How important is organized labor in Dallas?

IT WAS A HOT day during the summer, but almost 500 union members showed up to picket outside the Fairmont Hotel in downtown Dallas. But this wasn’t a strike by hotel workers. And no one was particularly mad at the Fairmont. The protest was directed at a seminar for business executives, which was going on inside the hotel. The session’s title: “Winning Combinations for Making Unions Unnecessary.”

Presenting this seminar was one of the growing number of “labor-management consulting firms” that are popular with businesses trying to avoid union activity among employees.

Dick Evans of the Center for Values Research, a Dallas-based firm that offers such seminars, claims that “we are not pro-union or anti-union. We ask, ’What is the need for a union?’ If there is a need, it’s darn good that there is a right to unionize. Unions are needed whenever an employer doesn’t understand and respond to his employees.”

Evans and his colleagues are far removed from the goon squads that businesses once used to break unions. These consultants like to spread their messages before trouble arises. They want to help employers avoid unions through “dignity instead of fighting,” says Evans. This requires a continuing, often subtle propagandizing against unions.

Another consulting firm, Management Center International (MCI), in Bedford, offers to rent to businesses a videotape entitled, “They Never Told Me . . .,” which is billed as “the story of a modern family adversely affected by the elusive promises of the union organizer.” An MCI flyer says this tape is “excellent for use in employee orientation, supervisory training and union prevention.”

Frank Parker, a former vice president of the Texas AFL-CIO, is managing partner of MCI. He offers to speak to employers about the “fable of the union label.”

While the shaping anti-union sentiment among workers might call for some subtlety, there is no need for this with the employers themselves. An MCI mailing to businesses carries this message in boldface type: “The Southwest is targeted for union organization drives. Your employees will be contacted. Are they going to know the facts about unions or will they put you through the expense and disruption of a union campaign? You must tell your employees the truth about labor unions!”

Efforts of these consultants seem to be having an impact. There is a growing number of decertification elections (the process by which workers can end affiliation with a union). According to the National Labor Relations Board, there were 301 decertification elections in 1970, 30 percent of which were won by the unions (workers voting to retain union ties). In 1980, there were 902 decertification contests, with the unions winning only 25 percent.

Such results are not due solely to the efforts of consultants. The same factors that have caused an overall decrease in union membership – national figures indicate that in 1970, 24.7 percent of the nation’s workers were union members, but by 1980, the figure had dropped to 20.9 percent – are at work in Dallas. Dick Evans of the Center of Values Research acknowledges this and finds it useful in his work.

Although it is illegal to threaten workers who may want to organize, apparently there is nothing unlawful about sowing the seeds of fear among employees. The message offered by MCI includes the following points: “Unions cannot guarantee wage increases; the union’s only power is to strike; striking employees cannot collect unemployment compensation; striking employees can be permanently replaced.” One professional union organizer says, “It’s 100 percent harder to organize a plant today with the union-busters around.”

Not surprisingly, there is little love lost between the consultants and the unions. According to Evans, “the unions consider this very threatening. Some unions are attacking us vociferously and with semi-violence. There is picketing; they accuse us of union-busting tactics; and there are all sorts of war games going on.”

Willie Chapman, secretary-treasurer (and sole full-time officer) of the Dallas AFL-C1O, says there is an increasing amount of “stamp-out-unions mentality.” He says he is “amazed that companies would pay so much money to these consultants.”

Chapman was a leader of the demonstration at the Fairmont. Among the signs held aloft by union members were some reading: “This is Dallas, not Poland,” “Union-busters Belong in Moscow” and “Labor + Management = Democracy.” The strategy of the unions seems to be to paint the consultants as insidious outsiders who are more of a threat to the tranquility of the workplace than are the unions themselves.

But times seem right for the consultants, not the unions. Employers’ anti-union feelings appear to be more intense than are employees’ loyalties to unions. Life is getting tougher for the unions.

THE COMMUNICATIONS workers hall is located on the outskirts of downtown Dallas, but it seems a million miles from the Petroleum Club and other high-rise havens of Dallas’ power elite. Beer, not scotch, is standard fare. Blue jeans and work boots are popular attire. There might be as few as two neckties to be found in the crowded meeting room.

Of the 106 international unions that comprise the AFL-C1O, about 50 are operating in Dallas County. Union representatives gather monthly at the communications hall to further one of the cornerstones of union philosophy – “solidarity.” Just as organizers argue that the individual worker needs a union to protect him, so do the AFL-CIO leaders remind their constituents that unions operating on their own have little chance of survival in the hostile Texas environment.

