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Sunday, September 25, 2005 - Page updated at 04:08 PM

Labor's new frontier Service sector demands new organizing tactics

Seattle Times business reporter

As the Boeing Machinists strike enters its fourth week, unions representing a much larger constituency are gearing up for their own effort: Bringing a movement born in the factories of the industrial age to the 21st-century service economy.

It won't be easy. Like the rest of the nation, the state's service sector — which employs people who do things rather than make things — is spread out in office buildings, institutions and homes from Vancouver to Bellingham. The labor force is composed of store clerks, hotel maids, landscapers and receptionists. They work in small local businesses and large corporations with faraway headquarters.

They earn on average $39,000 a year compared with the $43,000 for workers in what economists label the "goods-producing" (and often unionized) industries — manufacturing, construction, agriculture, mining or logging.

These workers also represent the fastest-growing segment of Washington's economy. While goods producers lost 17,000 jobs since 1990, service employers added 625,000. At the same time, union membership has declined in the state's private sector, from 22 percent in 1983 to about 13 percent today.

Led by the Service Employees International Union, the rebel organization that defected from the AFL-CIO earlier this summer, reform-minded labor leaders say the only way to keep the movement from becoming extinct in this changing economy is to overhaul it.

"If you're told that a company had the same product line and corporate structure in 2005 as it had in 1955, you could probably conclude that the company is failing," says David Rolf, president of SEIU's Local 775, which represents 26,000 long-term caregivers in Washington.

He echoes his boss, Andrew Stern, who presides over the 1.8 million-member national SEIU.

Stern was the architect of the biggest labor shake-up in more than 50 years when his and three other unions bolted from the AFL-CIO, taking a third of the federation's membership with them.

The unions set up a rival group, the Change to Win Coalition, that now includes laborers, carpenters and farmworkers unions; the Teamsters; United Food and Commercial Workers and UniteHere, which represents hotel and textile workers.

To build their numbers, reform leaders are suggesting dramatic changes:

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Reorganize organizing

When manufacturing dominated the economy, unions could organize around a single large employer such as Boeing or Ford — which had concentrated work forces and few competitors — and labor could exercise considerable clout.

Service businesses, on the other hand, have a dispersed work force and lots of competitors. A campaign targeting a single employer puts that company at a disadvantage against others with lower labor costs.

"You've got to really organize by industry to have any power to make changes," says Kim Cook, president of SEIU's Local 925, representing 14,000 classified employees in early education.

To win over key employers, SEIU promises that a union won't be created unless more than half their competitors also agree.

SEIU used that method, combined with some old-fashioned picketing, to organize 70 percent of the janitors in northern New Jersey, more than doubling their wages to more than $11 an hour, according to a New York Times Magazine profile of Stern written in January.

Consolidate

The leaders that broke away from AFL-CIO claim the labor movement can't gain clout under its current structure, which has dozens of unions representing slices of the work force too small to effect much change.

"I remember going to a meeting a couple of years ago with Providence Health Systems," Rolf says. "There were people from the laborers [union], office workers, SEIU locals, independent state nurses association, operating engineers. There must have been 10 unions in that room that represented workers in one specific company."

The rival coalition, Change to Win, wants to merge unions around industry sectors such as health care, security or waste management.

The philosophy has already stirred controversy and turf battles. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees charged that SEIU was trying to raid members in California, Pennsylvania and other states. "The last thing we need is to compete for existing members," the national union wrote in a statement critical of the Change to Win coalition.

This past Monday the two unions made peace and agreed to fight for members in California and Pennsylvania.

Rick Bender, who heads the Washington State Labor Council, doubts that voluntary mergers will come anytime soon.

"These internationals are not going to give up these people they represent."

Think like a business

Rolf sprinkles his speech with terms like "market share," "product lines" and "strategic leverage."

Business principles infuse the rebel unions' strategies, both in organizing campaigns and also internally.

