Can Unions Seize the Post-9-11 Moment?
Waiting for Labor to Rise
by Tom Robbins
Early this month, officials at the AFL-CIO convention in Las Vegas reluctantly acknowledged that their numbers had slipped yet again—this time to just 13.5 percent of the nation's workforce. The announcement came at a time when more than 500 union hard hats were at ground zero in New York digging out from destruction, just as they have been doing around the clock since September 11.
Those were the two starkly different images of labor that emerged this year: one of increasing irrelevance, the other of crucial importance.
Immediately after the planes hit, construction workers around the city dropped their tools and raced to the scene, arriving hard on the heels of their fellow unionists, the firefighters, cops, and emergency service workers.
In the days following the attack, hundreds more trades workers, organized in work details by their respective unions, marched to the site to lend a hand, many of them remaining for weeks. Unions representing maintenance workers, restaurant employees, and civil servants also quickly went to work, lending comfort and aid to the families of their murdered members and shoring up those made jobless by the catastrophe.
But unions themselves barely trumpeted their own role at the Trade Center. In fact, a week after the attack, construction unions ran full-page newspaper ads pleading with members to return to work; so many were volunteering at the disaster site that every big construction job in the city had shut down.
If the terrorist attack reaffirmed a dormant patriotism in many, as well as a new faith in the capabilities of government and its public servants, it also underscored the critical role unions play in the social fabric.
"Union members proved convincingly they had the training, the skill, and the will to get a tough job done," says Jeff Grabelsky of the AFL-CIO's Building Trades Department. "I really don't know what would have happened if the attack had taken place in a non-union market; the response of construction workers has everything to do with the fact that they are union members."
And yet the story of how unions distinguished themselves under fire remains largely untold. Instead, the dominant labor story of the post-September 11 era was the predictable one: that the number of Americans enrolled in unions had slipped yet again, following the same inexorable pattern of earlier years.
The added twist to this year's statistic was that it was a drop from the 14.9 percent of workers who were in unions in 1995, when AFL-CIO president John Sweeney was first elected, vowing to organize the unorganized. And there is more slippage to come, labor officials caution, thanks to massive layoffs in the post-terror-attack economic downturn.
Sweeney, re-elected to a new term at the helm of the 13 million-member organization, beseeched his 66 member unions to undertake renewed organizing drives in an effort to stanch the losses. Individual unions should devote at least 30 percent of their budgets to organizing efforts, according to a resolution proposed and passed by the convention. Their goal, Sweeney urged, should be to boost their memberships by at least 10 percent.
"Let's be clear, we are talking about massive change in the way we do business," Service Employees International Union president Andrew Stern, a strong Sweeney backer who co-chairs the organizing committee of the AFL-CIO executive committee, told the convention.
For all their eloquence, the unionists still appear largely to be whistling in the wind. Passing resolutions is easy, but getting most unions to take on the grueling and often frustrating work of organizing remains elusive. Labor analysts estimate fewer than a dozen unions have actually committed the resources Sweeney has asked for, and fewer still have registered large gains.
"Unfortunately, too many unions have not made a decision to change who they are and how they spend their money and their energy," says Bruce Raynor, president of UNITE, the garment and textile workers union. "The bottom line is that hundreds of thousands of workers would choose unions if this was a political election and they had a chance to vote for them. In New York State you could easily go to a 60 percent union density if it was up to employees. But every organizing drive meets vicious resistance from employers."
UNITE, with 250,000 members, currently spends about one-third of its budget on organizing, says Raynor. His goal is to increase the figure to 50 percent. "This isn't about earning a profit," he says.
Many unions are being tentative about organizing, says Stanley Aronowitz, professor of sociology at the City University Graduate School, because they are reluctant to commit the funds and energy required for a major recruitment push until there is a favorable political environment. "But they're not going to get it," says Aronowitz. "Their hope isn't in the rank and file; it is in the politicians. They will spend millions on the 2002 congressional elections and still lose members."
One of the strongest adherents to the organizing gospel is Terence O'Sullivan, the new president of the Laborers International Union. Long under the thumb of a corrupt and mob-tied leadership, the Laborers have emerged as an activist union, eager to sign up unorganized workers. In New Jersey, the union recently managed to recruit low-paid, non-union asbestos removal workers by combining political pressure with attention to the needs and culture of the largely immigrant and foreign-language-speaking workforce.
International union officials appointed Juan Mazlymian, an Uruguayan-born rank-and-file member, to head the New Jersey asbestos local, and recruited organizers fluent in Spanish, Polish, and Serbo-Croatian, the languages spoken by the majority of the asbestos workers. The union then went after disreputable contractors who charged government agencies prevailing wage rates while paying workers well below that level.
"Asbestos is a very bottom-of-the-barrel industry," says Dave Johnson, the Laborers' organizing director. "We researched contractors, documenting their safety violations, their wage practices. Then we presented that information to local school boards and town councils that were awarding these contracts all over the state."
Since the organizing campaign was launched in March, Local 1030 of the Laborers has expanded from 150 members to 565. "We estimate we represent more than 65 percent of the asbestos removal market now," says Johnson. "Before it was about 5 percent."
It's a success story other unions would love to duplicate, if they could muster the energy and resources.
"There is an unwillingness among many unions to break old habits," says Johnson. "The workforce, particularly among construction, is radically changing. It is no longer mostly English-speaking, native-born workers. They speak different languages, have different cultures, and have a different set of needs."
There also has to be a willingness to seize the moment. It is hard to imagine a potentially more favorable climate, in terms of public attitudes, than the one that has emerged since September 11. Labor, long accustomed to public embarrassment, is at least temporarily on a moral high ground.
"The 9-11 response showed labor at its best," says Raynor. "America's heroes became workers, not politicians or fighter pilots. It showed unions are an integral part of what makes America a great country."
"One of the things we learned," says Grabelsky of the AFL-CIO, "is that in a time of national crisis, working people are ready for sacrifice and lots of corporations are ready for breathtaking greed. The corporate world has been shameless in advancing their agenda, while the labor movement has been tentative and ambivalent. That's partially for good reasons; they want to be sensitive about not exploiting the tragedy. But this moment can quickly dissipate."
Questions about how the political and economic environment for unions has changed in the wake of the attacks were raised at a small workshop at the Las Vegas convention held by Grabelsky and Bill Granfield, secretary-treasurer of Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union Local 100, which saw 43 members working at Windows on the World killed in the attack and another 400 rendered jobless.
"We spend a lot of time trying to explain to people why you belong to a union. Well, there isn't a better way to explain it than right now. The value of union membership is really clear," says Grabelsky.
Some 27 members of the building maintenance workers union died in the Trade Center's collapse, and several hundred more lost jobs in the economic aftershocks. Their union, Local 32B-J of the Service Employees International Union, quickly pulled together to help its members and their families.
The union did something else unusual in the crisis: It got building owners to agree to an early contract renewal in order to avoid the usual end-of-year crisis that afflicts the industry when the contract expires. "There's a sense in the city that employers and unions need to work together right now," says union president Mark Fishman.
"Labor has done a heroic job, not just at the [Trade Center] site, but with the broader community," he adds. "We have to start talking about that story. The real losers are the non-union workers who have no safety net of any kind. They're suffering incredibly right now. They have no advocate, no group that brings them together as a family."