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Standing Firm in the New Workplace : Labor: In an era when unions seem to be in trouble, the AFL-CIO remains optimistic that trainees can become instruments of change--and challenge the system.

March 16, 1995|GARY LIBMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Signs on the walls read "Union = Mafia" and "No On Strikes--Vote No." Four dour ushers wear anti-union buttons. Lights dim, and an executive on film urges the 22 people in the small meeting room to vote against being represented by a labor union.

Foreign competition makes the company's upcoming revenue uncertain, the executive says. Workers' interests will come first with supervisors in the future, he promises. He says the union often resorts to violence and loses when it strikes.

As the film ends, an usher says, "Sorry. We don't have time for questions."

The "ushers" are actually labor union representatives. The film is part of a role-playing exercise at a training session for aspiring union organizers sponsored by the AFL-CIO Organizing Institute of Washington, D.C., and San Francisco.

After the film, the group walks upstairs to a meeting room, where a teacher asks how the film defined the union. Powerless, money-hungry, uncaring and violent, the aspiring organizers say.

"If the employer gets the jump and defines the union, the workers are starting at a big disadvantage," instructs Chris Woods, director of campus recruiting for the institute.

In an era when unions are in trouble--they represent only 15.5% of American workers, down from 35% in the 1950s--the trainees have traveled from as far away as Texas to attend the three-day event in an El Segundo hotel.

They have marched in Inglewood in red Justice for Janitors T-shirts, attended lectures, heard case studies and engaged in role-playing exercises.

Developing representatives who can think on their feet and win organizing drives are the goals of the seminar, which the institute offers about 35 times a year nationwide.

"If unions do not organize, they die," Woods says. In general, "Less than 6% of union resources go to organizing. About 94% goes to a little declining pie of current membership. Some locals spend 25% to 30% on organizing and they're growing."

The institute particularly seeks women and minority students, who match the new face of American labor and account for about two-thirds of the El Segundo candidates.

About 2,000 people have taken the sessions since they began in 1990. Of those, about 20% have completed internships and apprenticeships and been hired as organizers, usually at salaries between $25,000 and $35,000 a year.

An early graduate is Tanya Wallace, 27, who was hired as an organizer for the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers in Atlanta and came to this meeting as an instructor.

At Loyola University of Chicago, Wallace had wanted a career that would help minorities empower themselves. She also thought everyone should have the right to make a decent living. "Everyone should have the opportunity to provide for their family and grasp the American dream," she says.

"People would look at me and say, 'You can't do anything. That's the way the system is,' " Wallace recalls.

She found little acceptance of her beliefs until she attended an institute training session in 1991.

"When I met the other organizers, it totally clicked," Wallace says. "I felt like this was home for me. This is what I want to do."

*

Wallace, who has won eight of 10 campaigns for the union, describes tasting the joys of organizing on her first campaign for the textile union.

Four women were handing out union leaflets one morning at the door of the rural Mississippi plant where they worked. When the manager told them to get off the property, they ran down the hill to where Wallace watched.

"They had never done it," Wallace says. "They were afraid they'd lose their jobs. The law says they can be on the property to organize as long as they do it on their own time. This was before work, and I told them they had to go back up the hill. And they did.

"At that point, I felt how much they trusted and believed in me and I knew I couldn't let them down."

Students in the El Segundo class include rank-and-file union members, college students and community activists.

Occidental College senior Randy Ertll, 22, came to find out if a career in organizing could help build his community in South-Central Los Angeles.

"I can't make changes alone, so I want to join a bigger organization," says Ertll, who works on organizing drives for Justice for Janitors.

Myriam Escamilla, 26, a field representative for the Service Employees International Union in San Francisco, is at the class to sharpen her organizing skills. She believes gaining control of the workplace reduces workers' alienation and leads to political change.

"The minute you see that you can control this part of your life," she says, "you start seeing that you have more power to control the nation's future."

*

Martha Cody-Valdez, a personnel analyst at UC Santa Barbara, says that even though the labor force has changed, unions are still needed.

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