Putting the organizing back in organized labor

March 28, 1997|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Union membership today is at its lowest level since the Great Depression. From 14 percent of the work force in 1935, it rose to a high of 35 percent in the 1950s but since then has dropped to about 11 percent.

The once politically potent AFL-CIO has been regarded in Washington as a paper lion, its legislative objectives repeatedly ignored or rejected by Congress and its clout in congressional and presidential elections sharply diminished.

Through the 1980s and the early 1990s, legislation sought by the AFL-CIO generally got nowhere, and when it fought tooth and nail against the North American Free Trade Agreement, it suffered a particularly conspicuous defeat. Threats that legislators who had voted for NAFTA would be punished in their bids for re-election fell flat.

This dismal record contributed in October 1995 to the success of an insurgent movement in organized labor that led to the resignation of Lane Kirkland as AFL-CIO president and the election of John J. Sweeney, then president of the Service Employees International Union.

Under Mr. Sweeney, the Service Employees' membership nearly doubled, from 625,000 when he took over in 1980 to 1.1 million. In his first year and a half as AFL-CIO president, Mr. Sweeney focused on improving the federation's record on legislation, contributing, for example, to the successful campaign to raise the minimum wage.

The federation and member unions worked diligently, if unsuccessfully, to end Republican control of Congress last November, targeting key marginal districts for ''voter education'' with a costly television campaign that did help cut the GOP margin in the House.

Now Mr. Sweeney is turning to the embarrassing matter of eroding union membership. In January, he created a new department of organizing and an organizing task force whose chairman declared that the labor movement must ''begin organizing new members on a massive scale, or simply wither away and die.''

This week in Seattle, Mr. Sweeney is kicking off a series of 13 organizing conferences to increase membership. A report of the task force blames the shrinkage in membership on corporate downsizing, stagnant wages, movement of union jobs to foreign shores and technological changes.

On the defensive

But the report also takes a slap at the former AFL-CIO leadership's ''short-sighted strategy of trying to protect current contracts of members instead of organizing new members. More and more resources poured into defensive contract battles, plant closings and crippling strikes,'' the report says ''leaving little time and few resources for organizing.''

As a result, it says, the number of workers taking part in elections for union representation supervised by the National Labor Relations Board shrank from 600,000 in 1970 to 160,000 in 1994.

The AFL-CIO is now devoting 30 percent of its budget to organizing. It encourages unions to bypass the NRLB procedure for winning recognition, since employers often thwart NLRB election victories. Instead, it urges them to persuade employers to accept unions based on the accumulation of employee sign-up cards or a non-NLRB election under community auspices.

Richard Bensinger, head of the new organizing department, compares the new tactic to the civil-rights movement of the 1960s. Government obstruction of civil rights in the South then, he said, is like today's employer practices of worker intimidation among prospective union members.

He calls for community involvement. A recent organizing effort in Everett, Massachusetts, signed up 70 percent of a plant's workers for a union. When the employer called for an NLRB election, the local AFL-CIO affiliate rejected that course and won recognition after the mayor and other community leaders joined in pressuring the employer.

With such new approaches. Mr. Sweeney clearly hopes to put organized labor back in the organizing business in a major way, and thereby restore its influence.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 3/28/97

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