In high-tech age, unions can score

Labor's recent gains among professional workers raise likelihood unions will be players in 21st-century economy.

Unions have won several organizing victories this year, enough to give pause to forecasts that Big Labor will become irrelevant in the Information Age workplace.

From Pennsylvania doctors to California graduate students, Washington State computer programmers to Carolina textile workers, tens of thousands this year have voted "yes" for union representation.

The power of newly unionized members is not in their numbers, but in their diversity. After years of rejection, labor organizers are winning over professionals at the heart of the service-driven economy.

"The reach of unions has definitely gotten broader," says Michael Belzer, professor of labor/management relations at the University of Michigan. "Unions that don't continuously adapt to technology and changing markets will probably fail."

Still, the spate of union triumphs is not enough to reverse the four-decade decline in labor's share of the work force. Last year, just13.9 percent of working Americans carried a union card, a pullback from 14.1 percent the previous year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The gains, however, indicate that union organizing is beginning to show an intensity and a sophistication that better suit the complexity of today's work force.

"What we see are the fruits of the changed organizing initiatives that swept the country at the beginning of the decade," says Kate Bronfenbrenner at the New York School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University. Many unions have staged a "cultural shift and put organizing [rather than job security or better benefit packages] at their core," she says. "Finally these efforts have begun to pay off."

The new union look

As unions have stepped up recruitment among demographic groups and industries far beyond their traditional base in male-dominated, blue-collar manufacturing, they have at last begun to win over elite, highly educated professionals. The number of union elections rose 2.2 percent last year over 1997, according to the Bureau of National Affairs.

The wider recruiting spotlights how labor seeks to adapt to the growing impact of high tech, global trade, working women, and the ethos of laissez-faire. The four forces have increased the complexity of the US marketplace and work force, overwhelming passive labor organizations, say experts.

The broader appeal of union membership has recently cropped up nationwide:

*The 290,000-member American Medical Association (AMA), worried about the growth of managed medical care, voted in June to form a union for doctors.

*Graduate student teachers at all eight campuses of the University of California this year voted to unionize. The balloting, the most dramatic sign of labor organizing at universities nationwide, opens the way for the United Auto Workers to negotiate on behalf of more than 10,000 university instructors.

*In a pathbreaking initiative, a group of 16 temporary employees at Microsoft Corp. has formed a bargaining unit called the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers (WashTech) and affiliated with the Communications Workers of America.

*Meanwhile, labor organizers have won big in their strongholds of manufacturing and service employees. Workers at the nation's biggest textile plant, a facility owned by Fieldcrest Cannon in Kannapolis, N.C., voted last month for union representation, marking one of the biggest labor triumphs ever in the South.

The Service Employees International Union - possibly the most dynamic major labor organization - won representation in February of 74,000 home health-care workers in Los Angeles County. The success among minimum-wage workers extended inroads among minority women, for years the most promising group for union expansion.

A warmer reception

The recent advances at universities, doctor's offices, and computer work stations are notable because they plant the union flag in workplaces once cold - or even openly hostile - to organizing.

The AMA's decision to reverse a long-held position and launch a union is a response to a steady drift of an estimated 40,000 physicians into large health maintenance organizations. Physicians seek leverage in dealing with the HMOs, which they say intrude on treatment decisions and demand productivity levels that deny patients high-quality care.

The growth of HMOs has streamlined medical care by combining many tasks traditionally handled by self-employed doctors. But to many doctors, managed care has undermined their autonomy.

"Physicians are really having major problems," says Sara Ann Warren, a psychiatrist at Norristown State Hospital in Pennsylvania and president of the state's Association of State Mental Hospital Physicians. "With [HMOs], they don't have the freedom they used to have."

WashTech members, meanwhile, also seek a union lifeline amid dramatic workplace change. Many in the group of computer programmers have worked full time for months at Microsoft but are still categorized as temporary workers.

The fledgling union members are denied standard overtime pay and other basic benefits and find limited support from the staffing agencies that line up their work, says Marcus Courtney, a co-founder of WashTech.

"These workers are not temporary, that's meaningless," says Mr. Courtney. "They're full-time workers adding the same value and wealth, but because they are labeled temporary they are denied the same rights."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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