Unions looking for new support as labor issues come to fore

By Leigh Strope Associated Press Labor Writer
Tuesday September 04, 2001

WASHINGTON — Caught between setbacks and opportunity, union officials think aggressive politics on issues including immigration, trade, workers’ rights and the minimum wage could help build the resurgence they have sought unsuccessfully for years. 

“Unions have more relevance than ever,” said Teamsters President James P. Hoffa. “They’re playing an ever-increasing role in national elections and in directing the debate on the way this country is going.” 

But union membership has slid despite all the talk and effort toward revival. Thousands of jobs have been lost to the faltering economy. The newly installed Bush administration attacked labor’s agenda on such issues as workplace safety regulations and union partnerships with government. 

The Teamsters and some skilled-trades unions have managed to skirt the administration as an obstacle by joining forces with Republicans on some issues. 

The promise of new jobs prompted them to back President’s Bush’s plan to open Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling despite opposition from labor’s traditional Democratic and environmental allies. The coalition even managed to carry along a reluctant AFL-CIO, which had hoped to stay on the sidelines. 

Bush was the first president in 30 years to visit a steel mill. He was welcomed by the United Steelworkers of America, which praised him for launching an investigation of foreign steel imports — something the union did not get from the Clinton administration. 

Even the economic uncertainty holds opportunity for labor. An Associated Press poll last week found that Americans by a 2-1 margin have grown more sympathetic to unions over the past couple of years in labor-business disputes. 

It’s now or never for unions to boost their numbers, said Lawrence Lorber, a Washington labor lawyer who was a deputy assistant labor secretary under President Ford. 

“If people are uncertain, that is when unions get the best opportunity to make their presence felt,” he said. 

The percentage of American workers belonging to unions fell last year to 13.5 percent, the lowest in six decades, according to the Labor Department. Union officials blamed a decline in heavily unionized industries, accompanied by job growth in nonunion parts of the economy. 

Among the big issues and campaigns that unions are tackling: 

• Immigration. The AFL-CIO, eager to reverse declining membership, last year abandoned its stance that immigrants were a threat to American jobs and started reaching out to them. Unions including the Hotel and Restaurant Employees, Service Employees International and United Farm Workers are pressing for legalization of illegal immigrants. Their campaign heats up this week during Bush’s meeting with visiting Mexican President Vicente Fox. 

• Fast track. Unions have generated advertising and thousands of phone calls, letters and e-mail messages to Congress against giving Bush increased trade authority. The effort will be stepped up this week with bus tours to factories in Alabama and California, and later in Indiana and Texas. 

• Mexican trucks. Bush wants unlimited access throughout the United States by Mexican trucks beginning Jan. 1. The Teamsters and AFL-CIO have been running ads opposing an open border. The fight moves to the House. 

• Ergonomics. Unions are awaiting a decision by Labor Secretary Elaine Chao this month on whether she will pursue a new regulation aimed at reducing workplace injuries or take a voluntary approach. Congress earlier this year repealed Clinton-era regulations that unions fought to keep. 

• Scalia: Organized labor opposes the nomination of Eugene Scalia, son of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, to be the Labor Department’s top lawyer because of some of his views, including support for repealing the workplace regulations. His Senate confirmation hearing is Sept. 20. 

• Right to Work: Unions have sent dozens of workers to Oklahoma to help oppose a Sept. 25 voter referendum that would ban labor contracts that require all workers of a particular company to pay union dues or their equivalent. 

• Nissan: The United Auto Workers are seeking an organization vote among workers at a Nissan factory in Smyrna, Tenn., — the first such election in a dozen years at a foreign-owned auto plant. 

• Minimum wage: With the Senate in Democratic hands, there are plans to take up a bill this fall to raise the $5.15 hourly minimum wage.