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Unions: Service Sector Workers’ Path To The Middle Class

Two labor issues have been extensively covered over the past weeks: the challenges facing the United Auto Workers (as well as industrial unions in general), and the promise offered by an organizing victory among janitors at the University of Miami. How are these two stories connected?

On the down side, the recent convention of the United Auto Workers illustrates the challenges faced by manufacturing unions and workers in the United States. The UAW is fighting bankruptcy and deep wage and benefit cuts at Delphi, and a mounting crisis at GM. The union’s membership has fallen from 1.5 million in 1979 to less than 600,000 last year. The rest of the labor movement isn’t doing much better. Unions represent just 7.8 percent of the nation’s private-sector work force, down from 35 percent in the 1950’s. Only 2 million manufacturing workers belong to unions, down from 3.5 million a decade ago.

As Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne reported:

In what will be seen as a historic document, the president of the United Auto Workers, Ron Gettelfinger, issued a brave and somber report to his union, which opened its convention yesterday in Las Vegas.

"The kind of challenges we face aren’t the kind that can be ridden out," said Gettelfinger…."They’re structural challenges, and they require new and farsighted solutions."

It’s not entirely clear whether Gettlefinger is trying to prepare his members for give-backs or fire them up for new, creative strategies that revive the union’s fortunes (or both), although one hopeful sign is that the union is putting $60 million into new organizing. Without counting the UAW or the rest of America’s industrial unions down and out, it is clear that they have a rough road to follow, and down that same road goes much of America’s middle class.
The Post’s Dionne argues that this nation’s old social bargain, born of the New Deal, is breaking down:

After World War II, voters in rich countries entered a social democratic bargain in which capitalism became the bedrock of the economy, but was tempered by a large public sector and a unionized industrial sector that provided social insurance, education, pensions and health care.

The greatest challenge facing the American center-left today, according to Dionne, is “whether progressives over the long run can keep their core promise to expand opportunities of the middle class and the poor.

One way that bargain can be restruck was illuminated by a few hundred janitors at the University of Miami last week. The janitors, who work for the University’s contractor, Unicco Services, chose overwhelmingly to join the Service Employees International Union. After a four-month strike, the union had reached an agreement with Unicco that the company would recognize the union if 60 percent of employees signed worker pledge cards. The count was stopped when workers reached 60 percent, although union officials said they had more than 70 percent support in the card check process.

The University of Miami victory comes several months after SEIU won one of largest unionization campaign in the South in years – bringing 5,000 janitors from several companies in Houston, TX into the union .

The victories at the University of Miami and in Houston are not just good news for janitors, they also send a hopeful message out to workers across the country. Traditional economists have been arguing for decades that we don’t need to worry about the decimation of this country’s manufacturing sector; workers will simply move on over into the service sector. Problem solved. The real problem, of course, is that manufacturing sector in this country was highly unionized, paying middle class wages and generous benefits. Few service sector jobs — janitors, fast food, hotels, retail, etc. — are unionized, and most provide low pay and few benefits.

The idea that the service sector can be organized, bringing higher pay and benefits along, provides some hope to those who forsee the disappearance of the American middle class. The hope of turning service workers into the new American middle class is the goal of many of today’s organizing campaigns, as related in a recent New York Times article by labor reporter Steven Greenhouse:

In a way, said Bruce Raynor, president of Unite Here, the service-sector unions hope to imitate the manufacturing unions of old. "Our goal is to move service-sector workers into the middle class," he said. "The manufacturing unions did that for factory workers. It took them 20 years to do that, and we hope to do the same thing."

The manufacturing unions have been devastated by globalization, with many companies insisting that America’s unionized factory workers are overpaid and their benefit packages too rich compared with overseas workers. Delphi, the beleaguered auto parts company, has repeatedly trumpeted this assertion as it called for cutting its workers’ $27-an-hour wages in half.

In contrast, the service-sector unions are largely immune to globalization — just try to outsource the job of a hamburger-flipper, hotel housekeeper or bedpan-emptier to China. Helping to make service-sector unions optimistic about attracting more members is the perception that workers like hotel housekeepers and janitors are underpaid and have skimpy benefits. Moreover, many of these workers are immigrants, who are often more enthusiastic about unions than native-born workers.

