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  Trends and Challenges for Work in the 21st Century
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Rethinking Union Structures, Rebuilding Union Capacity...

Innovation on the Ground: New Approaches to Union Organizing

In addition to discussing strategies for renewing the labor movement across its various tiers, the Symposium also sought to highlight the innovation and experimentation occurring around organizing—not only in craft-based and traditionally union-dense sectors but also in the service sector and industries in which organizing has been difficult or even nonexistent.

From Decline to Expansion: Increasing Union Capacity in the Building Trades

According to Jeff Grabelsky, a researcher at Cornell University and a member of the IBEW for over 20 years, the transformation occurring in union representation within the building trades is not being driven by an intrinsic desire on the part of union leadership and membership to change. Instead, it is being prompted by new demands in the industry: the introduction of new technology, which has deskilled construction; the emergence of the construction manager and the decline of the general contractor; the intervention of corporate construction users in the collective bargaining process; and the emergence of regional and national contractors that have forced unions to restructure according to the new shape of the industry.

However, the most significant shift in the sector has been the decline in the union share of workers and the rise of open-shop alternatives, which in Grabelsky’s estimation have had the most dramatic impact on how the labor movement in the building trades has shifted strategies to recover lost ground. “The rise of the open shop has occurred alongside of and contributed to dramatically expanding employment, declining union membership, falling union density, shrinking union market share, declining wages across the industry, and the erosion of union bargaining strength and political influence,” Grabelsky said.

How have unions in the building trades retooled their approach? The initial response was to directly challenge open shops by developing competitiveness strategies that included lowering the cost of union construction if it made union contractors more appealing, and to market union shops more effectively to construction users. Later, a more sophisticated job-targeting strategy emerged; the union would create a fund so that concessionary wages would be shared by an entire membership and not just the workers employed in the targeted projects. “In the end,” said Grabelsky, “these efforts were a way to avoid the real, fundamental challenge of organizing 4 or 5 million unrepresented workers who had been kept out of the unions. It was the only way for the building trades to reestablish themselves as a dominant force in the industry.”

To embrace and deploy a strategy built around organizing—particularly organizing workers who had been historically excluded from membership—was exceedingly difficult, given an entrenched philosophy among the membership of “keeping certain people out.” What the building trades ultimately developed was the COMET program, for “Construction Organizing Membership Education Training,” which was designed to reach out to rank-and-file members and explain why organizing was important. “That program, among other efforts,” said Grabelsky, “helped the membership understand the relationship between union density and bargaining strength, which really became the handle to mobilize membership support.”

The measure of success for the building trades focused organizing efforts supported by membership education is that it represents the only sector of the labor movement to experience an increase in union density for two consecutive years. Still, Grabelsky believes that further innovations are necessary in order to reorganize the industry. Specifically, he calls for multi-trade organizing that includes the 15 affiliates of the building trades, market-wide organizing that does not target individual contractors but all significant competitors in any market segment, and infusing organizing activity with greater strategic focus.

Building on Legacies and Linked Agendas: The Communications Workers of America

While deregulation has made the telecommunications industry one of the fastest-growing sectors of the economy, it has also led to rising income inequality and variations in workplace practices that have challenged the Communications Workers of America (CWA) to redefine their approach to representation. “The CWA is pursuing an aggressive and very innovative triangular strategy focusing not just on organizing but also on collective bargaining and politics,” said Harry Katz of Cornell University, who has been studying the renewed tactics of the CWA with his colleague Rose Batt. “What is even more innovative is their linking of activities across these dimensions: efforts in organizing are connected with and complimented by efforts in collective bargaining or political lobbying,” he explained.

For example, through collective bargaining, the CWA was able to win important card check and neutrality clauses that support their organizing agendas. Similarly, through political activity—whether represented by filings with the FCC at the federal level or informal lobbying around a political regulatory agenda—the CWA has been pushing issues that overlap directly with its collective bargaining and organizing agendas. “Essentially, they have developed a way to regain power in the face of disadvantages, counterbalancing the ability of companies in their industries to operate more easily during strikes, to ship resources abroad, or to outsource,” said Katz.

