Labor movement poised to make a comeback Buoyed by success of strike at UPS, unions hope to increase membership


With the United Parcel Service settlement seen as a major triumph and an omen of future success, union leaders, and many experts, say the labor movement is in its strongest position in nearly a generation and is poised to increase its membership after a two-decade decline.

This Labor Day might be a watershed moment for unions, some experts say, because the 15-day UPS strike created a surge of sympathy for unions as many of the efforts at revitalization pushed by John Sweeney, the AFL-CIO's president, have taken root.

The labor federation, with 13 million members, is spending $20 million a year on organizing new members, up from $2.5 million a year in the early 1990s, and several unions that had essentially stopped organizing have started pumping money and staff into recruiting new members.

Hundreds of college graduates are signing on as union organizers, while a new generation of labor leaders in their 40s has emerged, far more interested in shaking up and expanding the labor movement than were the crusty old leaders who dominated labor in the 1980s.

"Things are better for labor than they've been in a very long time," said Tom Juravich, director of the Labor Relations and Research Center at the University of Massachusetts. "The mood is fundamentally different from just two or three years ago, when there was a sense of hopelessness."

As part of Sweeney's push to reverse labor's slide, there is a surge in union organizing, including campaigns to unionize 16,000 teachers and school aides in Dallas, 20,000 strawberry workers in California, 55,000 apple workers in Washington state, 70,000 home health care workers in the Los Angeles area and 110,000 employees at Federal Express.

Labor has recently scored some of its biggest victories in two decades, among them unionizing 5,000 mechanics at Continental Airlines and 30,000 government workers in Maryland.

There have, of course, been major defeats, too, most notably the loss of an election two weeks ago for representation of more than 5,000 textile workers at a dozen North Carolina factories owned by Fieldcrest Cannon.

And despite the new confidence within labor, some critics assert that all the activity aimed at reversing labor's decline has generated little but sound and fury, because it has failed to increase labor's bottom line: the number of Americans belonging to unions.

In 1996, the first full year after Sweeney was elected president, union membership declined by 92,000 and the percentage of U.S. workers belonging to unions slid to 14.5 percent, down from 35 percent in the 1950s.

The decline in membership as labor tries to expand its ranks is a result of many persistent forces, including retirements, plant closings and downsizing. In addition, labor must contend with expensive campaigns by employers to keep out unions and the hostility felt by many Americans who see some officials driving Cadillacs or using union money to attend conferences in Hawaii or Italy.

Sweeney predicted in an interview that in the next few years his big organizing push would begin raising labor's overall numbers. He said the decline in labor's ranks last year was understandable because he had only begun putting his organizing plans into place and because the AFL-CIO's focus in 1996 was on the congressional and presidential elections, not on organizing.

"The bottom line is, nobody has any unrealistic dreams of doubling our membership in one year," he said. "We're going to get on a modest growth pattern of 2 or 3 percent a year. We're going to get results as more newly trained organizers get involved and more unions step up their efforts."

Under Sweeney, the AFL-CIO has provided many unions with matching grants to encourage them to do more organizing. The labor federation has also reorganized dozens of city labor councils to make them focus on recruiting. It has also set up a program in many cities, called Street Heat, in which hundreds of union supporters hold raucous protest marches at companies that dismiss workers who back unionization drives.

To extend labor's reach, the AFL-CIO has sponsored teach-ins with academics and has established alliances with members of the clergy, environmentalists, women's groups and ethnic groups. One of these alliances bore fruit during Labor Day weekend -- hundreds of pro-union priests, ministers and rabbis invited workers and union leaders to deliver sermons to their congregations about the values shared by labor and religious faiths.

"A lot of what we're doing is for the long term," Sweeney said.

He said he believed the strike by 185,000 UPS workers, the biggest strike in the United States since an AT&T; walkout in 1983, would attract more Americans to unions because the public saw what the Teamsters were able to accomplish by standing together.

The UPS workers won most of their demands, including converting 10,000 part-time positions to full-time jobs and restrictions on subcontracting.

Some labor experts predict that the AFL-CIO's expansion efforts will be to no avail because of powerful countervailing forces.

Leo Troy, an economics professor at Rutgers University, said labor's advances would be checked by business owners' need to hold down costs in the face of increased global competition, and by the transformation of the workplace, with more people working at home, as part-time or temporary workers or independent contractors.

Noting that unions traditionally focus on full-time, permanent employees working at one site, Troy said, "The nature of unionism is at odds with the nature of the new work force."

But many labor leaders say these forces may bode well for unionization drives because, in their view, these trends point to increased exploitation by employers and increased unhappiness among employees.

Pub Date: 9/01/97

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