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Global Spin: The Corporate Assault â€¦
Henry A. Giroux
The Freeze: A Look Back
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Slippin' & Slidin'
Onward, Christian Soldiers?
Labor Update: Organizing the New â€¦
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Labor Update: Organizing the New Workforce
Women, immigrant, and minority workers develop new organizing approaches
Traditionally, the majority of American union members have been blue-collar white males. Over the past quarter-century, this group became a smaller and smaller minority in the workforce, while other groupssometimes dubbed the new workforcegrew as a percentage of organized and unorganized workers.
The proportion of workers who were women started to grow dramatically as married women and women with children worked more and more outside the home. This shift in part reflected changing values regarding womens roles, but in larger part it was a result of the income squeeze that affected families starting in the 1970s. Despite gaining greater access to the workplace, women remained concentrated in a few clerical and other white-collar occupations and received far less pay and job security than men. In 1996, women comprised 39 percent of the membership of AFL-CIO affiliated unions, compared with 22 percent in 1972.
The great migration of African Americans from the rural South to urban areas throughout the nation was completed in the 1960s. While a small black middle class won access to decent jobs, schooling, and homes, most African Americans have remained concentrated in industrial and low-paid service occupations in central cities and, as these declined, became subject to extremely high levels of unemployment.
Changes in U.S. immigration law in 1965 permitted a resurgence of immigration to the highest levels since the early 1920s. While immigrants were of diverse educational and class backgrounds, the largest numbers came from Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean, and under Americas peculiar caste system most were defined as people of color. Like previous generations of immigrants, they formed ethnic communities and found work in the poorest-paid occupations and industries. In some American cities, more than 100 languages were spoken in public schools.
As women spent an increasing proportion of their lives in the workforce, blacks left the rural South, and immigration rebounded, these groups became a growing proportion of the American workforce. With a shift in employment from goods-producing toward service-producing industries and from stable, full-time jobs to contingent ones, the traditional industrial strongholds of the labor movement were decimated. The established labor movement was largely cut off from these growing segments of the workforceone of the principal reasons for its decline. Over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, however, immigrant, minority, and women workers have begun to develop new approaches to organizing themselves, on their own and in cooperation with established unions.
9 to 5
One-third of employed women are office workers, yet only a tiny minority of them are unionized. In the early 1970s, working womens organizations sprang up in a number of cities, and in 1977 several of them joined together to found 9 to 5: The National Association of Working Women. Rooted in the emerging womens liberation movement, 9 to 5 was a membership organization designed to improve wages, rights, and respect for office workers. It combined womens issues such as discrimination, pay equity, sexual harassment, and respect with union issues such as higher pay, job posting, and increased benefits.
The organization developed an Office Workers Bill of Rights. It publicized the issues of low pay, poor benefits, and discriminatory treatment and then conducted street actions in front of large companies with such attractions as the Heartless Employer Award on Valentines Day or Scrooge of the Year at Christmas. Combining such campaigns with suits for affirmative action violations won promotions and back-pay awards, job posting and grievance procedures, raises, and child-care programs.
In addition, 9 to 5 focused on building a working womens culture different from that of traditional unionism. It raised issues like sexual harassment, pay equity, day care, family leave, and contingent work that particularly affected women workersissues that have gradually become part of the agenda of the wider labor movement. The organization also worked with the Service Employees International Union to form a union for office workers, SEIU Local 925. While it has experienced the same difficulties as other unions in organizing new workers, Local 925 has made a significant impact in developing new models for organizing women workers.
Yale Clerical and Technical Workers
While Yale Universitys blue-collar workers had been organized since the 1930s, its 2,650 clerical and technical workers80 percent of them womenwere the target of five unsuccessful organizing drives by five different unions between 1950 and 1982. In 1980, Local 35 of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union, which represented Yales predominantly male blue-collar workers, decided to launch its own campaign to organize the white-collar clerical and technical workers. The local twice raised its dues to support an organizing drive and loaned its business manager, John Wilhelm, to serve as chief organizer for the new white-collar local, Local 34.
For its first year, Local 34 issued no literature and didnt push workers to sign union cards. Instead, it concentrated on building an organizing committee. Many of the initial organizing committee members were referred by members of Local 35. The unions strategy, according to Wilhelm, was to develop a rank-and-file organizing committee that knows what its talking about and is able to gain employees trust. Then workers organized around the notion that the union is a tool for them to use to deal with whatever they want to, as opposed to insurance policy unionism, where you say, Well, if you join the union, youll get fifty cents an hour more, or If you join the union, well have good health and welfare. Over the course of several years, Local 34 recruited 450 members to the organizing committee. A steering committee of 150 met weekly; a rank-and-file staff of about 60 people worked even more intensively. Any union member could serve on any of the committees, as long as he or she put in the necessary time. When workers came up against hostile supervisors, they organized petition drives or held small demonstrations in the supervisors offices.
