In the Golden State, organized labor walks a regular beat. In front of the 16 barn-red, country-store façades of Henry's Marketplace, a natural-foods market renowned in California for its low produce prices, United Food and Commercial Workers has for a year staged a clockwork picket.
Henry's is a non-union chain with staple-food prices that regularly undercut those at union stores; UFCW executives don't like that. Henry's has also grown nearly 50 percent since 1999, and in 2000 commanded 8 percent of California grocery sales, even though it isn't a full-service grocery store. UFCW bosses don't like that either. So pairs of picketers regularly flap leaflets ("Henry's Marketplace unfair to workers!" "Shop union stores!") at any Henry's shopper who displays the slightest interest. Most don't and, heads down, hold up a preemptory hand while wheeling a steel cart between heaping wooden bins of avocados and oranges outside the store. Some Henry's employees say they aren't interested in the union either. "This is a good company to work for," a young man working behind a Henry's meat counter told a customer who grumbled about the picketers outside: "And if we were union, our prices would be higher. I like things just fine the way they are."
Such disdain for unionism has taken hold not only among workers and the public but also within unions themselves. Labor organizations are bleeding members while largely failing in efforts to recruit new ones. Union membership rolls peaked following World War II. In 1953, 36 percent of U.S. workers were union members. Today, only 13.5 percent of workers belong to labor organizations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The economic winds that blew out manufacturing and blew in an entrepreneur-heavy, service-based economy left organizing dust bowls in place of fields formerly fertile with voiceless shift workers.
"Globalization"-the transnational expansion of trade and labor distribution-is further squeezing highly paid union workers, as U.S. employers choose less expensive overseas production options. Analysts, even those sympathetic to organized labor, say unions today face a multi-faceted struggle: for a new constituency, a new public image, and relevance in a new economy where many workers believe they can flourish without any unions at all.
"Organized labor has fallen on hard times," writes Stanley Aronowitz, a liberal sociology professor at City University of New York in From the Ashes of the Old: American Labor and America's Future. "Once the force that encouraged government intervention in every aspect of economic life, the labor movement, over the last 20 years, has become a symbol of what many see as a surpassed system. Many younger people, who never experienced the Depression, World War II, and the days of postwar prosperity, are now mesmerized by the ideology of individual initiative and the promise of a gleaming high-tech future."
Nearly half of unionized workers work for federal, state, and local governments, rather than private industry. While government-employee unions such as the National Education Association and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) are healthier than those in private industry, they too may be shrinking: Government union rolls declined by 2 percent between 1994 and 1999.
If nothing else, falling membership numbers make a solid campaign platform: Current AFL-CIO president John Sweeney won election in 1995 in part by pledging to infuse federation membership rolls with fresh blood. On taking office, he immediately set out to make good on his promise, first by pressuring individual unions to budget more for organizing, then by launching two mammoth recruiting projects in the West: an attempt to unionize 20,000 mostly immigrant strawberry pickers in Watsonville, Calif., and a $5 million bid to organize the 60,000 construction workers who were busy turning Las Vegas into a gambler's Disneyland. But the strawberry pickers in the end defected to a smaller, independent union, and the effort to organize the builders flopped in 1999.
Some experts believe labor's parade of recent failures marched straight off the backdrop of its former triumphs. Nearly all working Americans, whether they belong to unions or not, have benefited from union efforts. The eight-hour workday, for example, is the grandchild of 19th-century labor activism, when organized craftsmen struck first for a 10-hour workday, then for an eight-hour workday. Labor unions also succeeded in their push for employment conditions many American workers now consider standard-such as a safe, hygienic work environment, coffee breaks, pensions, health insurance, and paid vacations. But through those and similar successes, unions may have rendered themselves obsolete.
"There is a whole body of law that has made what labor unions do irrelevant," explained San Antonio labor attorney J. Tullos Wells, who has represented both labor and management during his 28-year practice. "A lot of the unions' thunder-what they had to offer-is now being offered for free by government."
Throughout the 20th century, unions banged their cups at government gates rather than at those of the free market. The result: an intricate network of government agencies set up to protect working Americans. Now unions rarely need to storm the streets over discriminatory hiring and firing-the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission deals with that. No need to rattle sabers over workplace safety-workers may now file any such grievance with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. And the Department of Labor administers myriad programs designed to keep workers healthy.
Today's union members look decidedly different than the stereotypical union image of hard-hatted Pennsylvania steelworkers, or beefy longshoremen muscling cargo on the waterfront. The decline of old-line manufacturing has forced unions to emphasize the recruitment of more women and youth. The Service Employees Industrial Union, for example, employs more than 500 full-time organizers who target the health care, janitorial, and hospitality fields; they spend nearly half the union's $80 million annual budget "reaching out to millions of low-paid women and minorities in the service industries," according to a 1999 Labor Educator report. The American Federation of Labor-
Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) targets youth with "Union Summer," an internship program in which high-school and college students take part in pickets, organizing drives, and legislative activism.
