Can a hybrid union/professional association give white-collar employees a voice at work without the power of collective bargaining?
By Stephenie Overman, contributor
FORTUNE -- Labor unions have historically made little progress in organizing private-sector professional workers, but now another kind of organization is drawing interest among the white-collar crowd.
That alternative is a hybrid of a union and a professional association that is designed to give professional employees a stronger say in workplace issues but without negotiating contracts.
When "workers are trying to get a voice, to get some rights, to make gains in the workplace, [a hybrid] is a direction they could go," says Candice Johnson, communications director of the Communication Workers of America union (CWA).
It's a direction that some non-union Verizon Communications (VZ) workers are now considering, she says: After a two-week long strike in August, "we're hearing from workers from Verizon Wireless who want the benefits of the union" but are not covered by a collective bargaining agreement.
"It's a way to participate, short of having bargaining rights," according to Johnson. "It's just grown out of the strike."
CWA and a few other unions already have experience with hybrid organizations. WashTech, a group formed by Microsoft (MSFT) contract employees with members from Silicon Valley to Boston, is affiliated with CWA. So is Alliance@IBM. Neither group has been certified as a union by the National Labor Relations Board.
While these groups do not negotiate contracts on behalf of their members, "They can do other things to advance the cause of workers," says Johnson, such as testifying and lobbying elected officials on topics such as wages, layoffs, and companies moving jobs overseas. "These organizations are effective," she says. "That's why people are joining."
Becoming a full-powered union is the goal, according to Tom Midgley, president of Alliance@IBM. "Without a union," he says, "you've got nothing. [Companies are] just going to do what they want. At least with a union you can hopefully negotiate something."
But in the more than 10 years of its existence, the IBM alliance has not reached that goal. A prospective union must first show the National Labor Relations Board that at least 30% of the company's employees have shown an interest by signing union authorization cards.
In that regard, Alliance@IBM has yet to measure up. "There's a lot of fear, a lot of intimidation against people who speak out" in favor of unionization, says Lee Conrad, the alliance's national coordinator. "People tend to keep their heads down."
Midgley, an IT specialist at IBM (IBM), says employees "hear about workers who are trying to organize [elsewhere] getting fired, and the government is slow to respond. People are afraid of losing their job. There are laws on the books [to protect workers trying to organize]" he says, "but it's a lengthy process."
Anti-labor organizations are predictably concerned about hybrids that are essentially proto-unions.
The concept "of a voluntary association that is not a union under the National Labor Relations Act … can be positive," says Patrick Semmens, communications director for the National Right to Work Foundation. "Our opposition is to compulsory membership and dues."
A collective bargaining agreement -- the goal for members of Alliance@IBM and others -- "would be a step in the wrong direction" in the eyes of the Foundation, he says.
A wider umbrella
Some hybrids aren't limiting themselves to a single company. Professionals for the Public Interest: Associations and Unions Defending Professional Integrity (PftPI) is made up of eight professional associations, 10 national unions, and the Department for Professional Employees of the AFL-CIO. The organization includes scientists, engineers, teachers, social workers, and health care workers.
PftPI members want to use their numbers "to defend their professional integrity against external pressure -- it could be political pressure, it could be financial, it could be institutional," says David Cohen, executive director of the Department for Professional Employees.
Workers sometimes feel that "they are being asked to compromise standards, to spin research data, also to misuse data in policy making," he says. At a recent PftPI forum on health care delivery, Cohen says, "We heard from the people doing the work, again and again, that the issue was not pay and benefits -- although those are important -- but that they wanted to do the job right."
Richard W. Hurd, associate dean of the ILR School at Cornell University, studies and surveys professional workers and has written about hybrid organizations. Professionals "do want a voice at work, because of their education, their grasp of the field" they specialize in, he says. But "it's not clear what form it will take. Alliances are in some sense experimental forms."
While professional workers are deeply concerned about such issues as layoffs and jobs being sent overseas, Hurd believes it isn't clear whether those concerns will lead them to seek full-blown unionization.
Two years after the recession ended, U.S. workers still face a grim job market. And with tepid economic growth and an election year breeding uncertainty, companies are likely to have the upper hand for some time.
By Katherine Reynolds Lewis, contributor
FORTUNE -- It's a tough time to celebrate the American worker. This coming Monday marks the third consecutive Labor Day with an unemployment rate topping 9% and 14 million Americans looking for work. MORESep 2, 2011 5:00 AM ET
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