In the land of the Alamo, unions are making a stand

With membership falling, organized labor looks to the South forgrowth - and Texas is the biggest prize.

There's an unusual word entering conversations in citrus orchards and computer factories from the Red River to the Rio Grande: unionize.

Since the Industrial Revolution, when American unionism began in the far-off mills and craft shops of the Northeast, the South has been something of a frontier for organized labor. Fended off first by the region's agrarian economy, and more recently by its conservative values, the labor movement has yet to make substantial inroads among Southern workers.

But the region is changing. Industries such as high-tech factories and telephone call-in centers are bringing more women and minorities into the work force, and many unions are turing to the South to rejuvenate flagging membership nationwide. And with Texas' enormous nonunionized work force - only 6.7 percent of state workers are union members - it is the biggest prize this side of the Mason-Dixon line.

"There has long been this individualistic attitude among Texans that's made it difficult for unions to expand. But the state is changing and people are moving in," says Julius Getman, a University of Texas law professor who follows the labor movement. "Minorities and women tend to be more favorable to unions than the white males who had made up the unions' membership before. And the labor movement has been making sincere efforts to recruit minorities and women."

For union activist Rebecca Flores Harrington, the sooner unions take hold in Texas, the better. As Southwest field director for the AFL-CIO, Mrs. Harrington will help member unions pour millions of dollars into training union organizers and conducting elections in nonunion shops statewide. The work will be hard, she admits. After all, Texas has long been the toughest nut to crack in the antiunion South - in part because of its "right-to-work" laws, which let workers reject unions more easily.

"The truth of the matter is that companies have a lot of power in Texas; they can almost do anything they want to you," says Harrington, a former United Farm Workers organizer. "One of the things we are going to have to do is make it known that we do have a right to organize."

Labor militancy can crop up in some surprising places, such as the prestigious halls of learning at the University of Texas in Austin. There, pay for the average custodial or office worker hovered just above minimum wage, while salaries for tenured professors and executives skyrocketed to compete with some of the top corporations in the country.

Last spring, employees formed the University of Texas Staff Association, and after a number of rallies and marches, they won a small pay raise in June, from $5.57 an hour to $6.73. Emboldened by their success, the 130-member group plans to keep fighting for a "living wage" of $8.93 and better job security.

But first, they will have to hold their fractious group together. "There's a huge conservative population among the staff, so when I use the word 'solidarity,' they've got a problem with that, and when I say 'fight,' they've got a problem with that," says Peg Kramer, an adviser at the UT School of Social Work and president of the staff association. "So you just change the language to meet the needs of the people."

But some experts say the disconnect between workers and unions may be deeper than mere words. Unions have fallen a notch or two since the late 1950s, when one-quarter of all workers were union members. Today union members make up only about 14 percent of the work force, and many of the industries that once made up the foundation of unions, such as autos and steel, have either gone out of business or gone to the South to escape unions.

And if union leaders were hoping their organizing efforts would persuade more workplaces to become union shops, they may be disappointed by recent election results compiled by the National Labor Relations Board. In 70 workplace elections held in Texas in 1997, union leadership was accepted in 37 shops. In the first six months of 1998, the unions' success rate had actually gone below 50 percent.

"It's becoming like the myth of Sisyphus," says David Denholm, president of the Public Service Research Council, a conservative group based in Vienna, Va. "Just to stay even, the unions have to hold 3,500 to 4,000 elections a year. Is it worth it for them to organize? Of course, they have to. But will that really have an effect for them? It's not likely."

Dean Cook, a member of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union, has his own doubts about pouring money into attracting new members at a time when unions can't even protect the members they have. Mr. Cook's own experience gives him reason for skepticism. His employer, Crown Petroleum of Houston, locked out his union local rather than give in to demands for higher wages and safer working conditions. It replaced the union with contractors.

BUT even this experience hasn't soured Cook on unions. "Without unions, the corporations would just run all over the working people," says Cook, who still occasionally pickets outside the plant and travels around the country to support other striking workers. "They keep saying this economy is getting better and better, but all the jobs being created are low wage. People will get fed up, they'll be looking for allies, and they're going to come to unions."

For Harrington, the Texas labor movement will live or die on its ties to the community, not on its lawyers, money, or political power. "What I learned from the United Farm Workers in south Texas is you don't have to rely on laws to get where you're going. You rely on community," she says. "The good thing about Texas is that a lot of the folks of Mexican origin identify with farm workers. When we go out to get support, we get it."

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