Trying to stop the erosion of organized labour, U.S. union leaders are looking beyond their core auto and steel industries to recruit service workers making low wages and professionals worrying about losing their health care.
The new faces of unions are immigrants working at construction sites, hospital nurses, parking lot attendants, mechanics and casino dealers — all groups who are unlikely to lose their jobs to overseas workers.
“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 of unions 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 courthouse. The national union last year voted to move $60 million US into recruiting new members.
Job losses at the Big Three automakers and at parts makers knocked down UAW membership to below 600,000 members in 2005, from a high of 1.5 million in 1979.
Union membership has declined steadily in the U.S. over 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.” Unions likely need at least 500,000 new members each year just to make up for their annual losses, he 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 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 over 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.
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 is that many workers don’t value unions like they once did, forcing labour 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.