In May 1983, workers won a union representation election by less than 51 percent. The union then held hundreds of small-group meetings and two surveys of all clerical and technical workers to identify issues for negotiation. A 500-member contract committee developed initial contract proposals. Yale hired an anti-union law firm, one of whose partners had once said that it subscribed to the bomb-them-into-submission school of labor relations.
The union appealed for support from students, faculty, and the wider New Haven community. It focused on the issue of pay equity, analyzing Yales salary figures to show that female [clerical and technical workers] earn less than males, even though the women have worked at Yale longer and that black employees earn less than white employees, even though blacks have worked at Yale longer. The local organized a one-day strike, dubbed 59-Cent Day, to draw attention to the fact that, on average, an American working woman earned only 59 cents for every dollar earned by a man. The unions contract campaign was thereby framed as an issue of social justice and of equality for African Americans and particularly for women.
In September 1984, two-thirds of Yales clerical and technical workers left their jobs. Ninety-five percent of Yales maintenance and service workers honored their picket lines. Dining rooms were closed, garbage was uncollected, and sympathetic teachers and students moved hundreds of classes off campus. While the strike disrupted university life, it was not able to close down the campus, so outside support was crucial. The local labor movement, the New Haven Black Ministerial Alliance, and the Board of Aldermen gave support to the strike. So did national leaders, such as AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland, Jesse Jackson, and Eleanor Smeal. More than 600 people were arrested in two acts of mass non-violent civil disobedience. Despite threats of retribution from the university administration, many students, faculty, and other union supporters participated in a three-day moratoriumwithdrawing from classes, meetings, and all other university activities while participating in marches, teach-ins, and other tactically creative strike support activities.
After seven weeks, some union leaders proposed the tactic of taking the strike inside during the university holidays. The idea was hotly debated by the rank and file, which then voted to accept it, while voting also to reject Yales final offer by a ten-to-one margin. Just as workers prepared to return to picket lines after six weeks on the job, Yale began making concessions in its negotiations with the union bargaining committee. On January 19, 1985, Yale agreed to a contract with its clerical and technical workers for the first time, providing a 20 percent salary increase over 3 years, improved pensions and job security, and a plan to correct years of inequity in job classifications.
In the wake of the settlement, Local 34 reaffirmed its commitment to honor picket lines of the blue-collar workers in Local 35 should they have to strike. The local also became a major supporter of the campaign to force Yale to divest its funds from companies that invested in apartheid South Africa.
While unions are normally based in the workplace, the past two decades have seen experiments with worker organization based in the community that includes workers from different employers and industries. These organizations, often known as workers centers, have developed particularly in immigrant communities and communities of color. These groups often have their own cultural traditions, face particular problems of discrimination, move frequently from job to job, are concentrated in industries with little union presence, and are often ignored or worse by established unions.
In 1978, Chinese restaurant workers in New York organized as members of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union struck and won the first union contract for Chinese restaurant workers in the city. They soon became dissatisfied with their contract and their union, however, and in 1980 formed the Chinese Staff and Workers Association. CSWA organized independent unions at other restaurants; it organized Chinese garment industry workers to fight the frequent non-payment of wages and to put pressure on their union, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, to enforce contracts and fight concessions; and it organized protests at construction sites to demand jobs for Chinese construction workers. Bringing together labor and community issues, it helped block construction projects that would gentrify large parts of Chinatown and drive out the restaurants where many of its members worked.
In 1982, Asian Americans in the San Francisco area formed Asian Immigrant Women Advocates. AIWA provides Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Filipina working women with English classes and workshops on contract rights, labor regulations, health and safety rules, and wage and hour laws. It has assisted immigrant women to express their concerns to their employer, union, politicians, and the public. While formally non-partisan, in practice it has helped develop Asian womens leadership for San Francisco unions, especially in the hotel industry, and has built a bridge between them and the Asian community. A campaign initiated in 1992 to win $15,000 in wages owed to San Francisco seamstresses became a national campaign against Jessica McClintock Inc., involving picketing in 11 cities and endorsements from more than 400 organizations.
In 1993, a Latino Workers Center was started in New York. It organized English classes and courses on labor rights and began working with small groups of workers from restaurants, garment factories, groceries, construction companies, office-cleaning companies, and home health care agencies. The center helped workers organize around withheld wages and sub-minimum wages. It organized protests against abusive employers and filed charges against them with the Department of Labor. It organized presentations in churches, leafleted near workplaces, tabled at community events, and initiated radio and television interviews to educate the Latino community about worker rights, anti-immigrant legislation, and the need for organizing. It organized a campaign against and boycott of three restaurants that owed workers back-pay, culminating in a Via Crucis Por La Justicia (Stations of the Cross March for Justice), stopping in front of each restaurant for a protest rally. The campaign forced partial concessions from the restaurants and directed the communitys attention to the possibilities of organizing to solve workplace problems.
