CHICAGO (Reuters) - White-collar is the new blue-collar.
For decades, the U.S. labor movement has watched with frustration as the country’s white-collar professional workforce mushroomed in size and importance, but remained firmly outside its orbit.
Now, with companies laying off tens of thousands of salaried workers and cutting the pay of many more amid the worst economic crisis since the Depression, organizers see an opportunity to win over the cubicle-dwellers who have replaced blue-collar workers at the center of the U.S. economy.
“White-collar workers, who used to think their education and standing guaranteed them a certain amount of insulation, are now realizing that’s a fantasy in this economy,” said Andy Stern, the president of the Service Employees International Union, North America’s fastest-growing union.
“I think there’s an enormous opportunity for us here.”
Indeed, an offshoot of the SEIU recently set off alarm bells when an internal memo surfaced revealing a plan to organize workers at banks, including Bank of America, that have received U.S. government bailout money.
Only 12.4 percent of the country’s workforce, or 16.1 million workers, belonged to a labor union in 2008. That percentage is down from a peak of 28.3 percent in 1954.
Strip out government workers, where nearly 37 percent of the workforce nationally is unionized, and union penetration of private industry tumbles to just 7.6 percent.
But the pendulum could be about to swing the other way, according to everyone from union leaders to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a leading business advocacy group.
“I guess the argument could be made that, in these times of greater economic uncertainty, the things a labor union can offer would be more appealing,” said Michael Eastman, the chamber’s executive director of labor policy.
“But I think that’s going to be a workplace-by-workplace analysis. I think some unions will get it and some won’t.”
Attorney Amy Moor Gaylord at Franczek Radelet & Rose, a law firm that frequently works with employers resisting union efforts, is more blunt. The downturn, she says, has left the middle classes “ripe for union organizing efforts.”
It may already be happening. According to data released on Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Labor, the number of union members in the United States jumped 428,000 last year — though unionization rates remained low in the financial services and professional and business services industries.
Those, of course, are the industries organized labor now has in its sights. History suggests they have their work cut out for them.
As C. Wright Mills, the U.S. sociologist who coined the term “white collar,” pointed out back in the 1950s, the managers, technicians, sales people and office workers who constitute the group view themselves differently from other groups unions have organized.
Strongly individualistic, confident in their own talent and ingenuity, white-collar workers are more comfortable with self-marketing than collective action and rarely see themselves as a mere commodity in the labor market.
Also, they tend to eschew the often acrimonious election campaigns required by current law in order for a union to win the right to represent workers.
“White-collar union organizing has been prohibitively difficult,” said Dan Morris, a spokesman at the pro-union Drum Major Institute for Public Policy. “There haven’t been many successful examples of it.”
But in today’s environment, where mass layoffs have underscored the vulnerability of a middle class already reeling from the housing crisis and a related rout on Wall Street, the unions see an opening.
“We definitely think the conditions are right,” said Paul Almeida, the president of the department of professional employees, the unit within the AFL-CIO exclusively focused on organizing white-collar workers.
Harley Shaiken, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who specializes in labor issues, agrees.
“There’s something new in the air,” he said. “There is a sense that white-collar workers have become the blue-collar workers of the 21st century in terms of job security, wages and benefits. That’s certainly how they’re treated. And if you’re treated like a blue-collar worker, you may respond like a blue-collar worker and seek to protect benefits and maintain some job security.”
Adding to the perceived opportunity is The Employee Free Choice Act, a union-supported bill that would make it harder for businesses to prevent their employees from forming unions. The measure was sponsored by President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden when they were both U.S. senators.
The proposed law would eliminate the lengthy and frequently contentious election process now required. Instead, the union would simply have to obtain the signatures of a majority of the employees in a workplace in order to be recognized as their agent.
With Democrats in control of both houses of Congress and the White House, passage of the bill is a real possibility.
“I think there are real opportunities if and when the law gets enacted,” said Almeida at the AFL-CIO.
Union membership has much to recommend it, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Labor, especially for higher-skilled workers.
In 2008, the latest year for which there is data, full-time wage and salary workers who were union members had median weekly earnings that were 29 percent higher than workers not represented by unions. Most studies find that the more highly skilled and educated the worker, the higher the wages.
If the more low-key, petition-like approach allowed under the proposed EFCA passes, this “would be much more suited for (white-collar) tastes,” said Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute.
Eastman at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is not so sure. While union membership doubled during the darkest years of the Great Depression, he insists the value proposition has changed.
“One of the big problems unions have, and one of the reasons they’ve lost density, is that they’re not selling a product that workers want,” he said.
“Things aren’t as good as they were a year ago. But this isn’t the 1930s.”
Reporting by James Kelleher, editing by Matthew Lewis