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Rustlin' up new members proves slow for unions

It has all the ingredients to be a good old-fashioned knuckle-duster scrap.

The battle pits the AFL-CIO, making its most concerted membership drive in two decades and probably the most sophisticated one ever, against the free-wheeling business ethos of Houston, Texas, a bastion of laissez-faire capitalism and traditionally no friend of collective bargaining.

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Last October the AFL-CIO launched its costly and highly visible Houston Organizing Project with one immediate aim in mind: to sign up more union members in what has become one of the fastest-growing job centers in the country.

Today, a year later, the campaign is shaping up into no quick Waterloo for either the labor federation or union-resistent companies. The union drive is off to something of a slow start, hampered in part by a recession that some thought would never make it as far as Texas.

Nevertheless, the real success or failure of the drive will be marked in the decades ahead. Both union and company leaders are digging in for a prolonged struggle that will be carried out over the airwaves, in the backrooms of company plants, and over plates of spare ribs. ''We're there for the duration,'' says Alan Kistler, the AFL-CIO's Washington-based director.

For labor, the Houston drive is something of a test. It comes at a time when the membership rolls and public image of unions are declining and companies continue to flee to the traditionally nonunion Sunbelt. On the other hand, labor leaders are keenly aware that if they could make significant inroads in Houston, it might open up much of the rest of the South and West to organized labor.

The challenge, however, is a formidable one. Texas ranks 48th in the nation in the percent of its work force that is unionized. And that number has declined from an estimated 13 percent a few years ago to 11 percent today - well below the 20 percent national average. At the same time, the state maintains a saddlebag full of laws restricting union activities such as picketing and boycotts. It is also a right-to-work state, prohibiting labor contracts that require union participation as a condition of permanent employment.

More than that, the virtues of free enterprise - which in Texas often includes the corollary of antiunionism - have long been trumpeted in business forums, in classrooms, and even, occassionally, from the pulpit.

Despite the odds, however, Houston represented an area too tempting for organized labor to pass up. In less than a decade more than 700,000 people have found new jobs here. Employment has mushroomed in all areas, from service industries to manufacturing to retail trade. Unions, even though representing a small percentage of the Texas work force, are well established in some areas.

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To draw more, the AFL-CIO is throwing more than $1 million into the first year of a campaign it hopes will eventually net several hundred thousand workers within a 100-mile radius of Houston. It has also enlisted the help of 20 full-time staffers and dozens of volunteers from 30 local unions. The unusual Houston drive is patterned after one the AFL-CIO launched in Los Angeles some 20 years ago. Both involve a group of local unions, backed up by research and technical help from the national federation, banding together to saturate an area. Labor leaders contend the ''highly successful'' Los Angeles campaign has brought in some 400,000 members so far.

The Houston campaign offers a window on what future organizing may look like. Unions are slowly graduating from the days of podium-thumping back-room speeches to an era of computers and mass-media pitches. In August Houston organizers hit the airwaves with a series of radio messages extolling the rewards of unionism and underlining the risks of doing without it. One theme stressed that a more organized work force could improve the lackluster Texas record in occupational safety.

Leading the local effort is Robert Comeaux, a native Texan who once led an organizing campaign against Winn-Dixie Stores, a southern food chain. A workaholic who has spent many days passing out handbills from the trunk of his car, Mr. Comeaux contends organizers are choosing their targets in Houston carefully.

Yet unionists face resistence from business, which has plenty of money and manpower behind it. Corporations are hiring prominent law firms, as well as labor-management consultants, to counsel them on how to remain union-free. Business groups have been holding seminars suggesting ways to boost worker morale and avoid collectivism. ''We've had every kind of labor-management consultant and union buster come into town,'' Mr. Comeaux says.

So far union organizers say they have signed up 5,000 workers since January - a figure they consider respectable, but others argue is meagre. In addition to industrial laborers, organizers focused on hospital employees, teachers, and service-industry workers.

Hampering part of the organizers' efforts may be the economic downturn. Many workers are skittish about joining a union when there are plenty of idle workers around to take their place.

''If they had started in Houston two years ago, they could have already organized 200,000 to 300,000 workers,'' says Frank Parker, a consultant to companies. ''Right now they're kind of a paper tiger.''

At the same time, however, the threat of layoffs always prompts a certain number of workers to unite against employers. ''Instinct tells you that when you are threatened you look somewhere for protection,'' says Harry Hubbard, president of the state AFL-CIO.

Another double-edge sword for the unions has been the recent influx of laborers from the industrialized North. Many of them, affiliated with unions in the past, are eager to see organized labor flourish in Texas. But many also blame unions for current economic ills and don't want to have anything to do with them, analysts say.

One source of strength for the unions in the future could be the growing number of Mexican laborers in the state. But up to now they have shown little interest in organizing. Ultimately, most observers expect the unions to make gains, but not dramatic ones. Nevertheless, their presence will be enough to keep many companies on their toes.

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