A recent Time Magazine article described why these developments are so exciting for the workers themselves:

It’s 9 P.M., and Craig Jones has just finished dumping 400 trash cans’ worth of garbage into the Cincinnati Textile Building’s basement compactor. The weighty refuse he carries each night hardly fazes Jones after five years on the job, but the grime he has to scrub off dirty wastebaskets still gets to him a little. "Wiping spit is a tough thing to get used to," he says. Jones, 27, earns $6.50 an hour without benefits, vacation time or sick days. His employer, Professional Maintenance, a cleaning contractor, usually schedules him for just four hours a night, five nights a week, so Jones’ biweekly paycheck amounts to about $260, before taxes. The monthly rent for his spartan ground-level apartment in a once industrial part of town is $215, so there’s little left after phone and utility bills and food. He hasn’t bought a new piece of clothing in years.

Less than 300 miles away, Robyn Gray is in the midst of cleaning 48 kitchenettes, dusting 90 conference rooms and scrubbing 40 glass doors at One Mellon Center, a financial building in downtown Pittsburgh, Pa. Although her work is equally grueling, Gray, 44, is paid well, compared with Cincinnati, Ohio, janitors like Jones. For working a 9:30 p.m.–to–6 a.m., 40-hr.-a-week schedule, she earns $12.52 an hour and gets health insurance, three weeks’ vacation and three personal days a year. Her $26,000 annual salary has helped Gray and her husband–who works for a company that erects cell-phone towers–buy their own home, send their two daughters to college and even go on the occasional family vacation–in May they took their first trip to Honolulu, Hawaii.

The major difference between Gray and Jones, say advocates for low-wage workers, is that she lives in a city where janitors are unionized and have collectively negotiated salaries considerably above the minimum wage, what they call a living wage.

Today there are 3 million workers in service and retail unions, and more than 7 million in public sector unions. But some observers remain skeptical of unions’ ability to organize service workers in high numbers. They reflect the views of corporate America that while poor working conditions many decades ago made unions important, today we don’t need them as much:

"There’s great hostility to unions in general," said Nancy B. Johnson, a professor of management at the University of Kentucky.

"In the old days," she said, "you’d see co-workers dying and you’d see raw exploitation, so you wanted a union to protect you. Now if you work at nice retailers like Target or Kmart, you don’t see people dying on the job. Yeah, you suffer some minor injustices, but a lot of workers today have learned to settle with what they have."

Others, more familiar with the work that service sector employees actually do, disagree:

Daniel J. B. Mitchell, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Los Angeles, said many service-sector workers held jobs that were every bit as blue-collar as factory jobs. "It’s not surprising that unions are targeting workers in industrial laundries," where the temperature is soaring and the pace intense, he said. "It’s not classified as manufacturing, but it’s like blue-collar work."

Today’s conditions in Missouri’s mental health facilities, for example, makes Upton Sinclair’s Jungle look like a picnic:

The average pay is $19,000 a year. And that’s for a worker in a state facility. Those in private facilities commonly make less money, with fewer health benefits.

"We expect them to do it for a pittance of pay," said Bill Edmonds, the retired superintendent of a state-run facility in Nevada, Mo. "I had people working for me on food stamps, and that’s a shame that people doing that kind of work have to rely on public assistance."

A 2004 study by The Associated Press found the Department of Mental Health had the highest number of workers who qualified for welfare benefits of any state agency in Missouri.

The lower pay makes it harder to hire people, said Felix Vincenz, who in February was named the head of all 19 state-run facilities.

Joe Lawrence, spokesman for the state workers’ union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, blamed state officials.

"When you have the worst-in-the-nation state-employee pay, on top of chronic understaffing and chronic overtime, they are fueling the turnover," Lawrence said. "This will leave staff vulnerable."

State employees will get a little more money, but they still are walking into dangerous workplaces.

Police reports and state records show they have been hit, slapped, punched and stomped on by the patients they care for.

They’ve suffered black eyes, shattered teeth and broken noses, ribs, jaws, shoulders, cheeks and eye sockets.

Prisons may look more dangerous with their razor wire and high security but state workers compensation data shows that it’s far more dangerous to work in a state facility caring for mentally retarded or mentally ill residents.

Workers who care directly for mentally retarded residents are four times as likely to be hurt by a resident as a prison guard is to be hurt by an inmate, according to a Post-Dispatch analysis of state injury data.

For workers who care for the mentally ill, the rate is nearly three times as high, the analysis showed.

In fact, health and safety issues played a major role in the janitors’ University of Miami struggle, as well as the current Unite Here hotel campaign.

So where does all of this leave us? Take low pay, combined with dangerous, unpleasant work – work that is essential for Americans to continue to live the live in the manner to which they have become accustomed – and combine that with a newly revitalized labor movement. You may have the roots of a new American middle class.

We’ll discuss what lies ahead for the UAW and America’s industrial unions at a later date.

Jordan Barab blogs at Confined Space.

Photo Credit Earl Dotter

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