The future of labor unions in America rests on the shoulders of people like Marilyn Haith as she tries to sell modern high-tech unionism door-to-door in the 1980s.
Working at night on her own time, the 39-year-old Haith visits the Washington-area homes of employes of MCI Communications Inc., the nonunion high-tech giant targeted by Haight's union, the Communications Workers of America. During the day, she works as a service representative of the Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Companies.
"I get the door closed in my face" sometimes, Haith said. She and fellow CWA members visit the MCI parking lots in Bethesda and Crystal City, jot down license plate numbers, and find out where workers live to make "home calls" selling unionism. Some workers are receptive, she said, but many give responses ranging from lukewarm to hostile.
Haith, as a black female office worker, and many of the MCI employes that she visits are part of a rapidly growing segment of the work force that unions acknowledge they must recruit if they are to thrive in the 21st century.
Attracting new workers -- particularly women and minorities in growth industries -- is key to the future of labor unions, experts say. But they question whether shrinking unions will have the resources and the will to undertake these long and costly organizing efforts, and whether they can improve their public image to appeal to a rapidly changing work force.
This article examines three key aspects of the problem faced by unions as they try to organize new workers in the 1980s: the difficulty in recruiting new members, particularly in white collar areas, because of historically negative attitudes about unions; stepped up tactics, both legal and illegal, by many corporations to keep unions out, and the evolution of the "enlightened" corporation using progressive personnel policies to keep employes from wanting to join unions.
No History of Unionization In CWA's case, the union mailed literature to MCI workers and included a return-mail "feedback" card. Some MCI employes, describing management as heavy handed and insensitive to workers' needs, voiced strong support for unionization. But many of the mailings contained responses that showed the deep hostility nonunion workers feel toward unions:
"I and many MCI employes will vigorously resist any union infiltration. Stay away from MCI. You're not wanted or needed. Go elsewhere. Take your union and stick it."
"My salary has gone up 46 percent in the last year. I have gotten a promotion and feel very secure in my position. I strongly believe the union movement is dead."
"I would never join another union. I worked under a union in retail at Macy's and I quit my job after six years because of it. Don't bother me again with your propaganda."
"I resent your lies and innuendos."
The Washington-based MCI, which enjoyed explosive growth from 1,200 to 16,000 employes in just six years, is the quintessential corporation of the future: a high-technology enterprise that depends on satellite- and computer-driven telecommunications. It is staffed by highly skilled engineers, computer, marketing and advertising wizards. MCI has no blue-collar manufacturing employes, but rather purchases its hardware elsewhere and subcontracts its heavier jobs such as major installations.
Not only is MCI composed of job categories with very little history of unionization, but its employes are overwhelmingly from nonunion backgrounds. Their average age is about 30, they are often "entrepreneurial," college-educated, career-oriented go-getters -- and they tend to be loyal to the company, said MCI director of communications Gary Tobin.
"We were never in a field that is traditionally unionized, and we don't attract workers who come from a union environment," he said. "We are in a highly competitive industry, where you need the ability to change, change directions very quickly . . . and your union rules may not allow you to change very quickly," Tobin said in explaining the company's opposition to CWA.
MCI, whose pay scales range from $11,800 to $41,300 for nonprofessionals and up to $81,000 for professionals, touts its opportunities for advancement within a dynamic growth company, a "merit pay" system of raises for worthy employes and promotions for the best and brightest.
CWA, the world's largest telecommunications union with 650,000 members, is touting union membership to these employes. It stresses that union-represented workers at American Telephone & Telegraph Co. and the Bell System enjoy higher pay in most categories, seniority protection from layoffs and extensive job-retraining and transfer programs that allow them to find new jobs within their company.
"There are some people at MCI who do not need our union," said Richard Braswell, the CWA organizer coordinating the nationwide effort. "But we think the majority of their people really need one, for job security and justice on the job. If you ask MCI people where they'll be in five years, you likely get the answer that they don't even know if they'll be there."
MCI announced a massive layoff last December, which CWA president Morton Bahr said illustrated the drawbacks of nonunion employment. Similar layoffs at AT&T, according to union contract, would have required at least 45-day notice, substantial severance pay, retraining and relocation assistance, and seniority protection to transfer to other jobs -- but MCI offered lesser benefits.
Following a yearlong organizing drive, CWA obtained its first toehold in December, when a majority of MCI's 200 clerical and sales workers in its Detroit office signed union-authorization cards. This set up the first union election ever for MCI.
But several days after CWA filed notice of its intent to hold an election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board, MCI announced the closing of the Detroit office. The union filed charges with the NLRB, asserting that the shutdown was motivated by an antiunion animus. The NLRB, however, did not cite the company, which had claimed the closing was part of its companywide financial difficulty.