As members arrive for the meeting, they pick up a supply of printed material. Some of the material pertains to administrative matters; most of it concerns politics.

There are flyers urging protection in Congress of the Davis-Bacon Act requirements that workers on government construction projects be paid the “prevailing wage.” A broadside asks for contributions to the national Committee on Political Education (COPE) to offset the “anti-worker, anti-union Political Action Committees (PACs).” Also available is a list of recommendations on how to vote on proposed amendments to the Texas Constitution.

There is nothing exciting – much less sinister – about the meeting. A request is made for blood donors to aid a “brother” injured on the job. A black steelworker reports on efforts to register minority voters. Members approve the sending of a delegate to the national AFL-CIO convention in New York – once it is agreed that the representative will not fly, in deference to the PATCO strikers.

About 30 percent of the meeting attendees are black. There are no Mexican-Americans in the crowd. Dallas AFL-CIO executive board member Ellery Speight says, “I just don’t know” why there are so few Hispanics in Dallas unions and that “bilingual Mexican-Americans are the most sought-after people” as potential union organizers.

BRYAN WILSON is manager of domestic economic development for the Dallas Chamber of Commerce. That means he is a principal contact for businesses contemplating a move to Dallas. Of his relationship with organized labor, Wilson says, “They view the Chamber of Commerce as the enemy.” This doesn’t seem to bother him.

From Wilson’s standpoint, union clout is at just about the right level in Dallas: limited. “Many companies,” he says, “are experiencing unfavorable situations with unions elsewhere” and want to escape this by coming to Dallas. Businessmen, he adds, “want to run their companies by themselves and determine their own destinies” without being dictated to by unions.

According to Wilson, the union issue is “very important, top priority” to potential business newcomers. “The first question I’m asked is, ’Is Texas a right-to-work state?’ ” The affirmative answer guarantees the right to hire non-union workers and is music to the ears of many executives who have spent years in the Northeast and elsewhere squabbling with unions with which they have to deal.

Even foreign companies scrutinize Dallas’ labor situation. On returning from a trip to woo Japanese business, Tom Allen, vice president for communications of the North Texas Commission (the mar-keting organization for the North Texas area), says “the Japanese look at the Texas labor situation very positively because we don’t have militant unions.”

In a recent survey to determine which states are most conducive to operation of a small business, Inc. magazine ranked Texas number one. A principal reason: Only 11 percent of the Texas work force is unionized, compared to well over 25 percent in some northern states.

To people moving here from states that have strong labor organizations, the anti-union attitudes seem unusual. Imagine what it must be like for someone who has worked in the New York City area, where unions have dominated the workplace for decades. Their presence and extensive powers – economic and political – are taken for granted. Running a similar business in Dallas can be like moving to another country.

But after all, to paraphrase Calvin Coolidge, the business of Dallas is business.

THE PERSON MOST responsible for trying to improve unions status in Dallas is Willie Chapman. Chapman, 31, joined the Ironworkers Union when he graduated from high school in 1968. At age 23, he became an officer of his local union, and at 26, he defeated the full-time business agent for the union. In 1979, he defeated 13-year incumbent Gene Freeland for his current position.

Chapman doesn’t pretend that everything is rosy for the unions. He acknowledges that unions today represent a shrinking percentage of the work force. This change, he says, is “basically a result of the changing nature of our work force. I don’t think it signifies a mass rejection of trade unions.”

Labor also is not doing well in elections that determine if workers wish to be represented by a union. The national proportion of representation elections won by unions has dropped from 60.2 percent in 1965 to 45.4 percent in the first half of 1980. Chapman sees this same trend in the Dallas area and attributes it to two factors: “the changing nature of the work force. . .and the sophistication of management in circumventing labor law.” Expanding on this latter reason, Chapman says: “Management has learned that the process of unionization can be drawn out over a long period of time. The employees are put at a disadvantage when they support a union and it takes two or three years to get one because the employer appeals for one reason or another. Labor law, in my opinion, is weighted in favor of the employer.”

For whatever reasons, Chapman admits, “there is not a lot of organizing activity going on here right now.” He looks to Houston rather than Dallas as a “foothold in the state” for organizing.

With a different industrial base, Houston boasts approximately 80,000 AFL-CIO union members, as opposed to the 35,000 in Dallas County. “More national unions,” says Chapman, “will be responding to requests for unionization along the Texas coast. There are more unions down there and more resources. As they get even stronger there, they will have resources to put into Dallas.”

