Joining a Union: Why It's Hard to Organize Workers

By Smucker, Tom | Commonweal, July 16, 2004 | Go to article overview

Joining a Union: Why It's Hard to Organize Workers


Smucker, Tom, Commonweal


Cintas is the largest industrial laundry business in North America. According to Forbes, it is the 417th largest corporation in the United States and is run by Richard Farmer, the 140th richest American. Farmer's personal wealth is estimated to be $1.5 billion. For the last year and a half, Cintas's seventeen thousand employees have been the focus of an organizing campaign by Unite-HERE, the new merger of the old garment and hotel workers unions, in alliance with the Teamsters. The campaign has sought to develop support among students, politicians, the Sierra Club, the NAACP, and the religious community. The company, meanwhile, has fought back in the courts, the media, and through the political establishment. In March, I tagged along with the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice on fact-finding visits to Cintas plants in New Haven and Chicago. I wanted to see how the organizing campaign was faring on the ground.

Demographically, the Unite-HERE merger makes sense; both unions represent lower-paid, often newly immigrated workers in the service sector. But there's more going on than that. Unite and HERE are run by high-profile leaders eager to reverse organized labor's nearly fatal decline. In the past twenty years the percentage of workers in unions has fallen from about 20 to 13 percent. While 40 percent of public employees are organized, the portion of private employees in unions has dropped from a high of 33 percent in 1955 to less than 9 percent today.

Nonetheless, polls show that most Americans think unions are good for their members and for the economy. The latest Labor Day Gallup Poll found the union approval rating at 65 percent, up from 58 percent the year before. But, if we think it's such a good idea, why aren't more of us in unions?

One reason is that it is much harder to unionize an unorganized workplace than most of us realize. Workers have the right to join a union if they wish, but over the last fifty years that right has been narrowed by Congress and the courts until it is now amounts to the right to request a union recognition vote. Such an election can then be postponed while management pressures and proselytizes on the job, usually with the aid of professional union-busting consultants. And then even if the election is held and won, the results can be contested and tied up in court for years.

In Canada, on the other hand, union participation has remained around 30 percent. There, the law limits managerial interference in union drives and "card check" recognition is common. Card check is a process in which only a majority of employees have to sign cards saying they want a union in order to have one. In the United States, card check was part of the original New Deal National Labor Relations Act, but was eliminated in 1947 by the Taft-Hartley Act. The recently introduced Kennedy-Miller Employee Free Choice Act would reinstate card-check recognition and tighten penalties on employer interference, but the bill has little chance of passing. Even with 30 Senators and 183 Representatives cosponsoring, the legislation languishes in Congress and has received little attention outside the labor media. Who is going to tell the nonunionized 87 percent of the workforce that Congress is even considering a card-check bill?

Labor has placed its bets on legislation before, but did so when unions were in a position of strength. In the current climate, unions must increase their visibility and influence in order to pass legislation that will increase their visibility and influence. That is the challenge facing Unite's Bruce Raynor, who will head Unite-HERE. Raynor led the successful decades-long fight to organize the J. P. Stevens textile workers. HERE's John Wilhelm, who many believe will succeed John Sweeney as president of the AFL-CIO, led a similar fight to unionize Las Vegas hotels and casinos in the 1990s. Both organizing efforts were extended drives in the private sector that actively sought community support.

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