September 2, 1996
Union membership may be down in the 90's, but some workers' groups are still trying to improve their labor lot by unionizing. Betty Ann Bowser reports from one such factory.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: "We can do it," shouted a group of factory workers as Elissa McBride cheered them on. McBride's part of a new wave of union organizers--young, college-educated, bilingual, and female--that the AFL-CIO is banking on to resurrect an ailing labor movement.
ELISSA McBRIDE, Unite Organizer: The most important thing, companeros, is that between now and Thursday you've got to talk to everyone.
|Pounding the pavement|
BETTY ANN BOWSER: McBride spent three months to get the 400 workers at the Hope Webbing plants in Rhode Island to join her union, Unite. These workers, who make textiles for car interiors, have never before been asked to join a union. The fight at Hope Webbing is part of a larger campaign targeting such traditionally non-union work places.
SPOKESMAN: I turn this gavel over to the next president of the AFL-CIO, John Sweeney.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The man behind the push for new members is John Sweeney, the new president of the AFL-CIO.
JOHN SWEENEY, President, AFL-CIO: If you're going to truly represent workers, you have to respond to their needs and to their pressures, and as aggressive and ambitious way as you possibly can.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The aggressive union battles start here at the Organizing Institute, a school that recruits and trains organizers.
SPOKESPERSON: This is the war. This is what we call sort of the race to the worker. Either we get there--
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Before Sweeney, the federation was spending $400,000 to train organizers. This year, it spent $4 million. And within the next two years, that figure could jump to $20 million. McBride says the effort has succeeded in bringing new kinds of organizers into the labor movement.
ELISSA McBRIDE: The labor movement has become the place to fight for basic rights, for basic economic rights but also for basic rights to free speech, for basic civil rights, and I think a lot of our people are seeing the possibility of working in the labor movement as a way to fight for those things.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The question is whether the new organizers will be able to bring in new members. One of the places to look for answers is Hope Webbing, where veteran organizer McBride workers side by side with Organizing Institute graduates like Melissa Bangs. Wide-eyed and full of enthusiasm, 24-year-old Melissa Bangs went door to door selling Hope Webbing workers on what the union could do for them.
MELISSA BANGS, Unite Organizer: People in many sectors and communities in this country have been pushed down far enough and long enough that their rightful organizing.
|Looking at the issues|
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The main issue for the Hope Webbing workers is a very traditional one--wages. Jorge Carvhall, who works thinning wire at Hope Webbing, helped Bangs talk to fellow workers. He makes $5.60 an hour and thinks there workers in the plant who deserve more.
JORGE CARVHALL, Hope Webbing Worker: I got a friend that's been working there for 14 years, and when I started, they didn't even give me a raise. I was making more than them, $5.35, I started out with. And I was--I was still making more than him--14 years, I told him, why don't you--why don't you ask for a raise? He doesn't speak the--he doesn't speak English.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Arthur Gonsalves has worked as a mechanic at Hope Webbing for nine years. And he said besides wages and a lack of dental benefits, there is a basic lack of respect for workers. Gonsalves thought that workers needed a union to protect these rights.
ARTHUR GONSALVES, Hope Webbing Worker: They don't talk to us like a person. They talk to us like enemies. When my son was six--sick, I used to take Sundays off to take care of my son's problem, and they--they fired me once because I told them my family comes first, after my family is the work.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But some workers at Hope Webbing felt a union wasn't necessary. Pedro Gomes had worked in a shop before that had a union. He doesn't think paying union dues is worth it.
PEDRO GOMES, Hope Webbing Worker: You pay $5 every week and what do you get out of it? Nothing. If a supervisor gives me a problem, you know, I talk to him straight out because I'm man to man. And, uh, so far, you know, I've had no problems with any one of them supervisors.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Hope Webbing is a privately held company whose sales reached 28 million last year. The president of Hope Webbing, Bruce Houser, refused to go on camera but told the NewsHour that "unions, in my opinion, make you less competitive." In memos to the employees, the company said, "These professional union organizers care nothing for Hope or your job security. They only see our company as employing hundreds of employees who could be paying union dues to the union each month. "We intend to do everything within our legal power to keep Unite out of our plant."