"There was no doubt in our mind they shut it down to keep out the union," Braswell said, but added that the union had held little hope that the five-member NLRB made up of Reagan appointees would side with the CWA.
"We think the MCI campaign is really important to the future of our union," said Braswell, who said organizing continues despite the Detroit setback. The campaign is crucial, he said, because it is aimed at capturing the growing nonunion sector of the telecommunications industry, and at "revitalizing" the union by using the skills of "volunteer organizers" such as Haith.
Organizing plans like CWA's are becoming increasingly rare among unions today -- which are conducting only half as many organizing campaigns in the 1980s as they did in the previous two decades.
The complacency that most unions developed was presaged by the late AFL-CIO president George Meany, who dismissed the decline in union membership as irrelevant: "Why should we worry about organizing groups of people who do not want to be organized? . . . Frankly, I used to worry about the membership, about the size of the membership. But quite a few years ago, I just stopped worrying about it, because to me, it doesn't make any difference." That attitude dominated many unions, which grew fat and happy in the economic growth years of the 1960s and early 1970s, and ignored signs of decline.
"The labor movement made a choice not to organize at some point in its history... . They got too comfortable and they threw out organizing as a valued skill," said Andrew Stern, organizing director of the Service Employees International Union. Stern, a 36-year-old University of Pennsylvania graduate, is among a small but growing number of younger, more educated union officials attempting to revitalize the labor movement.
Unions today are rediscovering the need to organize and are trying to use new techniques and new messages to recruit members whose interests often differ markedly from workers in past decades. Instead of traditional bread-and-butter economic demands and harsh rhetoric, union campaigns are more often stressing "dignity" issues, career advancement, job security, stress, flexible work hours, child-care needs, job satisfaction, the need for an employe "voice" in management decisions, pay equity for female workers, "quality-of-work-life" programs, the safety of newly developed chemicals and video-display terminals, and other issues of the 1980s.
"Most of the workers calling us today are calling about job security and dignity, and often about the total frustration of work loads ... not usually about money," said Vicki Saporta, director of organizing for the 1.8-million-member International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Saporta, 35, a graduate of Cornell University's industrial relations program, is the first female organizing director of a major union, and points out that more than 400,000 women are now Teamsters -- in government jobs, health care, clerical work and other fields. More than 5.8 million women belong to unions.
"The influx of women is a major change in the work force, and more women are seeing that unions are fighting for things like comparable worth, child care and parental leave, and these issues matter to them," Saporta said.
To get across these changing messages, unions are using television, radio and print advertising, union-made video productions, professional advertising and public relations consultants, and direct-mail and telephone polling of prospective members to define the key issues in each work place.
Tougher Antiunion Tactics In Charlotte, N.C., a majority of 400 warehouse workers and truck drivers at the Harris-Teeter Super Markets chain decided to try to form a union. They chose as their leaders James O. Wright, Jimmie Martin and Jerome Little, three veteran employes who together had worked there almost 50 years.
Within an 11-day period, Harris-Teeter management fired all three men. Wright, after 11 years on the job, was told his work was no longer satisfactory. Little, a 16-year veteran, was told he made too many mistakes, and Martin, a 22-year man, was accused of stealing sliced ham.
When coworker Earl Nixon later testified that the three were wrongly fired because of union activity, Harris-Teeter fired Nixon too. Bill Huntley, another warehouse worker, tried to negotiate with the company, but they fired him at a bargaining session.
All the firings were eventually ruled illegal by the NLRB, which ordered the workers reinstated with back pay -- but only after they had been jobless for as long as two years.
But those firings were only the beginning.
By the time the union organizing drive was over, Harris-Teeter was found to have wrongfully discharged more than 100 employes, conducted illegal surveillance and interrogation of prounion workers, illegally threatened to close the warehouse if workers voted for a union, and committed numerous other violations of the National Labor Relations Act, according to both NLRB and U.S. Court of Appeals rulings.
The Harris-Teeter union organizing effort is a textbook case of one of the major problems faced by labor unions today. The gradual deunionizing of America has been caused by rapid economic changes, by unions' deteriorating public image and by lack of worker interest in unions. But it has also been caused by a strong antiunion counterattack by management.
The NLRB, citing what it called repeated company violations of labor law, sought to have Harris-Teeter cited for contempt of court. But the charges were eventually resolved in 1985 in a consent decree after the U.S. Court of Appeals ordered the company to cease labor-law violations and threatened $10,000 fines for each new violation.
Harris-Teeter, a 112-store southern grocery chain with annual sales of $800 million, strongly denies wrongdoing. "We have never acknowledged that we were guilty, and we disagree with any court or any administrative officer that has found otherwise," company president Robert S. Goodale said in an interview.
