Unions regroup amid US smokestack shift

If words have colors, then surely the word ''labor,'' as in ''union,'' is blue, the blue of a slightly faded denim work shirt across the back of a burly metalworker with an Irish or Polish or Italian or some other ''white ethnic'' name.

The mind's eye goes on to the steel-toed boots and the metal lunch bucket and the pickup truck out in a factory parking lot surrounded by chain-link fencing. And maybe the truck has a bumper sticker that asks, ''Have you hugged your steelworker today?''

After all, that's what organized labor looks like, isn't it?

Let's try again.

Geneva Evans, a black woman in her middle years, is unwinding at the end of a long, muggy afternoon in the headquarters of Local 1475 of United Labor Unions, on Massachusetts Avenue, just around the corner from the Monitor news room.

She is a service worker, and service workers, especially women, and especially minority women, have traditionally been seen as at the bottom of the organizing agenda for unionists in this country. But as the economy continues to shift away - in terms of numbers of jobs, at least - from traditional manufacturing toward service employment, union organizing activity has followed. The Service Employees International Union, at 875,000 members one of the largest in the AFL-CIO, is also one of the fastest-growing in the country.

And the SEIU ''has put its money where its mouth is,'' says Michael Gallagher , staff director of Local 1475, in helping to organize poor people.

Ms. Evans has worked for 10 years for the Boston Council of Elders as a home-care worker, one of 17,000 across the commonwealth who visit some 43,000 elderly ''clients'' in their homes, doing their housework, cooking their meals - and keeping them out of nursing homes. A number of other states have similar programs, and they are a front-line defense in the battle to contain health-care costs. This sort of care costs $1,800 per year per patient in Massachusetts, vs. a minimum of $14,000 annually for nursing-home care.

But the starting wage for home-care workers under contract through Local 1475 is $3.75, plus minimal benefits: three personal days off annually, plus, in some cases, two weeks' vacation. The top wage is $4.80 an hour. And this is with a union contract.

''There are no holidays and no sick days,'' says Ms. Evans, ''and no guaranteed hours. If a client goes on vacation, or has to go into the hospital, well, that's it, as far as you're concerned.''

Local 1475, representing some 1,100 home-care workers in Boston, is about to become Local 1475 of the SEIU, the result of a June 8 merger vote by United Labor Unions, a small, independent union with locals in Chicago, Detroit, and New Orleans, as well as Boston.

What will the merger mean?

''Politically, as an independent union trying to organize lowest-income workers, those the other unions overlook, we found ourselves isolated from the union family,'' says Mr. Gallagher, though he hastens to add that there have been exceptions to this.

''And then financially, the SEIU has put their money where their mouth is - they have promised to subsidize our organizing, to the tune of $2,000 per month. That will enable us to put our organizers on a livable salary.

''We've always had to scramble for money. Last weekend we sold hot dogs in the South End for two hours. We made $130. I'm proud of that.''

The next two targets for organizing, he says, are a visiting-nurse association and, for the first time, a nursing home. The union is also pushing a bill in the State House that would make home-care workers' pay similar to that of comparable state employees. ''A janitor, for example, or an institutional nurse's aide,'' Gallagher explains.

But what about the traditional union member, he in the steel-toed boots?

Harvey L. Friedman, director of the labor relations and research center at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, says that ''by and large, a balance has been struck'' between the falloff in union membership because of the decline in traditional manufacturing industries - ''the acid-rain-producing industries'' - and the increase in unionization in public-sector unionism. The public sector already has a higher rate of unionization - 25 percent - than the manufacturing sector - 19 percent - Professor Friedman adds.

A new law in Ohio allowing public-sector employees to organize creates the potential for half a million new union members, he notes. In fact, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees has had to fight for its public-sector turf as SEIU and the Communication Workers of America have scurried to sign up government workers.

James Atleson, professor of law at the State University of New York at Buffalo and a recent testifier before Congress on labor-management relations, has a different view from Professor Friedman. ''Union membership has clearly fallen, over the last few years. The only area of success has been the public sector. There's been some growth in the private sector, but lots of declines. And it's clear that those jobs are not coming back.''

Precise tracking of union activity has become more difficult since the Bureau of Labor Statistics, under the Reagan administration, has ceased keeping certain figures.

Sar Levitan, director of the Center for Social Policy Studies at George Washington University, says, ''What has been happening is that a lot of organizations are doing the work of unions - government agencies such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, for example, which protects the rights of women and minorities discriminated against in the workplace.''

Under the Reagan National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), ''every rule protecting collective bargaining is up for grabs,'' says Professor Friedman. As a result, employers ''are willing to take chances,'' doing things they once would have feared would be disallowed.

So some observers expect unions, which have in the past sought certification by petitioning the NLRB for an election, to start trying for certification by striking instead, even though, as Professor Levitan suggests, ''This means starting out on a negative note: The union must deny the workers their wages in a strike.''

''The union movement is weak and divided,'' says John Green, assistant professor of political science at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. ''Recessions are always hard on unions. The industries where unions are the strongest - the machinists, auto workers, steelworkers - have suffered very badly. The service industries were hurt by recession, but not so badly. That's why I say the labor movement as a whole is divided and weak.''

Service industries, however, are still caught in a double bind of unionism: ''Once you get strong unions, there's an incentive to keep them, but until you do, there is no incentive to get them.'' Service industries, with their decentralized work sites and high turnover of employees, just aren't there yet, the implication is.

What about unionism among high-tech industries? ''Some of the new industries are outunionizing the unions,'' with softball leagues, stock ownership plans, and other fringes intended to build a ''family feeling'' within a company, says Warner Woodworth, associate professor of organizational behavior at Brigham Young University in Utah. ''But there's condescension in that, and I hear workers being turned off by it. When the employees look at the founders of a company making $150 million when it goes public, well, so much for the bone they just threw the dog.''

If unions can exploit that perception of condescension - and also the younger generation's desire for a greater voice in the workplace - they may be able to organize not only assemblers and other high-tech foot soldiers, but even young engineers, he says. ''I don't see a lot of evidence that's happening yet - but it may.''

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