New York Times

Union Leaders See Grim News in Labor Study

October 13, 1999

LOS ANGELES -- After years of blithely ignoring the decline of organized labor, the A.F.L.-C.I.O. is force-feeding union leaders a heavy dose of bad news -- that job growth is fastest in industries where unions are weakest while job losses are greatest in industries where unions are strongest.

The news came in a study commissioned by the A.F.L.-C.I.O. as a wake-up call to union leaders across the nation to organize or see the labor movement continue its decades-long decline.

The study, which was made public last week and is being discussed at the A.F.L.-C.I.O. convention here this week, also shows that the fastest-growing metropolitan areas, like Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Miami and Phoenix, tended to have the lowest percentage of workers in unions. And the slowest-growing metropolitan areas, including Chicago and New York, which has 13 percent of the nation's union members, tended to have the highest percentage of workers in unions. "In overall terms, the economy is moving against us," said David Chu, the labor federation's director of strategic research and the official who was in charge of the study.

For decades, following the lead of its 68 member unions, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations took little interest in organizing. But distressed about labor's declining numbers and clout, A.F.L.-C.I.O. president John Sweeney has made it take a more forceful role, goading and cajoling the member unions to get more serious about organizing.

Sweeney has said he is worried that as the percentage of workers in unions has plunged to 13.9 percent today, from 35 percent four decades ago, labor's bargaining clout has atrophied, making it easier for employers to hold down wages not just for unionized workers, but for nonunion ones too.

The study found that between 1984 and 1997, the 30 fastest-growing sectors of the economy, including hotels, child-care, finance, retail trade and airlines, added 26 million new jobs, but only one in 20 of workers in those industries joined unions.

The study also showed that in eight industries with the greatest job loss, including steel and auto, four-fifths of the 2.1 million jobs lost belonged to union members. Those jobs were often lost because of competition from imports and because managers moved operations overseas to take advantage of lower-cost labor. "We're somewhat a victim of our own success," Chu said. "Heavily organized industries have high wages and benefits."

Despite Sweeney's calls for more organizing, only a few unions -- most notably the Service Employees International Union and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union -- have aggressively increased their spending on organizing.

In addition, the communication workers' union has begun an uphill fight to organize workers at Microsoft and IBM, while the auto workers' union is stepping up efforts to organize auto parts plants. And with the apparel industry continuing to shed jobs because of imports, the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees is making a big push to unionize the industrial laundry industry, having organized 9,000 laundry workers last year. "It's a major growth industry, and it can't move off shore," said Bruce Raynor, secretary-treasurer of the needletrades union.

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