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Carlos Osorio  /  AP file
The UAW was long the face of organized labor, but it's now the 12th largest union in the United States.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 9/26/2007 5:10:53 PM ET 2007-09-26T21:10:53

While the United Auto Workers tentative deal with General Motors may look like a victory for labor, it really shows that a once-powerful union is gasping for life.

The power center of U.S. unions is no longer the industrial sector, with once dominant forces like the UAW at the forefront. Today, the big union guns are in service industries less susceptible to outsourcing — everything from health care to hospitality.

“For a long time, the UAW was the face of the labor movement but it’s not where the power is in organized labor any more,” says Julius Getman, labor law professor at the University of Texas School of Law, and author of “Strike.”

Indeed, the UAW ranks 12th among U.S. unions with about 538,448 members. The  National Education Association is the largest with 2,767,696 members, and the Service Employees International Union is second with 1,575,485 members, according to BNA, a specialized news and information publisher.

The unions leading the charge to organize service sector and public employees — including the SEIU, Unite Here, the Teamsters, the United Food and Commercial Workers International union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — are the new face of labor in the United States today, Getman explains.

“Labor has become much more dynamic than it was 20 years ago,” he adds, because the focus is on organizing a whole new group of workers.

It has a long way to go.

Membership among the labor movement as a whole has been declining for decades, thanks to globalization, tighter legal controls on union organizing and a growing discontent with unions. In 1977, nearly 24 percent of workers were union members. Last year, that number hit 12 percent.

Many labor experts believe the big industrial unions rested on their laurels, unwilling to see the impending doom that was decimating their ranks. “The UAW and the Steelworkers unions tried to hold on to past gains and tried to figure out globalization,” says Gary Chaison, professor of Industry relations at Clark University, Graduate School of Management.

But in recent years, a call to intensify organizing among service sector jobs has helped reinvigorate some unions that were willing to branch out beyond their industrial roots.

The new voices of the labor movement, he explains, “are talking about organizing Wal-Mart and reinventing the Civil Rights movement, bringing power in the workplace to workers who are on the margin of society.”

“If I said to (UAW president) Ron Gettelfinger, ‘you should go organize Wal-Mart,’ he’d look at me like I was crazy,” he adds. “The UAW used to be one of the most innovative, militant unions, now it finds itself moving backwards.”

The effort to shift the focus reached a crescendo in 2005, when a group including the SEIU and the Teamsters, decided to break off from the old guard stalwart AFl-CIO, a federation of many different unions. The leaders that led the split, most vocal of them among them the SEIU’s Andy Stern, said they were sick of continued decline in membership and wanted to intensify organizing efforts.

But many also saw it as a rift between the old and the new economies. On the one side were the jobs that were easily exportable outside the country, says Jim Ferber, a labor law attorney with Littler Mendelson. And on the other side, he adds, “were the jobs in those industries that were not only growing in the U.S. but jobs that can’t be outsourced.”

As an attorney representing employers, Ferber sees the most union activity in healthcare, hotels, trucking, warehousing and in the public sector.

There has also been a conscious push to organize lower-level workers such as janitors and nurses aides, says Pat Cihon, associate professor of law and public policy in the Whitman School at Syracuse University. And unions like the Food and Commercial Workers are reaching out to younger workers and “trying to appeal to their interest in social justice.”

Union strongholds are still in the Northeast, West and Midwest, he said. Recent efforts have targeted service workers in Texas and other Sun Belt states, long no-mans land for organized labor.

It’s hard to make sweeping judgments about the impact of unions, says Tom Hyclak, professor of economics at Lehigh University. Some union efforts have led to higher wages and benefits where others led to little change. Unions, he adds, are strongest in the public sector, especially with teachers, police and firefighters.

“Union power is best assessed in the context of a specific workplace,” says Hyclak.

Hyclak points out that in the public sector 40 percent of workers are represented by unions, compared to 8 percent in the private sector. 

Also, membership among educators is 42 percent and nearly 37 percent among protective service occupations. In utilities, transportation and telecommunications it's more than 20 percent, with 18 percent represented in the construction trades.

The states with the highest union penetration, between 20 to 25 percent, are New York, New Jersey, Washington, Michigan, Hawaii and Alaska. And on the low end, less than 6 percent, are North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, and Texas.

Even with the renewed effort to target the disenfranchised workers in service jobs, it’s unclear how that will play out for workers in the once dominate industrial unions like the UAW.

Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of Labor Education Research at Cornell University, believes industrial-focused unions are still powerful and continue to get better working conditions and wages for their members. But, she adds, “there will be no power base unless all the labor unions work together.”

If well-paying manufacturing jobs all but disappear in the United States, she explains, that will have an impact on service jobs because the tax base will decline and with it so will the number of jobs at hospitals, school and hotels.

“It all depends on whether the whole movement is ready to act as a movement,” she said.

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