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Monday, February 12, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Economy's new look puts unions on notice

Seattle Times Washington bureau

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In November, workers at Amazon.com launched organizing drives at distribution and customer-service centers from Seattle to New Castle, Del., hoping the pressures of the holiday shopping season would force the online retailer to accept unions.

But the flagship of the New Economy reacted as swiftly as any Old Economy manufacturing firm would to blunt an organizing drive. And, as resistance from the company grew, enthusiasm for a union flagged.

New Year's came and went. The boom economy began to bust. By Groundhog Day, dreams of a union were lost in a flurry of pink slips.

The failure to organize Amazon.com is part of a larger challenge facing the U.S. labor movement: how to lure a new generation of workers into its ranks.

Few unions have yet to invest significantly in recruitment. And, in a shifting economy, employers can easily stymie workers who want a union.

Amazon.com officials deny the layoff of 1,300 workers was a way to thwart the organizing drive. But employee activists there say that, given time, the union would have triumphed if workers had not been let go.

"Many workers who try to form trade unions ... are spied on, harassed, pressured, threatened, suspended, fired, deported or otherwise victimized in reprisal for their exercise of the right to freedom of association," Human Rights Watch, a group usually focused on abuses abroad, said in a 210-page study published last August. Its researchers found that a "culture of near-impunity" undermines U.S. labor law.

Those laws are not likely to change anytime soon.

For labor to remain a vital force in the 21st century, it has to strengthen recruitment efforts and change the debate about organizing rights.

Those were among John Sweeney's chief aims when he became AFL-CIO president in 1995. Union membership has been in a decline for 20 years, and had dropped to 15 percent of the U.S. work force when Sweeney took the helm.

He has since reinvigorated labor's political activism and raised its public profile. But only a handful of the federation's 67 affiliated unions - notably the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the hotel workers - have heeded calls to reconfigure their organizations and budgets to emphasize recruitment.

Membership at 60-year low

The consequences are evident in the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics figures: The percentage of workers who belonged to unions dipped to 13.5 percent in 2000, the lowest rate in six decades.

Sweeney puts a good face on a tough situation, insisting the fruit of efforts today will result in stronger membership numbers in the future.

But SEIU President Andy Stern, chairman of the AFL-CIO organizing committee, is blunt about mistakes of the past.

"The magnitude of the task was totally underestimated," he said.

Labor leaders failed to grasp how dramatically the economy was shifting from its historical manufacturing base to the service and financial sectors and high-tech, Stern said. Nor did they recognize how hard it would be to turn around some lethargic labor institutions, lulled into complacency by a good economy.

Stern, a former organizer, supports Sweeney but notes that each union sets its own priorities.

"When the bully pulpit and all these things take you only so far, what's next?" he asked. "That's the issue in front of us."

Labor has seemed especially baffled by high-tech.

Several groups have targeted appeals to New Economy workers. They include the Communications Workers of America, parent to the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, or WashTech.

But WashTech's foray into Amazon.com was seen by some as a token probe into unexplored labor territory.

Better, Stern said, were the strategies of legendary union leader John L. Lewis. His Congress of Industrial Organizations mobilized to organize large sectors by industry over time, instead of plant by plant.

"What we don't have yet in the labor movement are people who are really fundamentally focused on the New Economy," Stern said.

SEIU focuses on health-care and service workers near the bottom rung of the economic ladder, such as janitors. The union has dedicated 50 percent of its budget to organizing, becoming the fastest-growing member of the AFL-CIO, with 72,000 members added to its rolls last year.

Stern wants more unions to follow suit. He hopes this week's AFL-CIO executive council meeting in Los Angeles will boost plans to draw labor's vibrant political program closer to its organizing efforts and to improve public attitudes toward organizing.

The right to organize remains a tenet of U.S. law, growing out of the constitutional right to freedom of association. But Stern said employers do not face the same cultural censure for opposing unions as for discriminating against workers on the basis of sex, race or disability.

"We've not done the right job of explaining that this is about workers - and not about unions and employers," Stern said. "People see this as a spectator sport, not a basic right."

The force of law

Long before Human Rights Watch issued its report, labor officials complained that unions face a disadvantage under the 6-decade-old National Labor Relations Act, and that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) lacks sufficient resources. Some former government overseers agree.

"There is a very, very high degree of noncompliance with national labor law," said Sara Fox, who stepped down from the NLRB in December after nearly five years as a board member.

The number of NLRB cases filed each year has tripled since the 1950s, yet the agency's staff fell from 3,000 full-time employees in 1980 to 2,000 in recent years.

It is illegal to fire a worker for union activity, but challenges to such dismissals can take years.

"It is a law-enforcement regime where delay is readily available," said Fred Feinstein, a former NLRB general counsel.

But critics like Leo Troy, a labor-economics professor from Rutgers University in New Jersey, dismiss such excuses for declining labor membership. Troy noted unions failed to make significant gains even with a Democrat in the White House controlling appointments to the NLRB.

"Market and technological forces are responsible for the unions' decline in membership," said Troy, who said weak leadership was largely to blame for labor's predicament.

While Troy argues that claims of legal barriers to unions is "propaganda," labor leaders say they are a discouraging reality, evident in court and government records.

For example, the NLRB last week, ordered a Smithfield meatpacking plant in Wilson, N.C., to begin contract negotiations with the United Food and Commercial Workers union. An administrative-law judge found company officials had conspired with local law-enforcement officials to intimidate workers, instigated a brawl at a union vote and lied under oath. The ruling came more than seven years after the organizing campaign began.

In 1999 alone, the NLRB found 1,607 cases in which workers were illegally fired for union activity, and meted out more than $60 million in fines.

At Amazon.com, there is no evidence the unionizing drive would have succeeded had there not been layoffs.

Company officials held staff meetings and created an internal Web site to provide what they called "balancing information" to workers. "While unions have a place in certain companies, we just didn't feel that one was needed at Amazon," said spokeswoman Patty Smith.

But employee activists say that, even if the company acted by the book in countering the union drive, the effect was chilling: Workers knew the message came from managers who controlled their paychecks, schedules and promotions.

"Those mandatory meetings made a lot of people fear for their jobs," said Alan Barclay, a Seattle customer-service worker active in the union drive.

"We were expanding very rapidly until management came to learn of our existence, and then people stopped talking to us."

Changing the climate

Overhauling federal law remains a remote goal. First, national labor leaders want to improve the political climate for unions.

In Los Angeles this week, AFL-CIO officials plan to discuss whether active support for organizing rights should be a litmus test for elected officials who seek labor's endorsement. They also will talk about whether to pursue pro-labor legislation at the state and city level.

Labor activists insist that a worker's decision to join a union should be made without interference from employers; the bosses can have their say during contract negotiations.

"An employer has no role to play in the employee process of joining or forming a union. None," said Duane Stillwell, head of the Prewitt Organizing Fund, a nonprofit group whose effort to organize Amazon.com's distribution workers fizzled.

"We don't put church or club memberships up for employer review and interference, nor should we do it with labor unions."

Kevin Galvin can be reached in Washington, D.C., at 202-662-7455; by voicemail at 206-464-8550; or by e-mail at kgalvin@seattletimes.com.

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