Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Analysis: What if unions are needed, but not wanted?

By Mark Gruenberg

SILVER SPRING, Md. (PAI)--In all the discussion at the two-day AFL-CIO-hosted conference on organizing worldwide, there was at least one big topic that went almost unmentioned: What do you, an organizer, do if you see that workers need the union ….but they don’t?

That dilemma confronts many union activists, especially as they try to organize white-collar and service workers in the United States, in areas such as computer programming and information technology.

But with one exception, and that only obliquely, the dilemma wasn’t touched on during the Dec. 10-11 confab at the National Labor College in Silver Spring, Md.

Organizing the unorganized is inevitably going to run up against workers who don’t want unions, but need them, to protect job security and against management’s arbitrary firings, nepotism, favoritism and sudden decisions that disrupt family lives.

Often--but not always--such management actions lead to organizing drives. Just ask the Bakery Workers: Arbitrary shift changes, disrupting family life, were one fuse that lit their successful drive (with international help) at Dannon Yogurt’s Ohio plant.

But only C. LeRoy Trotman of the Barbados Workers Union, who chairs an International Labour Organization working group, discussed the dilemma, briefly.

“There is worker indifference to what we do. If you can’t get workers’ support, you can’t lobby the Minister of Labour and you can’t get action at the local level,” he said during the 3 minutes he was allowed for remarks.

But why is there such indifference? In an interview with Press Associates Union News Service, Trotman described conditions in Barbados and other developing nations, which sound suspiciously like what the U.S. went through in the last decades of the 20th century, after World War II. At the start of the postwar era, U.S. unions represented more than one-third of all private-sector workers. Now that’s down to 7.4%.

“Worker indifference comes from a combination of things,” Trotman explained. “One is the significantly increased level of higher education, and employment of that education to provide people with jobs where working conditions and remuneration (pay) are being adjusted individually” rather than by union contracts.

As a result, the now-white-collar workers in Barbados and other developing nations “become less dependent on a trade union’s capacity to engage employers” on their behalf, Trotman elaborated. “We created the environment that led to our decline.”

Sound familiar? That’s what happened here, sociologists say.

Unions also suffer with those new white-collar workers because they do not emphasize that their lobbying and political achievements help all workers, said Trotman. Literally, in so many words, unions aren’t reminding the white-collar workers that it was union political action that brought you the weekend, as the phrase goes.

White-collar and service workers, in the U.S., in Barbados and elsewhere, “do not see the trade union’s role--of helping the disadvantaged and of securing their (white collar workers’) jobs against arbitrary dismissals.”

So what can the union movement do to wake the workers up and make them realize they need unions? Trotman has one set of ideas. The AFL-CIO Department for Professional Employees is working on another.

Trotman’s idea is to remind the white-collar and apathetic workers that while they may be well-off, their friends, relatives and neighbors aren’t. He would appeal to their concern for their fellow human beings and those other workers’ families, as well as to their concern about their society as a whole. That calls for much more education.

DPE asked Jim Grossfeld, a veteran union activist and Newspaper Guild member, to interview white-collar and professional workers about unions.

His report pins down several causes for their lack of interest, prime among them the view that unions just concentrate on bread-and-butter wages-and-pensions issues--and those workers, already at high pay levels, aren’t as concerned about cash.

What they are concerned about includes workplace standards and procedures that let them learn and grow on the job, advancing to higher positions. In short, they want unions to talk about maintaining and enhancing conditions of being a professional.

That in turn led DPE to try to fashion new-style organizing themes for its member unions, revolving around quality-of-workplace issues, ahead of--but not instead of--wages and benefits. They include bargaining for more workplace professional training, use of advanced processes, and agitating for guaranteed advancement opportunities.

Whether such campaigns will succeed at an IBM or a Silicon Valley high tech firm is anyone’s guess. But it’s at least one way to try to overcome the apathy.

Monday, December 3, 2007

New pact ends strike for Broadway stagehands

NEW YORK (PAI)--After three days of round-the-clock bargaining, Theatrical and Stage Employees Local 1 won a new contract for Broadway stagehands on Nov. 28 from New York’s theatrical producers, ending a 19-day strike.

Details of the new pact were not disclosed pending a membership vote on the contract. The producers wanted to cut the numbers of stagehands who do things like shift scenery, lights, sound systems and props, install sets and keep shows running smoothly. The local resisted the cuts, and noted stagehands lacked raises for years.

News reports said the tradeoff was there could be some job cuts in each production in return for higher raises than the 3.5% hike the producers’ league initially offered for each year of the 5-year pact.

After the talks succeeded, IATSE Local 1 President James J. Claffey Jr. told hundreds of stagehands gathered in midtown Manhattan that “You represented yourselves and your families and your union proud.” Local 1 Business Manager Kevin McGarty called the pact “equitable for everyone involved.”

But while one performing arts union settled with its producers, another conflict may widen. The Writers Guild of America’s strike against Hollywood and New York TV and movie studios shows no signs of ending.

And writers for CBS News in Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York are planning to strike on Dec. 10, WBBM-TV, Chicago’s CBS affiliate reported. Democratic presidential hopefuls, scheduled to debate in Los Angeles in a forum broadcast by CBS, pulled out and the debate was canceled.

The CBS writers have been forced to strike because they’ve toiled without a contract for more than two years and because CBS is demanding a 2-tier pay system and the unlimited right to combine union and non-union shops.

Bush names 3 to deal with 6,000 Amtrak workers

WASHINGTON (PAI)--Anti-worker GOP President George W. Bush has named a Presidential Emergency Board, as allowed by law, to resolve the long struggle for a contract covering 6,000 Amtrak workers and their unions. The unions have not had a pact with the nation’s passenger railroad for 8 years.

Bush’s Nov. 28 decision is in line with his actions in other transportation-related disputes. Airline and railroad workers are governed not by the National Labor Relations Act, but by the older Railway Labor Act, which lets the president step in and name such boards--and halting lockouts by carriers or strikes that the firms force workers into.

Such lockouts and strikes can occur only after the National Mediation Board, the agency which oversees transportation labor-management bargaining, releases both sides to take their own actions. NMB did so at Amtrak in November. But Bush’s action stops a potential strike scheduled for Dec. 1. He named boards in airline struggles, too.

Rail unions generally welcomed the board, as a way to finally force Amtrak to accept a contract after all the years of futility--and 8 years of no general raises.

“We look forward to presenting a coordinated position to the Presidential Emergency Board in an effort to obtain a recommendation of a fair and equitable settlement for employees who have helped Amtrak achieve unprecedented ridership and revenue levels,” said W. Dan Pickett, president of the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen and chair of the Passenger Rail Labor Bargaining Coalition.

The 3-person board hears testimony from both sides during a 1-month cooling-off period. It then can take another month to craft a settlement that eventually can bind both unions and management, unless they agree on their own.

The union coalition also includes the Train Dispatchers, the Maintenance of Way Employees/Teamsters Rail Conference and the Firemen and Oilers/Service Employees. Other unions bargaining with Amtrak are the Electrical Workers, the Transport Workers, the Machinists, and their Transportation Communications International Union sector.

“For too long, the more than 1,100 IBEW members working at Amtrak have been without a contract, while management has refused to budge an inch on certain vital issues,” said IBEW Railroad Department Director Bill Bohne. “Our goal is to achieve full retroactive wage settlements. Likewise, we stand firm in opposition to Amtrak’s long list of radical concessionary work rule demands,” added TWU President James Little.

“The status quo remains in effect, we can’t strike and Amtrak can take no action,” IBEW said. “Our coalition is in the process of preparing our presentation for the PEB.”