CHICAGO IL. DEC. 28, 2007
Like an old friend just catching up, Albert Higgins glided through some chit-chat with security officer Georgia Denton and then segued into his message.Would she like to take a more active role in her union?”I would be glad to,” replied Denton, who works at a downtown Chicago office building and is a member of Local 1 of the Service Employees International Union.
In a flash, Wendy Howell, a Local 1 organizer, stepped forward and handed Denton some pamphlets to hand out to fellow Local 1 members and asked her to make sure she reminds them not to miss a coming meeting.It was an ideal encounter for Howell, 27, who has been an organizer for four months, and for Higgins, who has been taking time off from his job as a security officer for a few years to help solidify the local’s ranks and to reach out to non-union security guards.Their work illustrates how organized labor is trying new ways to reach out to members and non-members to overcome the downward spiral that has slashed its share of the U.S. workforce. Labor represents a scant 7.4 percent of the nation’s private workforce and 12 percent overall, the government’s latest figures show. Those are the lowest numbers since the Depression.As a result, organizing is a key union mantra. Besides pumping more money and resources into signing up new members, unions also are diversifying the organizers’ ranks.That means they are using young organizers like Howell, who comes with a short but intense history of political and community organizing. It also means that they are likely to seek more women organizers as well, realizing that females account for a large number of the professional and service industry jobs that they want to organize.So, too, they are likely to continue to turn inward in search of members who can become short-term organizers like Higgins. Unions have learned that workers from the same jobs and backgrounds as those they are can trying to represent often open doors faster than the best-trained organizers.When the AFL-CIO broke apart two years ago, one of the vows made by the heads of UNITE-HERE, which joined the dissident Change to Win Federation, was to increase the union’s organizing, said John Wilhelm, head of the hospitality division for the union created with the merger of the garment and hotel workers unions.”We set a goal in 2004 of spending over 50 percent of our funds on organizing, and now we are close to 55 percent,” Wilhelm said. Previously, the unions spent about one-third of their budgets on organizing, he added.Similarly, the AFL-CIO has taken up the need for more and better organizing efforts, said Stuart Acuff, head of organizing.”We’ve got a long way to go, but we’ve got more unions working to develop organizing capacity than we’ve ever had,” Acuff said. About one-third of the federation’s 55 unions have gained the capacity to run top-notch organizing drives, he said.Unions are almost certain to continue to wage campaigns in industries where they think they can reap new members, such as health care and gaming.Global cooperationConfronted by global companies’ sprawl to the U.S., they also are likely to reach beyond their normal boundaries and traditions, linking up with foreign unions to take on multinational employers.This is a relatively new tactic for U.S. unions, and the 1.5 million member SEIU has put a high priority on gaining global allies.SEIU’s confrontation with the Wackenhut Corp. is a case in point. The nation’s second-largest security guard firm, with 40,000 officers, Wackenhut is an arm of British-based G4S, the world’s largest security firm with more than a half-million employees on six continents.Tom Balanoff, president of Local 1 and a SEIU vice president, said the union has been waging a “national and international campaign” against G4S by linking up with security guard unions around the globe.But the company has also punched back.
Last month, Wackenhut filed a racketeering lawsuit in Florida, challenging the union’s organizing methods, an action SEIU officials claim will not prevail in the courts.Wackenhut claims a winIn Chicago, the local has been battling Wackenhut’s decision not to renew its contract this year with the union for about 65 security guards at the downtown offices of Columbia College and Bank of America.
In a labor law case related to this issue, Wackenhut officials say they have won a significant victory.An administrative law judge for the National Labor Relations Board recently ruled that the Building Owners and Managers Association could not require guards at its downtown Chicago buildings to belong to the SEIU, said Dan Murphy, an attorney for WackenhutThe ruling “opens a rigged market,” said Murphy, adding that Wackenhut decided to drop its ties with the SEIU at the request of workers at the two sites. Under U.S. labor law, a security company can break its ties with a union when their contract expires, he said.”We don’t have a problem if our workers seek out a union,” Murphy said, noting that about one-third of Wackenhut’s guards in the U.S. belong to several small unions that strictly represent guards.The company prefers those unions over one like the SEIU, where workers may have “divided loyalties,” he said.Balanoff said the union is studying the ruling before it makes a decision whether it will file a challenge.”We will continue to bargain with BOMA and, hopefully, with the contractors,” he said.
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