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Week of 12.15.06

Interview: Kate Bronfenbrenner on American Labor Unions

Kate Bronfenbrenner Kate Bronfenbrenner is the Director of Labor Education Research for Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations

NOW: How have labor unions changed in the past decade?

Bronfenbrenner: The big change is that unions are organizing in the service sector, meaning hotel employees, home care workers, janitors and healthcare workers, for example. As manufacturing jobs have been increasingly outsourced, more jobs have gone to low-wage service sector workers.

There's also been a change in gender and demographics. The workers in the 1930s were mostly immigrant workers from eastern and southern Europe. Today the workers who are organizing are immigrants from Asia, Latin America, and African-American workers and they're overwhelmingly women.

NOW: Is this because of the increased focus on the service sector?

Bronfenbrenner: No, it's because women and workers of color are more likely to vote for unions. Women are more likely to make gains by social networks, as are workers of color.

NOW: Do unions today by and large represent low-wage workers?

Bronfenbrenner: Well, they're organizing more professional workers than ever before and many are women. In fact, professional women workers represent one of the fastest-growing segments of the workforce and the labor movement. Today, women increasingly dominate professions such as health care, law, social services, and education. These are also sectors where there has been a great deal of organizing activity: among adjunct faculty and graduate students in public universities, nurses and other professional workers in hospitals and nursing homes, researchers, agency staff, librarians and social workers in state and local government, and, of course, teachers in elementary and secondary schools.

NOW: Are unions as strong today as they were in the past?

Bronfenbrenner: There's no question they've lost power, but they have the potential to fight back. They had high union density in the 1950s and they missed their chance. Then the oil crisis happened in the 1970s and labor costs needed to be cut and employers started fighting unions. But by the late 1980s and early 1990s, unions were fighting back, winning major strikes and lockouts at Pittston Coal, Ravenswood Aluminum, UPS, and Bridgestone Firestone. They chalked up organizing gains among health care workers, janitors, public sector workers, hotel workers, and textile and garment workers.

NOW: Some suggest that unions are no longer relevant. What would you say?

Bronfenbrenner: To get the answer to that all you have to do is look at the last election cycle where unions led the way in shifting the focus in the last election cycle away from wedge issues towards health care, economics, and the toll the war was taking in Iraq and at home. And unions in the U.S. and around the globe have become much more effective in building local, national, and international coalitions to take on the world's largest multinationals in organizing and bargaining campaigns. So no, they are not irrelevant, they just face greater challenges than ever, and need to work even harder to organize and bargain more strategically and on a grander scale than ever before.

NOW: In terms of their power, what do you expect in the future?

Bronfenbrenner: The future for the U.S. labor movement depends on whether they can find common ground between the two federations - the AFL-CIO and Change to Win—to work jointly on issues that matter most, such as challenging the neo-liberal trade and financial agendas, national health care, increasing the minimum wage, and mounting industry and company-wide organizing campaigns. Unions are beginning to organize globally. So now the steelworkers union is helping oil workers organize in Nigeria and mining workers organize in Mexico. And the list goes on.

NOW: How have union's tactics changed in recent years?

Bronfenbrenner: They are being more strategic, doing more research, bringing more women and people of color on staff, and building more coalitions with community groups, civil rights organizations, environmental groups and other stakeholders in the industry or the company.

NOW: What's the difference between labor unions in the North and in the South?

Bronfenbrenner: There's been a perception that workers in the South are resistant to unions. It's not true. Win rates are higher in the South than they are in the North. Of course, "red" states are more politically hostile to unions. But, when it comes down to organizing in a workplace, politicians are less important. And part of the reason red states have been more hostile is that unions have not done more organizing. Once unions go down to these states and organize, then red states have a way of turning into "blue" states because these are the states with the highest concentration of African American voters who are much more likely to vote for a union.

NOW: How did unions fare in November's mid-term elections?

Bronfenbrenner: Members of the unions went door to door, focused on the issues, and union households turned out at a much higher rate for Democrats. The candidates who came out and won are the ones that had union campaigns, for example in Michigan, California and Pennsylvania. Candidates were talking about healthcare, about the environment, and the union drove it. Their power is much greater than their numbers; they are the ones who led the fight for minimum wage, for immigrant rights. Because they lead those fights, the public feels like they would be better off with a union.

Related Links:

» NOW: Minimum Wedge

» NOW: Janitors for Justice

» AFL-CIO

» Change to Win

» Cornell University: Union Organizing Among Professional Women Workers