A New Union Wave Gathers Momentum in California Largest Organizing Election since 1941 Boosts Flagging Membership ofAFL-CIO, Signals a New Tactic

By Daniel B. Wood, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, March 15, 1999 | Go to article overview

A New Union Wave Gathers Momentum in California Largest Organizing Election since 1941 Boosts Flagging Membership ofAFL-CIO, Signals a New Tactic


Daniel B. Wood, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


At 8 a.m., Cecilia Rivas arrives at the ninth-floor apartment of elderly retiree Bert MacLeech. She repeats the same routine she has completed nearly every day since 1987 - fixing breakfast, helping him bathe and dress, cleaning his apartment, and running errands.

For 140 hours a month (about 4-1/2 hours a day), the single mother of two receives minimum wage - $5.75 per hour - without benefits such as vacation or health insurance. Within weeks, though, all that will change - for her and 74,000 other home-care workers.

Capping a decade-long organizing drive that resulted in the largest union election in modern US history, such workers will likely earn $7 or more an hour and receive benefits they have never had. In a victory many observers are calling a landmark for organized labor after decades of downturn, workers last month voted to join the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). "I believe the history books will show {that this} triumph will play as important a role in American history as the mass organizing drives in the 1930s," says John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, the umbrella organization for 88 unions. Indeed, during all of last year AFL-CIO member unions added only 100,000 members nationwide. Now, in one vote, 74,000 more have come into the fold - the largest union election since Ford Motor Co. auto workers formed a union in 1941. It also highlights what national organizers say is their primary strategy for the next millennium: Target low-wage minority and immigrant workers in an economy that is changing from manufacturing to service. "This represents a US labor movement doing its best at what it must do - unite women, minorities, people of color," says Kate Bronfenbrenner, a labor economist at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y. She notes that the percentage of the American workers that are union members has been falling steadily since the 1950s, despite increased moves to halt the trend in the 1980s. Today, AFL-CIO membership is at just more than 13 million, slightly more than the 12.6 million members the federation had in 1955. Part of the problem has been the huge growth of low-wage jobs such as home workers, janitors, and cashiers. Such workers are hard to organize because they have no one workplace such as the plants of old, when union organizers could stand in a parking lot or shop floor to attract a crowd or pass out leaflets. So in Los Angeles, the vote was achieved by armies of workers like Ms. Rivas, who went door-to-door in barrios, schools, and shopping malls. The whole process took more than a decade, with the first organizing meeting convened on Oct. 17, 1987. "This represents a major boost to the labor movement when it needed it most, when everyone is wondering if it can still commit organized American workers into unions," says Ms. …

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