May 30, 2000

          Despite Defeat on China Bill, Labor Is on Rise

          New Organizing Efforts Alter Dinosaur Image
          Despite the American labor movement's loss in the bruising battle over
          the China trade bill, supporters and opponents of the movement say
          that after years of decline, labor has once again become a powerful
          political force.
          Unions provided important political muscle that helped Vice President
          Al Gore locked up the Democratic presidential nomination, and they are
          certain to be a major force for the Democratic Party in the fall.
          After many people wrote off labor as an irrelevant, toothless
          dinosaur, the A.F.L.-C.I.O. has displayed considerable muscle on
          Capitol Hill. labor has blocked legislation to grant the president
          fast-track authority to negotiate trade agreements and has helped push
          through a higher minimum wage and the Family and Medical Leave Act.
          In other signs of promise, white-collar workers, including doctors and
          psychologists, are flocking into unions as never before, and labor
          registered its biggest organizing victory in 60 years by unionizing
          74,000 Los Angeles home-care workers last year.
          Much of this rebound has been engineered by John J. Sweeney, who was
          elected president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. four and a half years ago on a
          platform of reviving labor after its membership and clout had slipped
          steadily for two decades. To rebuild labor, Mr. Sweeney has focused on
          attracting new members, and as the foremost evidence of a turnaround,
          he points to last year's 265,000 jump in union membership -- by far
          the largest increase since the 1970's.
          Thomas J. Donohue, president of the United States Chamber of Commerce,
          said it would be foolish for anyone to think that labor was weak
          because the House of Representatives defied it last week and approved
          permanent normal trade relations with China.
          "Anybody who stands up and says, 'We won this thing by a couple of
          votes and therefore labor is weak,' they don't know how to count,"
          said Mr. Donohue, who led the corporate fight for the trade bill.
          "Labor has a lot of money. Labor has a lot of forces on the ground.
          Anyone who wants to declare them weak, just look out for the next
          This year, the 13-million member A.F.L.-C.I.O. has pledged to put
          together its biggest army of campaign volunteers; tens of thousands
          will distribute literature at workplaces and make millions of
          get-out-the-vote phone calls.
          The labor federation's endorsement of Vice President Gore gave him
          much-needed assistance in the Democratic presidential primaries, with
          union foot soldiers helping him trounce former Senator Bill Bradley in
          the Iowa caucuses and capture the New Hampshire primary. Political
          experts give labor much of the credit for Democratic victories in 1998
          ranging from Gray Davis's election as governor in California, to
          Charles E. Schumer's triumph over Alfonse M. D'Amato for a New York
          Senate seat, to the party's surprising success in gaining House seats
          in the last midterm elections.
          "It's like night and day comparing the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s political
          operations today with those in the 1994 elections," said Charles Cook,
          who publishes a nonpartisan political report. "It's like comparing a
          Model T with a Ferrari."
          But labor has a long way to go to regain the economic might it had in
          the 1950's. Back then, 35 percent of the nation's work force belonged
          to unions compared with 13.9 percent today. The sectors where unions
          have traditionally been strongest, like steel, automobiles, mining and
          apparel, have been losing jobs the fastest, while the sectors where
          unions have the least representation, like high technology, finance
          and fast food, are the fastest-growing fields.
          Organized labor is losing about half the elections in which workers
          vote on whether to unionize largely because many corporations mount
          aggressive and expensive campaigns that urge workers not to join
          unions. As a result of such corporate tactics, unions now represent
          less than 1 in 10 private-sector workers.
          "The labor movement has done very well in the public sector,
          organizing government employees, but in the private sector, it is
          still very difficult," said Richard Hurd, a labor relations professor
          at Cornell University.
          Labor also faces other problems: the occasional embarrassing episodes
          of union corruption, repeated Republican efforts to weaken unions, and
          internal feuding among union leaders over political strategy and trade
          issues. Businesses contribute 15 times as much in campaign money as
          unions do, and many Democrats still keep their distance, fearful of
          accusations that they are in Big Labor's pocket. And for all their
          efforts, unions lost the fight they have cared about the most over the
          last few years, the China trade bill.
          To reinvigorate labor, Mr. Sweeney has advocated more militant
          tactics, like those used by thousands of striking Los Angeles janitors
          who repeatedly blocked traffic last month to draw attention to their
          low wages. He has also worked to reduce labor's unwanted reputation as
          a "special interest" by having it focus more on helping low-wage
          workers and by forming alliances with religious leaders,
          environmentalists, immigrant groups and college students protesting
          overseas sweatshops.
