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Corporate Misdeeds a Benefit for Labor?

July 28, 2002|NANCY CLEELAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After years of railing against corporate greed, union leaders are suddenly finding an audience--and with it, perhaps, their best chance in decades to remake labor's image and build membership.

But some activists say top union officials aren't moving aggressively enough to capitalize on the public flogging of corporate America. They want to see strategies that create drama and call attention to larger issues, such as the diminished clout of workers in a freewheeling global economy.

"I think they're caught off-guard," Washington political consultant Jim Grossfeld said of the union establishment. "Some of these guys have been knocking themselves out for 20 years, trying to get a message across. Now all of a sudden it's on the front page .... People want labor to take the gloves off. But it's hard to change gears so quickly."

Several prominent union presidents agreed that they must do more to broaden the public debate beyond accounting reform, and predicted that would happen over the next six months.

Two said they plan to launch major initiatives soon, one addressing the loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs, another taking on large employers who fail to provide health benefits for low-wage workers.

"It's a question of whether or not we can make this about something more fundamental," said Andy Stern, president of the 1.5-million-member Service Employees International Union. "We need to pick out a poster child for irresponsible corporate behavior and really expose the effect that has on the people who work for them."

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, a low-key consensus builder by nature, has recently punched up his rhetoric as well. Two days before WorldCom Ltd. filed for bankruptcy protection, Sweeney chastised Chief Executive John Sidgmore in a three-page letter, and challenged him to follow 10 worker-friendly principles in planning the company's restructuring.

On Monday, Sweeney will blast away at corporate tax dodgers during an appearance at the Bridgeport, Conn., offices of Stanley Works, which has announced plans to move its headquarters to Bermuda.

The next day, he is set to deliver labor's biggest response yet to the string of alleged corporate misdeeds, speaking on Wall Street and flanked by more than 1,000 workers who lost their jobs in the aftermath of accounting scandals.

"This is not a short-term situation," Sweeney said in an interview. "We're going to carry this into the congressional elections in the fall. We're going to make this a major part of our Labor Day activities. We're not letting go."

Drawing comparisons to the early 1930s, some analysts said the growing disillusionment with all things corporate could offer a psychological breakthrough for labor, which has struggled with declining membership and a sense of fading relevance for at least 20 years.

"Historically, the union movement and social reformers succeed when their opponents self-destruct," said Nelson Lichtenstein, a history professor at UC Santa Barbara and author of several books on labor. "It's a question of when the old elites lose credibility, when they are perceived as hypocritical or self-interested. That's when people start looking for other institutions to fill the vacuum."

But he said it's not clear the American public has reached that stage. And he cautioned that unions, which represent only about 13% of the U.S. work force, still face many obstacles, including laws that make it difficult to organize new members, a White House that has been openly hostile to some pet projects, and internal bureaucracies that stifle innovation.

Even when unions take on substantial causes in creative ways, they might be ignored.

"Labor in so many ways has become invisible. Even the magnitude of this challenge doesn't change that," said Harley Shaiken, a professor at UC Berkeley who specializes in labor and the global economy. "It's hard for them to get their message out."

Asked whether labor has done enough amid the corporate scandals, Karen Nussbaum, a union veteran tapped by Sweeney to head the AFL-CIO's public response, said testily that the federation has been deeply involved since the Enron case began, but has gotten little credit for it.

For example, AFL-CIO attorneys went to court for Enron workers and won them enhanced severance packages, even though not one belonged to a union. Then, while the loss of jobs and retirement funds was still raw, the federation took several ex-employees on a 15-stop, pro-union tour, hoping to build a cross-country consciousness of worker vulnerability. It now plans a similar tour with fired WorldCom workers.

"I've done lots of national campaigns," said Nussbaum, who was previously the federation's point person for women's issues.

"After a while, you know when something is connecting. And it is now."

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