Office workers' movement makes a bid to unionize

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The charges are not new: Secretarial and clerical workers are seriously underpaid in-comparison with their worth. Respect comes in small doses. Career ladders are often closes.

What ism new is talk in the burgeoning office workers' movement that trade union organizing may be the only way to resolve issues such as economic equity, respect in the office, and career advancement.

"We've given every boss a collective second chance," says Karen Nussbaum, executive director of Working Women, a 10-year-old national association of office workers, headquartered in Cleveland. Working Women, which was 10,000 members, has joined with the AFL-CIO Service Employees International Union (SEIU), to form District 925, a national union for the office workers. With this move both groups hope to spur growth of trade unionism among the nation's more than 20 million secretarial and clerical workers, who are mostly women. Other unions, such as the United Automobile Workers, are also courting office workers.

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"We will devote a lot of effort to organizing in the '80s," says MS. Nussbaum. "I expect we will see results by the end of the decade."

Business, on the other hand, vows that it is becoming aware of the complaints of clerical and secretarial workers and will change more effectively without unions.

"I am chagrined when I hear of companies that are still not responding to issues such as equal pay or job posting," says James L. Hayes, president and chief executive officer of American Management Associations. "A company is too large when the executives no longer find time to drop by and visit with those who work for them. The best managers are the ones who are down on the floors."

Some clerical workers accuse management of moving too slowly. Boston's 9to5, an affiliate group of Working Women, began with the idea that office workers could draw up complaints, present them to bosses, and work out a solution. In reality, they were often met with a chilly reception.

"That's what started our interest in unions," says Janice Blood, spokeswoman for Working Women in Boston. In one case at 9to5, management basically told the office workers to "flake off," reports Ms. Blood.

"The women were stunned," she adds.

Because of these attitudes, office worker associations receive frequent inquiries about trade unions.

Says Karen Nussbaum: "Our responsibility is to provide solutions to our members. There is a growing demand for information on unions. We feel it is best that we have every organizational tool available for women who want to make changes." The need for change

And change is needed, say many secretaries and clerical workers.

"Clerical workers need unions," says one woman, who was not a big believer in unions until she took a clerical job. "It's the only way to protect them."

Joyce Miller, president of the Coalition of LAbor Union Women, agrees.

"I feel with all its faults, the labor union movement is still one of the best vehicles for social change," says Mrs. Miller, who is also a vice-president of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers (AFL-CIO) and the first woman to serve on the AFL-CIO executive council. Wage issues head the list

A change in wages for secretarial and office workers is at the top of the list, followed by such issues as flexible job schedules, grievance procedures, freedom from sexual harassment, job posting, and day-care help.

Janice Blood is convinced unions will deliver on these issues. She points to the substantial wins made already. Salary for a union worker is higher than that of her non-union counterparts. And union bargaining has won benefits such a flexible work schedules, maternity benefits, and day-care help.

Clerical workers have traditionally been a hard group to organize.

"Women see themselves as servers, not doers," says Barbara Rahke, a former secretary who is now an organizer for the United Automobile Workers. "For a secretary, being paid is almost secondary. Service for her boss is her primary mission. It is seen as 'disloyal' to confront those that she works for."

Ms. Rahke is trying to organize clerical workers at Cornell University in New York. She says many office workers feel that they have a special relationship to management.

"And there is also the idea of status," adds an office worker. "Most clericals in bank consider themselves professionals, and union are for factory workers." Unions and women

Some clerical workers are dubious about putting their trust in trade unions, which haven't given women much representation in leadership.

"There is no way I want to be paying dues to a union which doesn't have such a great track record with women," says one secretary. "There are definitely problems for clerical and secretarial workers, but I'd rather stick to solving them internally or through an office workers' association."

Union advocates admit this is a problem.

"Women are underrepresented," says Karen Nussbaum. "But I think that will change. We wouldn't have joined with SEIU unless we knew we could pursue our concerns and maintain our character."

James L. Hayes of American Management Associations predicts that unions will not be too successful in efforts to organize white-collar workers.

"After a flush of success for unions, management will move to fix the problems," he says. "People are smart. They'll consider the amount of money they pay for unions, and then see that slow-moving management will correct the wrongs. So why pay?"

He isn't sympathizing with companies that refuse to consider issues such as job posting.

"There are pockets that are bad," he says. "The unions have just cause in those cases to come in to help the workers."

But many companies are recognizing that they need to upgrade jobs, offer job posting, have career training for clericals, and appoint special committees to look into complaints. Still, some women are wary.

"When they make changes like that, how do you know it is not a one-shot deal? asks one. But others see this as the best way to advance their cause.

"I don't think clericals feel the need for unions," says one woman, who is an assistant to the vice-president of a Boston firm. "I feel I could approach management immediately with any problem, and I think most clericals could. Good work is recognized around here."

Professional Secretaries International, which represents executive secretaries, agrees that proper compensation is a top issue for its members, but it eschews unionization.

"We are finally getting written into management, so why should we unionize now?" asks Karen DeMars, president of PSI. She points out that the National LAbor Relations Board prohibits organizing of people who have access to confidential material or who are in a supervisory capacity. Many professional secretaries are in both categories.

But Ms. DeMars champions the cause of women officer workers.

"I think unionization does make sense for some of them," she says. Management turns to consulting firms

As union organizers approach secretarial and clerical workers, management is turning to consulting firms for advice. Employers say they are merely trying to solve their management problems while remaining union-free.

"I see nothing wrong with bringing in consultants to help management change their methods," says Mr. hayes. "Then workers can still make their own choice about unions."

But union advocates charge that these consultants are a new breed of union busters with subtle and unethical methods.

"It is the most cynical response from management," says Karen Nussbaum. "We point out to workers that their boss is paying hundreds or thousands of dollars to orchestrate an antiunion campaign, rather than giving them raises."

Tactics are ridiculous, she says. In one situation, a consulting firm told supervisors to call in their workers and break down in tears over the union issue.

"They all cried real tears, all on the same day," says Ms. Nussbaum. She maintains that women have a great sense of fairness, and consulting firms are taking advantage of this.

Sometimes these tactics can backfire. Barbara Rahke was at Boston University while clerical workers were being organized, and she says the middle-level supervisors were mostly women.

"The consultant's scare tactics offended the supervisors," says Ms. Rahke. "The supervisors revolted. The consultants tried to pound them on the head, and the women refused to pass out their literature."

As the battle lines are drawn in the effort to organize office workers, some clerical workers embrace unions, and other fight them. At Harvard University recently, white-collar workers narrowly defeated a union after a long and sometimes bitter campaign.

But there is no doubt that the battles will bring about changes.

"As adult women, it is ridiculous at accept a situation that is paternalistic after running a household, raising children, and making decisions," says one woman. "Women recognize their right to participate in decisionmaking. We just want to find ourselves as human beings in the workplace."

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