Inside the AFL-CIO
Issued Every Tuesday
Column #4 April 10, 2001

Labor’s Future Growth Depends
On Organizing Professionals

By Harry Kelber

Until the 1980’s, the AFL-CIO was essentially a blue-collar organization, dominated by unions of construction workers, teamsters, longshoremen, auto and steel workers. Few union leaders had college degrees; most had gained their knowledge and experience, as they said, in the “school of hard knocks.”

AFL-CIO leaders showed little interest in organizing low paying industries where women and people of color were employed. They did not regard the lack of racial and ethnic diversity within their affiliates as a problem. As late as 1978, the federation’s Executive Council included no women, no Hispanics and only two African Americans, representing Actors Equity and the Sleeping Car Porters. White-collar professionals were an exotic species within the labor movement.

During the last quarter century, the AFL-CIO’s membership, organizing mission and political activity have undergone a radical transformation. The federation’s Department of Professional Employees (DPE), created in 1977, now comprises 23 national unions that collectively represent more than four million professional, technical and other highly skilled white-collar workers. Reflecting the dramatic change within the AFL-CIO, white-collar workers in 1999 represented 50% of all union members.

While overall union representation in the nation’s work force has declined to 13.5%, some 23% of the 20 million Americans employed as teachers, nurses, physicians engineers, scientists, technicians, writers, and those in other professional occupations belong to unions, according to a new AFL-CIO report, “The Professional and Technical Work Force: A New Frontier for Unions.”

The report shows that professional specialists, the fastest growing sector of the labor force, are expected to increase by 27% to 24 million by 2008. By then, DPE unions hope to expand their membership to six million.

DPE’s new president, Paul Almeida, has replaced Jack Golodner, who has retired after directing the department since its founding. Almeida, 47, became president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Employees in 1994. Last year he negotiated a contract for 23,000 Boeing engineers, scientists and technicians after a 38-day strike.

Why the remarkable union growth among white-collar professions? Unions are reacting to efforts by companies and public agencies to subject professionals to the disrespectful treatment accorded blue-collar workers. All professionals want a voice in the workplace and opportunities to use their special skills without heavy-handed interference from bureaucrats. Increasingly, they are deciding that unions can give them some measure of protection against workplace insecurity.

In the past, professional specialty associations beat back union organizing campaigns with the snob-appeal argument that it’s demeaning for professionals to belong to the blue-collar AFL-CIO and be subject to its policies and practices. But unions have gained in appeal because they have more economic and political clout than the specialty associations.

The best union organizers now realize that professionals are put off by the kind of confrontational tactics used in past campaigns. It’s most important for them to work in an atmosphere devoid of tension and conflict. One good selling point for organizers is the argument that collective bargaining through a union fosters a smoother and more cooperative relationship between management and employees.

When the arch-conservative American Medical Assn. recognizes that physicians employed in the health-care industry need unions, it’s clear that unions for professionals have come of age.

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