Department for Professional Employees, AFL-CIO
Report to the 1999 AFL-CIO Convention
In Los Angeles in 1977, the 12th Constitutional Convention of the AFL-CIO voted to establish a new trade department – the Department for Professional Employees. The AFL-CIO Executive Council noted in its report to the Convention: “There are more people employed in the white-collar occupations than all other occupations combined, and the fastest-growing elements of this sector are among the professional, technical and highly skilled occupations. They have special economic and legislative concerns [which] would best be served by a constitutional department of the AFL-CIO.”
The 1977 Executive Council saw the future and began building a path to it for the union movement.
The proportion of white-collar workers in the labor force grew to 59 percent in 1998 and is continuing to grow at an accelerating rate. Professional and technical occupations are now the fastest growing in the entire workforce. In 1977, they accounted for 13.9 million workers and 15.2 percent of the workforce. Today, they number 24.1 million and account for 32 percent of all white-collar workers and more than 18 percent of the labor force.
As foreseen in the 1977 Executive Council report, this phenomenal change in the character of America’s workforce brought with it “special concerns” of the new worker that require the attention of AFL-CIO unions. Twenty years later, Communications Workers President Morty Bahr, chairman of the DPE’s 34-member General Board, warned delegates to the 1997 convention of the department that “historians of the 21st century will judge the resurgence of organized labor by our ability to organize professional, technical and administrative workers.” Conscious of this truth and the role assigned to it by the AFL-CIO Executive Council, the DPE, led by President Jack Golodner, has worked to coordinate and support the efforts of its affiliates and the AFL-CIO as they seek to better serve and more effectively organize these workers.
Today, there are signs that such efforts do bear fruit.
During the past two years, growing numbers of nurses, physicians, university researchers and instructors, customer service representatives, psychologists and a host of other highly trained and skilled white-collar people have joined the millions who found a voice for themselves and their professions within the AFL-CIO. Since 1977, when the department was created, union representation has fallen overall, but it has grown to more than 22 percent among the professional occupations. The American Medical Association’s June 1999 decision to openly embrace collective bargaining and a union-style organization sent a significant message to all professionals and highly skilled white-collar workers: the challenges of a new economy require that professionals and other workers organize in a new way – the union way!
President Sweeney told the DPE 1997 convention: “There was a day when some in the labor movement thought they could ignore professional employees. That day has long gone. It is a fact that the three fastest growing groups are right in the center of the DPE’s natural territory – professional, technical and administrative workers. If the labor movement is to grow as it should – and as it must – it will be organizing millions more of the workers you serve. Make no mistake about it, the labor movement must relate to the concerns of the new majority of workers, embrace their causes and vigorously recruit them into the ranks of organized labor. This is one of the highest priorities of the federation.”
For the DPE, this is the only priority.
To better confront the challenge given it by the 1977 AFL-CIO convention and by President Sweeney at the 1997 DPE convention, and in response to the rising tide of interest in unions for professional, technical and other white-collar workers, the DPE set out two years ago to streamline its structure and procedures and initiate new activities better designed to serve its affiliates and the union movement as they seek to organize and represent the new generation of 21st century workers.
The department has moved to center its efforts on activities that support the organizing work of its affiliates among the occupational groups it is committed to serving. Priority is being given to helping its affiliates to:
- Overcome the legal barriers frustrating professional and other highly skilled workers in their attempts to organize;
- Identify and address the issues that most concern these workers – especially those in the “high tech” growth occupations and the converging information, communication, and entertainment industries;
- Develop programs that will increase the effectiveness of organizing campaigns among professional, technical and administrative support workers;
- Communicate the union message to college students, other pre-professionals and non-union professionals; and
- Obtain the research and information needed to support all of these activities.