Under Stern's guidance, SEIU has adopted what have been traditionally corporate practices: viral marketing (the president himself has a Web log), media PR blitzes and image branding, visible on every SEIU local Web site and in the union's signature purple apparel.

In re-engineering the movement, the leaders are posing the kinds of questions asked in business schools.

"What's our product line for the 21st century?" Rolf asks. "If you could build a labor movement from scratch, what would it look like? What's our role in upscaling workers so they have more choices? What's our role in globalizing that looks different than, 'let's defeat globalizaton'?"

They're asking why union management, rather than shop stewards, is spending the bulk of its time handling grievances brought by the small percentage of workers who have problems on the job. And they're asking: "Why are we married to the Democrats?"

"Any sort of monopoly party strategy in a two-party system means that half the time you don't have any friends to talk to. We should be invading the Republican Party the same way that Republicans invaded the Democratic Party a few years ago," Rolf says.

They're also prepared to turn on Democrats who don't support them. When state Rep. Helen Sommers, a pro-labor Democrat and head of the House Appropriations Committee, wanted to deny raises to home-care workers, SEIU and the Washington State Labor Council stunned Olympia by backing her opponent, Democratic activist Alice Woldt. Sommers won re-election, but labor's message was clear.

Revive union populism

If business-style innovation represents one side of the reform coin, the familiar push for social justice occupies the flip side.

SEIU hopes to revive the class-struggle sentiment that gave labor unions their fire in the 1930s.

Union locals in Washington held a spate of old-style campaigns in the past two years, picketing Swedish Medical Center, pushing for bargaining rights for in-home day-care providers, calling a strike against Group Health Cooperative, and most recently rallying for the striking Boeing Machinists.

The campaigns have carried a militancy not seen in recent years. During the 2003 and 2004 legislative sessions, SEIU disrupted Olympia's usual civility when advocating raises for long-term care contractors, who were granted collective-bargaining rights through an SEIU-backed voters' initiative.

Led by Rolf, members held rallies with protesters clad in the union's signature purple. They chanted songs blasting lawmakers, held a vigil at former Senate Majority Leader Jim West's Spokane home and even persuaded a former caregiver of West's mother to scold the senator.

The confrontations angered the Republicans and offended the Democrats.

"They forget we're real people," a frustrated Democrat, Sen. Darlene Fairley, told The Associated Press near the end of 2003's contentious session.

In the end, SEIU got the raises.

The unions' recent victories, however, have largely taken place in the public sector, the "low-hanging fruit" for organizers, since government agencies are ostensibly less hostile to unions than private employers.

The real test of modern labor's effectiveness will take place in the private industry with employer resistance and, in some cases, an apathetic work force.

Marcus Courtney, founder of the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, has tried to organize tech workers since 1998 with little luck.

Despite efforts at Microsoft, Amazon.com, RealNetworks and Washington Mutual, the union can only claim about 500 members.

"There's legitimate criticism to be leveled at the American labor movement to not reaching out to new types of workers and understanding the changes taking place in the economy," Courtney says. "But at the same time you can't blame the entire decline of the American labor movement on labor. There are employers who have tremendous power to delay the ability of workers to organize."

Many companies now employ "union-avoidance specialists," and the workers themselves — many of them under 30 and beneficiaries of pay and perks won by earlier generations — are often skeptical about what a union can do for them that they can't do themselves.

"We don't care for class war and Union Yes! posters," a labor-relations student at Cornell University wrote on the Seattle Times.com opinion blog, responding to a debate over the future of organized labor.

"What we want to know is how having an organized voice is better than having profit sharing, how seniority is more valuable than performance bonuses, and how security is better than mobility."

Courtney, Rolf and others are aware that coming battles include winning not only the hearts and minds of employers, but in some cases the employees, too.

For them, Rolf offers a word of caution: "Anything enlightened management grants can be taken away."

Shirleen Holt: 206-464-8316 or sholt@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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