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Organizing white-collar workers

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10 February, 2015The IndustriALL Non-Manual Group met on 10 and 11 December 2014 near São Paulo at CNM-CUT headquarters to work on the issue of organizing non-manual and white-collar workers.

Not all trade unions are willing to organize these categories of workers as they sometimes are considered too close to management. Other unions include supervisors in their ranks. Another issue is the name of the IndustriALL group – non-manual workers is not considered to be a term conducive to attracting new members.

The composition of the workforce has changed. In the 1990’s at Volkswagen in Brazil, there were 30,000 blue-collar and 15,000 white-collar workers. In 2014 it was the opposite – 15,000 blue-collar and 30,000 white-collar workers. This is a huge challenge for trade unions. Due to outsourcing sometimes all workers are not in the same union, which makes things even more difficult.

Some good practices were presented. Unionen is the largest private sector union in Sweden and has successfully organized 100,000 new members in four years. With a focus on organizing, Unionen concentrates on the huge changes in working life, starting with globalization, non-stop technical developments and boundary-less working (working independently of how, when and where the job is). This involves particular health and safety and working time concerns.

In general the fundamental issues both for blue and white-collar workers are the same, although white-collar workers need special attention on certain concerns such as stress and career development. But the overriding issue is that of solidarity for all workers.

Lines tend to blur between white and blue-collar workers. Sometimes production workers take over “coordination” functions, but their pay is no different. Other challenges include companies’ evaluation and pay systems, as well as profit sharing.

Moreover companies tend to take non-manual workers out of collective agreements. And then they resist unions’ efforts to organize workers, which has happened for example in car plants in Argentina. It will become increasingly difficult to keep straight lines between the two because of robotization.

During the process of privatization of the electric power industry in Colombia, engineers had a troublesome role. They were keen on being managers, but because they did not have union representative, they lost out. They are now returning to the union.

Organizing in Sweden and Norway

The context for organizing differs from one country to the next, although there are still lessons to be learned from each other. Twenty years ago in Sweden, blue-collar workers were better organized than white collar workers, but the situation is now reversed. Unions were seen to have a new role in modern Sweden.

Even in Sweden not everyone understood what unions do so communication played an important role. It was important for the union to contribute to security and satisfaction in working life. Organizers would stand outside workplaces and hand out breakfast bags. The union strengthened its image and became identified as a team of superheroes, using TV commercials. Union representatives’ business cards have a membership application on the back. These were not uncontroversial moves in the union, but new ways had to be tried. And Unionen managed to organize some 100,000 new members in four years.

In Norway the LO national center has some 900,000. Of these 200,000 have higher education. In Norway the principle is one company, one union. Members are organized from bottom to top and common values are stressed.

The easiest place to recruit new members is to get them while they are studying, which is why IE puts effort into working with students. IE tries to be an attractive option for employees with higher education. The usual themes are pay and bonuses as well as psychosocial work environment. Students do not pay membership fees, but they will pay later. The union organizes mentor weeks. They want to attract engineers and be an alternative to the engineers’ organizations.

Wages and overtime

One issue that was highlighted was pay and rating systems. Some think that the systems are motivational to make people work harder, but that is not always the case. An evaluation can be fair or based on favoritism. A bad score may lead to termination especially when a company wants to cut jobs.

Most executive staff have individual wages, and often overtime is included in pay. Sometimes there is more pay for hours worked. Sometimes pay combines fixed pay and bonuses. Sometimes pay goes down in recessions. Being available by phone and email 24/7 has to be compensated. A clear distinction has to be made between work and time off. Not everyone gets overtime pay because the salary already covers overtime. Otherwise the rate for salary and wage earners is the same. The percentage contributed to the pension is the same for everyone, and retirement age is 67 in Norway.

Organizing women and youth

In France the CFE-CGC was created in 1944, first for engineers and managers. 17 per cent of the members are women and the challenge is to increase that percentage. In metalworking industries 24 per cent of the workforce are women. 7 per cent of workers belong to unions in France, the lowest in Europe, although it is 11 per cent among higher degree holders. Almost no organizing is done in small companies. In general French workers are not interested in unions. One reason is that collective agreements apply to all workers as well as other benefits in the social security system even though the unions negotiate on them.

Studies show that non-manual workers are not less likely to join unions than manual workers. In the meantime the union is striving for more women, more young people and those who are not engineers and managers. Out of the new members who joined in 2013, 23 per cent were women. There is a switch to focus on topics that interest women such as work-life balance and working conditions. Women who have high positions in companies have more stress and burn-out.

Stress needs to be recognized as a work-related illness. Women go on working after kids go to bed. It is better for women if it is possible to turn off the phone or the computer. Career prospects for women are another concern. Women are stopped due to maternity leave. Salaries are affected as well as their overall career. Breaking down the glass ceiling is another issue. The union attracts women by working on these themes.

Young people are another focus group. The union goes to universities and organizes open-door days to make people aware of what they do and what they offer. They found the best way to organize is on the basis of personal conversations, listening to people, seeing what they want and need.

ASIMRA in Argentina is making progress in organizing mines and auto parts. They are creating the Industrial Union Federation and the Federation of Technological Workers. They do training, also for the members’ children. They have expertise on health and safety and the environment. In Argentina trade unions look after social security, which is why people are still keen on joining unions. They do health care, recreation, sports, holiday centers and children’s activities. They make people understand that they have to be trade union activists.