In part, the CWA’s current efforts have been successful because they are built squarely on institutional legacies. As Katz explained, “They don’t innovate in an area that is completely foreign, but extend things done in the past. For example, one of the CWA’s important strategies regarding organizing, what they call mobilization, builds on their historic representation of employees in the public sector who were unable to strike.”

Batt related several examples of how the CWA is both engaging in linked activity and building on a rich institutional legacy in order to address the technical and professional identity of its workforce and to organize the sector’s growing number of independent contractors, freelancers, and temporary workers:

  • Organizing Customer Service Professionals. In 1997, the CWA organized 10,000 USAirways service agents and is awaiting a rerun election for 15,000 service agents at American Airlines. “The union first developed a model of the customer service professional which links quality jobs to quality service, as well as builds on the historic sense of public service among the telephone operator membership,” said Batt. Creative internal organizing has constructed a strong network of customer service and sales representatives across the country. The network, in turn, was critical to winning the USAirways election, which relied heavily on member-to-member organizing by thousands of geographically dispersed CWA members.
  • Associational Unionism. WashTech, an association representing software professionals in the state of Washington, has affiliated with the CWA and protested attempts by software companies to exempt some temporary workers from receiving overtime, as well as Microsoft’s unequal treatment of “permatemps” who were ineligible to receive full-time employee benefits. CWA affiliation has provided resources, staffing, and technical support, and WashTech has pursued legal, political, and legislative remedies for contingent workers in the state. On May 13, 1999, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco found in favor of the plaintiffs in the Vizcaino v. Microsoft law suit, ruling that at least 10,000 former temporary workers since 1986 should have been able to participate in Microsoft’s Employee Stock Purchase Plan. “In this case,” said Batt, “the union could not rely on traditional collective bargaining tools, but on legal, political, and legislative efforts.”
  • Employment Centers and Hiring Halls. CWA has a long history of developing employment centers to match union workers or retirees with employers for short-term contracts, serving as a supplier of labor and negotiating work terms and conditions. The most promising effort to date is its current project with Cisco Systems, a nonunion company, in which the union is licensed as a “regional academy” to train and certify technicians on Cisco’s equipment. This joint effort builds on Cisco’s well-developed training program and the CWA’s ‘Military-to-Work’ program. It will use a jointly-developed online skills assessment for testing, training, and job placement. “The effort draws on the CWA’s historic root of embracing technological change and using the training of its technical workforce to find new ways of organizing,” said Batt.

Determining the Employer: The SEIU and Home Care Workers in California

After a ten-year struggle, an unprecedented 75,000 home care workers in Los Angeles voted to join the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in early 1999. The win was big on many fronts—not since 1941 had such a large number of workers been unionized at once, and the campaign organized predominantly minority, immigrant, and low-wage women in the traditionally nonunionized social services sector. “The story is one of persistence, political strategy, and coalition building,” said Rachael Cobb of MIT’s Department of Political Science. “It was a struggle against a model of homecare in the state of California that blurred the lines of who was the employer of record.”

A strong disability movement in California had lobbied for the delivery of services that could be controlled by the client—including in-home personal attendants hired by the consumer—instead of services provided in institutional settings. In response, the state apportioned dollars for homecare services and devolved the administration of the program to counties, which established In-Home Supportive Service systems (IHSS) through its social service agencies. Rather than contracting with an agency to provide in-home services, IHHS placed the responsibility on the consumer to locate and hire a homecare worker. “Who was the employer?” asked Cobb. “The IHHS system received funding from a combination of state and federal funds. County social workers assessed the eligibility of consumers for homecare assistance. The state cut the homeworkers’ paychecks, while the consumer was the one who located, hired, and fired them.”

While public dollars were being expended to help homecare consumers remain independent and productive, L.A.’s homecare workers were making minimum wage and receiving no benefits, including health care and paid vacations. A group of organizers who had successfully unionized homecare workers in other parts of the country began exploring the potential for such a campaign in California—and quickly met a series of complications. Cobb explained the first challenge: actually reaching the workers. “Because there was no single place of employment, because the registry system did not function, because clients were responsible for finding and hiring workers, these homecare workers acted as independent contractors with no associations or systems to bring them together,” said Cobb.

