real dollars -- is what Rosa Guerra and Maria Elena earn, both of whom send part of their paychecks home to family in El Salvador each week.

They're dependent on their jobs. They've seen their friends fired. But when their shift ends, Rosa and Maria take Robin Clark around this city to meet other laundry workers, to talk about the union and their future.

The women describe the dirty washroom, the overhead pipe where they warm their meals, the overcoats they wear inside all winter and Robin Clark remembers why she chose the work she did.

Eileen McNamara is a Boston Globe columnist.

Pub Date: 6/21/96

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