LOS ANGELES -- About 1,200 union activists will converge in Los Angeles today for a national AFL-CIO convention that highlights the movement's reborn zeal to organize workers. Despite all the hoopla, participants don't need to look far beyond downtown's Convention Center for sobering reminders of what they're up against.
There is, for example, Pedro Ramirez, a machine operator in nearby La Puente who said he was harassed, punished with dangerous assignments and forced out of his $6.75-an-hour job after signing a union authorization card.
His claims -- under investigation by the National Labor Relations Board -- are extreme and may involve violations of federal laws that protect workers' rights to organize.
But labor leaders said the case is typical in one respect: Employers nearly always fight a union campaign, and hard.
"In the private sector, it almost goes without saying that an employer will retain an anti-union consultant, and the campaign doesn't stop once you win an election," said Kirk Adams, AFL-CIO organizing director.
"It's become more comprehensive, more coercive. And probably most disturbing, it's become more acceptable."
As labor takes a more aggressive and sophisticated recruiting approach, employers respond in kind -- aided by a growing army of consultants.
The managing partner of one prominent law firm said business has been booming since AFL-CIO President John Sweeney began pushing unions to devote more resources to organizing five years ago.
"Since Mr. Sweeney took over, our attendance has shot up dramatically," said Marty Payson, who leads expensive union-fighting seminars for the law firm of Jackson, Lewis, Schnitzler & Krupman.
"Even better, requests by companies for us to visit with them have skyrocketed."
In an extensive 1996 survey, Cornell University sociologist Kate Bronfenbrenner found that 91 percent of employers responded to union organizing by hiring consultants.
Most tactics used were standard, including one-on-one meetings between supervisors and workers, and mandatory group sessions with managers.
But in a report to a congressional committee, Bronfenbrenner said some veered close to the line of the law, which among other things, prohibits employers from threatening workers with the loss of jobs.
"The consultants have now adapted and moved on to the offensive," said Jon Barton, organizing director for the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.
"We picket a store, and they have an anti-union group picket us. We do a press conference about violations of workers' rights, they do a press conference about workers choosing nonunion. "
With only about 10 percent of private workers in unions -- less than half the share of 20 years ago -- labor has little muscle with which to fight back. But rather than an uneven struggle between exploited workers and heartless employers, AFL-CIO polls show the common view of labor conflict is that of a fight between powerful equals: corporations and labor bosses.
To counter that image, the AFL-CIO began a major public relations campaign this year that seeks to put a human face on workers trying to organize, casting labor as an ally of community groups and religious institutions.
Unions are trying to use that community and religious support to pressure employers into recognizing a union without an NLRB election, if a majority of workers sign authorization cards.
Adams ambitiously compared the effort to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. "Today, this [union fighting] behavior is accepted because for the most part it's secret," he said. "We have to shine a light on it, and stigmatize the employers who violate workers rights."
That campaign, called Voice at Work, will be trumpeted today as the labor federation pays tribute to organizing efforts.