Winning Is Possible: Successful Union Organizing in the United States-Clear Lessons, Too Few Examples. (Labor vs. Bush)

Article excerpt

THE U.S. MANUFACTURING SECTOR, and the U.S. labor movement, are in a state of crisis.

Not only did overall employment in manufacturing industries fall by 1.8 million jobs between January 1997 and December 2001, but a disproportionate share of those employment losses were concentrated among union workers. In just five years, the labor movement lost nearly 10 percent of its manufacturing sector membership, and there is no end in sight.

Never before have unions in manufacturing faced such large, powerful and globally connected corporations opposed to organizing. Not since the 1920s have unions faced such unfettered government support for corporate interests and disregard, if not outright antipathy, for the rights and interests of workers and unions.

This crisis goes beyond any individual industry or union. Instead it is one that impacts the entire labor movement. Membership gains by service and public sector unions have been nullified by membership losses in manufacturing. These losses translate into the continuing decline in union density, and the decrease in both political power and bargaining power that union density provides, for all unions, not just those in the manufacturing sector.

Despite the urgency of the crisis, industrial unions have yet to make the organizing gains necessary to stem the rising tide of de-unionization in the U.S. manufacturing sector.

Across the manufacturing sector, the number of elections, the percent of elections won and the percent of workers in organized units continue to decline. By 2001, there were only 501 National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) elections in the manufacturing sector for the whole year, involving 76,438 workers, of which only 12,813 workers, 17 percent, were in units where the election was won. Unlike their counterparts in communications, construction, hospitality, laundries and building services, almost none of the unions organizing in manufacturing are gaining new members through card check recognition outside of the NLRB process. So there are only a small number of newly organized workers from non-Board campaigns to add on to those organized under the NLRB.

Juxtaposed against the 615,000 union manufacturing jobs lost since 1997, including the 164,000 jobs lost in 2001 alone) the 13,000 workers who gained union representation in 2001 under a first contract made an almost insignificant dent in the burgeoning union membership losses in the manufacturing sector.

Unions in other sectors have done much better. While unions organizing in the service sector have made relatively small gains in the context of the massive employment increases in those industries, at least they continue to grow.

The bar is higher for unions organizing in manufacturing for multiple reasons.

First and foremost, they are organizing among the largest, most mobile and most powerful multinational corporations in the world. These are firms that have the resources and the sophistication to stop union campaigns before they even get off the ground, the global capacity to shut down, sell off, contract out or move operations out of the country to remain "union free," and the kinds of ownership structures that are least vulnerable to public pressure and regulatory restraint.

Although more diverse than in the past, the majority of manufacturing workers continue to be white, male and native born, the demographic groups least receptive to unions in the more hostile private sector organizing environment.

And, with new massive layoffs and plant closings being announced each day, these are the workers who are most vulnerable to employer threats of discharge, layoff or plant shutdown.

Unions win recognition elections in the manufacturing sector only 29 percent of the time [a 29 percent "win rate"], even in those relatively rare instances where there is only minimal employer opposition to the union campaign. …