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By Dick Meister

America's resurgent labor unions are undergoing an extraordinary transformation. Thousands of people who've rarely shown much interest in unions suddenly are raising cries of "organize!" Among them are doctors; computer programmers, engineers, and others in the booming information industry; college students and other twentysomethings; women, minorities and white collar and professional workers generally.

Union membership has been growing steadily to reach more than 16 million, and though the total nevertheless is still hovering around only 14 percent of the ever-growing workforce, it's bound to increase -- soon and sharply.

Simply put, unions are changing with the times. The percentage began to drop steeply with the decline of the heavy industries that once dominated the economy and in which union members had been concentrated since the major organizing drives of the 1930s.

Now, those who work in today's much different, largely white-collar economy are finally moving to seize the same tool of unionization that the blue-collar workers before them used to win a strong voice in determining their wages, hours and working conditions.

Doctors, for instance, have been turning to unions as a way to cope with the managed health care system that has virtually taken away their traditional right to decide what care they should provide and what they should be paid for providing it.

Organizing drives launched last year by the AFL-CIO and five of its largest affiliates already have brought more than 45,000 physicians and dentists into union ranks. What's more, the once staunchly anti-union American Medical Association is forming its own union, with the goal of setting up dozens of locals across the country.

Organizers have been as active among the mainly non-union firms in the constantly expanding information industry. Winning union rights from them is as potentially rewarding as were the campaigns to organize heavy industry in the 1930s. High-tech firms of all sorts, telecommunications, cable, broadcasting, printing and entertainment companies, the new multimedia firms formed by entrepreneurs who have combined them -- all are key organizing targets. So are the mushrooming companies dealing in cellular/wireless communication.

Fringe benefits, overtime pay, grievance procedures and other union-won rights are denied many workers in all those sectors of the newly-dominant information industry, and many naturally see unionization as the way to get them.

Several major unions once concerned solely with blue-collar workers have eagerly joined in to seek members from the more numerous white-collar fields in hopes of expanding and revitalizing their ranks.

A prime example is the United Auto Workers, which has organized some 30,000 college and university employees in several states. Most recently, the UAW won the right to represent the 10,000 teaching assistants at all eight University of California campuses.

They are among the graduate students who carry out as much as 40 percent of their schools' teaching and research, conducting many -- if not most -- undergraduate classes, yet are paid at or below the poverty level and have few fringe benefits and few bargaining rights.

Another of the country's major blue-collar unions, the San Francisco-based International Longshore and Warehouse Union, also is organizing young workers far outside its usual jurisdiction. The ILWU is seeking union rights for the badly exploited workers in the rapidly-growing courier industry who deliver much of the paperwork that drives today's economy, darting and weaving through downtown traffic on bicycles and motorcycles, in cars and trucks to rapidly deliver urgent material that cannot be e-mailed or faxed.

Women, minorities and low-wage workers, who have long been underrepresented in unions, also are getting new attention. The Service Employees recorded one of the biggest union victories in history last year by winning representation rights for some 74,000 home health care workers in the Los Angeles area, most of them minority women paid at or near the minimum wage.

Organizers meanwhile have not been ignoring labor's traditional base. Just last June, workers at the country's largest textile plant, a Fieldcrest Cannon facility in North Carolina, won union representation. It was one of the biggest union victories ever in the South.

The labor movement, in short, is moving.

Dick Meister, a freelance columnist in San Francisco, has covered labor issues for four decades as a newspaper and broadcast reporter, editor and commentator. c 2000 Dick Meister


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