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Love of labor is a labor of love

By Sarah Larson, Dispatch/Argus Staff writer

Workers head inside the UAW Local 81 hall to vote on a contract with Deere & Co. on Nov. 17, 1994. Recent gains have put Quad-Cities unions in their strongest position in many years.

After years of declining membership and influence, organized labor is making a comeback in the Quad-Cities.

During the last year and a half, area union leaders have held more organizing drives, negotiated more contracts and struck more companies than at nearly any time in the previous 10 to 15 years.

They still have a long way to go, though, if they are to return organized labor to the place it held before the 1970s, said Laurie Clements, director of the Labor Center at the University of Iowa.

The 75 union affiliates and trades councils of the Quad City Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, made a commitment during the past year to increase the visibility and influence of area unions, president Jerry Messer said.

``We've been moving toward the basic efforts of building union cities,'' Mr. Messer said in an interview with The Dispatch and The Rock Island Argus last summer. ``We're mobilizing a lot more than in the past. We're doing more of everything than in the last decade.''

The Quad City Federation of Labor led several organizing drives this past year, including the successful organization of nurses and other professionals at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.

More than 1,900 hospital employees joined the Service Employees International Union, according to Mr. Clements. About 2,600 graduate students at the university also recently organized into the United Electrical Workers Campaign to Organize Graduate Students, Mr. Clements said.

The current thrust to increase union activity is in direct contrast to the situation of the previous two decades.

Union influence began falling steadily as membership declined after 1970. Between 1978 and 1991, the UAW lost 659,000 members, the Steelworkers 827,000, the Teamsters more than 500,000 and the building trades more than a million.

That was mirrored by a decline in the living standards of working people. Factory workers earned $20 less per week, adjusted for inflation, in 1989 than their counterparts had in 1977.

Academics attributed the declines to a rise in international competition for U.S. products, specialized production schemes replacing mass production, and deregulation of industries like trucking and air transport.

Economic changes played their part, too. Manufacturing jobs declined from more than 21 million in 1979 to 19.4 million in 1989, while service-sector jobs skyrocketed from 32 million to 45 million.

Many service-sector workers are ripe for organizing, Mr. Clements said. The traditional low pay and benefits such jobs provide make union packages look great, he said, but workers also are motivated by their desire to have a voice at their workplace.

Union organizing drives have been more successful recently, Mr. Clements said. In 1998, unions across the Midwest won about 52 percent of their organizing elections, as opposed to about 40 percent during the early 1990s, he said.

The AFL-CIO is taking the lead in encouraging unions to devote more of their budgets to organizing drives, Mr. Messer said. More members means more clout.

A local carpenters union is talking of devoting 50 percent of its budget to organizing, an ``unheard-of'' amount, Mr. Clements said. Even 25 percent of a budget devoted to organizing is a step up.

Despite the recent increase in organizing, unions still have a way to go, Mr. Clements said. The decline in union membership has bottomed out, but the growing labor force has kept union membership ``density'' low. About 30 percent of private-sector jobs were union in 1970, compared to about 11 percent today, Mr. Clements said.

``What it really shows is that there is still a great deal of resistance to workers organizing,'' Mr. Clements said. ``It's certainly easier to win elections in the public sector, where it's on the statute books to support collective bargaining. That can't be said for private industry.''

Copyright 1999, Moline Dispatch Publishing Co.