- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 27, 2007

TOLEDO, Ohio — The new faces of organized labor are immigrants working at construction sites, and as hospital nurses, parking lot attendants, mechanics and casino dealers — all groups who are unlikely to lose their jobs to overseas workers.

Union leaders, trying to stop the erosion of organized labor, are looking beyond their core auto and steel industries to recruit service workers making low wages and professionals worrying about losing their health care.

“What’s left anymore?” said Al Mixon, president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 507 in Cleveland, which just finalized a contract with American Red Cross employees in northern Ohio. “We’re all forced to look into new areas.”

This may be just the beginning of the reshaping at a time when factory jobs are being sent overseas or lost to technological changes.

“As we lose manufacturing jobs, we’re going to move more into nontraditional occupations,” said UAW Ohio President Lloyd Mahaffey. “The issues aren’t different whether it’s a health care facility or a factory. It’s about having a voice.”

In the past year, the UAW signed up 2,500 new members in Ohio at auto parts plants, county jails and a juvenile courthouse. The national union last year voted to move $60 million from its strike fund into recruiting new members.

“We had a good year,” Mr. Mahaffey said. “But it wouldn’t be fair to say we’re replacing everyone we lose.”

Job losses at the Big Three automakers and at parts makers knocked UAW membership to fewer than 600,000 members in 2005, from a high of 1.5 million in 1979.

Union membership has declined steadily nationwide in the past 50 years. Only about one in 10 workers belongs to a union compared with a third of all workers in the 1950s.

“The question is, ‘Have unions fallen so far and so fast that they can’t get up?’ ” said Gary Chaison, a labor specialist at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. “I give them a 50-50 chance.”

The fall has been most pronounced in the industrial Midwest, where hundreds of thousands of union jobs have disappeared and unions in states such as Indiana and Ohio have recorded double-digit percentage drops in membership in the past two decades.

Jon Spears, 35, became one of the casualties in September when he accepted a separation package from Delphi Corp.’s auto-brake plant in Dayton, Ohio, where he had worked since 1999. He has no regrets about his union membership or the representation he received. But he felt beaten down by the unrelenting “gloom and doom” of the loss of security as the company filed for bankruptcy and the union weakened.

“I thought I was going to be there for my 30 [years]. When I started working there, I was very excited to have that job. I loved going to work,” said Mr. Spears, who now is looking for a job.

Unions likely need at least 500,000 new members each year just to make up for their annual losses, Mr. Chaison said.

“They don’t have to look overseas for fertile fields,” he said. “It’s all around them. They just have to use their imagination.”

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has organized child care providers who work at home in Illinois and janitors who clean office towers in Houston.

The union has doubled in size in a little more than a decade, to 1.8 million members, and now is trying to unionize janitors in Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Columbus.

“We need health care, we need better wages,” Lauressie Tillman said at an organizing rally in Cincinnati in March.

Mrs. Tillman makes $6.85 an hour cleaning offices downtown to support her family of four. She has diabetes and must pay for doctor visits. “I don’t have money for my medicine,” she said.

One challenge in organizing new members is that many workers don’t value unions like they once did, forcing labor leaders to reintroduce and redefine themselves.

They are pushing for more than better wages, telling workers that access to health care and the ability to join unions are civil rights — not just bargaining chips.

And they are becoming less adversarial.

“Workers are looking for an organization that solves problems, not one that creates them,” said Andy Stern, president of the SEIU.

Too many labor leaders are concerned only about negotiating contracts for their own members and aren’t focused on solving problems facing all workers such as the lack of an adequate health care system, he said.

“For way too long, we’ve tried to stay the same and, in some cases, stop change,” Mr. Stern said. “That’s a losing strategy.”

Organized labor is declining for a variety of reasons, including improved technology and productivity that requires fewer workers, more aggressive anti-union action by employers in the era after President Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers in 1981, movement of jobs overseas and the rise of mostly nonunion foreign automakers. U.S. economic growth also dilutes the urge to unionize.

“It is very difficult for the unions to get a foothold where there is not a need,” said Brian Burton, vice president of the Indiana Manufacturers Association, which represents about 1,500 companies in the state. Mr. Burton said workers there are able to get nonunion jobs with good pay and benefits.

Much of the economic growth in recent years has been in the Sun Belt, including states with little history of union support but an eagerness to welcome good-paying jobs.

“They give ‘em just about anything they want to locate here,” said Robert Shaffer, president of the AFL-CIO labor federation in Mississippi, where the state recently offered an incentives package worth about $300 million to Toyota. The Japanese automaker will build an assembly plant in Tupelo, bringing 2,000 jobs to an area where other jobs have moved overseas.

“If they treat the people good and don’t [hurt them], it will probably be hard to organize them,” Mr. Shaffer said.

Toyota, which employs 7,000 at its Georgetown, Ky., plant, is viewed favorably locally, even as U.S. automakers cut back in the region, said Kenneth Troske, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Kentucky.

“If we didn’t have Toyota, we’d be even worse off,” he said.

During the past year, Toyota’s advertising has emphasized the company’s deep involvement in the United States and economic contributions. Similarly, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world’s largest retailer, has touted itself as helping working families save thousands of dollars by offering low prices and providing jobs.

The UAW is still pushing to organize workers at the foreign automakers, and Wal-Mart remains under fire by union groups who criticize the Bentonville, Ark., retailer for low wages and benefits and would like to organize its workers. Critics of unions say millions of Americans vote with their pocketbooks by buying Japanese cars and shopping at Wal-Mart.

But labor analysts say many Americans view labor favorably, even though they don’t belong to unions, adding potential for growth.

One way unions are working to drum up members is by trying to become a bigger part of their members’ everyday lives. That means bringing back labor-sponsored family events such as pumpkin patches and mother-daughter banquets.

“It’s an old idea regenerated,” said Bill Lichtenwald, president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 20 in Toledo. Its membership has been cut in half since 1980 and now is down to 7,000.

The union offers casino bus trips and ballroom dancing lessons at special rates.

Teamsters are going into schools to talk with students about what unions offer their members and how they have shaped the middle class.

“We’re taking a lot of steps to re-educate,” Mr. Lichtenwald said. “It used to be that labor unions were respected. That reputation went away.”

David Weil, an associate professor of economics at Boston University, expects unions will look much different in the coming years. He predicted that unions may offer more job training, serve as a third party to resolve disputes or work more as a support organization for immigrants.

Some unions now don’t fit the traditional mold.

The Freelancers Union, based in Brooklyn, N.Y., doesn’t bargain for wages or benefits with employers. Instead, it offers low-cost health care, life insurance and networking for its 45,000 members who are writers, artists and Web site designers.

“The idea of a union conjures up so many images,” said Sara Horowitz, who founded the union in 2003. “The real answer is you have to be helpful and provide something valuable.”

She said that unions don’t need to engage in collective bargaining to grow.

“There are many structures that have helped workers from mutual aid societies to guilds,” she said. “The essence of a union is people coming together to solve their problems.”

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