Inside the AFL-CIO
Issued Every Tuesday
Column #26 September 18, 2001

Survey Shows Workers Want Protection,
But Unions Aren’t Up to the Challenge

By Harry Kelber

Two-thirds of American workers say employers infringe on their basic rights and that they need more protection in the workplace, according to a new poll conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates for the AFL-CIO. President John Sweeney is calling the Hart survey the most “exhaustive study ever conducted on workplace rights in America.”

Some 56% of respondents said new laws are needed to hold corporations to a higher standard of responsibility in the way they treat workers. And 63% said they have little or no trust that employers will treat their employees fairly.

At least 90% of respondents supported the right to a safe and healthy workplace; to be treated with respect by their employer, and to be able to take time off to care for a baby or sick family member without losing one’s job. Geoff Garin, a member of the survey team, said that in each of these areas, it was nearly the “universal view” that there ought to be laws protecting these “important rights.”

The survey confirms much of what union leaders have known all along. But what new conclusions, if any, will they draw from the data?

Isn’t it time they asked themselves why, if there is widespread worker discontent about conditions on the job and autocratic behavior by employers, they haven’t had greater success in organizing the unorganized?

There are several plausible explanations. Many workers simply don’t trust unions to deliver on their promises. They may see the employer as more powerful than the union — since he has the power to fire you, why should you take the risk of advocating a union?

Another persistent problem is too many poorly-trained organizers who can’t win the trust of workers or respond effectively to anti-union arguments. Pouring more money into organizing, while important, won’t necessarily upgrade the performance of those in the field.

Only a dozen or so of the AFL-CIO’s 64 affiliated international unions are fully committed to organizing on a major scale, because campaigns are costly, risky and time-consuming. How can the laggard unions be motivated to become more involved?

AFL-CIO leaders have failed to reach the unorganized with a message that appeals to their self-interest. Our unions don’t project an image of strength, commitment and aggressiveness that would make Corporate America show them more respect on issues that matter to working families.

One sure way the labor federation could grab the attention of millions of unorganized workers would be to mount a serious campaign for federal legislation to ensure worker rights.

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