Unions Have a Role in Today's New Economy

Unions in the New Economy? The idea isn't as far-fetched as some would believe. White-collar workers already comprise the single largest group of union members (46.2%), and unions now represent 22% of all employed professionals. Who would have thought a year ago that doctors in the U.S. would see unionization as possibly being in the future for their profession? And not only did the 17,000 highly skilled Boeing Co. engineers in Seattle affiliate with an AFL-CIO union, but they also won raises and union security earlier this year after a 48-day strike that shocked everyone.

A significant number of members of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) are already doing New Economy-type work such as installing and repairing DSL and data integration systems. But the recent strike against Verizon was portrayed by the news media as an Old Economy union vs. a New Economy company.

The strike was never about the usual pocketbook issues of wages and benefits, although we did win big raises.

The strike's key goals concerned the access of union members to new jobs in the company, the quality of work and the right to secure jobs with secure futures in both good and bad economic times. I can't remember a union ever striking over these issues.

But unions prefer partnership to conflict, and we're experimenting with a variety of new ways to transform ourselves for the New Economy.

In the heart of Silicon Valley, labor unions and communities have formed Working Partnerships USA, an organization that helps working families solve New Economy problems. For example, the Together@Work "temporary agency" helps temp workers earn better pay and benefits while offering training and strategic placement.

We see growing anxiety among IT workers as reflected in the messages we receive on the Washington Alliance of Technology Worker/CWA Web site. IT workers are concerned about affordable health insurance, skills improvement, their privacy rights, access to 401(k) and other retirement plans and whether they will be replaced by lower-paid foreign workers in the U.S. on H-1B visas.

A union could provide alternatives for them. The CWA, for example, is an education-driven union that negotiates employer-paid education and training for our members. We will soon open a training center in Seattle, our second in the country funded by training grants - which the CWA sought - that are provided under the H-1B visa law. The Seattle center will offer a new IT cabling apprenticeship, distance learning and software training for CWA members.

New Economy unions such as the CWA and the International Federation of Commercial, Clerical, Professional and Technical Employees want to shift workers from old technology to new and make sure our members remain employable in the face of rapid change. But Old or New Economy, employees in the growing technology sector need a voice on the job. Today's unions are positioning themselves to play that role.

MORTON BAHR is president of the Communications Workers of America, a union for professional and technical workers.

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