Labor Update: Organizing the New Workforce

Jeremy Brecher


Traditionally, the
majority of American union members have been blue-collar white males. Over the past
quarter-century, this group became a smaller and smaller minority in the workforce, while
other groups—sometimes dubbed “the new workforce”—grew as a percentage
of organized and unorganized workers.

The proportion of
workers who were women started to grow dramatically as married women and women with
children worked more and more outside the home. This shift in part reflected changing
values regarding women’s roles, but in larger part it was a result of the income
squeeze that affected families starting in the 1970s. Despite gaining greater access to
the workplace, women remained concentrated in a few clerical and other white-collar
occupations and received far less pay and job security than men. In 1996, women comprised
39 percent of the membership of AFL-CIO affiliated unions, compared with 22 percent in

The great migration
of African Americans from the rural South to urban areas throughout the nation was
completed in the 1960s. While a small black middle class won access to decent jobs,
schooling, and homes, most African Americans have remained concentrated in industrial and
low-paid service occupations in central cities and, as these declined, became subject to
extremely high levels of unemployment.

Changes in U.S.
immigration law in 1965 permitted a resurgence of immigration to the highest levels since
the early 1920s. While immigrants were of diverse educational and class backgrounds, the
largest numbers came from Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean, and under America’s
peculiar caste system most were defined as people of color. Like previous generations of
immigrants, they formed ethnic communities and found work in the poorest-paid occupations
and industries. In some American cities, more than 100 languages were spoken in public

As women spent an
increasing proportion of their lives in the workforce, blacks left the rural South, and
immigration rebounded, these groups became a growing proportion of the American workforce.
With a shift in employment from goods-producing toward service-producing industries and
from stable, full-time jobs to contingent ones, the traditional industrial strongholds of
the labor movement were decimated. The established labor movement was largely cut off from
these growing segments of the workforce—one of the principal reasons for its decline.
Over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, however, immigrant, minority, and women workers
have begun to develop new approaches to organizing themselves, on their own and in
cooperation with established unions.


9 to 5

One-third of
employed women are office workers, yet only a tiny minority of them are unionized. In the
early 1970s, working women’s organizations sprang up in a number of cities, and in
1977 several of them joined together to found 9 to 5: The National Association of Working
Women. Rooted in the emerging women’s liberation movement, 9 to 5 was a membership
organization designed to improve wages, rights, and respect for office workers. It
combined women’s issues such as discrimination, pay equity, sexual harassment, and
respect with union issues such as higher pay, job posting, and increased benefits.

The organization
developed an “Office Workers’ Bill of Rights.” It publicized the issues of
low pay, poor benefits, and discriminatory treatment and then conducted street actions in
front of large companies with such attractions as the “Heartless Employer Award”
on Valentine’s Day or “Scrooge of the Year” at Christmas. Combining such
campaigns with suits for affirmative action violations won promotions and back-pay awards,
job posting and grievance procedures, raises, and child-care programs.

In addition, 9 to 5
focused on building a working women’s culture different from that of traditional
unionism. It raised issues like sexual harassment, pay equity, day care, family leave, and
contingent work that particularly affected women workers—issues that have gradually
become part of the agenda of the wider labor movement. The organization also worked with
the Service Employees International Union to form a union for office workers, SEIU Local
925. While it has experienced the same difficulties as other unions in organizing new
workers, Local 925 has made a significant impact in developing new models for organizing
women workers.


Yale Clerical and Technical Workers

While Yale
University’s blue-collar workers had been organized since the 1930s, its 2,650 “clerical
and technical” workers—80 percent of them women—were the target of five
unsuccessful organizing drives by five different unions between 1950 and 1982. In 1980,
Local 35 of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union, which represented Yale’s
predominantly male blue-collar workers, decided to launch its own campaign to organize the
white-collar clerical and technical workers. The local twice raised its dues to support an
organizing drive and loaned its business manager, John Wilhelm, to serve as chief
organizer for the new white-collar local, Local 34.

For its first year,
Local 34 issued no literature and didn’t push workers to sign union cards. Instead,
it concentrated on building an organizing committee. Many of the initial organizing
committee members were referred by members of Local 35. The union’s strategy,
according to Wilhelm, was to develop a rank-and-file organizing committee that “knows
what it’s talking about” and is able to gain employees’ trust. Then workers
organized “around the notion that the union is a tool for them to use to deal with
whatever they want to, as opposed to insurance policy unionism, where you say, ‘Well,
if you join the union, you’ll get fifty cents an hour more,’ or ‘If you
join the union, we’ll have good health and welfare.’” Over the course of
several years, Local 34 recruited 450 members to the organizing committee. A steering
committee of 150 met weekly; a “rank-and-file staff” of about 60 people worked
even more intensively. Any union member could serve on any of the committees, as long as
he or she put in the necessary time. When workers came up against hostile supervisors,
they organized petition drives or held small demonstrations in the supervisors’

In May 1983,
workers won a union representation election by less than 51 percent. The union then held
hundreds of small-group meetings and two surveys of all clerical and technical workers to
identify issues for negotiation. A 500-member contract committee developed initial
contract proposals. Yale hired an anti-union law firm, one of whose partners had once said
that it subscribed to “the bomb-them-into-submission school of labor relations.”