In October, the national AFL-CIO announced that it would commit 20 staff members and extravagant funding to an effort to boost union membership in the Houston area.

The Dallas business environment will foster union growth soon, says Chapman. “Over a period of 10 years,” he says, “you’re going to see more organizing activity in Dallas as more jobs shift here.”

Bryan Wilson of the Dallas Chamber of Commerce agrees. According to Wilson, “this is the frontier – a healthy, active business sector. The business sector in many ways runs the community, and private enterprise flourishes. This is a great place for unions to expand.”

Even though union organizing might not have reached its peak in Dallas yet, there is nothing sluggish about labor’s efforts to expand its political base. With the national Democratic Party still reeling after its defeat in 1980, labor – from the national level down to individual locals – is trying to assert itself as the principal voice of progressivism.

This activity has a clear goal: a major leadership role for labor in the Democratic Party. AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland already has orchestrated changes in labor procedures to allow support of primary candidates and endorsement of presidential candidates well in advance of the national conventions. Under Kirkland’ s direction, the AFL-CIO also is helping to unravel some of the infamous 1972 “Mc-Govern reforms” and set aside up to 25 percent of the Democratic National Convention delegate seats for elected officials who, Kirkland assumes, are likely to have some ties to labor, and unions are pumping money into the nearly empty coffers of the Democratic National Committee.

This same activism prevails at the local level. Willie Chapman claims that “labor definitely is in the forefront of opposition to Reaganomics. It is important for labor to formulate some sort of progressive policy. I wouldn’t call it Democratic policy, but that’s what it ends up being because that’s the party that will advocate it.”

When assessing the impact of the Reagan administration, Chapman and other union leaders have cause to worry about the future of organized labor. The Davis-Bacon Act that guarantees wages on federal construction jobs “is not as important here as it is everywhere else,” says Chapman, since so much Dallas construction is privately funded. But the frontal assault in Congress on this law and the related Walsh-Healey Act (setting hours for workers on federally funded projects) indicate that statutes protecting union workers are far from sacred. Another legislative issue worrying unionists is the Hobbs Act, which would lead to increased federal policing of picket lines.

“Our next step politically,” says Chapman, “is to make our people more valuable to the candidates. We want to educate our members on how to do the things Bill Clements does, such as running massive phone banks. That makes our endorsement mean a lot more – if we can offer a volunteer who can supervise a phone bank or who knows how to target districts.”

Democratic candidates are usually eager for union support. What does an endorsed candidate receive? Not much in the way of money, but Chapman claims that the unions are “where a majority of the volunteer workers come from. We’ve got people who can build yard signs, run campaigns and do other of those type things. You can have an influence on elections that outweighs your size.”

Some politicians are skeptical of labor’s campaign clout. Tom Pauken, who was defeated in a 1976 state senate race and congressional contests in 1978 and 1980 by labor-backed candidates, noticed a decline in unions’ influence on the voting behavior of their members.

According to Pauken, Ronald Reagan was popular enough among rank-and-file union members in 1980 to ensure “little active hostility” toward Pauken’s own campaign. By 1980, union members apparently were finding it “acceptable” to vote for a Republican.

Pauken claims that in 1980 “on many issues there was an area of agreement” with some of the workers who had actively opposed him in the past. Although he lost his race, Pauken says labor “was not a significant hindrance.” Today, he says, “I don’t see a situation where labor leadership can really deliver the vote.”

Even some of labor’s friends are losing their enthusiasm about union campaign activity. One of these is a Democratic state representative from Dallas County (who doesn’t want to be named because, he says, “I don’t want the unions to think I’m ungrateful”).

“Unions were important in my first election because they can turn out lots of volunteers. When you’re short on allies – as Democrats in Dallas usually are – you’re glad to have them bring over a crowd of volunteers. But they have very little money. The question you have to ask yourself is, would you rather have the tens of thousands of dollars from a PAC that hates organized labor instead of labor’s support? You probably could use the money more.”

The union endorsement still has some use during a campaign, says this representative. “You always put the AFL-CIO endorsement on your literature in black areas. It’s seen as a friendly symbol. It’s a way of telling the blacks which side of the fence you’re on.”

In Austin, according to this legislator, labor’s influence is waning. “Unions,” he says, “don’t have any clout in the Legislature except with a very few members. They don’t have the money. They can’t match the contributions (of the business PACs).”

This slippage in influence also is attributable, he says, to the fact that “the unions fail in their public relations. They’ve allowed themselves to be the victims of the story told by the other side.”

