Chicago Laborites Appraise AFL-CIO Schism

Chicago has deep historic ties to the labor movement. But do blue collar workers there still feel a kinship with the union cause, and are they following the rift that has split apart the AFL-CIO?

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Earlier this week, organized labor suffered its worst split in decades. Three big unions in the AFL-CIO pulled out of the federation during its convention in Chicago. In years past, an event like that would have echoed across the city because of its deep labor roots, but as NPR's Frank Langfitt reports, many people working in Chicago took little notice.

FRANK LANGFITT reporting:

From the Haymarket Square bombing in 1886 to the Pullman strike, Chicago has been the stage for some of the biggest events in American labor history. But as union membership has shrunk nationally, so has worker awareness here.

Take Miguel Riviera(ph). He earns $7.70 an hour at a laundromat called Bubbleland. With five kids and no health insurance, Riviera might seem like a good candidate for a union if only he knew something about them. Asked what the word `union' brings to mind, he struggles to answer.

(Soundbite of laundromat noises)

Mr. MIGUEL RIVIERA (Laundromat Worker): Oh, I draw a blank. To be honest with you, I draw a blank. I've lived in this neighborhood all my life and I've never seen a sign of union or heard anything of union or had anybody come here asking to be a part of union for anything.

LANGFITT: Riviera works in Humboldt Park, a mixed community with a heavy Latino presence. A giant arch depicting the flag of Puerto Rico straddles the neighborhood's main drag. Riviera is sitting outside Bubbleland on a cigarette break. He says he heard about the split in the AFL-CIO but it doesn't mean much to him.

Mr. RIVIERA: When it comes to stuff like that I really don't pay too much, again, mind to it because I don't see it affecting me or my family in--too much in any way.

LANGFITT: Unions once had great influence. In the 1950s, one in three Americans were members. Today, the number is closer to one in 10. Union leaders cite various reasons for labor's decline: the loss of manufacturing jobs overseas, pro-business Republican policies. But some people say unions have become disconnected from workers and share some of the blame.

(Soundbite of people talking)

LANGFITT: Zack Manning's(ph) waiting for a haircut in a barbershop on the South Side. The chairs are full. Baseball highlights play on the TV set. Manning used to be a union member when he worked for state government. After he was laid off, he says the union never returned his calls. Manning now works as a clerk for a business services firm. He has no interest in joining another union.

Mr. ZACK MANNING (Business Service's Firm, Employee): I don't think they--it would serve any purpose. You know, the company I work for now, they're pretty straightforward. I don't think I'd ever want to work for a company that I had to be involved with a union.

LANGFITT: Chicago still has hundreds of thousands of union members and, in an uncertain economy, some people here say they wish they had a union looking out for them. Linda Kaoli(ph) belonged to a union when she worked for the Chicago Transit Authority. She left to have a child. Now she works for Starbucks.

(Soundbite of people talking)

Ms. LINDA KAOLI (Starbucks Employee): Grande peppermint latte.

LANGFITT: Kaoli wishes Starbucks would unionize. She says people today don't know enough about unions to appreciate the important role the serve.

Ms. KAOLI: You feel like with a union someone cares and someone fights for you and no one can walk in and just take your job for no reason at all. You are allowed to make mistakes, whereas a lower paying job or a non-union job they can walk in and terminate you.

LANGFITT: But unions don't have the leverage they once did. And perhaps nowhere is that more evident here than at the Congress Hotel on Michigan Avenue. Ephraim Cortina(ph) used to work there as a banquet server. When the hotel cut wages by 7 percent, he and more than 100 workers went out on strike. That was more than two years ago. Now Cortina spends his days on the picket line. With a strike sign resting on his shoulder, he walks in circles hour after hour.

Mr. EPHRAIM CORTINA (Striking Worker): It's not boring. It's frustrating because you see the people coming through. Sometimes we talk to the people, please to follow the picket line--that we strike. And they say they come to vacation.

LANGFITT: The Congress was grand once. Now duct tape covers tears in the carpet. The owner says he can't afford to pay staff more and shows no sign of budging. The union has found Cortina work at another hotel. It also pays him $200 a week to picket. Cortina takes out his frustration by pounding a heavy bag while practicing tae kwon do. As he stands in front of the lobby with his sign, guests file by without looking. A white minivan pulls up.

Mr. CORTINA: This car just came from Minnesota and it's--probably they come to this hotel because they charge like cheap rates. I hope they--the people, they support us because this could happen to anybody.

LANGFITT: But with fewer union households, fewer people relate to union workers. The unions that pulled out of the AFL-CIO this week say they did so because the labor movement needs fundamental change. They vow to mount a huge organizing campaign to rebuild union membership. But rebuilding labor awareness may be tougher, even in a city like Chicago.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News.

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