Labor's new front lines

Promising a fairer distribution of the fruits of economic growth, unions reach for a broader base. Can they gain as growth slows?

Alan Barclay's schedule could easily be the envy of his peers in the customer-service field.

A fiction writer who also works for the leading online retailer,, Mr. Barclay stays at home four days a week answering customers' e-mail. He shows up at the office for one six-hour phone shift per week.

The good life? Yes and no, says Barclay.

"In some ways, it's been a great position to have. [But] Amazon's ... actions demonstrate that management thinks of us as inventory as opposed to human beings," he says.

Barclay, who has been with the Seattle-based e-tailer for almost three years, is part of a union drive at the company. Roughly 25 percent of the 400 customer-service representatives have signed union cards since October, stating concerns about job security, low wages, and mandatory overtime.

The move for unionization among Amazon employees came at the end of a year already marked by some major labor victories.

Union leaders are cautiously optimistic about prospects for organized labor in 2001 and beyond, even as the number of union members showed a slight decline last year.

"For the longest time, workers were allowing companies to build up their own economic stability," says Linda Chavez-Thompson, executive vice president of the AFL-CIO, which represents more than 13 million union workers nationwide. "Workers want the good economy to continue, but are now saying that they want companies to give back."

Ms. Chavez-Thompson - no relation to Linda Chavez, who recently withdrew her candidacy for secretary of Labor - and AFL-CIO President John Sweeney were both elected in 1995. Since then, the federation has undergone a kind of face-lift. "Our perspective in the labor movement is that we have to continue what we started five years ago: organize, organize, organize," she says.

Among other significant moves, the AFL-CIO has urged local unions to reach out more to women, minorities, and youth. In 1999, members voted to support general amnesty for undocumented workers for the first time in the federation's history. And in the aftermath of the largely labor-led demonstrations surrounding the 1999 World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle, unions have placed emphasis on educating members about the "fallout" of easing global trade too rapidly. (The Department of Labor reports that more than 263,000 workers lost their jobs between 1993 and 2000 as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement.)

From an all-time high of 35 percent union membership among US workers in the late 1940s to the beginnings of a decline in the early 1960s, union membership now stands at 13.5 percent of all American workers. A Bureau of Labor Statistics report released Jan. 18 placed the number of union members at 16.3 million in 2000, a decline from the 16.5 million members in 1999. Workers age 45 to 64 are most likely to be union members.

The report also highlights one reason unions may be able to attract more workers: In 2000, union members had median weekly earnings of $696, compared with a median of $542 for nonunion workers.

While the labor market has cooled recently, the perception remains that workers are still in the driver's seat.

"Low unemployment and the lag in increase in real wages has empowered workers quite a bit to demand their share of the growing rewards from the economy," says David Fairris, associate professor of economics at the University of California, Riverside.

Some recent evidence of union clout:

* The 18-day Verizon Communications strike in August affected more than 25 million phone users in the East and resulted in a favorable new contract for workers at the company.

* A 38-day Boeing strike in Seattle, one of the biggest white-collar walkouts in US history, ended in March when engineers and technical workers won wage increases and an extension of health coverage to unmarried domestic partners.

* In Los Angeles County, the nation's most populous county, a year-long wave of labor actions included a 32-day public-transit workers' strike, a janitors' strike, a six-month actors' strike against the advertising industry, and work stoppages on the part of 42,000 county employees.

In the past two years, many unions have devoted an increasing amount of attention to service-sector workers - a group that has not traditionally been well represented in the labor movement. Yet the organizing strategy has come with its own built-in difficulties. Low-wage service workers, says Professor Fairris, are notoriously difficult to unionize. Turnover rates are very high, and many immigrant and undocumented workers are hesitant to join a union for fear of losing their jobs. But key union victories in the past two years with low-paid janitors and home healthcare workers have validated the conviction of organizers that unionization is possible.

High-tech inroads

In organizing high-tech workers, unions face different obstacles. Even in the middle of a deep industry shakeout, "most dotcom employees probably don't see the development of unions in their future," says Peter Conrad, a partner in the labor practice at Proskauer Rose LLP in New York. "Nonmanagement employees who are looking forward to stock options are not likely to affiliate with unions and engage in any kind of activities that could be injurious to their companies and their own economic welfare."