The key obstacle, however, was that no agency would accept responsibility as the employer of record. The SEIU brought suits against the State of California and the County of Los Angeles—but to no avail. Finally, the SEIU turned to the state legislature, which passed a law in 1992 mandating that each county should establish a public authority to serve as the employer. Counties were given the option to contract with a nonprofit consortium, establish by ordinance a public authority separate from the county, or establish by ordinance a public authority governed by the board of supervisors.

In addition to pursuing a ground-breaking decision about the employer of record, the SEIU engaged in other innovative activities that stretched the traditional role of union organizers:

  • Lobbying the L.A. County Board of Supervisors. The SEIU needed to convince the Board that a centralized, public authority system under its governance was the best option for the County, since it would streamline a referral system, provide training, and maintain some level of quality control. The Board was opposed to the proposal, so the SEIU engaged in a lobbying campaign to change its position. “What organizers soon realized, however,” said Cobb, “was that it required the collective political clout of its members and the support of consumers to sway the Board’s opinion.”
  • Grassroots Political Organizing. “While it was organizing Los Angeles workers, the SEIU local had not bothered to ask whether the workers were registered to vote,” Cobb said. “It realized that grassroots political organizing was necessary to gain County support.” Organizers began mobilizing workers to engage in the political process, focusing on state-level and local elections.
  • Building Coalitions with Consumers. According to Cobb, the union also encountered the resistance of homecare consumers, who feared the union might impose limits on the type and amount of services they received. To combat consumer concerns—as well as the worry of homecare workers that becoming unionized would threaten their relationships with clients—the SEIU actively built a coalition with consumers, the disability movement, and the senior movement. It was able to educate this constituency about the benefits of unionization, including the provision of training, reduced turnover, and improved consumer-caregiver relationships.

From Associations to Collective Bargaining: The Committee of Interns and Residents

In 1997, the Committee of Interns and Residents (CIR), which represents 9,000 interns and residents in six states, affiliated with the SEIU; recently, it joined with other doctor unions to form the National Doctors’ Alliance, which bargains collectively for 15,000 doctors. “Obviously, doctors are not the first group of workers to come to mind when discussing unions,” said Sandra Shea of CIR, “but they represent a unique example of how organizing can evolve from professional associations to collective bargaining.”

Physician unions have grown in appeal, as doctors have felt increasingly powerless in the face of pressure from managed care and insurance companies. The organizing of interns and residents seems less unusual, when one considers the limited control they have over their work and working conditions. “Many of their concerns are basic, trade union issues,” said Shea, “like making a living wage to put food on the table and to pay back enormous student loans, dealing with unusually long working hours, and poor working conditions. They walk a fine line between the really hard work it takes to learn this profession and outright exploitation and misuse of their time and concern for humanity.”

Most unionized interns and residents are found in the public sector, where public labor boards tend to grant them the status of employee. In the private sector, which holds the majority of the nation’s interns and residents, a ruling by the NLRB 20 years ago has denied these young doctors that same status, labeling them as “students” instead. However, as part of a larger organizing strategy, CIR has recently engaged in an effort to overturn that decision by bringing a case against the Boston Medical Center. “If we can win on this decision,” Shea said, “it will open up our union to engage in collective bargaining for a significantly larger number of people.”

Meanwhile, the CIR has been kept busy handling physicians’ growing interest in unions. Shea explained: “The phone is ringing off the hook at the National Doctors’ Alliance in response to our post-residency physician organizing campaign. Many have an interest in unionizing because they’ve lost control of their professions. They’re angry with the American Medical Association for looking the other way.” In fact, the Association’s membership has been decreasing annually, while a contentious internal debate rages regarding whether or not it should establish a collective bargaining arm, similar to that of the American Nursing Association. Regardless of the umbrella under which physicians organize, this previously untapped segment of the labor market may prove to infuse new energy into the American labor movement. There are approximately 600,000 post-residency doctors across the country, and the estimate is that almost 40 percent already fall into what would be considered an “employee” category and could potentially unionize.

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