This legislator still expects to receive and use labor support in the future, but his remarks, which are echoed by other officeholders, indicate that labor needs to mend some fences.

To make their support more desirable, Dallas unions’ efforts are being enhanced by the computer capabilities of the national AFL-CIO. Dallas sends information on its members to Washington and in return can receive precinct-by-precinct analyses of union strength. For example, Chapman can call his national headquarters and say, “I need a list of all the Machinist Union members who live in the following 20 precincts.” Within a few days, he will have a printout in hand.

If updated and used properly, this can be an invaluable political tool. Chapman says, “When I look at Dallas County, I don’t see any other group that has the potential to have 30,000 people identified by precinct and realistically be able to contact them.”

If all of these 30,000 voters can be mobilized, labor will have a formidable political force at its disposal. There are very few local elections in which such a large number of votes wouldn’t mean the difference between winning and losing.

In Dallas, and in most other cities in America, not even the Democratic Party can match this kind of organization. If labor continues to expand its activity of this kind and if Democratic Party leaders continue to wander around in a daze, the unions soon will be calling more of the political shots than ever before.

While the AFL-CIO continues to develop its rapport with the Democratic Party, the Teamsters Union (not a member of the AFL-CIO) is building a base of sorts within the Republican Party.

Ever since the romance between Richard Nixon and former Teamsters president Frank Fitzsimmons, this large and wealthy union has been building its nest to the right of its labor brethren. Supporting Ronald Reagan in 1980, the Teamsters seemed to many observers to have broken permanently with their fellow unionists.

This judgment, however, should not be made too hastily. While the national labor leadership remaining for the most part, loyal to the political alliances first forged during the New Deal, the rank-and-file members are far less faithful to such old loyalties.

The Teamsters have taken advantage of the shaky nature of workers’ political loyalties and have been welcomed by Republicans seeking breakthroughs among the blue-collar voting ranks. With union wages moving ever upwards, many workers respond well to campaign pledges of the likes of Ronald Reagan. What the Teamsters’ leadership and the Republicans know full well – even though the Democrats try not to accept it – is that union members are more likely today to be among the “haves” rather than the “have nots.” They are voting accordingly.

Although they seem to be in good political shape, the Dallas Teamsters don’t like to talk about their activities. Repeated calls to their Dallas headquarters were met by consistent refusals to discuss politics or any other union business.

THIS IS A TIME for unions in Dallas and elsewhere to reassess their political and economic clout. The crushing of the PATCO strike and the public support for the Reagan administration’s tough stand on the issue worry union leaders. Willie Chapman argues that there is no national “groundswell of public opinion against unions generally,” but admits that the air traffic controllers’ strike has fueled ’’more cynicism” about organized labor’s goals.

Reagan’s current political strength creates other problems for labor. In spite of brave words and aggressive organizing on its own, the AFL-CIO cannot avoid being damaged when the Democratic Party is moribund. The well-established Democratic-Labor alliance requires two healthy partners. Neither entity is strong enough to be truly effective by itself.

More activity in Democratic primaries is planned, says Chapman, “so we don’t end up with candidates we can only halfheartedly support.” Chapman also wants the Dallas unions to become more active in lobbying local officials.

Perhaps the most difficult problem facing Chapman and his allies is the inherent conservatism of Dallas business and politics. This isn’t an outdated reactionary ideology espoused by a dwindling number of old mossbacks, but is a philosophy growing in strength with an ample supply of supporters of all ages and from varied economic backgrounds. In terms of just about every criterion that might be used to predict a “winner” in any struggle to establish political dominance, labor comes out on the short side.

In many ways, Dallas unionists, like their compatriots elsewhere in America, find themselves in the uncomfortable position of having their fate in the hands of Ronald Reagan. If his popularity endures and his economic plans succeed, labor will suffer severely from growing acceptance of the conservative “Reagan revolution.”

If, on the other hand, Reagan’s policies fail and the President’s personal political standing likewise suffers, labor might be able to recoup some of its recent losses. Hard economic times will hit labor’s constituents hard, perhaps even hard enough to drive them back to their traditional fold. Few union leaders would admit to hoping for national economic disaster, but such likely would be the clearest path for labor’s political salvation.

While waiting for a verdict on theReagan administration, labor finds itselftrying to hold on to what it already has,hoping that not too many workers willdrift away, lured by union-busters, nonunion employers or just their own desire toshed the trappings of organization thatunions so staunchly promote. Solidarityalways has been an elusive goal and is likely to become even more so.


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