In the Land of the Alamo, Unions Are Making a Stand with Membership Falling, Organized Labor Looks to the South Forgrowth - and Texas Is the Biggest Prize

Article excerpt

There's an unusual word entering conversations in citrus orchards and computer factories from the Red River to the Rio Grande: unionize.

Since the Industrial Revolution, when American unionism began in the far-off mills and craft shops of the Northeast, the South has been something of a frontier for organized labor. Fended off first by the region's agrarian economy, and more recently by its conservative values, the labor movement has yet to make substantial inroads among Southern workers.

But the region is changing. Industries such as high-tech factories and telephone call-in centers are bringing more women and minorities into the work force, and many unions are turing to the South to rejuvenate flagging membership nationwide. And with Texas' enormous nonunionized work force - only 6.7 percent of state workers are union members - it is the biggest prize this side of the Mason-Dixon line. "There has long been this individualistic attitude among Texans that's made it difficult for unions to expand. But the state is changing and people are moving in," says Julius Getman, a University of Texas law professor who follows the labor movement. "Minorities and women tend to be more favorable to unions than the white males who had made up the unions' membership before. And the labor movement has been making sincere efforts to recruit minorities and women." For union activist Rebecca Flores Harrington, the sooner unions take hold in Texas, the better. As Southwest field director for the AFL-CIO, Mrs. Harrington will help member unions pour millions of dollars into training union organizers and conducting elections in nonunion shops statewide. The work will be hard, she admits. After all, Texas has long been the toughest nut to crack in the antiunion South - in part because of its "right-to-work" laws, which let workers reject unions more easily. "The truth of the matter is that companies have a lot of power in Texas; they can almost do anything they want to you," says Harrington, a former United Farm Workers organizer. "One of the things we are going to have to do is make it known that we do have a right to organize." Labor militancy can crop up in some surprising places, such as the prestigious halls of learning at the University of Texas in Austin. There, pay for the average custodial or office worker hovered just above minimum wage, while salaries for tenured professors and executives skyrocketed to compete with some of the top corporations in the country. Last spring, employees formed the University of Texas Staff Association, and after a number of rallies and marches, they won a small pay raise in June, from $5.57 an hour to $6.73. Emboldened by their success, the 130-member group plans to keep fighting for a "living wage" of $8.93 and better job security. But first, they will have to hold their fractious group together. "There's a huge conservative population among the staff, so when I use the word 'solidarity,' they've got a problem with that, and when I say 'fight,' they've got a problem with that," says Peg Kramer, an adviser at the UT School of Social Work and president of the staff association. …


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