Unions seek to organize new work groups as membership and jobs decline

Written by: G. Jeffrey Aaron, Elmira Star-Gazette

With organized labor membership across the country continuing its decades-long decline, labor leaders are looking for new ways to boost the sagging numbers — and that includes looking to organize classes of workers who traditionally have not belonged to unions.

For example, the Service Employees International Union in 2005 tried unsuccessfully to organize the nurses working in Bethany Village’s skilled nursing unit in Elmira. The same union has also targeted home day-care workers in other parts of the country.

The United Food and Commercial Workers Union, the nation's largest union for retail workers, has organized marijuana dealers in states where the drug is legalized for medicinal or recreational uses. And last week, low-wage earning fast food workers staged a series of one-day strikes to demand better pay and the right to unionize.

“Unions are finding new worker classes to represent,” said Lee Adler, senior extension associate at Cornell University’s Industrial Labor Relations School. “They are expanding the notion of who is in the unionized family to include working families and those on the edge of the economy to bring them inside the protective umbrella that unions can extend to them.”

The percentage of workers across the country who belong to labor unions, at 20.1 percent in the 1980s, fell to 11.3 percent last year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics says. In New York, union penetration peaked at 27.5 percent in 2005 before dropping to 24.9 percent in 2011.

Part of the reason for the decline, Adler says, is the loss of the manufacturing jobs that have traditionally been organized labor’s power base. And when a manufacturer does open a new factory, it’s usually located in a state with little union presence. At the same time, Wisconsin, Indiana and other states have mounted legislative challenges to the collective bargaining process.

“Alabama has criminalized activity by its teacher’s union to lobby,” Adler said. “It’s now in the court of appeals, but it gives an idea of how far the efforts have gone to defang any effectiveness of unions.”

Joel Van Schaffel, service representative and organizer for the Millwright Union Local 1163, which operates under the umbrella of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, says the quickest way to boost union membership is to bring back the manufacturing jobs that have moved off-shore. The union is based in Syracuse but covers all of upstate New York.

“There are some places in everybody’s back yard that are gone or are smaller than they were 10 years ago,” Van Schaffel said. “It’s all cyclical.”

But while the millwright’s union is waiting for the pendulum to swing in the other direction, it is looking at workers outside of its traditional construction base.

“Our members do the heavy manufacturing stuff but we’re now looking at some things differently that we have in the past,” Van Schaffel said. “We want to open up the doors for more types of workers. It’s been talked about in different arenas, but in some cases, it’s hard to change your focus.”

The International Union of Operating Engineers Local 158 District 832 gets calls weekly from heavy equipment operators looking to join the union. However, the issue is a lack of job sites in which to place them

“It’s all work driven,” said Paul McCormick, the union’s business representative. “If we have work its easy to bring in new members. But it’s hard to recruit them and bring them in if the work isn’t there.”

But lately, he said, the work hasn’t been there. Those calling in can see the benefits of belonging to a union, but cuts in federal highway funds has put some of the work on hold. The strategy then becomes increasing the number of signatory contractors who contact the union for workers.

“If the economy is down, the work isn’t there in the public or private sector,” McCormick said. “And if there’s no work, the jobs aren’t there. ”

With unions being blamed for everything from driving up the cost of labor to crippling municipal budgets with their pension and health benefit costs, Adler says another strategy is for labor unions to present a new public image. At the AFL-CIO’s convention in Los Angeles next month, the federation is expected to announce stronger partnerships with the NAACP, Hispanic advocacy groups and the Sierra Club.

“Unions need to follow the people back to their communities and build meaningful relations,” he said. “They must recognize that they all must come together to explain who they are, what they do and why it makes sense for all of them to be together.”

The original printing of this article can be found on: http://www.democratandchronicle.com/article/20130902/NEWS01/309020025/1168/RSS

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