Unions reach everywhere for members

Diversification creates some unusual alliances

Ice cream guy is a Steelworker

As labor's ranks decline, the organizers get busy

January 25, 2004|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

Larry Lorshbaugh spends his days heating and then cooling huge vats of sugar, cream and other ingredients into such sweet concoctions as Creamsicles, Fudgsicles and Klondike bars.

At 45, he has spent nearly half his life on the assembly line at the Good Humor/Breyers ice cream plant in Hagerstown. Although he has been in the ice cream business for so long that the factory doesn't even smell like dessert to him anymore, Lorshbaugh considers himself a Steelworker.

"I love being a Steelworker," said Lorshbaugh, a pasteurizer at Breyers. "Most of the people that work in our plant, they get upset if they don't get their union card on time. They're proud to be Steelworkers. ... Just because we don't make steel doesn't make us less of a Steelworker than someone who does."

Ice cream may seem a far cry from molten steel, but Lorshbaugh and his co-workers are proud members of the United Steelworkers of America. They are among a growing contingent of workers making many of the nation's largest labor unions far more diverse than they once were - fortifying organized labor but also creating some unusual alliances.

With their memberships in decline as their traditional stronghold of U.S. manufacturing has waned, unions have pursued new members beyond their original missions. Gaining new members has become a top priority for unions, so much so that the AFL-CIO now earmarks nearly one-third of its national budget for organizing, compared with less than 5 percent before John J. Sweeney became its president in 1995.

Some say unions' expanded reach dates back to about 50 years ago when the United Mine Workers of America created an offshoot to represent workers far from the coal mines, from factory laborers to New York City cabbies. But the shift has expanded in recent years and continues to generate disagreement among labor leaders and experts.

Some say the move builds union strength and spreads protection to new groups of workers. Others counter that the nation's largest unions are diluting their message across disparate workplaces and, by extension, their ability to affect wages and benefits.

"For a lot of unions that have lost a lot of members, there's an immediate need to get new members, basically almost wherever you can find them," said John Jordan, president of Principor Communications, a Washington public relations firm that works with labor groups. "So a lot of the union organizing is really opportunistic, as opposed to strategic."

Union membership in the United States has been declining steadily for two decades, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Last year, nearly 16 million workers, about 13 percent of the country's work force, were union members. That's down from two decades ago when almost 18 million, or 20 percent of workers, were union members.

Maryland, traditionally a relatively potent union state with its history in steel and ship-making, is feeling the shrinkage as well. About 14 percent of workers were union members in 2003, down from 16 percent in 1989, the earliest year state figures were kept.

"For a union to survive, it has to diversify," said Jim Strong, sub-district director for the United Steelworkers of America in Baltimore.

Established in 1936 to represent workers in the emerging steel industry, the United Steelworkers of America today claims about one in every 10 workers in steel or steel-related industries, the union said.

In addition to the ice cream makers at Good Humor/Breyers, the Steelworkers union also represents workers at the Baltimore Zoo and at the Louisville Slugger baseball bat plant in Kentucky.

Other unions, born of heavy industries, have also branched out.

The United Auto Workers is most widely known for representing workers at the nation's traditional Big Three automakers - General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Daimler- Chrysler AG. But its members now include workers who make Kohler bathroom fixtures, Miller beer, Folger's coffee and Planter's nuts.

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, traditionally a union for truck drivers and others in the transportation industry, now represents a myriad of workers - "literally from A to Z," according to its head of organizing. Between the airline flight attendants and the zookeepers, the Teamsters also have organized workers in the public sector, manufacturing and warehousing.

"I can't imagine a union in North America that is more diverse than the Teamsters," said Jeff Farmer, director of the Teamsters' organizing division.

Its largest local in Minnesota is made up solely of public sector workers - from police officers to public defenders. That's not to say the organization has abandoned its original industry: The Teamsters still represent more than 120,000 in the freight industry and more than 200,000 United Parcel Service employees.

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