More organizing needed to increase labor's power

Three thousand new workers joined Oregon unions last year, Oregon AFL-CIO President Tim Nesbitt told a statewide conference of organizers Aug. 9 - and that's not enough. That's because the workforce is growing even faster.

Union density - the percentage of unionized workers in the workforce - is declining both nationally and in Oregon. Unless that decline is reversed, Nesbitt said, the power of unions in the workplace and in the political arena will continue to decline.

"There's been a lot of ground lost in the last 20 years, and it's going to take a lot of effort to regain that ground," Nesbitt said.

Just to stay at the same percentage of the workforce, Oregon unions need to organize 4,649 workers a year. At its June 2000 convention, the Oregon AFL-CIO committed to a two-year organizing goal of 17,000 new members under contract. Fourteen months later, affiliated unions have added 12 new full-time organizers (bringing the total to 64) and 3,340 newly-organized workers have their first contract. About 2,400 will be under contract in June 2002 if organizing continues at the same pace. Add to that 12,000 workers, if a Service Employees International Union campaign among home-care workers succeeds, and the state federation will have met its goal. But these gains are partially erased, Nesbitt said, when job loss among union employers is factored in. A year after the organizing resolution, union employers had eliminated 1,000 more jobs than they created, particularly in the aluminum, chemical, and wood products industries.

In Nesbitt's view, echoed by academic and union experts at the conference, unions will have to think strategically to reverse their decline. That will mean organizing where the workers are.

Unions will not increase unless they focus on the growing sectors of the economy, said Margaret Hallock, director of the Wayne Morse Center for Law and Politics at the University of Oregon.

"The economy is growing away from union strengths," Hallock said.

Unions are strongest in government sector and in manufacturing, two areas that are shrinking. And they're weakest in the three fastest-growing sectors of the economy - high tech, services and retail. In Oregon, over half of all union members work in government, education and health care, sectors that account for one-quarter of the overall workforce.

Nationally, union density is down to 13.5 percent of the workforce, Hallock said.

That is important, Hallock said, because union density equals power.

"The union goal has always been to take wages out of competition," Hallock said. "When you have high density, you have pattern agreements."

If unions focus on organizing growing industries, their membership will grow with the industry.

One strategy to achieve that, and a focus of this year's conference, is to organize immigrant workers.

"Immigrant workers are increasingly part of the Oregon workforce," said Lynn-Marie Crider, Oregon AFL-CIO research and education director. Crider said the United States is experiencing a wave of immigration that has resulted in the highest proportion of foreign-born residents since the 1890s.

"Employers exploit immigrants in order to break unions," said Emile Jorgenson, organizer with SEIU Local 49. "But immigrants know they're exploited, and will fight back and win."

August 24, 2001 issue

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