Office workers' movement makes a bid to unionize
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
"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.