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April 2006, Volume 12, Number 2

US Unions

The United Food and Commercial Workers Union called for an election in 1997 at the Smithfield Packing Company plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina, 75 miles south of Raleigh (workers also rejected the union in 1994). The UFCW lost, but in 2004 the National Labor Relations Board agreed with the UFCW that Smithfield had illegally interfered with the election.

Smithfield, which says 21,800 of its 51,300 workers are represented by unions, is appealing the NLRB decision. In the meantime the UFCW has embraced community organizing for its 2006 campaign, which involves having churches and other groups put pressure on Smithfield to remain neutral. The UFCW says that Tar Heel workers earn $8.50 to $11.50 an hour, while Smithfield's union-represented workers earn more.

About 65 percent of Smithfield's Tar Heel workers are Hispanic and 25 percent are Black, and there are tensions between the two groups that make organizing difficult. The UFCW wants to make the speed of the dis-assembly line an issue: the plant's 5,500 employees kill 1,000 hogs an hour during two shifts.

The Service Employees International Union has 1.8 million members, including 225,000 janitors, and hopes to build on its success in organizing 5,300 janitors in Houston in Fall 2005 by organizing some of the 20,000 janitors in Miami in 2006.

The Laborers International Union of North America, which has 700,000 members, announced plans to leave the AFL-CIO, as did the 400,000-member International Union of Operating Engineers. Both cited the need to organize more workers. In 1973, about 40 percent of construction workers were organized; in 2005, about 13 percent of construction workers were represented by unions.

Veteran workers represented by the United Automobile Workers at Caterpillar earn $23.50 an hour, twice the rate of new hires. Companies say that, with new hires costing half as much as experienced workers, they can expand manufacturing employment in the Midwest. Caterpillar, which had record profits, says it has a "market competitive" pay scale, high enough to attract qualified workers.

Manufacturing wages have traditionally been higher than non-manufacturing wages, but the premium slipped to about seven percent in 2005. In the Midwest, hourly manufacturing wages for new hires are about $16 an hour plus $9 for benefits, compared to $23 and $20 worth of benefits for older workers still covered by union contracts.

Leaders of AFL-CIO unions met in San Diego in March 2006, recouping after suffering a 25 percent cut in income when four major unions left to form the Change to Win coalition. The AFL-CIO now represents nine million workers in 52 national unions, but in many cases state and local units of AFL-CIO unions cooperate with their Change to Win counterparts.

The AFL-CIO and Change to Win agree that organizing is their major challenge. About 12.5 percent of US workers, and 7.8 percent of private sector workers, belong to unions. There are fears that rival unions may try to raid each other's members to boost membership. The AFL-CIO announced that the largest US union, the National Education Association, will allow its 13,200 local chapters of teachers to join the AFL-CIO if they wish. The Farm Labor Organizing Committee is also joining the AFL-CIO; the UFW left for the Change to Win coalition.

Elections. US unions increasingly use card checks rather than NLRB-supervised elections to win the right to represent employees with employers. Unions allege that employers often fire workers who support unions, so that the 150,000 private sector workers who became union members via card checks were 70 percent of the private sector workers who were organized in 2005. One study found that 30 percent of employers fire pro-union workers and half threaten to close if unions win elections.

Under NLRB regulations, employers may voluntarily recognize unions or demand secret ballot elections. Unions would like to end the ability of employers to demand secret ballot elections.

Steven Greenhouse, "Employers Sharply Criticize Shift in Unionizing Method to Cards From Elections," New York Times, March 11, 2006. Steven Greenhouse, "Union Takes New Tack in Organizing Effort at Pork-Processing Plant," New York Times, February 13, 2006.