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Outsourcing Firms Focus of Unions

An organizing effort by service workers is expected to be a $10-million campaign.

June 22, 2004|Nancy Cleeland | Times Staff Writer

The Service Employees International Union, which built itself into the nation's largest union by aggressively organizing janitors and home-care workers, plans to take on three fast-growing outsourcing companies in its biggest campaign ever.

Speaking at his union's quadrennial convention in San Francisco on Monday, SEIU President Andrew Stern said the companies -- France's Sodexho Inc., Britain's Compass Group and Philadelphia-based Aramark Corp. -- are growing at the expense of union workers, whose jobs are being contracted out.

"Today, these three companies employ 1.1 million workers and are growing so fast in cleaning, food service, laundry, transportation, maintenance and anything else that can be contracted out in schools, universities, government, office buildings, hospitals and nursing homes that in a few years they will overtake Wal-Mart in size," Stern told a cheering crowd of nearly 4,000 members. "These three global service companies -- they are our Wal-Mart."

Nonunion Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world's largest company, often is cited by union leaders as a force to lower wages and benefits in the retail sector.

The organizing effort is being undertaken jointly with the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, which represents garment and laundry workers, and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union. It will be a high-profile test of plans by the three unions to work more closely on large strategic campaigns.

It also promises to be difficult, given the size, global reach and widely dispersed workforces of the targeted companies. But the SEIU has used creative approaches to organize difficult-to-reach employees, including janitors who clean office buildings at night through contractors.

In Los Angeles, by holding marches, candlelight vigils and other highly visible events, the union eventually forced building owners to intervene. They in turn persuaded the contractors to accept the union.

The three outsourcing companies named by Stern have some union workers, although the majority are nonunion. According to union researchers, Aramark is 22% union in North America, Compass is about 12% and Sodexho is 8%.

The three companies combined have 330,000 nonunion workers in the U.S. and Canada, according to an SEIU organizer. They run company cafeterias, make lunches for schoolchildren and hospital patients, serve up hot dogs at sporting events and wash linens for hotels. All three have operations in Southern California. Aramark, for example, operates concessions at Dodger Stadium.

Spokespeople for the companies said the fact that some employees already are union members proves that the firms are open to working with organized labor. But they said it should be up to employees at each work site to vote on whether to join a union, rather than a company deciding as a whole.

The presidents of UNITE, the textile union, and HERE, the hotel and restaurant union, are set to address the convention today. They and Stern are among a small group of union leaders calling for massive consolidation of U.S. unions and a more cohesive national and international approach to organizing.

Tom Woodruff, an SEIU executive vice president who is coordinating the new campaign, said the three unions expected to spend $10 million on it in the next 18 months.

"We've got to stop them from competing in a race to the bottom," Woodruff said of the outsourcing conglomerates. "It's huge when you think about it -- these are the jobs that are going to be left in our economy."

Sodexho USA spokeswoman Leslie Aun said the union's campaign was out of line, considering that much of the company's U.S. workforce is already unionized.

"We have tremendously good relations with many unions, just about everyone that operates in North America," she said. "We've actually met with SEIU as well as UNITE and HERE because we're not anti-union. We wanted to work cooperatively with these guys and it became very clear to us it was an all-or-nothing game. As far as we can tell, they want to push out all the other unions we deal with. They pretty much want us to be with them 100%."

Woodruff, however, said Sodexho was "the most anti-union of the three," and that was why the company had been singled out as the first target.

"Not only are they giant, but they're growing exponentially," said Keith Mestrich, director of strategic affairs for UNITE. "We project they'll be up to 1 million U.S. workers in the next decade."

The three unions favor organizing by sector and employer rather than by workplace. That is, they pressure corporations to agree to remain neutral and to recognize the union if it collects pledge cards from a majority of workers. Sodexho, like the other two companies, favors using the federally supervised election process, which generally is more difficult for a union to win.

The SEIU has 1.6 million members but is adding 200,000 through campaigns that are nearly complete, Stern said.

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