The New Face Of The Union Movement: Female, Minority -- And Poorly Paid

New union movement

For much of the 20th century, America's unions were known for their fierce and relentless advocacy of manufacturing workers -- mostly men, working relatively high-paying, blue-collar jobs at steel mills and auto plants. But as the U.S. has moved from a manufacturing economy to a service-based one, the face of unions has changed dramatically.

Today, union workers are much more likely to be female, minority and poorly paid -- working as domestics, fast food cashiers or retail workers, as union activists have recruited service workers heavily.

This year, there have been attempts to organize fast food workers, as well as workers at Walmart. Even car wash workers have their own fledgling union effort, WASH New York, formed this year.

"This isn't just about job creation," says Tara Martin, a spokeswoman for the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which is supporting the community-group driven campaign. "This is about creating jobs for people so that they can take care of their families."

"For so long, labor avoided low-wage service jobs," notes Lowell Turner, professor of international and comparative labor at the Industrial Labor Relations School at Cornell. "But now this is the majority of jobs. If [unions are] not elevating these jobs, we'll have a whole class of workers living in poverty."

Numbers Tell The Story

In 1950, the services sector -- including the retail, financial services, health care and hotel industries -- comprised 60 percent of the economy, according to data compiled by UCLA.

Today the figure has grown to 80 percent.

Over the same period, factory work, carried out by icons of big labor like auto and steel workers, has shrunk from about 33 percent to just 10 percent, says the BBC.

More: Do Right-To-Work Laws Actually Help Workers -- Or Management?

A New Generation Of Leaders

One high-profile leader who shows just how much the labor movement has changed is 38-year old Ai-jen Poo. The daughter of pro-democracy immigrants from Taiwan, Ai-jen has dedicated herself to the working conditions of U.S. domestic workers, one in four of whom are paid below state minimum wage, according to the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which was founded by Ai-jen.

That group, which Ai-jen founded five years ago, embraces a philosophy of "peace and justice in the home," reports Time Magazine. Thanks in large part to Ai-jen's leadership, domestic workers, many of whom are immigrants and thus more vulnerable to exploitation, have been able to score a series of victories. In 2010, New York became the first state to pass a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which extended basic labor rights such as a day of rest for every seven work days to domestic workers. President Barack Obama has also extended federal labor laws to protect 2.5 million home-care workers.

Activism for housekeepers also has begun to yield tangible benefits. More than 90 percent of all employees at the casinos and hotels are dues-paying members, in spite of Nevada being a right-to-work state, which means workers cannot be forced to pay or join a union. The result? The annual salary for Vegas housekeepers is $16 an hour, along with free health care and pension benefits, says The Associated Press.

More: 7 Part-Time Jobs That Pay Up To $40 An Hour

The Strategy: Use 'The Multi-Employer Perspective'

The fast food workers who participated in the New York action this year included staffers from McDonald's, YUM! Brands (which operates Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and KFC), Wendy's, Domino's and Papa John's. And many union leaders are taking this "multiemployer perspective," says Nelson Lichtenstein, the director for the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Jonathan Westin, organizing director for New York Communities for Change, a nonprofit community group that is supporting the fast food workers in their organizing efforts, explains that "it only makes sense to band together" given that all workers throughout the industry are working at comparably low wages.

For example, A McDonald's employee recently profiled by Bloomberg BusinessWeek is still making $8.25 an hour despite two decades of service, and would have to work 550 years to earn what the company's CEO earned in 2011 -- $8.75 million. And according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 6.6 million Americans worked in retail and fast food sales in 2010, with their average annual pay at $20,990 and $18,070, respectively.

More: Unions' Secret Strategy To Win Back Workers

A New Approach Required To Revitalize Unions

"Classic collective bargaining doesn't work anymore because unions have hit a brick wall," says Lichtenstein. "Corporations and management have gained all the tools in the fight." So it should come as no shock, he says, that many workers have become disenchanted with classic union activism, and have left the movement.

Lichtenstein blames a series of judicial decisions on unions' diminished support from workers. Perhaps most relevant are a series of decisions upholding employers' use of so-called "captive audience speeches." At these meetings employees are required to listen to speeches by management if they are contemplating unionization. Union representatives are not allowed to attend.