Despite the company's actions and despite a strong negative election campaign featuring graphic antiunion posters, videos, mass mailings and mandatory "captive-audience" speeches by supervisors, the majority of employes wanted a union badly enough to vote for it by a 59-to-41 percent margin in an election supervised by the NLRB.
Jubilant Harris-Teeter workers filled a Charlotte motel ballroom that night for a victory party. Triumphant speeches declared that workers who earned $4 to $5 hourly would win pay raises, a better health plan, seniority rights to govern promotions and grievance and arbitration procedures to protect them from wrongful discharge or discipline.
Those promises, however, were empty. The Harris-Teeter union "victory" was in 1976. More than 10 years later -- after five bitter strikes to try to win a union contract and after a decade of costly court battles -- the warehouse workers still have no contract and none of the protections they fought for.
The workers have no contract because Harris-Teeter strongly opposes the union's basic demands, and also because U.S. labor law imposes no obligation on companies and unions to reach contractual agreement after a union wins an NLRB election victory. Goodale, Harris-Teeter's president for the past three years who did not participate in the 1970s labor strife, said the company is fully complying with the law by negotiating with the union. He said the failure to obtain a union contract stems from management's "bone-deep belief" that union demands would hurt the firm, its customers, shareholders and many workers.
What happened at Harris-Teeter is unusual only in its duration; most labor-management struggles don't last more than a decade. But the labor law violations and the failure to obtain a union contract are not that unusual: At least 10,000 workers a year are discharged during union drives, about one in three union elections is tainted by illegal activities and an estimated 35 percent to 40 percent of union "victories" never result in a lasting contract, according to NLRB data and surveys by the AFL-CIO.
"Discriminatory discharges and other forms of coercive behavior by American employers have significantly contributed to the steep decline in union success" in NLRB-supervised elections, said Paul C. Weiler, Harvard University professor of law and an authority on labor law.
Weiler said a "substantial minority" of employers targeted by unions resort to what he called "pathological behavior," but that most employers, who are law-abiding, indirectly benefit from this illegal activity because their workers also fear such treatment and are reluctant to undertake union campaigns.
Fear of reprisal for union activity is widespread, according to polling data: A Washington Post poll last September showed that 34 percent of employes believed they would be in danger of being fired if their employer knew they were interested in forming a union. A 1984 Harris poll found 38 percent of workers feared being fired or disciplined.
Critics of labor unions, however, dispute the contention that illegal tactics and the alleged promanagement bias of the NLRB during the Reagan administration are major roadblocks to unionism. John S. Irving, former general counsel of the NLRB during the Ford and Carter administrations, said such union criticisms are "irresponsible and misguided" and that liberal, prounion academic observers such as Weiler exaggerate the role of these forces in thwarting unions.
Irving, who is now a management attorney representing the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, said unions and their supporters chronically blame their decline on external enemies rather than acknowledge their own shortcomings. Unions have a poor public image, have had corrupt leaders, have generally pursued an "adversary" and sometimes violent approach that turns off many workers and have been slow to adjust to economic and social change, he said.
If one accepts the unions' view of the world, said Irving, "One thing is obvious, their problem is always someone else's fault."
The view that unions face problems because of their own faults is reinforced in a Washington Post poll. Respondents were asked whether the decline of unions was caused more by corporate opposition, by worker indifference or by unions themselves. Fifty percent of respondents blamed unions for their own problems and only 29 percent said corporate antiunionism was the root problem for unions.
At Harris-Teeter, 12 years after union organizing began, the victims of the wrongful firings had lost their jobs for periods of up to 30 months, and had faced evictions, foreclosures and other personal crises. They conducted five strikes over the years, seeking to pressure the company to sign a contract. But the strikes did little good. The company continued operating anyway, and refused to bow to union demands.
The fired workers eventually won more than $600,000 worth of back pay, only after the union, the United Food and Commercial Workers, undertook costly NLRB and court appeals. The UFCW has spent well over $1 million in strike-support aid and legal fees, but has not collected a dime of dues money because union rules specify that dues are collected only when workers win a contract.
In the labor negotiations, Harris-Teeter won't agree to the union's key demands, Goodale said, because it believes that union-demanded seniority rules would block the ability to promote the best people, that grievance-arbitration procedures would rob management of the right to manage, and that automatic weekly union dues "checkoff," common in most union contracts, would be an improper form of supporting unionism.
Goodale, who was not president during the period of illegal discharges, said the union won the 1976 election because of very poor supervision that caused worker resentment. "We were not treating people the way they need to be treated," he said. But those foremen have been discharged and the company believes now that its workers "do not need a union."
