Big Labor Invites A Few Friends Over

It's enlisting churches and other groups to lean on business

Why do so many union recruitment campaigns fizzle? Labor leaders say one reason is that employers intimidate workers who want to sign up. But management might back off if workers had support from religious and social groups. That's the idea behind a new campaign by AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney to embarrass companies that resist union drives.

In recent months, the labor federation has linked up with a wide spectrum of groups, from the Sierra Club to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. On Apr. 13, leaders from dozens of church, environmental, women's, and religious groups will join labor chieftains for the first test of Sweeney's strategy. They will gather in Watsonville, Calif., for a march aimed at getting strawberry farmers to accept the United Farm Workers (UFW) effort to unionize 20,000 workers. Labor also plans similar campaigns against other employers, such as nursing-home chains and poultry processors.

ACTIVISM. Sweeney's larger goal is to revive the New Deal coalition of labor, liberals, and minorities that served unions so effectively in its heyday. The UFW tried to recapture that spirit on Apr. 4, when Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II (D.-Mass.) visited strawberry workers--echoing the activism of his father, Robert F. Kennedy, who lent his support to the UFW in the 1960s. "People in these groups are anxious to resume their relationship with labor," says Sweeney.

The AFL-CIO says the strawberry industry exemplifies the way employers thwart workers' desire to join unions. The UFW won two elections in 1994 and 1995, but growers plowed under the crops and laid off the workers. Employers say the shutdowns were business decisions unrelated to the union drives. The UFW argues that the actions intimidated pickers who are so worried about losing their $8,500-a-year jobs that they won't vote for the union.

The UFW decided to forgo more elections until it can soften growers' opposition--by building public support. The union has held hundreds of rallies at supermarkets, asking stores to sign pledges supporting their demand that the strawberry industry agree to neutrality pacts. UFW President Arturo S. Rodriguez hasn't called for a boycott, but that's the implied threat. "They're taking the issue to consumers, which we're not happy about," says Phillip A. Adrian, marketing manager at Driscoll Strawberry Associates Inc., the largest strawberry supplier. He denies that growers that ship to Driscoll hinder union elections.

The AFL-CIO's link to social groups has been key to the UFW effort. Some 80 groups, from the National Organization for Women to Friends of the Earth, have taken up the cause. As a result, 16 grocery chains have signed UFW pro-neutrality pledges. "We agreed to sign after the union and the Latino community in California asked us to," says Darius Anderson, a spokesman at Los Angeles-based Ralphs Grocery Co.

ETHICS. The same strategy is being used in other industries, too. Last year, the United Food & Commercial Workers formed a coalition of senior citizen and religious groups to monitor Alabama nursing homes. Now, it's putting together a national coalition to monitor the industry across the U.S.

Last year, 40 religious leaders formed the Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice to help poultry workers. This January, the Chicago-based group issued a "code of ethics" that calls on the industry not to threaten or fire union supporters. "The religious community is helping unions because we run soup kitchens and saw that many people in them don't have jobs that pay enough," says Kim Bobo, head of the committee.

Labor's goal: to make anti-union actions socially unacceptable, a tall order. But the effort may put more employers in the uncomfortable glare of publicity.

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