The union appealed
for support from students, faculty, and the wider New Haven community. It focused on the
issue of pay equity, analyzing Yale’s salary figures to show that “female
[clerical and technical workers] earn less than males, even though the women have worked
at Yale longer” and that “black employees earn less than white employees, even
though blacks have worked at Yale longer.” The local organized a one-day strike,
dubbed “59-Cent Day,” to draw attention to the fact that, on average, an
American working woman earned only 59 cents for every dollar earned by a man. The union’s
contract campaign was thereby framed as an issue of social justice and of equality for
African Americans and particularly for women.

In September 1984,
two-thirds of Yale’s clerical and technical workers left their jobs. Ninety-five
percent of Yale’s maintenance and service workers honored their picket lines. Dining
rooms were closed, garbage was uncollected, and sympathetic teachers and students moved
hundreds of classes off campus. While the strike disrupted university life, it was not
able to close down the campus, so outside support was crucial. The local labor movement,
the New Haven Black Ministerial Alliance, and the Board of Aldermen gave support to the
strike. So did national leaders, such as AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland, Jesse Jackson,
and Eleanor Smeal. More than 600 people were arrested in two acts of mass non-violent
civil disobedience. Despite threats of retribution from the university administration,
many students, faculty, and other union supporters participated in a three-day “moratorium”—withdrawing
from classes, meetings, and all other university activities while participating in
marches, teach-ins, and other tactically creative strike support activities.

After seven weeks,
some union leaders proposed the tactic of “taking the strike inside” during the
university holidays. The idea was hotly debated by the rank and file, which then voted to
accept it, while voting also to reject Yale’s “final offer” by a ten-to-one
margin. Just as workers prepared to return to picket lines after six weeks on the job,
Yale began making concessions in its negotiations with the union bargaining committee. On
January 19, 1985, Yale agreed to a contract with its clerical and technical workers for
the first time, providing a 20 percent salary increase over 3 years, improved pensions and
job security, and a plan to correct years of inequity in job classifications.

In the wake of the
settlement, Local 34 reaffirmed its commitment to honor picket lines of the blue-collar
workers in Local 35 should they have to strike. The local also became a major supporter of
the campaign to force Yale to divest its funds from companies that invested in apartheid
South Africa.


Workers’ Centers

While unions are
normally based in the workplace, the past two decades have seen experiments with worker
organization based in the community that includes workers from different employers and
industries. These organizations, often known as workers’ centers, have developed
particularly in immigrant communities and communities of color. These groups often have
their own cultural traditions, face particular problems of discrimination, move frequently
from job to job, are concentrated in industries with little union presence, and are often
ignored or worse by established unions.

In 1978, Chinese
restaurant workers in New York organized as members of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees
Union struck and won the first union contract for Chinese restaurant workers in the city.
They soon became dissatisfied with their contract and their union, however, and in 1980
formed the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association. CSWA organized independent unions
at other restaurants; it organized Chinese garment industry workers to fight the frequent
non-payment of wages and to put pressure on their union, the International Ladies Garment
Workers Union, to enforce contracts and fight concessions; and it organized protests at
construction sites to demand jobs for Chinese construction workers. Bringing together
labor and community issues, it helped block construction projects that would gentrify
large parts of Chinatown and drive out the restaurants where many of its members worked.

In 1982, Asian
Americans in the San Francisco area formed Asian Immigrant Women Advocates. AIWA provides
Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Filipina working women with English classes and workshops
on contract rights, labor regulations, health and safety rules, and wage and hour laws. It
has assisted immigrant women to express their concerns to their employer, union,
politicians, and the public. While formally non-partisan, in practice it has helped
develop Asian women’s leadership for San Francisco unions, especially in the hotel
industry, and has built a bridge between them and the Asian community. A campaign
initiated in 1992 to win $15,000 in wages owed to San Francisco seamstresses became a
national campaign against Jessica McClintock Inc., involving picketing in 11 cities and
endorsements from more than 400 organizations.

In 1993, a Latino
Workers Center was started in New York. It organized English classes and courses on labor
rights and began working with small groups of workers from restaurants, garment factories,
groceries, construction companies, office-cleaning companies, and home health care
agencies. The center helped workers organize around withheld wages and sub-minimum wages.
It organized protests against abusive employers and filed charges against them with the
Department of Labor. It organized presentations in churches, leafleted near workplaces,
tabled at community events, and initiated radio and television interviews to educate the
Latino community about worker rights, anti-immigrant legislation, and the need for
organizing. It organized a campaign against and boycott of three restaurants that owed
workers back-pay, culminating in a “Via Crucis Por La Justicia” (Stations of the
Cross March for Justice), stopping in front of each restaurant for a protest rally. The
campaign forced partial concessions from the restaurants and directed the community’s
attention to the possibilities of organizing to solve workplace problems.

workers in the South have created workers’ centers that address labor issues and
other concerns of the black community. The Carolina Alliance for Fair Employment (CAFE) in
South Carolina, for example, has organized around issues ranging from the economic
conversion of a recently closed local military base to environmental issues, and from
contingent work to stopping development at a historic African-American cemetery. In 1994,
the CAFE chapter on Hilton Head Island campaigned to have hotels pass on to banquet
workers gratuities they collected on the workers’ behalf. By 1996, CAFE had helped
140 workers at the Daufuskie Island Club and Resort on Hilton Head Island win union
recognition and a 13 percent wage increase; it also helped bring NLRB charges against the
employer when workers were subsequently fired.

