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Afl-Cio Wants A Shot At Popularity Union Leaders Push The Right To Organize As The Civil Rights Issue Of The Next Decade

After the votes were counted at a North Carolina food-processing plant, workers say, managers let the employees know what they really thought of their efforts to form a union.

“We were pushed out of the room, we were beaten up, spit on,” said Rayshawn Ward, 21, who was sprayed with Mace and handcuffed by security guards when he stepped in to protect his wife in the melee.

If the AFL-CIO has its way, such stories will be seen as more than random incidents of workplace strife. The giant labor federation aims to make the right to organize the next big civil rights issue.

The AFL-CIO is gathering in Pittsburgh for its biennial convention - the first celebrating labor’s rejuvenation under the presidency of John Sweeney, who has made recruitment his top priority.

Still, fewer than 15 percent of American workers belong to a union.

Although the increasing globalization of the economy and an anti-union climate in the 1980s stymied unionization efforts, Teamsters President Ron Carey was more blunt about blaming the leadership of the past.

“A lot of it was because people fell asleep at the wheel,” Carey said, referring to what he often calls “fat cat” union bosses who were more interested in their own advancement than in supporting workers.

Currently, unions need to recruit 300,000 new members yearly just to maintain their share of the work force. But without dramatically increasing membership, the labor movement will find it difficult to win battles over wage disparity or broader social issues.

Companies that wish to thwart unionization of their workers typically have more resources, can constantly lobby workers at their work sites and use labor laws to delay certification of union votes for three years or more.

“The hypocrisy of these laws is that they were designed to encourage collective bargaining, but they actually inhibit millions of Americans from achieving the middle-class dream through unionization,” said Richard Bensinger, the AFL-CIO organizing director.

Over the summer, some 11,000 union activists attended regional AFL-CIO organizing conferences in 12 cities to share strategies and spread an evangelical enthusiasm for the task of recruitment.

At a similar session in Pittsburgh on Saturday, Vice President Al Gore listened to about 100 grassroots organizers tell how companies fought them.

Gore likened unions in the workplace to the checks and balances in the federal government, and he said most Americans would be shocked to learn how some companies employ “slick lawyers,” violence and harassment to fight rank-and-file union votes.

“They frustrate the will of the democratic majority in those elections,” Gore said. “That is wrong.”

Five percent of workers who try to organize a union get fired, Gore said. He cited as examples for business to follow the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas and Levi Strauss Inc., which did not insist on formal elections once a majority of their workers signed pledge cards to support unions.

“There is simply no place for employers inside union elections,” Gore said.

The first resolution on the agenda of the convention opening Monday calls for increasing the federation’s involvement in industrywide organizing.

The item says the AFL-CIO will “seek to establish the right to organize as the civil rights issue of the next decade,” through public education and building coalitions with community groups. A long-term goal is labor law reform.

Federation officials plan to spend $20 million annually, beginning next year, on a television advertising campaign designed to change the way the public views unions. After some internal debate, leaders agreed to find a way to finance the plan without asking the convention to approve a special assessment.

After the convention, workers such as Ward - whose United Food and Commercial Workers representatives are demanding a new vote on grounds the company violated election rules - will still be the ones on the front lines of the labor movement.

“I was Maced. I was arrested for trying to protect my wife,” he said. “We want a union, we need a union. And last but not least, we’re gonna get a union.”