June 16, 2006

The New Face of Solidarity

Manuel Alvarez is the type of worker that service-sector unions are eager to attract. After 11 years as a houseman at the Hilton Hotel at Los Angeles International Airport, he earns $9.95 an hour, about $20,000 a year.

"It's not enough to live on," said Mr. Alvarez, an immigrant from Mexico who vacuums halls and flips mattresses. "I go to two churches each week to pick up donated food." On his days off, he collects bottles and cans for the deposit, adding $200 a month to his income. His hope is to join a union, and soon.

This week, judging by the somber mood at the United Automobile Workers convention, the state of organized labor would seem dire. Not so long ago, the U.A.W. was the nation's largest and most swaggering union, leading the way in building America's middle class by winning impressive wages, health coverage and pensions. But the U.A.W. is now in full retreat, ready to make concessions to help save the American auto industry.

Its plight points to a little-understood development: the nation's private sector is divided into two very different labor movements. The first comprises manufacturing unions, like the auto workers and machinists, which are on the defensive and on the decline. The second is made up of unions for the expanding service sector, which are upbeat and on the prowl for hundreds of thousands of nursing home aides, janitors, supermarket cashiers and workers like Mr. Alvarez.

Unite Here, the union that represents hotel, restaurant and apparel workers, is seeking to organize thousands of nonunion Hilton workers in a battle that could culminate in a strike at many Hiltons this summer.

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.

To help his union rebound, Ron Gettelfinger, the president of the auto workers, announced plans this week to spend $60 million more on recruiting nonunion workers. But this could prove an uphill battle.

"The U.A.W. and the steelworkers once defined the labor movement, but now they're associated with declining membership and declining influence," said Richard W. Hurd, a labor relations professor at Cornell University. "It's tough for the manufacturing unions to overcome what has happened the last 20 years, and it will make it harder for them to reach out to areas of manufacturing that are still vibrant."

Today, just 2 million manufacturing workers belong to unions, down from 3.5 million a decade ago. That compares with more than 3 million workers in service and retail unions, and more than 7 million in public sector unions.

"The service sector presents a tremendous opportunity for the labor movement," said Paul F. Clark, a professor of labor studies at Pennsylvania State University. "There are lots of low-paid workers, lots of immigrant workers, a lot of workers who can benefit from a union. But there are a lot of hurdles they need to navigate if they are going to form unions."

Some labor experts say the effort to help workers like Mr. Alvarez join a union may not be easy. Companies have grown more aggressive and sophisticated in combating unions, often hiring consultants who lecture workers and show videos, hammering the point that unions do not help workers and only want their dues. Even many workers who favor unions are scared to speak out in favor of them, frightened that their employers will retaliate against them, perhaps by firing them, perhaps by cutting back their hours.

"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."

Nonetheless, many labor leaders voice confidence that unions will grow again. They point to some polls showing that more than half of nonunion workers say they would vote to join a union if given the chance. Despite such sentiments, unions represent just 7.8 percent of the nation's private-sector work force, down from 35 percent in the 1950's.

"I think the labor movement has a bright future," said Mr. Raynor of Unite Here. "The objective conditions — income inequality, employers using their power over workers to shift the burden of health care and retirement, workers being paid below middle-class wage levels — make it clear that many workers need unions. Unions are the only institution in society that can force employers to change the way they distribute their income."

He said it was outrageous that some luxury hotels paid their workers $7 or $8 an hour.

Mr. Alvarez, 59, says that out of his $20,000 pay, he spends $1,600 a year on health insurance premiums and another $2,500 on prescription drugs for his wife's asthma and for his high blood pressure and a thyroid ailment.

"I want a union because it would give us more pay and far better health insurance," he said, noting that unionized workers at the Hilton in Beverly Hills pay no premiums for their health insurance.

The unions that broke off from the A.F.L.-C.I.O., including Unite Here and the Service Employees International Union, largely represent service sector workers and have ambitious plans to unionize far more of them.

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."

Manufacturing unions — their membership and their image — have been devastated by the constant stream of plant closings in recent years. General Motors, Ford and Delphi have announced widespread closings, which will reduce their union work force by more than 60,000, while a Maytag factory will soon close in Newton, Iowa, the town where the company was founded. Since 2000, the nation has lost three million manufacturing jobs, one-sixth of the total.

Nowadays many unionized factory workers seem on their heels, worried about imports, plant closings and demands for concessions.

Bob Perdue, a locomotive operator at AK Steel's mill in Middletown, Ohio, is in a surly mood because his company locked him out along with its 2,700 unionized workers on March 1, when their union rejected the company's demands for concessions. The company has called for a pension freeze, having the workers start contributing toward health insurance premiums and having retirees pay far more each year for their health insurance.

AK says those proposals are needed to help it control costs and remain competitive against low-cost rivals.

"Things are bad," Mr. Perdue said. "We never expected to be out this long. We want to protect ourselves and protect our retirees.

Leo W. Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers of America, said American manufacturers were at a huge disadvantage because companies rather than the government shouldered the cost of health coverage. If the United States adopted a national health care plan like Canada's, he said, that would go far to revive American manufacturing.

"We need an economic policy in which the nation decides to have a manufacturing base," he said.