Labor's New Organization Man

Bruce Raynor is reinvigorating the troubled garment workers' union. Could he be the successor to AFL-CIO chief Sweeney?

Bruce S. Raynor was on a roll. On Mar. 19, the president of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial & Textile Employees (UNITE) held a conference call for reporters to announce an ambitious, $100 million lawsuit against Cintas Corp. (CTAS ), the country's leading commercial laundry company. The class action charges that the largely nonunion Cintas fails to pay overtime to thousands of drivers who pick up laundry from hotels, restaurants, and other customers. Raynor let Cintas workers and UNITE organizers do most of the talking, only stepping in to blast Cintas for "dragging down standards in the industry by paying subpar wages." A Cintas official denies the overtime charge and insists the company pays competitive wages.

It's bold tactics like the Cintas lawsuit that are turning Raynor into a rising star in the labor movement and a potential successor to AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney, whose term expires in two years. When Raynor became the president of UNITE in 2001, he took over a union that had been badly battered by the offshore exodus of more than a million garment and textile jobs.

But Raynor has reversed the decline with some aggressive tactics. The Cintas suit, for example, is part of a national recruitment drive he kicked off in January to sign up 17,000 Cintas workers. His approach: tapping the strength of UNITE's mostly minority and immigrant membership by getting them to reach out to recruits with similar backgrounds. By focusing on low-wage industries such as laundry and retail distribution that aren't subject to trade pressure, Raynor has reinvigorated the flagging union. "The laundry campaign offers a model of how unions can organize an entire industry," says former AFL-CIO Organizing Director Richard Bensinger, who has advised Raynor on recruitment.

Raynor's moves counter the view that unions lack relevance to American workers. They also stand as a sharp rebuke to most labor leaders, who have fewer troubles than UNITE, yet who still haven't taken the difficult steps needed to spur growth. In February, Raynor helped prod the adoption of a new AFL-CIO governing body with four other successful union leaders, including two other possible successors to Sweeney, hotel workers' President John W. Wilhelm and service employees' President Andy Stern. They all believe vigorous action can reverse labor's decline. "I'm convinced that the labor movement has the resources to grow," says Raynor.

If UNITE can sign up tens of thousands of members, Raynor reasons, so can other unions. UNITE lost more than 200,000 members through the late 1990s, cutting its ranks to 250,000, largely because of offshore competition. Raynor, 53, set out to reverse the trend well before he was elected president. A wire-thin, intensely driven man who got a BA in labor relations from Cornell University, he spent most of his career recruiting thousands of low-wage workers in the union-unfriendly South.

Then, in 1998, Raynor launched a national recruitment drive in commercial laundry. He saw that the industry couldn't be moved offshore and that outsourcing was creating thousands of jobs at fast-growing companies such as Cintas. Its workers also resemble UNITE members, who are 80% nonwhite and immigrant and typically earn $8 an hour.

Raynor prodded UNITE to focus more resources on recruitment and less on servicing current members. It now spends more than 40% of its budget on organizing, up from 20% in 1995, and Raynor vows to lift that above 50%. By contrast, many unions today still devote less than 5% to recruitment.

Using organizers who can speak to workers in their native language, UNITE has signed up 30,000 new laundry members since 1998. It now represents 27% of the industry, enough to lift members' wages by up to 25%, to about $9 an hour, and to give them medical benefits. It's a track record other unions will be studying.

By Aaron Bernstein in Washington

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