Waiting for Labor to Rise

Can Unions Seize the Post-9-11 Moment?

International union officials appointed Juan Mazlymian, an Uruguayan-born rank-and-file member, to head the New Jersey asbestos local, and recruited organizers fluent in Spanish, Polish, and Serbo-Croatian, the languages spoken by the majority of the asbestos workers. The union then went after disreputable contractors who charged government agencies prevailing wage rates while paying workers well below that level.

"Asbestos is a very bottom-of-the-barrel industry," says Dave Johnson, the Laborers' organizing director. "We researched contractors, documenting their safety violations, their wage practices. Then we presented that information to local school boards and town councils that were awarding these contracts all over the state."

Since the organizing campaign was launched in March, Local 1030 of the Laborers has expanded from 150 members to 565. "We estimate we represent more than 65 percent of the asbestos removal market now," says Johnson. "Before it was about 5 percent."

It's a success story other unions would love to duplicate, if they could muster the energy and resources.

"There is an unwillingness among many unions to break old habits," says Johnson. "The workforce, particularly among construction, is radically changing. It is no longer mostly English-speaking, native-born workers. They speak different languages, have different cultures, and have a different set of needs."

There also has to be a willingness to seize the moment. It is hard to imagine a potentially more favorable climate, in terms of public attitudes, than the one that has emerged since September 11. Labor, long accustomed to public embarrassment, is at least temporarily on a moral high ground.

"The 9-11 response showed labor at its best," says Raynor. "America's heroes became workers, not politicians or fighter pilots. It showed unions are an integral part of what makes America a great country."

"One of the things we learned," says Grabelsky of the AFL-CIO, "is that in a time of national crisis, working people are ready for sacrifice and lots of corporations are ready for breathtaking greed. The corporate world has been shameless in advancing their agenda, while the labor movement has been tentative and ambivalent. That's partially for good reasons; they want to be sensitive about not exploiting the tragedy. But this moment can quickly dissipate."

Questions about how the political and economic environment for unions has changed in the wake of the attacks were raised at a small workshop at the Las Vegas convention held by Grabelsky and Bill Granfield, secretary-treasurer of Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union Local 100, which saw 43 members working at Windows on the World killed in the attack and another 400 rendered jobless.

"We spend a lot of time trying to explain to people why you belong to a union. Well, there isn't a better way to explain it than right now. The value of union membership is really clear," says Grabelsky.

Some 27 members of the building maintenance workers union died in the Trade Center's collapse, and several hundred more lost jobs in the economic aftershocks. Their union, Local 32B-J of the Service Employees International Union, quickly pulled together to help its members and their families.

The union did something else unusual in the crisis: It got building owners to agree to an early contract renewal in order to avoid the usual end-of-year crisis that afflicts the industry when the contract expires. "There's a sense in the city that employers and unions need to work together right now," says union president Mark Fishman.

"Labor has done a heroic job, not just at the [Trade Center] site, but with the broader community," he adds. "We have to start talking about that story. The real losers are the non-union workers who have no safety net of any kind. They're suffering incredibly right now. They have no advocate, no group that brings them together as a family."

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