Magazine article Personnel

Are Unions Worth the Bargain?

Magazine article Personnel

Are Unions Worth the Bargain?

Article excerpt

Are Unions Worth The Bargain?

When three dissatisfied Eastman Kodak employees approached Edward E. Young, New York state director of organizing for the International Union of Electrical (IUE) Workers, about unionizing workers at the firm's Rochester headquarters, he was skeptical about such a drive's chances for success. He told these employees he needed a stronger show of support before he would consider organizing a drive.

The workers went back to the plant, drummed up support and, shortly afterwards, Young's office received approximately 1,000 phone calls in favor of a union drive. A subsequent canvass of Kodak's workers uncovered further support. Young attributes this support to structural and managerial changes currently taking place at Kodak. He says, "The timing is right because Kodak is making many changes. They are changing the formula on the famous Kodak bonus, and they almost daily let employees go with no regard to length of service."

The IUE, which stands to gain 30,000 members from Kodak if its bid is successful, is now conducting a major union drive at Kodak. According to Young, the union's strategy is to enlist the support and help of people in every department, build a unionizing committee, and educate these committee members. Thus the bulk of the effort will be internal.

Anti-Union Sentiment

What's happening here? Until very recently unions were in the midst of a membership decline in the United States which, according to Amalgamated Textile & Clothing Workers Union (ACTWU) spokesperson Ron Blackwell, saw union density diminish by more than 50%. (Union density is the percentage of the labor force that belongs to a union.) In the mid-1950s 39% of U.S. workers belonged to a union - in 1970 this number was 30%. Now only 17% of the workforce belongs to a union.

Experts cite the anti-union tone of the Reagan administration and the effect of deindustrialization in the United States as two significant factors contributing to the decline. According to Stephen J. Cabot, a management-labor attorney from Philadelphia, "The Reagan administration created a perception that unions were weak, although this has begun to change with the Bush administration."

Blackwell concurs, "The legal environment of the Reagan years hurt the unions; the anti-labor environment of the 1980s encouraged management opposition."

On the effect of deindustrialization, Don Delana, spokesperson for the United Steelworkers of America (USWA), says, "With the advent of cheap labor in the Third World countries, U.S. manufacturing corporations have moved much of their operations out of this country." Manufacturing employees have traditionally composed the bulk of union membership in the United States.

Influential Once Again

But in 1989 alone, significant events indicated that the tide might be turning. For example:

* In a three-year contract that Xerox Corporation signed with the ACTWU last March, the company promised to restore cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs), to increase profit-sharing percentages from 6.5% of profits to 10% before taxes, and not to lay off employees.

* A settlement between Bethlehem Steel and the USWA restored three paid holidays, gave workers a $1,000 signing bonus, and raised wages immediately by 8%.

* At AT&T the Communications Workers of America (CWA) negotiated a contract that has landmark dependent care provisions (more on this later).

These "victories" are signs of what Cabot calls a mild union resurgence. He says, "The unions are more organized and their workers are better trained." These factors, coupled with increasing employee frustration over the economy, all contribute to the rise in union popularity.

Blackwell agrees, "Recently there have been signs of resurgence because unions are beginning to organize more aggressively and more successfully, even in the South where many felt organizing was impossible. …

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