Unions Open Their Doors Wider As Membership Falls

As the AFL-CIO wraps up its convention, union membership continues its long decline and blue collar workers struggle with eroding living standards and high rates of unemployment. Facing such dire trouble, the labor movement is seeking to attract members and partners who don't belong to unions.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. The AFL-CIO wraps up its annual convention today in Los Angeles. The meeting comes as unions struggle with lots of challenges: falling membership, declining wages and hostile state legislatures. To boosts its ranks, the labor movement is now looking in some unlikely places, as NPR's Sonari Glinton reports.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: One of the most important parts of a union convention is to get the members excited. That's what Richard Trumka, the head of the AFL-CIO, tried to do at the convention here in Los Angeles.

RICHARD TRUMKA: Is to join together with millions more like this and build real power and that is what we will do. We will take back America for the American worker.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

GLINTON: So after losing so much power in recent years the question is, how are unions going to do that.

TEFERE GEBRE: We're opening up our doors. We're opening up our doors and we're saying come in and join us. And we're not this exclusive club that you think we are.

GLINTON: That's Tefere Gebre. He's the new the executive vice president of the AFL-CIO.

GEBRE: Doesn't matter if you have a card in your pocket, a union card in your pocket or not, we want to create a labor movement that speaks for all workers - from carwash workers to street sweepers to doctors and pilots.

GLINTON: Fewer than seven percent of private employees are unionized. And at the convention, delegates approved two measures to expand who can be involved in unions. One formalizes ties between unions and other organization like the Sierra Club or the NAACP.

Bob King is head of the United Auto Workers. He says labor will take all the help it can get.

BOB KING: I look at them as allies in the fight for social and economic justice. And, of course, you want to bring as many allies together as you possibly can. They're not nonunion members. They may be in a workplace that's not represented. But they're people who believe in social and economic justice.

GLINTON: The other resolution seeks to organize independent operator like cab drivers, domestic workers, and day laborers; people who may not have a formal workplace where a vote can be taken to form a union shop.

David Stebenne is a labor historian at the Ohio State University.

DAVID STEBENNE: There doesn't seem to have been deep disagreement about taking this historic, unprecedented step of opening membership to new kinds of people. The last time they did anything like this was in the mid-1930s. Literally, it descended into fisticuffs.

GLINTON: Stebenne says the debate then was whether skilled workers, like carpenters and electricians, would join with unskilled workers like steel and auto workers. That caused a schism that lasted decades. Stebenne says the fact that there is not broad disagreement says...

STEBENNE: The sense of crisis is even greater now in some ways than it was in the 1930s, an agreement that something drastic has to be done to help the movement grow.

GLINTON: Meanwhile, Tom Kochan, with MIT's Sloan School of Management, says labor has a president that's one their side, but that's not true of Congress or legislatures. He says it's also getting harder and harder to organize.

TOM KOCHAN: The evidence is that only 1-in-10 union organizing drives is successful in getting a collective bargaining agreement. So those odds make it very, very unlikely that many workers will want to go through all of what's required.

GLINTON: Kochan says unions will continue to experiment and he says they have to grow in order to stay alive. The question is whether the experiments will work.

Sonari Glinton, NPR News, Culver City.

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