Unions look ahead - and inward, too

In the world of unions, Angenita Tanner is something of a rare breed: a new member.

She and her fellow home-based child-care workers in Illinois recently won the right to collective bargaining, and she's hopeful that upcoming negotiations with the state will improve wages that can be as low as $9.48 per child per day.

"Everyone's excited about this movement, and they're not feeling alone anymore," says Ms. Tanner, as the children nap in the next room on a sweltering Chicago day. She's fought for union recognition for nearly a decade.

The addition of 50,000 child-care workers to the roster of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) was a welcome boost in a movement that lately seems to be fighting for its survival. Just 12 percent of US workers hold a union card these days; among private-sector workers, the number is closer to 8 percent - little more than a third of what it was 25 years ago.

Despite a well-coordinated mobilization, unions were disappointed in last fall's elections. Nearly all the economic trends - globalization, deregulation, outsourcing - are working against them, and they are fighting a growing perception that they're simply an outdated alphabet soup holding back economic progress. Many leaders, from President Bush to California's Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, favor anti-union policies. And in a market where competition is global, and non-union behemoths like Wal-Mart exert increasing power, the future of organized labor is far from bright.

Unions "are in the midst of an ongoing crisis," says Rick Hurd, a professor of labor studies at Cornell University. "The definition of the corporate world has already changed, and unions are behind the time on that. They can't be an effective voice for workers unless they figure out how to be global as well."

Just what unions' role should be is at the heart of one of the biggest internal conflicts the nation's flagship labor organization, the AFL-CIO, has seen in decades. Angry at leadership they say is set on sticking with traditional - and failed - strategies, five unions have formed their own "Change to Win" coalition and have threatened to leave the federation after the AFL-CIO convention in Chicago later this month. The rebel contingent includes the SEIU - with 1.8 million members - as well as the Teamsters, laborers, hotel and textile workers, and food workers. The carpenters, who left the federation five years ago, joined the new coalition last week.

The debate is ostensibly about leadership - the coalition would like to oust AFL-CIO president John Sweeney - and a few philosophical differences: whether unions should focus on political lobbying or organizing, and whether restructuring is needed to consolidate and streamline unions by industry.

But the fight's intensity stems in part from the reformers' belief that a total change is necessary for unions' survival.

"This is a much bigger question than what happens to unions and union leaders," says Andrew Stern, president of the SEIU and a major force behind the reform efforts. "I think we all need to appreciate that we're living through the most profound, significant, and transformative economic revolution in our country's history." The key changes that Change to Win is proposing: directing half of the AFL-CIO's budget to organizing and membership drives, rather than lobbying, and supporting industry-based mergers among unions.

Mr. Stern has already been experimenting with some new approaches within his own union. He's one of the few labor leaders to make real overtures to overseas unions, particularly with food-service and security workers; rather than rail against globalization, he enthuses about the labor movement becoming global.

And the SEIU has been aggressively organizing large numbers of workers who previously had little hope of a union job: security officers, child- and home-care workers, janitors. Their "Justice for Janitors" campaign has had particular success, largely due to the unorthodox strategy of approaching many employers at once.

But while his ideas have struck a chord with a few of the Change to Win unions, Stern's rabble-rouser approach has angered many others, who see the threat to leave the AFL-CIO, in particular, as the dangerous destruction of a united front.

"I give credit to the SEIU for beginning the debate on the direction of the federation, and where resources should be utilized - that's all good," says Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which represents public-sector workers. "But then it took this turn [of] 'my way or the highway'.... If one union leaves, if two leave, it weakens the AFL-CIO, but it also weakens the unions that leave."

Mr. McEntee says he agrees that more efforts need to go into organizing, and he'd like to see an AFL-CIO with more power to settle inter-union disputes and perhaps encourage similar unions to form alliances or merge. But he balks at forced consolidation, and believes in old-fashioned political organizing. "In order to change ideas on trade, to get worker protections on trade, we have to change politics," he says.

As the July convention approaches, observers are trying to discern what the disagreements mean for the future of labor. At this point, both Mr. Sweeney's reelection and the defection of the SEIU, and possibly several other unions, seem likely. But not everyone agrees that will weaken the movement.

"If the SEIU leaves [the AFL-CIO] with four or five other prominent partners and you have an alternative federation, I think there's a reasonable chance that that in itself will be an invigorating step that can create increased opportunities for non-union workers to consider unionizing," says Robert Bruno, a labor expert with the Chicago Labor Education Program of the University of Illinois.

Professor Bruno stresses that this isn't the first time there's been division within the labor movement - the most notable being the split between the AFL and CIO in the 1930s - and that it's often positive.

A bigger question, observers say, is the place of organized labor in the 21st century. "How does the labor movement envision itself?" says Bruno. "Are you just a small core group of elite workers who make good money, or do you broaden your efforts so you speak for the community?"

One possible untapped market is high-tech workers - unions could address telecommuting and issues for workers who jump from employer to employer. Another area is the lower-wage, lower-skilled service jobs often held by minority workers or immigrants who historically have felt little connection with unions. "If [unions] don't do something to ... connect with these two very different groups, then it's going to be hard to turn around," says Hurd.

Even when unions do make inroads, competition for members can get fierce. Take the Illinois child-care workers. When the governor granted them collective bargaining rights this year, it was a victory for the SEIU. But it also kicked off a battle with AFSCME, who believed they should represent the workers, since they get their paychecks from the state.

The SEIU won, but the dispute left a bitter taste for many workers. "I felt like they came in at the last minute," says Tanner. "Where were you when I was lobbying?"

Tanner, who likes to say that her job involves being a teacher, cook, cleaner, and psychologist, and whose south-side Chicago home is filled with toys, blocks, and crafts, is part of that untapped market, but she never doubted the benefits of union membership. She's hopeful that the new union will bring health benefits, or at least a raise and a biweekly paycheck.

"At first people are shocked, and ask why we'd need [a union]," she says, proudly showing framed brochures and clippings of union campaigns. "They didn't think it would catch on like this. But if I don't speak out for me, nobody else will."

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