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