The Ghana Mineworkers Union organizes professional and managerial staff in addition to blue-collar workers. In the early 2000’s highly skilled professionals appeared in mining. The union had to do rebranding. They developed a new website. They do advocacy on topical issues in mining and others. They have a high level of acceptance in Ghana. They profile their achievements in the Commonwealth Yearbook. It is important to develop the intellectual capacity of the national leadership and negotiators by means of sponsorship for further studies. The union has 90 percent of the mining engineers, metallurgists, doctors, pharmacists, accountants and geologists organized. The union provides collective bargaining and social support, it does campaigning and advocacy as well as training and education, it has a strike fund, it arranges micro credit and negotiates redundancy. Recently 6000 employees were laid off. They were well compensated. Housing was an issue. They have a women’s wing and work on women’s empowerment. The women learned crafts to support themselves. Newmont Ghana wanted to lay off 600 people, but the union was able to reduce the lay-offs.

24-hour availability

In France people have the right to be disconnected. People work at home, or in hotels or at clients so it is hard to measure hours. France is supposed to have a 35-hour working week, but actually it is 39, and in general non-manuals work 44 hours.

In Australia the AMWU had a successful experience with campaigning on the basis of Office in your Pocket in a pharmaceuticals company. The scientists, technicians and engineers are in the union as well as supervisors. The union has started sending around text messages to everyone with 140 characters after meetings and every action. Everyone gets them. Because of that more people started going to meetings, the union started talking to people. It made for better communication with part-timers and the night shift.

Some people go on part-time, especially people with young children and people easing into retirement. One comrade from Brazil explained that she too had 800 people on her email list, but then the company cancelled her email. Now she has what’s app. She continues to get warnings from the company. This makes us think what we can do to have contact to our members, and also what we can do to not rely too much on company channels.

COPE Canada is a union that represents people in very diverse jobs. About 50 per cent of the members are men, but it is still considered to be a “girls’” union. Still there are few women in technical trades. In the history of BC Hydro there has only been one woman lineman and last year there was one female apprentice. Other unions are biased against non-manual workers.

Nevertheless manual and non-manual workers are still union members. It would be more sensible to use energy to fight against employers and governments. Visual minorities and LGBT still present challenges in Canada. One tragedy is the murdered and missing aboriginal women in British Colombia. Before violence against women was irrelevant.

Now in Brazil there are women’s delegations at police stations. CNM-CUT has a women’s collective. The Brazilian government has promoted pro-women policies. Women benefit directly from family allowances and housing subsidies. The CNM agreements even go beyond what the law provides.

IG Metall is making progress on mobile working. One of the concerns is to bring working time under control. At BMW any kind of work outside the office is considered to be working time. Moreover mobile work is voluntary. About 30 percent of workers do not like to work at home or in a mobile setting. At VW the server is switched off from 6:15 pm to 7 am. At Daimler emails can be deleted during holidays. Nevertheless it is better to find out what people want. People’s wishes are not uniform, they depend on age and life’s stages. On the other hand there are no regulations and standards for freelancers and external crowd workers who are poorly paid and have no social protection. How can we establish decent work for crowd workers? How can we organize click workers?

IndustriALL’s strategic goals

Unionen organizes people who are self-employed. They have a contract and they do work that should be unionized. Crowd workers are people who are not employees, but they need to be organized. It is a serious issue organizing people who work by themselves. Mobilizing them is a challenge, but quality of life is a right. According to IG Metall research 90 percent of people want more time flexibility.

In France there are separate agreements for engineers and managers. There are about 350,000 such people. The agreements concern trial period, seniority, lay-offs, bonuses, night work, flat rate pay, notice period, retirement bonus, travel, moving house, confidentiality – all of these items are arranged differently for engineers and managers. Furthermore engineers must not use their knowledge of one company when moving to another. One agreement covers traineeships for engineers and managers.

Monika Kemperle, IndustriALL Assistant General Secretary, explained IndustriALL’s five strategic goals. They are:

  • Build union power
  • Confront global capital
  • Defend workers’ rights
  • Fight precarious work
  • Ensure sustainable industrial employment

For the non-manual group this mean organizing more highly skilled people. When it comes to confronting global capital, non-manuals’ issues need to be the object of negotiations with multinationals. Defending workers’ rights is equally important for white-collar workers who have mobile working patterns. Fighting precarious work is also an issue for engineers working on contract. And ensuring sustainable industrial employment is vital for non-manuals to have decent work.

The participants made a number of commitments for taking action in the months to come. ASIMRA Argentina will do all it can to organize their counterparts in Chile, including the engineers at Codelco. The Ghana Mineworkers want to organize the people who work for the mining contractors. They intend to use text messaging as a wake-up call for the inactive. They will continue to organize professionals, managers and scientists to build strength.

Anne-Catherine Cudennec will organize a skype call with Australia. Australia and Brazil will do a skype conference on Ford. Steps need to be taken to organize Embraer. These initiatives should help shop stewards deal with multinational employment.

All workers need a union

Martin Linder, Chair of the Non-manual group, summarized the meeting as follows:

  • The issue of organizing non-manual workers will continue to have priority
  • Digitalization will become more and more important. It would be good to collect good experiences of digital campaigning. How can we gain more influence through digital campaigning?
  • The group needs to give thought to changing the name especially to give a more positive image. Up to now the name has given rise to confusion.
  • We can organize an exchange on the themes that keep recurring such as stress, working time issues, work-life balance, evaluation, pay systems. Anyone who does work on these and similar themes should send their contributions in and they will be sent around.
  • The next meeting should be in Europe and have an external speaker, possibly from a company, on a topic relating to evaluations and pay.

Regardless of workers’ status, regardless of being supervisors, managers, support staff, engineers, designers, all workers need a union.