business news in context, analysis with attitude

The New York Times this morning reports on a fascinating new development in the area of labor relations - the creation of a new organization by the A.F.L.-C.I.O. that is designed expressly for nonunion workers "who agree with the labor movement on many issues and want to campaign alongside labor on those issues."

The organization is to be called "Working America," and the A.F.L.-C.I.O. hopes to attract more than a million members to its ranks - presumably from the employment rolls of assiduously non-union companies like Wal-Mart - to campaign and lobby on issues such as increasing the minimum wage and preventing the privatization of Social Security.

"There are millions of working people who would like to be part of the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s efforts for social justice and want a voice to speak out and work to change the direction of this country," said federation president John J. Sweeney. "Working America will give them this chance."

Pilot projects for the organization already have been set up in Cleveland and Seattle. The NYT reports that "in Seattle, three people working for seven weeks signed up 1,200 nonunion workers to join Working America, with each canvasser enlisting almost 15 members a day. About half of the new members made contributions," at an average of $16.

The NYT writes that "labor unions plan to send hundreds of people door to door in working-class neighborhoods to ask sympathetic nonunion workers to join and to contribute money," though the union maintains that the effort is not about fund raising as much as it is about increasing political clout.

People who join Working America would not be members of a specific union, but would join a new affiliate of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. They would also become individual members, and would not be part of any sort of organized workplace union.

Not all observers believe that this is a good idea. Leo Troy, a labor expert at Rutgers University, told the NYT that the unions are "looking for a cheap way to win strength. Attempts like this are only a diversion of their resources. It only further weakens them because they are diverting manpower and money from organizing to something that won't necessarily produce results."
KC's View:
One would have to assume that once a person has joined Working America, they will be gradually softened up on the idea of converting a non-union workplace to one that is unionized…which will play into the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s long-range plans.

Companies like Wal-Mart, which work hard to avoid the unionization of their employees, are almost certainly going to be prime targets of this sort of organization. It will be interesting to see if there is any sort of organized effort to persuade employees that they don't want to be affiliated with Working America…and then, any sort of backlash against employees who do join.

We think that the battle between anti-union companies and organized labor will only get more intense over the next couple of years, fueled, perhaps, by 2004 presidential election politics.

A look at how the argument might be made by the unions - and the politicians looking for their support - could be seen in the Op/Ed section of The Washington Post earlier this week, where Harold Meyerson wrote:

"If you had to pick a time and a place where the 20th century (as a distinct historical epoch) began in America, you could do a lot worse than 90 years ago in Highland Park, Mich. It was there, in 1913, that Henry Ford opened his new Model-T plant and announced, a few months later, that he'd pay his workers a stunning $5 a day on the revolutionary theory that the men who built cars should make enough money to buy them."

Contrast that, he wrote, to 2003, when Wal-Mart is the nation's largest employer, with 3,200 outlets in the United States and sales revenue of $245 billion last year (which, considered on a global scale, makes it the world's 19th largest economy), doesn't pay its workers "enough to buy decent cars, let alone homes. According to a study by Forbes, Wal-Mart employees earn an average hourly wage of $7.50 and, annually, a princely $18,000."

It is, Meyerson added, "one thing to live in a nation where the largest employer wants workers to make enough to afford its cars; quite another to wake up in an America where the largest employer wants workers to make so little they'll be compelled to buy low-end goods in a discount chain."

This battle has just begun.