Unionizing jobs that can’t be contracted

Alisa Roth Jan 27, 2010
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Unionizing jobs that can’t be contracted

Alisa Roth Jan 27, 2010
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Kai Ryssdal: I don’t know if you caught this last week, but the Labor Department had a really interesting statistic out this past Friday. A majority of all unionized workers in this country now work for the government. That is in part because government jobs haven’t really been hit by the recession the way private sector jobs have.

But also, it’s because a lot of what used to be American union jobs are now being done overseas. So to try to keep their numbers up, organized labor is putting on a push to unionize jobs that can’t go anywhere. From New York, Marketplace’s Alisa Roth explains.


ALISA ROTH: Neslin McKella-Brown is standing in front of a Bank of America skyscraper in Midtown Manhattan. She’s handing out day-glo yellow fliers to anybody who’ll take them. She used to be a security guard at Merrill Lynch. And a member of the SEIU, the service workers union. But in November, she got laid off.

NESLIN MCKELLA-BROWN: Now I have no health care, I have no job. I take medication for my high blood pressure, three pills a day. Now it’s gone.

About a dozen others are here, too. Handing out fliers. And making noise. Some of them are wearing bright purple SEIU t-shirts over their winter coats.

Mike Fishman is the president of SEIU local 32BJ. He says the union isn’t just supporting laid-off workers like McKella-Brown. Or even just trying to organize the security-guard industry. It’s part of a bigger plan to unionize workers whose jobs can’t be outsourced.

MIKE FISHMAN: Security workers have to be here, they’re not going to be someplace else. Building cleaners are going to be here, apartment workers are going to be here.

The labor movement’s had to deal with two big problems. Its lost members because traditional union jobs, like manufacturing, have been moving to other countries.

Annette Bernhardt is a policy director at the National Employment Law Project.
She says unions have also had to deal with big changes in the way work is structured here in the U.S.

ANNETTE BERNHARDT: The biggest trend there is sub-contracting, where a lot of service-sector work that used to be performed in house is now being contracted out to companies that can often provide those jobs at lower cost.

That’s what happened to Neslin McKella-Brown.

She had been working for a multi-national company hired by Merrill Lynch to provide security guards. McKella-Brown got laid off when B of A bought Merrill and switched contractors.

The old contractor, her former employer, was unionized. The new one isn’t.

For the SEIU, it’s protests like these that show people like McKella-Brown the union supports them. But where traditional unions would’ve only gone after the employers, the SEIU is going after the guys who pay those employers. In this case, the big banks.

Mike Fishman says he’s trying to convince Bank of America and its CEO Brian Moynihan to insist the new contractor, Wackenhut, pay union wages and give health care to its workers.

FISHMAN: We end up having to have that conversation at the top level. That’s where we’ll end up to get this settled, I think. Generally what happens is every person below Brian Moynihan will say to us, it’s not our problem, it’s Wackenhut’s problem. Wackenhut will say to us, it’s not our problem, it’s Bank of America who doesn’t want to pay for the health care.

The SEIU’s been having those conversations all over the country; persuading employers to recognize unions and let service workers organize. And it’s making progress: Membership has more than doubled in the last decade. And it now has more than 120,000 members.

And it’s ready to take on more of the big guys: Fishman says Morgan Stanley’s security guards are already unionized. And he’s negotiating with Goldman Sachs.

In New York, I’m Alisa Roth for Marketplace.

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