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Unions pursue professionals

Joe Napsha
| Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2009

Linda McCarthy, a patient case manager at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh's North Side, says being a union member gives her a voice at work, one she would not have without the benefit of a unionized workplace.

"Nurses did not have a voice at work, except if they were in the union," said McCarthy, 55, a registered nurse for 33 years. "We would not have gotten our raise at Allegheny General without the union."

McCarthy, who lives in Pittsburgh's Observatory Hill neighborhood, is a member of the Allegheny General Hospital Chapter, Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union. She joined the union when she went to work at Allegheny General in 2003.

McCarthy is one of an estimated 7.7 million in professional workers who are card-carrying union members, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. They work in education and health care, management, finance, libraries and government.

McCarthy is among an increasing number of professional workers who have turned to unions this decade, both in terms of actual numbers and the percentage of workers in a particular occupation, according to government figures. The number of union members in management, business and financial operations, in professional and related occupations and in education and health services has increased since 2000.

Of the 7.7 million members in 2008, the majority -- 5.2 million -- were in professional and related occupations, as defined by the government. Another 1.7 million workers in education, training and library occupations had the highest unionization rate at 38.7 percent. And 866,000 in management, business and financial activities had the lowest unionization rate, at only 1.8 percent.

The AFL-CIO, which is holding its national convention at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Downtown this week, held a closed-door session on unions and professional workers yesterday. That discussion occurs as unions have seen a loss of about 1.2 million members in manufacturing, construction, transportation and utility jobs since 2000.

More professionals are seeking union membership, said William Samuel, director of government affairs for the AFL-CIO, because "more and more people are finding they are vulnerable at work and are looking at ways to act collectively."

They have overcome the perception that white-collar workers did not need to join a union, Samuel said.

"Professional occupations are one of our growth areas," Samuel said.

Even so, labor unions remain unattractive to many workers, said James Sherk, a labor economist at The Heritage Foundation, a think tank in Washington.

"Most nonunion workers don't want union membership," Sherk said. The business model that labor unions have developed ignores individual achievements and restricts the supply of labor by setting wages and benefits that make unionized employers noncompetitive, Sherk said.

The proof, Sherk said, is in statistics that show less than 8 percent of the private sector is unionized. By comparison, statistics show that about 37 percent of public sector workers belong to unions.

To get more professionals to join unions, the labor movement must become more involved in regional issues affecting the life of the workers outside their job, said Amy B. Dean, who served as president of the South Bay AFL-CIO in Silicon Valley, Calif., from 1992 to 2003.

"In order to be an attractive institution to professionals, to the young employees or the new workers, the labor movement is going to have to become as much of a community-based organization, as it is a workplace-based organization," said Dean, who spent 20 years in the labor movement and chaired the AFL-CIO's committee on the future of labor strategy on the regional level.

Unions have to be integrated into the "civic fabric" of a region, and be involved in every economic development decision, said Dean, who was in Pittsburgh for the AFL-CIO convention.

"You can't cede this local involvement to the chambers of commerce and industrial associations," said Dean, co-author of a new book, "A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Can Reshape the American Labor Movement."

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