The "captive audience" doctrine has largely been upheld in the courts for the same reason that workers are allowed to form unions; management has successfully cited the First Amendment under the doctrine known as "free speech for employers." Once they gather their workers for the captive audience meetings, the management's lawyers know how to discourage workers from forming strong unions, Lichtenstein says. "All the lawyers know the exact language they can and cannot use to tell workers: If you join, then the company will not expand."

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Until workers are seen as business people who have all the rights of business people, then they will remain as serfs within our present Feudal system. The Means of Production should only work for the Means of Production. The trouble with America is that it has given up on pure Capitalism. The title "Worker" is an anarchism left over from the Feudal Dark Ages. "Worker" is a defamation of every hard working individual business person in America. We're not the boot-licking thralls of Feudal aristocratic Lords anymore! Our American Revolution of 1776 isn't finished yet. The ghosts of King George and his big bad Red Coats still torment us in the form of trickster corporate schemes!

January 04 2013 at 10:30 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The 1% would have you believe stocks will replace your SSI in the future so the young will not get SSI. The 1% will have the bulk of the stock and the ones with out SSI will end up with little just like 1929.

January 04 2013 at 5:05 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

With manufacturing in the US mostly reduced and restricted largely to a few states the continuing decline of good jobs leaves poverty as it's foot print.

January 04 2013 at 5:00 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Sweet Caroline

Profit sharing should be required for all nonunion workers. When I think of how much harder all the retail workers have to work during the holidays, and for the same pay as any other season, it's just wrong. I don't know why workers have become so replaceable and low value. We're all in this together.

January 04 2013 at 2:36 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Sweet Caroline's comment

The trade deals and bought politicians caused this mess now the people are no better off then the serfs of long ago.

January 04 2013 at 4:49 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Female, minority and poorly paid? Hey, there's a feather in the cap of the union movement.

That's not anything I'd advertise anytime soon. Oops! Too late.

January 03 2013 at 9:13 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

What would happen if the entire labor force of North America decided to form a Corporation that farms out workers to all the other businesses and Corporations? Each worker in America would then be a joint owner in his own Corporation. This monopoly would get anything it wants, or else no one would be able to sequester workers in North America. They wouldn't be workers anymore, but rather business people who provide services to businesses through their Corporation. The only way to screw a business who's trying to screw you is with a bigger corporation. Unions are neither necessary nor desirable when there's something much better. This big bad corporation would also have the greatest influence on Congress because of its voting block, and political contributions. They would own the country!

January 03 2013 at 6:27 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to yuccapucka's comment

Nice thought, but it wouldn't work as some folks would see THAT company as a union. They'd attempt to circumvent that and cut their own deal, likely undercutting the big labor corporation. OK, they'd only be screwing themselves. But that hasn't stopped people before as in "Right to Work" (for less) states.

Too many people interested in "me first" out there to realize your thought is a good one.

January 03 2013 at 9:12 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to markruck's comment

It would take time! First everyone who isn't treated as a business person by the Means of Production that needs his services ( which is most so called workers today) would join this International Corporation as a business partner, and then the economic and political cotton candy would hit the fan. This would be the largest, wealthiest, and most politically powerful corporation on Earth having possibly as many as five billion co-owners world-wide. This Corporate Person would be invincible!

January 04 2013 at 10:43 AM Report abuse rate up rate down

The big corporations don't want any more middle class they just want poor people and rich people this way they can control all of with there bull ****

January 03 2013 at 5:39 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to johnn4girls's comment

During these times of outsourcing and decline of the middle class the wealthy buy up the land and enslave the people.

January 04 2013 at 4:45 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Where would American workers be today without unions? Minimum hourly wage of $2.00 an hour? Child labor at $.10 an hour? 60 hour work weeks? No vacations? Don't fool yourselves, if the corporations and companies couls get away with it they would! Please wise up!!!!

January 03 2013 at 4:33 PM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Bill's comment

you are making a fool of yourself. The unions were important and yes they helped the worker but there are way to many laws on the books to protect the worker that unions are a thing of the past.

January 03 2013 at 9:50 PM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to cltt1218's comment

Enforce the laws then maybe the workers might actually be protected.

January 04 2013 at 4:41 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down

The demise of unions have been the demise of the middle class. Everything has been insurance, retirement and fair pay. The companies and corporations have successfully funneled all of the money to the top! This MUST stop!

January 03 2013 at 4:26 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply

The unions don't need a new face. They have always fought for workers rights and safety. They have been beaten down by the corporate power, but they still stand for the same thing............fair pay and benefits for workers!

January 03 2013 at 4:23 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply

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