Auto workers union -- it's not just for blue-collar employees anymore

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

One of the nation's most powerful unions is making small inroads into two fields -- university staff members and health-cre workers -- that organizers hope will smooth the way for more widespread unionizing of white-collar employees.

Some labor experts say these efforts could accelerate a shift in the dirction , aim, and effectiveness of US Labor unions.

The strategic importance unions place on organizing workers in these two fields is pointed up by the United Automotible Workers fight to unionize technical and clerical workers at the Harvard Medical School in boston. A UAW local has even called in union president Douglas Fraser to give a noon-hour speech here on March 31. An election to approve or reject UAW affiliation is scheduled for April 9.

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One technical worker at the medical school who opposes the union says the 1.3 million-member UAW plans to move in health-care workers -- starting with Harvard.

"Harvard is prestige -- if you're breaking into a new field, you start with Harvard," he says. "the UAW wants to use Harvard as a precedent. The union is desperately looking for new revenue and new power, and it plans to find it by unionizing growing areas like education and health care."

Nancy Ditomaso, an assistant sociology professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., says the move to organize fields such as university staff and health care, dominated by women, is an effort to recruit workers in an area that long has been ignored by UAW organizers.

"They [the UAW] have the resources to do it right," says Ms. Ditomaso. "Weaker unions haven't been effective in organizing hospitals and secretaries."

Some labor experts say women have been more difficult to unionize because of the traditional view that they are less committed to the labor force and likely to drop out to start families. Labor economics Prof. Everett Kassalow of the University of Wisconsin at Madison says that notion is outdated.

"to the extent that women have looked upon themselves as being transient in the labor force, they might have less of an inclination to joint labor unions," says Professor Kassalow. But with the increasingly permanent participation of women in the work force, "that can't be as much of a reason as it was in the past.

In the drive to recruit university staffers, health-care workers, and other non-manufacturing workers, Kassalow sees the signs of an enormous shift for unions in the US. Whether the organization drives are successful or not --cent years -- he sees a tendency for the big industrial unions to become generalized unions , "taking in almost anything they can reach for."

Kassalow says the UAW now concentrates less on white-collar workers in the auto industry and more on collaring outsiders. He sees this as part of the trend away from industrial unions -- based solely in one industry -- and a move toward general unions like those in Great Britain.

The organizers are shifting their emphasis, he says, because unions are trying desperately to survive their declining industries.

"So unions are starting to take on the shape of more general unions," says Kassalow. "If this movement is successful, the labor movement may be able to break out of the low [membership] level it's been stuck in. And maybe some of the organizing stagnation can be overcome as the big unions spread out and organize more."

But there is a danger for the unions in this trend, he points out. Generalization could blunt the sharply directed thrust of an established industrial union such as the UAW.

"In the short run, it looks great to change your aim when your industry is struggling," he says. "But the auto and steel industries won't be struggling forever. In the long run, it [generalization] may change the nature of unions themselves as the unions' aims change.Concentrating on the short run puts in question some of their long-term aims. They may lose control in their main industry."

Leslie Sullivan, one of the two organizers of the UAW's District 65 local attempting to unionize Harvard Medical School, says the local's goal is to unionize all of the Harvard staff workers, and ultimately all university staffs in the Boston area, the East Coast, and then across the country .

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