          "John Sweeney has a commitment to reach out to those who have been
          largely bypassed by the labor movement," said the Rev. Howard Hubbard,
          the Roman Catholic bishop of Albany, who has helped lead efforts to
          rebuild the clergy's once-strong ties with labor. "He's reached out to
          the forgotten workers -- child-care workers, nurses' aides, janitors,
          people at the low end of the scale. He's made a commitment to show
          solidarity with the poorest workers."
          With union membership falling by nearly one-fourth from 1979 to 1995,
          Mr. Sweeney has made attracting more members his No. 1 priority. He
          often cites studies showing that labor's declining power is a major
          reason that after-inflation wages have declined for most workers over
          the last quarter-century.
          Mr. Sweeney has used his bully pulpit to urge the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s 68
          member unions to hire more organizers and to spend millions of dollars
          more each year on recruiting. Nonetheless, in his first three years at
          the federation's helm, union membership slid by 150,000 as many
          unionized workers retired or companies closed unionized factories and
          moved operations overseas.
          But Mr. Sweeney's ambitions seemed to pay off last year when the
          Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that union membership grew by
          Union leaders say they hope those gains are not a one-time blip, but
          the start of a long-term upswing, although many labor experts say the
          jury is still out.
          "I think we're starting to turn the corner," Mr. Sweeney said. "While
          we've had significant progress in terms of organizing, we still have
          to do a lot more. We can't rest on modest growth."
          His ambitious -- some say unrealistic -- goal is for unions to
          organize one million new members each year, meaning there could be a
          net gain of 500,000 members after layoffs and retirements.
          But there is a huge obstacle to reaching this goal. Only a handful of
          unions, most notably the Service Employees International Union and the
          Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union, are making an all-out
          effort to attract more workers. Mr. Sweeney said he wished that more
          unions copied the union he once headed, the Service Employees, which
          devotes 45 percent of its budget to organizing -- 10 times the
          percentage of many unions. That union recruited 155,000 workers last
          year, many of them janitors and hospital employees, the most any union
          has organized in one year since 1918.
          "There is still tremendous inertia among certain unions," said Kent
          Wong, a labor relations professor at the University of California at
          Los Angeles. "The level of activism among some unions has changed
          dramatically, but many unions are having tremendous difficulties
          In an effort to expand union membership, Mr. Sweeney has gotten the
          labor movement to reverse its long-held position and embrace immigrant
          workers, rather than oppose their taking jobs. In the 1980's unions
          were convinced that immigrants were driving down wages so labor backed
          a law that punished employers who hired illegal immigrants.
          But this year the A.F.L.-C I.O. has called for ending such employer
          sanctions and granting amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants.
          Labor changed direction because it now views immigrants as a natural
          audience for its message and because it sees many employers taking
          advantage of illegal immigrants.
          One welcome development for labor is the surge in interest shown by
          white-collar workers. With managed care squeezing their incomes and
          professional freedom, thousands of doctors are joining unions, while
          in New York State, 3,000 psychologists have unionized. Nationwide,
          10,000 podiatrists have joined unions and so have more than 20,000
          customer service workers at United Airlines and US Airways.
          Hundreds of I.B.M. workers showed interest in unionizing last year
          after their company sought to cut their pensions. And even a few dozen
          workers at Microsoft called for a union because they were angry about
          being long-term temporary workers, with few benefits, rather than
          permanent workers.
          "In a lot of industries, because of the way things are changing,
          people realize they need some form of collective voice," Mr. Sweeney
          said. "People are seeing the problems they're confronted with are too
          big to resolve by themselves."
          In the wake of the China trade battle, one of Mr. Sweeney's biggest
          problems is that many political and business leaders have pegged him
          as protectionist and anti-trade. These critics misunderstand his
          position, he insists.
          Convinced that past trade accords have helped business but not labor,
          Mr. Sweeney said he told the Clinton administration that the
          would oppose any trade agreements that did not protect workers rights.
          So when he learned that the administration's trade deal with China
          contained no worker protections, he saw no choice but to oppose it.
          "I think trade is good for our country," Mr. Sweeney said. "It's
          important to our successful economy. We recognize that globalization
          is here to stay, so the question is how do workers around the world
          share in the fruits of globalization?"
Warm regards
George Pennefather
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