Notebook: The Whitest Collars Turn to Unions

Notebook: The Whitest Collars Turn to Unions

The victory of the United Federation of Teachers in the collective bargaining election among 33,000 classroom teachers in New York last December, probably the largest white-collar election ever held in this country, has had some important effects. It will certainly result in individual and professional improvements for the city’s teachers. It has spurred organizing by locals of the American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO. And it has reminded the unions of their obligation to organize the white-collar worker, or at least to try a lot harder than in the past.

The AFL-CIO needs to do this if only to protect its 12 million production and service members. Changes in technology are weakening their bargaining power, especially in the more highly automated industries. For example, 3,700 members of an Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers local struck a Texas refinery recently and stayed on strike for 10 weeks. While they were out, 600 supervisors and technicians brought production up to 65 per cent of the prestrike capacity and would have raised it higher if the strike hadn’t ended.

Organized labor is also obligated to represent the entire work force. At present the AFL-CIO’s membership is 85 per cent blue-collar although these workers are less than half of the non-agricultural work force in the nation as a whole. The imbalance is growing. Automation has already displaced hundreds of thousands of production union members, the core of the federation, and replaced them with unorganized white-collar workers. (From 1955 to 1960, production worker employment in manufacturing dropped 800,000 while non-production employment increased by 600,000.) And new white-collar jobs are being created. Today there are 20 million non-supervisory, salaried white-collar workers. By 1970 their number is expected to reach 29 million.

The unions now have about 35 per cent of the production and service workers in their ranks. Of the 20 million white-collar workers, by contrast, only two million are organized. But with this group expected to increase by 8% million by 1970, labor will have to enroll nearly a million new white-collar workers during the sixties merely to hold its present low level of representation.

Recent white-collar organizing has been at a standstill. From 1958 to 1960 the federation gained a mere 4,000 new white-collar members yearly. Since the teachers’ votes were counted in mid-December, the UFT (which then had 9,000 members) alone has organized 4,000 new members and all are employed professionals, the most status-conscious white-collar group.