But, says Mr. Conrad, employees at dotcoms might consider a turn toward unions if the new media industry continues to "fade from glory."

Worker-empowerment blips on the high-tech radar screen have just begun to appear.

The first-ever petition for a union-representation election by dotcom employees was filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) last November, by 36 employees of San Francisco-based Since that time, however, almost half of the employees have been fired.

A union election scheduled for Jan.12 was postponed for at least another six months after the union seeking representation at etown, Northern California Media Workers, filed an unfair labor practices complaint with the NLRB against the company.

In the most significant labor-rights-related victory for high-tech workers thus far, Microsoft agreed to pay $97 million last month to settle an eight-year class-action lawsuit with so-called "permatemps," temporary contractors who did the work of full-time, salaried employees for extended periods of time, without benefits or stock options.

One of those permatemps, Marcus Courtney, co-founded the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers (WashTech), a Seattle-based union for high-tech employees, which had pushed to get union representation for "contingent" IT workers.

In a significant turn of events last year, the NLRB ruled that temp workers have the right to join a union, even without the approval of their temp agency and client companies.

Issues facing temp workers have hardly gone away, says Mr. Courtney, "but now we're starting to see the beginnings of a labor movement within technology, beyond contingent workers."

Full-time permanent employees at companies like, explains Courtney, are earning wages that cannot sustain the cost of living in the Seattle area, and are frustrated by the lack of career advancement. In light of Amazon's layoffs early last year and the outsourcing of some customer-service jobs to India, Amazon employees are particularly concerned about job security, he adds.

Unionization efforts at Amazon face stiff opposition from management. "We don't believe that a union is going to benefit customers, employees, or the company," says Patty Smith, spokesperson for Amazon. "One of the things that has made Amazon successful has been our ability to adapt quickly to the changing needs of customers and the marketplace, and we don't believe that a union is going to allow us to be flexible."

Ms. Smith emphasizes that the company has always encouraged communication and the airing of concerns on the part of employees, and that many customer-service employees are not in favor of unionization. "We're always looking to reach consensus on whatever the issue may be."

Perception problems

While the appeal of unions among high-tech workers remains low (only 4.4 percent of computer scientists in the US are unionized), the labor movement's biggest obstacle may be its national image.

A long-running Gallup Poll indicates some 66 percent of the public approves of labor unions, up from 55 percent in 1981. But organized labor continues to operate under a perception among some Americans that union corruption and back-room deals are still the order of the day.

Last March, former Teamsters political director William Hamilton was sentenced to 36 months in prison for his role in a money-laundering scheme in which the Teamsters, with the help of some Democratic Party consultants, funneled $885,000 back and forth in an attempt to reelect Ron Carey as the union's president in 1996.

The Teamsters Union, now under the leadership of president James P. Hoffa, has instituted a comprehensive anticorruption program to eliminate the influence of organized crime within the union, but the shadow of the scandal may linger at least as long as current AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka remains under investigation for his possible role in the 1996 scandal. (Mr. Trumka has not been charged with any crime.)

Image issues, organizing efforts, and union victories aside, challenging years for the labor movement loom directly ahead.

"There is no doubt that the economy is going to slow down. If unemployment increases dramatically with a recession, that always makes it much more difficult for labor to win demands at the bargaining table," explains Fairris.

Today, while the labor market still remains relatively healthy, cracks are indeed beginning to show. The number of newly unemployed workers reached its highest point in about 2-1/2 years in the last week of December. The manufacturing sector, many experts say, is already in recession.

Fairris also points to the new Bush administration as a harbinger of a turbulent period for the labor movement.

"[Republican] administrations are not typically very approving of unions," he says. "Until you get significant changes in labor law and an administration more open to the positive economic and social impact of labor unions, you're not going to see a dramatic increase in [the membership of] unions in the US."

"The labor movement has a challenge for the next four years," adds Chavez-Thompson of the AFL-CIO. "We're going to have our work cut out for us."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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