Public Policy and Government Relations: Providing New Age Workers With a Choice and a Voice
The growth and importance of professional and highly skilled white-collar workers in the workforce and indications that they may be choosing to form or join unions have caught the attention of those who fear a strong, growing union movement. A series of efforts have been launched to devise and strengthen legal barriers between unions and the growing “new age” professional, highly skilled workforce. By labeling professional and high skilled employees “managers” or “independent contractors,” by expanding the exemption of professionals under the Fair Labor Standards Act’s maximum hour provision and by using new ways to employ workers (as temporary, leased and “payroll” workers) to deny them basic employee protection and the right to unionize, anti-union forces are eroding fundamental rights and benefits for which unions have fought long and hard. As the number of professional workers grows and as the number of contingent workers increases, the proportion of the workforce protected by these rights and benefits will diminish unless more is done to ensure that these workers, like all other workers, are entitled to such basic benefits.
Working with the AFL-CIO Office of the General Counsel during the past two years, the DPE marshaled its affiliates to help develop legislation that would clarify and limit the definition of “independent contractor” for tax purposes (H.R. 1525, Independent Contractor Clarification Act). Enactment of this measure would be an important first step in limiting the scope of legal descriptions of an “independent contractor” and expanding the definition of an employee under laws that protect and benefit employed people.
In 1998, passage of legislation implementing two new international copyright conventions and extending the term of copyright protection marked the successful culmination of many years of effort on the part of several DPE affiliates and the Department – efforts that involved them in numerous negotiations in Geneva (the home of the World Intellectual Property Organization) and on Capitol Hill. Though in need of some improvement, the legislation nonetheless represents a major step to conform domestic and international copyright law with the digital revolution. Motivating DPE’s involvement is the need to protect and expand the rights of writers, performers and other creative members of its affiliates.
Acknowledging President Sweeney’s admonition that the labor movement must “relate to the concerns of the new majority of workers [and] embrace their causes,” the DPE has worked to identify the public policy issues that most affect the status of professional, technical and administrative workers. In addition to working for the legislation cited above, it has, in the past two years, played a strong role in affecting legislation that governs the employment of foreign nurses and other professional “guest workers”; the promotion of the arts and humanities; the expansion of support for education and training, especially as they relate to the demands of the “digital era”; and regulation of the converging telecommunications, cable, satellite, entertainment, publishing and news-gathering industries. By doing so, the department has carried the union flag among the ranks of nurses, doctors, engineers, computer specialists, performers, writers, journalists, teachers and a host of other white-collar unionists and future union members.
Organizing in the 21st Century
A new era and a new workforce require union organizers attuned to changing worker concerns and aspirations and new tactics for addressing them. In response to affiliate requests for assistance in training such organizers, the department formed a task force to work with them and the George Meany Center for Labor Studies to formulate a new program for organizers of professional and other highlyskilled white-collar workers. With the help of Sue Schurman, executive director of the Meany Center, a pilot course was conducted in December 1998. A full class drawn from 15 affiliates attended this first-ever, weeklong program. Based on the comments and recommendations received from these participants, the department and the Meany Center will revise and strengthen the program. Plans are being made now to offer the class again next winter.
Under the chairmanship of Ed McElroy, secretary-treasurer of the AFT, a DPE task force met last year and blocked out a strategy for carrying the union message to preprofessionals (such as college students), unorganized professionals and the general public. The task force made recommendations for each of the targeted groups and the board agreed to launch demonstration projects to reach the student community on three campuses. This year, with AFT members acting as advisors, student groups will be created – based on occupational interests or academic discipline – in the performing arts (music), health care specialties, engineering, and journalism and communications. Each faculty advisor and student group will have the help of mentors drawn DPE affiliates’ members. With the assistance of the DPE, they will organize activities that will inculcate an appreciation for the role that unions play on behalf of employed people generally and, more specifically, for those employed in these occupations. In addition, the affiliates and ther members will assist college students pursuing career goals by participating in counseling and networking activities, internship programs and field trips.
