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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW : Linda Chavez-Thompson : Is Revitalizing America's Labor Movement a Sisyphean Task?

February 04, 1996|Harry Bernstein | Harry Bernstein covered labor issues for The Times for 32 years. He interviewed Linda Chavez Thompson by phone from her office in Washington, D.C

Linda Chavez Thompson's election to the new position of AFL-CIO executive vice president ended the historic hold of white males on the top jobs in the American labor movement. She campaigned for the post by calling for major changes in the structure and tactics of the federation and, when elected last October, she told the union convention, "The face of labor is changing, and you can tell this by the mere fact that I am a woman--and a woman of color."

But Thompson, 50, is not new to unions. She started her career as a union activist at age 23, working as a representative of a local in Texas that had many Spanish-speaking members. No one in charge could speak their language, so she was hired. She later became an organizer for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, but she and her first husband had two young children, so she took a less demanding job that allowed her to spend more time at home. As her children grew, she moved to more demanding, higher ranking jobs--as director of a local union, then regional vice president of AFSCME.

Thompson is an American success story. The granddaughter of Mexican immigrants, she was one of eight children of sharecropper parents in Lubbock, Texas. She first started working summers in the cotton fields at age 10, and dropped out of school entirely in the ninth grade to help support her family. A stocky, determined woman, she is already a grandmother.

As third-ranking leader of the AFL-CIO, Thompson says she will help cement the federation's relations with women and minorities--who make up an increasingly large part of union membership, about 40%. Thompson is determined to raise that figure.

Though there are roughly 15 million federation members, the AFL-CIO's percentage of the total work force has dropped dramatically over the last 30 years--and its once powerful political influence has declined proportionately. Union members are now only 15.5% of the work force, compared to more than 34% in the 1950s, and only 11% of the private work force. Thompson has long sought to unionize public employees, whom she regards as a huge source of potential new members. Indeed, she was a key figure in winning a law allowing collective bargaining by public employees in New Mexico.


Question: Unions today represent only about 15% of the work force--less than half their strength of a few decades ago. The new top AFL-CIO leadership, that now includes you, says unions need to be revitalized. How will you do that?

Answer: First, we've got to spend much more money on organizing. The AFL-CIO has been spending about 5% of its budget on organizing. Most national and international unions spend about the same thing. With that, at best they just sustain their membership numbers even as the number of workers increase. The new AFL-CIO is committed to setting an example for all of its affiliates by setting aside $20 million for organizing during the first two years, and then about that much every year thereafter. Basically, it means 30% of our budget, not 5%. If each of our affiliates follow suit, you would see a major resurgence in organizing.

Q: Will the increased money for organizing really bring in many more members?

A: We can win new members in this current anti-union atmosphere created by greedy corporations and conservative politicians by using a massive campaign reminding everyone of what we did in the 1930s, when Americans faced the same kind of anti-union atmosphere and workers endured low wages and harsh work ing conditions. People then finally got tired of the financial beatings they were taking and said we're not going to take this anymore. I think we're getting back to those conditions again today, because corporate America doesn't care about its employees--just about their "bottom line." Once more, workers are saying they won't take it anymore.

Q: If the current economic system doesn't help the average worker, and instead is enriching the rich, as you say, then why is there not greater protest and greater support for unions to counterbalance that corporate power? Could it be that there isn't as much imbalance as you believe?

A: There is a huge imbalance, but we've got to educate people about the truths about our economy so they will realize the need to change it. Workers are getting hit from all sides by corporations and right-wing politicians. The way things stand now, most working families are not able to dig themselves out of poverty and improve their standard of living. They really have to take matters into their own hands. All unions can do is show them the way.

Q: Haven't unions tried to do that for years, with little response from workers?

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