African-American workers in the South have created workers centers that address labor issues and other concerns of the black community. The Carolina Alliance for Fair Employment (CAFE) in South Carolina, for example, has organized around issues ranging from the economic conversion of a recently closed local military base to environmental issues, and from contingent work to stopping development at a historic African-American cemetery. In 1994, the CAFE chapter on Hilton Head Island campaigned to have hotels pass on to banquet workers gratuities they collected on the workers behalf. By 1996, CAFE had helped 140 workers at the Daufuskie Island Club and Resort on Hilton Head Island win union recognition and a 13 percent wage increase; it also helped bring NLRB charges against the employer when workers were subsequently fired.
The replacement of regular employees with temporary or part-time, so-called contingent workersusually with no union representation, job security, or benefitshas been a prime outcome of the new corporate agenda. Yet such workers have found it exceptionally difficult to organize. In Massachusetts, where contingent workers total about 25 percent of the workforce, a coalition of unions and community groups began a Campaign on Contingent Work. In 1996, the campaign opened a workers center known as the TEMPTemporary Employees Meeting Placeto bring together contingent workers for organizing meetings and educational workshops. The campaign pledged to support union organization where possible, but also to use direct action, workplace organizing, corporate campaigns, popular education, and media advocacy to challenge job degradation. The campaign developed a Bill of Rights for contingent workers and a Corporate Code of Conduct for employers who hire them. It also drafted and filed legislation that would require pay equity, pro-rated benefits, unemployment compensation, and maternity leave rights for contingent workers. When Woolworths in Boston replaced more than 30 full-time workers, some of them with more than 25 years seniority, with part-time workers, the Campaign on Contingent Work helped the workers picket Woolworths, publicize the grievance, and even win support from the union that represented Woolworths workers in Germany.
Justice for Janitors
In 1984, the Service Employees International Union launched a national campaign to organize janitors and other building service employees. Most janitors were black and immigrant workers who worked for large building service corporations that were hired as subcontractors by building managers, who in turn were hired by building owners. Clearly new organizing techniques were needed to address such networked production.
The Justice for Janitors campaign in Los Angeles began in 1987 with a focus on Century City, a high-class business district with a predominantly Latino and Latina cleaning staff. First, SEIU Local 399 began to rebuild the union in already unionized buildings by electing and training new stewards and other leaders. Next, union workers began making house calls and promoting the union in places where janitors socialized. Then the campaign organized functional unionscommittees that acted like unions even though they lacked recognitionin non-union workplaces.
The campaign next decided to focus on International Service Systems, the worlds largest cleaning contractor, a global corporation with its international headquarters in Denmark. Rather than use the NLRB election process, Justice for Janitors exerted direct pressure on ISS to recognize the union. Janitors organized daily meetings in their workplaces. They wore bandannas on their heads as signs of their support for the union; pulled short work stoppages, then more extended ones, in six different buildings, finally shutting down each building for a two-week period; and began marching through Century Citys lobbies and outdoor walkways and disrupting happy hour at the districts swank saloons. A wide range of community supporters formed Solidarity with Justice for Janitors, raised money to support strikers, and encouraged political leaders to put pressure on building owners and managers.
When strikers and 300 supporters marched peacefully into Century City, they were attacked by more than 100 police officers: For two hours the Los Angeles Police Department sealed off Century City so that they could beat and arrest scores of striking janitors and their supporters. While horrified office workers and residents looked on, the police repeatedly flailed the front line of the Justice for Janitors march with riot batons, before launching a flanking attack that swept an entire section of the crowd into an underground parking structure. Those trapped inside were mercilessly pummeled: when they tried to flee, they were arrested for failure to disperse.
Ninety demonstrators were injured, nineteen seriously, including broken bones and a fractured skull. One pregnant woman suffered a miscarriage. The police riot was widely shown on television. Nine days later, ISS agreed to a contract with the union. Initially, the contract provided no wage increases, but when unionized ISS workers in New York City threatened a solidarity strike, ISS agreed to a wage increase as well.
The Los Angeles victory inspired additional Justice for Janitors efforts around the country, including a dramatic blocking of bridges in Washington, D.C. But a bitter struggle soon broke out within Los Angeles SEIU Local 399. A rank-and-file caucus called the Multiracial Alliance charged: [F]or years, behind this facade of activism, bitter contradictions flourished between the unions administration and the membership. The truth is, the union was being governed in the style of the classic old (white) boys network. The only difference was that the old boys were self-described progressives who had fallen into anti-democratic practices, poor representation, and racism. The leadership excluded from decision-making those very workers who helped build the union.
The Multiracial Alliance ran a slate of candidates and won 21 of 25 elected union leadership posts. When the new majority tried to make staff changes, the incumbent president asserted that only he had authority to do so. The SEIU soon placed the local in trusteeship, removed the elected Executive Board members, and appointed administrators to run the local.
This article was drawn from the new concluding chapter Jeremy Brecher has written for the 25th anniversary edition of Strike!, just published by South End Press. Next Installment: New Voice and the War Zone