Member, Staff, Leadership Education
The department is especially well situated to act as the planner and convener of educational programs that bring together members, leaders and staff of different unions who have similar interests in a particular occupation or profession. For this reason, from time to time it has been called upon to organize conferences and workshops that explore the special concerns unions face in a given profession or grouping of professions. In the past two years the following workshops and conferences have taken place under DPE auspices:
- The seventh and eighth annual DPE National Conference of Broadcast, Cable and Media Industry Unions took place in April of 1998 and April 1999 in Las Vegas. These annual meetings, which draw members, officers and staff from several affiliates each year, hear national union, industry, and government leaders address national policy issues affecting the information, communication and entertainment industries. The participants discuss collective bargaining situations, their relationships with various media corporations, union-based training, programs, organizing activities and more. The meetings are held in Las Vegas to coincide with the annual meetings of the National Association of Broadcasters, which features the world’s largest exhibition of broadcast, satellite and cable equipment and draws more than 100,000 people. The event provides DPE participants with opportunities to meet with colleagues and employers from all over the country and the world. The presence of DPE at such a conference is in line with DPE efforts to encourage its affiliates to be represented wherever professional and technical people gather in large numbers.
- “The Safety and Health Problems of Health Care Workers” and “Changes in Physician Employment and Union Activity” were the subjects of two DPE-sponsored workshops in 1998. Both were held in Washington, D.C. The latter featured presentations by leaders of affiliated physicians’ unions and the AMA. Among those who attended were representatives of consumer and health care advocacy groups.
Research and Publications
As indicated above, the department intends to focus its resources on activities that assist its affiliates in relating to and organizing the professional, technical and administrative workforce. The research and publications work of the department supports this objective. Accordingly, two years ago, the department sponsored an opinion survey of 2,000 professional, technical and administrative support workers employed at seven different sites and companies engaged in manufacturing, education, health care, entertainment, transportation and library services. The survey explored the attitudes of these workers toward unions, professional associations, collective bargaining, management and similar matters. This project, directed by Professor Rick Hurd of Cornell University and a special committee of the department resulted in a report, which has been distributed to DPE affiliates and within the AFL-CIO. The report, The Organizing Challenge: Professional and Technical Workers Seek Unions, has formed the basis for discussion in several DPE programs related to organizing strategies.
Other publications issued in the last two years were:
- Current Statistics on Engineers, Scientists and Technicians, reporting data depicting employment and earnings in these occupations, union membership, trends in college enrollments, and related data. (Published in1998.)
- Current Statistics on White Collar Employees: Relevant Statistics, a compendium of data on the composition of the white-collar workforce; employment gains, losses, and projections; trends in wages and salaries; and union membership, college enrollments, and other data. (Published in 1998.)
- Salaried and Professional Women: Relevant Statistics, presenting data on the growth and earning trends of women in selected white-collar occupations, their participation in unions and in higher education. (Published in 1998.)
- The Service Sector: A Statistical Portrait, including sections examining the growth in service-sector employment with projections for the future; earnings in sector industries; union membership; and the sector’s role in trade. (Published in 1998.)
- Societies for Engineers, Scientists and Technicians, analyzing the benefits of membership in major nonunion organizations for the technical professional, with a listing of significant conferences and meetings. (Published in 1998.)
- Non-Union Organizations for Professional, Technical and Business Women, depicting the benefits offered by the leading organizations of professional and white-collar women. (Published in 1998.)
- Audiovisual (AV) Production Guidelines for Non-A/V Unions, containing the information needed to produce quality, union-made audiovisual material. Unions increasingly are using AV material in organizing campaigns, for training and education purposes and in other situations. This booklet includes tips on where to find the talent and skills, advice and assistance. (Published in 1997.)
To help affiliates and others to better understand the manner in which increasing numbers of professional and other white-collar workers are being deprived of their right to form and join unions, the department has commissioned a study of the situation with emphasis on the legal issues generated by the NLRA. This work will be completed and published this fall.