US unions fight back in service sector

The umbrella organisation for United States trade unions, the AFL-CIO, yesterday launched a media campaign intended to attract new members from sections of the work force - low-paid, low-skilled workers in the retail and service sectors - it has barely tapped before. The launch came on the day that one of the biggest strikes in recent years, called by the Teamsters Union at United Parcel Service, went into its second week with no sign of a solution.

While the conjunction of the recruitment drive with the continuing strike was an accident, many believe that the times are potentially more conducive to trade union activism than they have been for years. The US has a record number of people in employment, but wages have been almost static in low-paying jobs. As the UPS strike has shown, many full-time workers in comparatively well-paid jobs fear they could be replaced by cheaper part-timers. The genesis of the UPS strike is the proportion of part-timers and their low pay compared to that of full-time workers.

The AFL-CIO drive focuses on members relating how their union has helped them and their families. It includes trade union intervention to obtain compensation for industrial injuries, equal pay for equal work and improving working conditions.

The AFL-CIO says that membership offers workers the sort of protection and bargaining clout they either do not have or fear they could lose. Some campaigners for union recognition are former industrial workers dissatisfied with the pay and conditions in the service sectors where the new jobs are.

Trade unions still face formidable difficulties, not just from employers, but from workers fearful of "spoiling" relations with management.

The problem was illustrated last week when workers at a Wal-Mart supermarket in Wisconsin voted against joining a union. But the fact that this was the first Wal-Mart store to face such a vote indicates that trade unionism in the US is not dead yet.

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