SILVER SPRING, Md. (PAI)—In all the discussion at the two-day AFL-CIO-sponsored conference on organizing worldwide, there was at least one big topic that went almost unmentioned: what do you, an organizer, do if you see that workers need the union….but they don’t want it?

That’s a dilemma that confronts many union organizers, especially as they try to organize white-collar and service workers in the U.S., in areas such as computer programming, information technology and call centers.

But with one exception, and that only obliquely, the dilemma wasn’t touched on during the Dec. 10-11 confab at the National Labor College in Silver Spring, Md. Organizing the unorganized is inevitably going to run up against workers who don’t want unions, but need them, to protect job security and against management’s arbitrary firings, nepotism, favoritism and sudden decisions that disrupt family lives.

Often—but not always—such management actions lead to organizing drives. Just ask the Bakery Workers: arbitrary shift changes, disrupting family life, were one fuse that lit their successful drive (with international help) at Dannon Yogurt’s Ohio plant.

But only C. LeRoy Trotman of the Barbados Workers Union, who chairs an International Labour Organization working group, discussed the dilemma, briefly.

“There is worker indifference to what we do. If you can’t get workers’ support, you can’t lobby the Minister of Labour and you can’t get action at the local level,” he said during the three minutes he was allowed for remarks.

But why is there such indifference?

In an interview with Press Associates Union News Service, Trotman described conditions in Barbados and other developing nations, which sound suspiciously like what the U.S. went through in the last four decades of the 20th century. At the start of the postwar era, U.S. unions represented more than one-third of all private-sector workers. Now that’s down to 7.4 percent.

“Worker indifference comes from a combination of things,” Trotman explained afterwards. “One is the significantly increased level of higher education, and employment of that education to provide people with jobs where working conditions and remuneration (pay) are being adjusted individually” rather than by union contracts.

As a result, the now-white-collar workers “become less dependent on a trade union’s capacity to engage employers” on their behalf, he added. “We created the environment that led to our decline.”

Sound familiar? That’s what happened here, sociologists say. Unions also suffer with those new white-collar workers because they do not emphasize that their lobbying and political achievements help all workers, said Trotman. Literally, in so many words, unions aren’t reminding the white-collar workers that it was union political action that brought you the weekend, as the phrase goes.

White-collar and service workers, in the U.S., in Barbados and elsewhere, “do not see the trade union’s role of helping the disadvantaged and of securing their (white collar workers’) jobs against arbitrary dismissals.”

So what can the union movement do to wake the workers up and make them realize they need unions? Trotman has one set of ideas. The AFL-CIO Department for Professional Employees (DPE) is working on another.

Trotman’s idea is to remind the white-collar and apathetic workers that while they may be well-off, their friends, relatives and neighbors aren’t. He would appeal to their concern for their fellow human beings and those other workers’ families, as well as to their concern about their society as a whole. That calls for much more education.

DPE asked Jim Grossfeld, a veteran union activist and Newspaper Guild member, to interview white-collar unorganized professional workers about unions. His report pins down several causes for their lack of interest, prime among them the view that unions just concentrate on bread-and-butter wages-and-pensions issues—and those workers, already at high pay levels, aren’t as concerned about cash.

What they are concerned about include workplace standards and procedures that let them learn and grow on the job, advancing to higher positions.

In short, they want unions to talk about maintaining and enhancing conditions of being a professional.

That in turn led DPE to try to fashion new-style organizing themes for its member unions, revolving around quality-of-workplace issues, ahead of—but not instead of—wages and benefits. They include bargaining for more workplace professional training, use of advanced processes, and agitating for guaranteed advancement opportunities. Whether such campaigns will succeed at an IBM or a Silicon Valley high tech firm is anyone’s guess.

But it’s at least one way to try to overcome the apathy.

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