To mitigate the effects of globalization-and free trade agreements that union bosses say threaten U.S. jobs-labor organizers also now recruit foreign and immigrant workers. The aim, unions claim, is to create worker "solidarity" and to champion the human rights of laborers in developing countries. More likely, though, unions hope to establish worldwide minimum labor conditions that would keep higher-paid American workers competitive for U.S. production contracts. In 1999, the AFL-CIO voted for the first time in its history to support general amnesty for undocumented workers. In July 2001, a photo printed with a New York Times article on overseas organizing showed AFL-CIO leader Jason Judd in the foreground leading a labor seminar in Phnom Penh, Cambodia; in the background, several studious-looking, orange-robed Buddhist monks took notes.
Such cross-cultural outreach is an ironic departure from early 20th-century union activism that punished employers who tried to cut costs by hiring cheap immigrant labor. But the trend reveals modern labor leaders' pragmatic view of where new members may come from. "Unions have had to change where they organize, how they organize, and who they organize," said Paul F. Clark, a professor of labor studies and industrial relations at Penn State University and author of Building More Effective Unions: The Role of Behavioral Science. "Structural changes in the economy have forced unions to change or really not be a significant force in American society."
Still, the changes rankle with some longtime labor activists, who say unions' migration toward women and minorities has marginalized white, male workers. "If you look at the things that have been coming out of the AFL-CIO recently ... [they] have been talking about organizing immigrants, women, African-Americans," said veteran Teamster organizer Gary Stevenson in an interview for the pro-labor book The New Rank and File. "They don't mention organizing the white male worker. They've given up on him."
For some white males, the feeling is mutual. Roger Lanham is a driver for Overnite, the largest non-union trucking company in the nation. When Teamsters organizers tried to get him to sign a union card last year, Mr. Lanham politely declined. "I was not for the union," Mr. Lanham told WORLD in a leisurely West Virginia drawl. "At that time, I had 25, 26 years service with the company, and I honestly didn't think the union could benefit me."
Since 1995, the 1.4 million-member Teamsters Union has worked to organize Overnite's drivers, dock workers, and mechanics, charging that the company is unfair to its workers. While labor critics say it is the membership dues of Overnite's 13,000 employees that most interests the Teamsters, the union won employees' confidence at 22 of the firm's 166 service centers. But for Teamsters president James P. Hoffa, that wasn't enough. In October 1999 he ordered a strike, hoping the disruption would persuade Overnite executives to unionize the firm's other locations.
The strike immediately turned ugly. In December 1999, driver William Wonder was shot in the stomach and critically injured as he was driving on I-240 near Memphis. By June 2000, police had documented 52 separate shooting incidents involving Overnite vehicles. In another case, someone chucked a brick through the windshield of a company truck, hitting the driver in the face. "He looked like somebody just ripped his face off," said Mr. Lanham, who saw a video of the driver. "You could tell he was a human being, but you couldn't tell who he was."
The Teamsters deny responsibility for these incidents (General President James P. Hoffa called the Teamsters walkout "one of the most peaceful strikes in our history"), but in June 2000, a Minnesota district judge ordered Teamsters Local 120 to pay about $30,000 in damages to Overnite in connection with the violence.
While unions today often pressure firms with more sophisticated methods of persuasion-organizing boycotts, disrupting shareholder meetings, encouraging sympathizers to dump company stock-the violence and corruption that was the norm during James Hoffa's father's reign remain alive and well. U.S. attorneys in January indicted former Teamsters president Ron Carey for funneling his union's general treasury funds into his own 1996 election campaign; his trial is slated to begin this month. And although no Teamsters official has been indicted for connections with organized crime during the past five years, links between unions and the mob still abound. In April, for example, Salvatore "Sammy Meatballs" Aparo and Peter "Petey Red" DiChiara were among 45 reputed members of New York crime families charged with various crimes, including a scheme to contact Service Employees Industrial Union bosses who might be willing to accept bribes.
General corruption among labor unions is so rife that the National Legal Policy Center (NLPC), a union watchdog group in Washington, D.C., publishes Union Corruption Update, a bimonthly newsletter listing dirty deals from election fraud and embezzlement to theft and racketeering. "While the influence of the Mafia may be off from 1950s levels, other types of corruption are on the rise," said NLPC chairman Ken Boehm, adding that unions not generally associated with corruption, such as the government employees union AFSCME, now also are showing darker undersides. For example, an audit of financial records of New York local AFSCME DC37 made public in May revealed that union bosses systematically used dues to purchase for their own use such perks as $1,000-dollar-a-night hotel suites and $40,000 worth of Cajun chicken wings and chilled Gulf jumbo shrimp.
Such dealings further tarnish labor's public image and render suspect union cries for "social justice." Meanwhile, many non-union workers already believe that unionism may not represent their best shot at having a voice in company decision-making. A 1994 Princeton Research Associates national survey of employees in private businesses with 25 or more workers revealed that nearly two-thirds of employees preferred company-sponsored "cooperation committees" to unions as a way of communicating their desires to management. Only 20 percent preferred unions.
Preferences notwithstanding, workers in some states face compulsory union membership under "union security" agreements. Such agreements, still legal in most states, stipulate that workers whose interests are represented by union bargaining agents must join the union, or at least pay dues. But 21 states have passed right-to-work legislation-laws that guarantee employees the freedom to keep or obtain jobs without compulsory union membership or fees. Oklahoma citizens will vote on a similar measure this month.
Such initiatives threaten union clout, and further shrink the map into which labor organizers may stick their strategic pins. Combined with flagging membership, expanding free trade, and an American work force that sports a fierce streak of independence, will unions survive?