The replacement of
regular employees with temporary or part-time, so-called contingent workers—usually
with no union representation, job security, or benefits—has been a prime outcome of
the new corporate agenda. Yet such workers have found it exceptionally difficult to
organize. In Massachusetts, where contingent workers total about 25 percent of the
workforce, a coalition of unions and community groups began a Campaign on Contingent Work.
In 1996, the campaign opened a workers’ center known as the TEMP—Temporary
Employees Meeting Place—to bring together contingent workers for organizing meetings
and educational workshops. The campaign pledged to support union organization where
possible, but also to use direct action, workplace organizing, corporate campaigns,
popular education, and media advocacy to challenge job degradation. The campaign developed
a Bill of Rights for contingent workers and a Corporate Code of Conduct for employers who
hire them. It also drafted and filed legislation that would require pay equity, pro-rated
benefits, unemployment compensation, and maternity leave rights for contingent workers.
When Woolworth’s in Boston replaced more than 30 full-time workers, some of them with
more than 25 years’ seniority, with part-time workers, the Campaign on Contingent
Work helped the workers picket Woolworth’s, publicize the grievance, and even win
support from the union that represented Woolworth’s workers in Germany.


Justice for Janitors

In 1984, the
Service Employees International Union launched a national campaign to organize janitors
and other building service employees. Most janitors were black and immigrant workers who
worked for large building service corporations that were hired as subcontractors by
building managers, who in turn were hired by building owners. Clearly new organizing
techniques were needed to address such “networked production.”

The Justice for
Janitors campaign in Los Angeles began in 1987 with a focus on Century City, a high-class
business district with a predominantly Latino and Latina cleaning staff. First, SEIU Local
399 began to rebuild the union in already unionized buildings by electing and training new
stewards and other leaders. Next, union workers began making house calls and promoting the
union in places where janitors socialized. Then the campaign organized “functional
unions”—committees that acted like unions even though they lacked recognition—in
non-union workplaces.

The campaign next
decided to focus on International Service Systems, the world’s largest cleaning
contractor, a global corporation with its international headquarters in Denmark. Rather
than use the NLRB election process, Justice for Janitors exerted direct pressure on ISS to
recognize the union. Janitors organized daily meetings in their workplaces. They wore
bandannas on their heads as signs of their support for the union; pulled short work
stoppages, then more extended ones, in six different buildings, finally shutting down each
building for a two-week period; and began marching through Century City’s lobbies and
outdoor walkways and disrupting happy hour at the district’s swank saloons. A wide
range of community supporters formed Solidarity with Justice for Janitors, raised money to
support strikers, and encouraged political leaders to put pressure on building owners and

When strikers and
300 supporters marched peacefully into Century City, they were attacked by more than 100
police officers: “For two hours the Los Angeles Police Department sealed off Century
City so that they could beat and arrest scores of striking janitors and their supporters.
While horrified office workers and residents looked on, the police repeatedly flailed the
front line of the Justice for Janitors march with riot batons, before launching a flanking
attack that swept an entire section of the crowd into an underground parking structure.
Those trapped inside were mercilessly pummeled: when they tried to flee, they were
arrested for “failure to disperse.”

demonstrators were injured, nineteen seriously, including broken bones and a fractured
skull. One pregnant woman suffered a miscarriage. The police riot was widely shown on
television. Nine days later, ISS agreed to a contract with the union. Initially, the
contract provided no wage increases, but when unionized ISS workers in New York City
threatened a solidarity strike, ISS agreed to a wage increase as well.

The Los Angeles
victory inspired additional Justice for Janitors efforts around the country, including a
dramatic blocking of bridges in Washington, D.C. But a bitter struggle soon broke out
within Los Angeles SEIU Local 399. A rank-and-file caucus called the Multiracial Alliance
charged: “[F]or years, behind this facade of activism, bitter contradictions
flourished between the union’s administration and the membership. The truth is, the
union was being governed in the style of the classic “old (white) boys” network.
The only difference was that the old boys were self-described “progressives” who
had fallen into anti-democratic practices, poor representation, and racism. The leadership
excluded from decision-making those very workers who helped build the union.”

The Multiracial
Alliance ran a slate of candidates and won 21 of 25 elected union leadership posts. When
the new majority tried to make staff changes, the incumbent president asserted that only
he had authority to do so. The SEIU soon placed the local in trusteeship, removed the
elected Executive Board members, and appointed administrators to run the local.


This article was
drawn from the new concluding chapter Jeremy Brecher has written for the 25th anniversary
edition of Strike!, just published by South End Press. Next Installment: New
Voice and the War Zone