Unions look to 'Enron effect' for growth

Unions seeks to attract white-collar workers who see job security and 401(k) funds declining.

If the future of the labor movement could be sketched out on paper, the typical adherent would look a lot like Debbie Perrotta.

Twenty-five years in the white-collar corporate world, Ms. Perrotta has never seen a coal mine or the inside of an assembly plant. But as one of the thousands of laid-off Enron employees, she has been thinking a lot about her rights as a US worker.

That didn't lead her to go looking for membership in a trade union. But after Enron's collapse, organized labor came knocking on her door. The AFL-CIO told her and other laid-off workers at the fallen energy firm that it wanted to help.

And help it did. The union won the workers three times the severance package they had been offered.

"I knew the reputation of a union. I knew what it could do. But I didn't think it could help us," she says. "Was I wrong."

Perrotta's change of heart is symbolic of what American labor unions see as a historic opportunity as they struggle to overcome years of decline. Corporate scandals and recession, with its attendant tide of pink slips, have made workers increasingly skeptical of whether employers are on their side.

The moment is ripe, union leaders believe, for reminding workers of the benefits that a unified front can bring to their incomes and work environments. And with factory jobs in decline, the message is being targeted beyond Minersville, Pa., and toward office buildings in Houston and white-collar jobs nationwide.

"More and more professional people are seeing the value of union representation and a union contract," says Lee Conrad, the national coordinator for the Alliance at IBM in Endicott, New York. "They are watching as workers have their livelihoods taken away from them in those companies, and there is a ripple effect felt in companies like IBM."

Labor's focus on the professional worker isn't new. Half of all union members nationwide hold white-collar jobs. Within the professional sector, about 22 percent are unionized, according to the AFL-CIO. That's down from 28 percent in 1985.

But in the past several years – tough ones for job security and the value of 401(k) mutual funds – labor organizers have been finding some success among white-collar workers in areas such as aerospace, high-tech, and telecommunications. Mounting misdeeds of executives at imploding companies such as Enron, Global Crossing, and WorldCom, organizers say interest is rising further.

To unionize or not?

Adding to union ranks remains challenging. For many Americans, especially in white-collar jobs, the instinctual attitude is not to vie with management but to someday be management. But lost jobs and lost retirement funds are powerful motivators. In fact, buoyed by the AFL-CIO's success with Enron, workers at WorldCom and Arthur Andersen approached the union federation with pleas for help – a task organizers are embracing wholeheartedly.

"This is a group we've been interested in making some inroads into for a long time," says Richard Shaw, secretary-treasurer for the Harris County AFL-CIO in Houston. "And now, with the whole corporate meltdown, it's raising a lot of issues that we have been pursuing for a long time: corporate accountability, CEO excesses, the de-pensioning of America."

The union's involvement after the Enron collapse began with desperate calls to its community service referral program. Organizers jumped at the chance to help. After settling on the severance issue, they hired a lawyer and began a fax and mail campaign aimed at Enron's creditors' committee and company officials. They paid for Perrotta and some of her colleagues to go to Washington to meet with members of Congress.

In the end, they won $80 million in extra severance benefits for the laid-off workers. "I think we've shown [workers] that we're not dead," says Mr. Shaw of the AFL-CIO.

Indeed, Perrotta was so impressed with the results that she changed careers – to be a labor organizer for the Texas Federation of Teachers.

The white-collar efforts by the AFL-CIO mirror a campaign supporting efforts to grant legal work status to millions of undocumented immigrants.

Other end of the wage spectrum

For years, the undocumented immigrant had been seen as the enemy, someone who would work for next to nothing, driving down union wages. Now, organizers are embracing them.

Some observers of workplace trends agree that the focus on immigrants and white-collar workers is a promising way for unions to bolster faltering memberships. Indeed, the proportion of the labor force that is unionized is at an all-time low, at 13.5 percent. That's down from a high of 35 percent in the 1950s.

But organizing the top tier of workers isn't easy. Its mobility makes it difficult to organize. And the 5,000-member Alliance at IBM, Communication Workers of America Local 1701, for instance, still does not have collective-bargaining power four years after its inception. That's because many white-collar workers, while perhaps wanting to have a collective voice, aren't inclined toward more-strident tactics such as strikes.

"To gain members, unions are going to really have to show that their concern about Enron and WorldCom workers is more than just a way to present themselves publicly," says Gary Chaison, a labor expert at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.

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