Shortly after the union began its drive to organize Hope Webbing workers, 25 employees, including an employee of the month, were laid off. The union claims the majority of the laid-off workers had been active in supporting the union. Rosa Lopez wore a union button inside the plant. She was also laid off. Just days before they let her go, she had been in the lunch room looking at union leaflets and talking to fellow workers about the union.
ROSA LOPEZ, Hope Webbing Worker: (speaking through interpreter) In the lunch room, management was telling me that they were going to fire me for being in favor of the union.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Hope Webbing's president, Bruce Houser, claims none of the layoffs had anything to do with union activity. He said the company lost a very big contract and had to lay off workers. Layoffs during a union drive are not uncommon. In one out of every four union elections, layoffs occur. If employers are found guilty of using layoffs to penalize workers for union activities, they must give them their jobs back and pay back wages. Kate Bronfenbrenner, a professor at Cornell's School of Industrial Relations, said these new organizing efforts face new roadblocks because of what she sees as weak labor laws.
KATE BRONFENBRENNER, Cornell University: It's not a level playing field out there. It is tipped to such an extreme towards management that workers are slipping off the surface. If employers lie, if they threaten to close plants, umm, the greatest penalty is a slap in the wrist.
|Who has the advantage?|
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But Dan Yager argues that unions have the advantage. He is with the Labor Policy Research Association, a group that represents over 200 Fortune 500 companies. Their position is that the National Labor Relations Board, the government agency that oversees union elections, is highly partisan and pro-union.
DAN YAGER, Labor Policy Association: The employees will vote. They will--and the union will vote it and have a strong vote against the union. NLRB will come in and find some technical flaws on the part of the employer, and they'll order another election. It's like they'll keep ordering the same, the same group of workers to keep voting until it's like--until you folks get it right and elect this union, we're not going to go away.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: On the morning of the election, McBride was worried about whether she had enough votes, even though 70 percent of the work force had signed union cards over the course of the campaign.
ELISSA McBRIDE: Yesterday was a great day, but, umm, today may be a little bit tougher, and--
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Tougher, she says, because of company activity. Even before the election results were known, she filed over 34 charges against the company with the National Labor Relations Board.
ELISSA McBRIDE: (on phone) Yeah. It's okay. I just wanted to talk to you about how to word a charge.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: On the night of the election, organizers and workers embraced. The mood in the union camp was upbeat.
(CAR SCREECHING TO HALT)
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Then a car with one of the workers screeched to a halt. The driver yelled out Hope Webbing had won. The mood changed. And Jorge Carvhall fought back tears.
ELISSA McBRIDE: It's important to know this is not the end.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Two hundred and twenty-nine workers voted against the union, and only one hundred and nineteen voted for the union, with sixty contested votes. Even if the contested votes were pro-union, it would not have given the union a majority. McBride tried to rally the troops with the hope that the election could be overturned because of violations committed by the company. But she knew it might take months for the charges to wind their way through court.
ELISSA McBRIDE: I feel like the workers do, you know, that we're tried, we're frustrated, but they're in it for the long haul, and if they're in it for the long haul, then I'm definitely in it for the long haul because that's what keeps me going is their willingness to keep on fighting.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Despite the fact that the effort to unionize Hope Webbing failed, Kate Bronfenbrenner thinks these efforts represent a critical juncture for the labor movement.
KATE BRONFENBRENNER: It compares to the 30's when the resurgence, the most significant resurgence of the labor movement occurred when the Congress of Industrial Organizations started organizing industrial workers and moved from just organizing skilled craft unions to organizing industrial unions on a massive scale in auto, in steel, in electronics industry. And this is a similar juncture in American history.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Labor economist Leo Troy thinks the new organizing efforts are doomed to fail, not just because workers like those at Hope Webbing will reject the movement, but because unions are irrelevant to most of the new jobs being created.
LEO TROY, Labor Economist: The market is generating more jobs amongst occupations which have historically been non-union and remain non-union and very difficult to organize, so the market is moving in one direction, a direction of growth amongst those occupations which unions have had the least success.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: This was McBride's first loss. In the past few years, she has spearheaded six different organizing campaigns. She'll be going next to Ohio, trying to organize 1500 workers at a packaging warehouse.