State Of The Union: The New Face Of Labor

13 November 2003

By Stentor Danielson

The new face of the American labor movement has been on prominent display recently, influencing presidential politics and facing down supermarket chains that hoped to cut employee benefits.

Organized labor usually brings to mind an image of workers in steel plants and car factories, the traditional heavy industry. This is where labor got its start, and the base from which it commanded support from the Democratic party through most of the past century. But this sector of labor has become, in part, a victim of its own success, as companies are motivated to find ways to make their products without paying union members a comfortable wage. The usual complaint is that the jobs are going to countries like Mexico and China that give businesses a free hand to exploit their workforce. What's less commonly noted is that some jobs -- 22 million of them around the world, including big losses in developing countries, since 1995 -- are simply disappearing, eliminated by increases in productivity.

With the manufacturing sector declining, the labor movement has turned to a new base in the service sector. Service sector jobs, such as janitors and teachers, are less easily exported or downsized. This shift is clearly reflected in developments in the Democratic presidential campaign.

Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt has been a longtime friend of organized labor, and was counting on union support to propel him to victory against his challengers for the party's nomination. But he has suffered two major setbacks. First, the United Auto Workers -- one of the biggest manufacturing unions and key to Gephardt's strategy in the Michigan primary -- declined to endorse a candidate. This reveals dissention within the union, as well as reinforces its loss of political clout.

Then, two new service sector unions stepped up to the role of Democratic kingmaker. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has decided to endorse former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) is expected to follow suit. Dean, with his innovative internet and grassroots based campaign, represents to many the new face of the party. The SEIU and AFSCME endorsements will give his overwhelmingly white and middle-class campaign much-needed credibility among minorities and the working class. With those two unions' politically active memberships stumping for Dean, many observers now think the former long shot candidate now has a lock on the nomination.

When they aren't shaping the course of presidential politics, the service unions are doing some old-fashioned fighting for workers' rights. The highest-profile example at the moment is a strike against three southern California grocery chains.

Just over a month ago, 21,000 members of the grocery workers' union at Vons went on strike. Managers at Ralphs and Albertsons, two other grocery chains, locked out their 49,000 workers to show solidarity with Vons. In response, the workers picketed all 859 stores operated by the three companies, urging customers to show their support for the strike and hit the companies in their pocketbooks by not shopping at the affected supermarkets. Friday, union leaders disbanded the picket lines at Ralphs. They explained that their real quarrel was with Vons, and that Ralphs had been the most receptive of the three stores to union demands. This move will hopefully divide the store managers' solidarity.

For the most part, shoppers have been obliging. Some -- including some enthusiastic Dean supporters -- have even brought refreshments and other support to the picket lines. Yet the union no doubt sensed that customer patience was wearing thin after a month of restricted shopping choices. By easing the burden of choosing a non-picketed store, the strikers may gain more sympathy for the remaining pickets. It remains possible that management could simply wait out the strikers.

The main issue at stake in the strike is health care. Complaining that its profits are too weak to sustain current benefit levels, Vons has demanded that workers shoulder more of the cost of health care. The AFL-CIO, a national union umbrella organization, has shot back with an analysis showing that poor management decisions are at the heart of Vons' dropping profits, so shifting the health care burden onto cash-strapped workers won't save the ship. If the stores get their way, many workers will be forced to go without adequate health care, or look to public support from the already nearly bankrupt California and federal governments.

Beyond the immediate concerns of next year's contracts, the grocery strike is a battle that will help to shape how management and labor relate to each other in the increasingly important service sector. A victory for the workers will set the country on a path toward respectable treatment and livable wages for service employees, much as the victories of manufacturing unions earlier this century helped to define the terms on which subsequent manufacturing employers and employees made their contracts.

There's reason for some optimism in California. A similar strike in St. Louis ended on Friday, as workers overwhelmingly approved new contracts that included raises and improvements to health care benefits. The St. Louis strike began just days before the California one as workers rejected a contract offer at Stop n' Save, and Dierbergs and Schnucks locked out their employees in solidarity. A federal mediator -- who began secret talks between unions and management in California on Monday -- was able to resolve the situation, much to the relief of both sides as well as customers.

Nevertheless, service sector unions have a long way to go. Many employers, accustomed to paying rock-bottom wages to employees who are relatively powerless, strongly resist any attempts at unionizing. Wal-Mart, for example, is viciously anti-union. Its success depends on ultra-low costs, which in turn depend on squeezing its workers' wages. The chain was recently busted for hiring illegal immigrants, who -- due to the fear of being found by the authorities -- are in no position to demand the decent pay and workplace rights that citizens are entitled to. Overall unionization rates are low -- only 13.2 percent of all wage and salary workers in 2002 were union members, and a mere 8.5 percent in the private sector were -- and falling. Organized labor has its work cut out for it if it wants to become a powerful force in the economy and politics of the nation.

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