Immune to Unionization Motorola Inc., a company that has grown into a multinational giant with more than 80,000 employes and 22 major U.S. facilities since it was founded in 1928, is theoretically a prime target for labor unions eager to expand their sagging membership by attracting new recruits.
Yet in the 58-year history of Motorola, this industrial corporation has never had a union organize a single plant. Moreover, no union has ever even been able to get 30 percent of the workers at any major facility to sign union cards, which is the legally required minimum needed to conduct a union-representation election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board. In the only NLRB election ever held at a Motorola plant, the union got three votes at a 20-person work unit.
The reason for the absence of unions at Motorola is that the men and women who design, manufacture, sell and service Motorola's high-tech electronics products are not just ordinary workers: They are "Motorolans." They belong to a company that practices a brand of so-called "corporate humanism" that is designed to treat its employes so well that Motorola will remain virtually immune to unionization.
Motorola, in addition to being a world leader in production of semiconductors and innovative telecommunications equipment, is regarded as a leader in "human resources" management. The company has carefully crafted a relationship with its employes that has boosted morale, encouraged intense loyalty and increased productivity.
Today, prodded by economic competition, growing numbers of American corporations are following Motorola's example, becoming more "enlightened" employers. According to experts, this has contributed -- in no small measure -- to the further deunionization of America.
These management methods surface in varied forms and under different names and acronyms in managerial lingo: quality-of-work-life (QWL) programs, quality circles (QCs), employe involvement (EI), worker participation, participative management, labor-management participation and many more labels.
An estimated 44 percent of firms with more than 500 employes were using quality circles by 1982, according to a New York Stock Exchange survey, and the number has grown since then, along with other varieties of worker-involvement programs.
The trend is deeply frustrating to many unionists, for it often deprives them of their strongest weapon, the dissatisfied worker. Many union critics contend that these corporate "human relations" strategies are not really intended to benefit employes, but to control them, to create the illusion that employes have a say in their company's activities.
"This corporate human-resource approach is like the difference between a tomato grown in the field, and a tomato grown in the hothouse. It's being bred for the wrong purposes. It's not serving a societal need, it is serving corporate greed," said Robert Harbrant, president of the AFL-CIO's Food and Allied Service Trades Department.
"They are creating a clone-type sort of quasi-union setting. It's like a Listerine-type modern work place, a sort of utopian world intended to discourage collective activity. Eighty million workers have gone through a Madison Avenue-type promotion that says they don't need unions, and we have allowed them to get away with it," Harbrant said.
Unions are partly responsible for the creation of enlightened management, experts say. "Employers today are better employers," said Mark A. De Bernardo, manager of labor law for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "And ironically, part of the reason for that is unions. The threat of unions has prompted better wages and benefit increases. And secondly, the laws that labor unions helped pass have helped force changes that benefited employes" by requiring companies to provide safer work sites, better pensions, minimum wage and overtime pay and affirmative action plans.
Harvard University labor economists Richard Freeman and James Medoff, in describing what they call the "slow strangulation of private-sector unions," said a major obstacle for labor unions has been those companies that practice "positive labor relations."
This corporate strategy, they said, "attempts to beat unions at their own game by offering unorganized workers much of the benefits of unionism -- high wages, good fringe benefits, seniority protection and the like -- with none of the associated costs" of having a union, such as weekly dues. Thomas Kochan, professor of industrial relations at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has called this corporate practice "union-substitution" because companies create quasi-union conditions.
Employes at Motorola plants have no time clocks, but are on the honor system. They work in independent "work teams" that design their own plans for improving production and working conditions. When successful, team members share in bonuses averaging 8 to 12 percent of monthly salary -- to a 41 percent maximum. They receive pay and benefits comparable to competitors, and enjoy a profit-sharing plan started in the 1940s.
They also enjoy a high degree of job security, as evidenced by the 1980-1982 recession in which Motorola avoided the massive layoffs that hit the semiconductor industry by instead cutting work hours and finding other methods to keep employes. Motorolans also benefit from a program that devotes more than 1 million man-hours and $44 million yearly to career and skill development.
"Every employe needs and expects to live in a rational working world," Motorola declared in its confidential management manual setting up its program. The company stressed the importance of openness and communication in preventing unionization: "The anxiety and frustrations of irrational management and working life are a major reason why employes adopt union organization in the hope that the union will be able to get management's attention and reconcile those irrationalities."
"We have a concern for the human being, and an open-door policy" to hear employe complaints, said Motorola spokesman Charles Sengstock. "It is not something we suddenly started to stop unions. We are nonunion, but we are not antiunion. It is the way we evolved, and our people never felt they needed an intermediary, because they always had direct access to management, and that is part of the culture here."