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Cappuccino, Croissants a New Tool : Unions Re-Examining Recruitment Strategies

April 07, 1986|HENRY WEINSTEIN | Times Labor Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Union organizers Richard Leung and Jean Quan have discovered some new weapons in their efforts to recruit members in the Bay Area--cappuccino and croissants.

When Leung and Quan were recruiting clerks, sales people and other employees at the Flax art supply store here, many of whom were college educated, they decided they had to take a different approach than they use to organize Korean immigrant janitors working for the minimum wage.

Quan decided that the art store workers whom she fondly refers to as "DUMPIES,"--downwardly mobile urban professionals--might be more receptive to hearing about the union while sipping cappuccino in a cafe here, as many of them are wont to do, than at the union hall. Then, just before the vote on unionization, Quan and Leung handed out roses to the workers as they entered the store and sent out Christmas cards with a message from Albert Camus, the existentialist French writer: "In the depth of winter, I finally learned that here was in me an invincible summer."

They also circulated a leaflet that said having a union would not suppress individuality and told the workers they would attempt to set up a joint labor-management committee to consider merit pay increases for employees. Such a committee would be a departure for most unions, who traditionally regard such efforts as attempts by management to pit workers against one another.

"It was a different style of organizing," said Thomas Lacey, a painter who works in Flax's order department here. Store workers had been unresponsive to several earlier organizing campaigns at the store, but Local 87 was voted in by a narrow margin 15 months ago. Negotiations toward a first contract are still under way with the store owners.

These are difficult times for union organizers, the toughest era since just before the Great Depression.

Quan and Leung are among hundreds of union organizers throughout the country going through a painful re-examination of their strategy and techniques. Their ability to find ways to appeal to a new generation of workers and the degree of support they get from their leaders may well determine whether organized labor rebounds from its current low ebb or continues its downward slide. Among the signs of decline:

- Organized labor's share of the private sector work force has dropped to 18%, down from 23% in 1980 and 35% in 1955, and it will decline to 10% by the year 2000 if current trends continue, according to studies by Paul Weiler, a Harvard law professor, and Richard Freeman, a Harvard economics professor

- Unions won only 43% of representation elections held by the National Labor Relations Board last year and have not won a majority of such elections since 1973.

- Unions are able to negotiate contracts in only 63% of the elections they win.

- In recent years, unions won only 24% of the elections held in units of 100 or more workers and secured contracts at only 14% of those units.

Union leaders cite a number of factors for the decline, including increased antagonism of companies to unionization, manifested by the fact that one in every 20 people who participates in an organizing campaign is fired; growing pro-employer sympathy of the National Labor Relations Board; the anti-union sentiments of the Reagan Administration; indifference among young workers and structural changes in the economy that have diminished sectors where unions traditionally have been strong, such as heavy manufacturing.

But union officials also are beginning to point fingers at themselves. Within the last year, union leaders have been forced to admit that they have not devoted enough time, energy, people and money to organizing and that this has played a key role in the decline of the labor movement.

"The labor movement permitted a generation of time to elapse, approximately 1955-1980, without preparing--by education and training--for this current generation of organizers," Vincent Sirabella, 64, a 47-year veteran of the labor movement, said in a speech at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations last year.

"Labor must make organizing its principal priority for the balance of this century and well into the next century," Sirabella said in the speech, which has been widely quoted in union circles.

Sirabella is organizing director of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union, which last year set up special organizing projects in four cities--Santa Ana, Boston, Chicago and Washington--and staffed them with young, idealistic, organizers. "We don't expect big victories right away," he said. "We're building for the future."

The Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union is one of the few that can point to notable victories in the last five years--including the 1984 strike against Las Vegas hotel owners and the organization of 2,700 white-collar workers at Yale University.

But there have been other successes:

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