The New Face Of The Union Movement: Female, Minority -- And Poorly Paid
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.
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.
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.
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."
Dan Fastenberg was most recently a reporter with TIME Magazine. Previously, he was a writer for the Thomson Reuters news service's Latin America desk. He was also a reporter and associate editor for the Buenos Aires Herald while living in South America.
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