Getting Serious

Organizing white-collar workers

Maida Rosenstein is president of Local 2110 of the United Auto Workers, which represents workers in publishing, the arts, and universities in New York City. For forty years she has worked to organize traditionally nonunion industries, such as magazines and galleries. We spoke with Rosenstein by phone about her experiences, and about the present and future of organizing white-collar work.

n+1: How did you get involved with the labor movement?

Maida Rosenstein: I was an office worker at Columbia University. I had just graduated from college, and I was working in office jobs, thinking I was going to go to graduate school. It was back in the ’80s. We started organizing office workers there, and it quickly became the most compelling thing I was doing in my life. I got involved in the organizing as a worker. We won our elections — a thousand office workers at the university. I became a full-time organizer for the union, and eventually was elected an officer in my local union and then became the president of the local union.

n+1: Was this the UAW at the time?

Rosenstein:  The original union was called District 65, and it was affiliated with the UAW. It doesn’t exist anymore. We were like a small . . . a mini-international union, and District 65 organized a lot of white-collar workers early on, going way back to the ’40s. Ultimately we were divvied up into local unions of the UAW, and that’s how I became the president of Local 2110.

n+1: What were the conditions you were facing at Columbia?

Rosenstein: First of all, people were very low paid. People were making eight, nine, ten thousand dollars a year for a full-time job — people making fifteen thousand had a very good salary. And the other thing is that the conditions were very inequitable between departments. One of the things we found when we organized and went to negotiate our first contract was that there was a tremendous pay inequity between whites and minorities in the bargaining unit, and between men and women. It was one of the things we actually went on strike over, in our first contract.

I think the other thing is that it was a unit of over a thousand workers, mainly women, and a lot of us were influenced by the women’s movement, and one of the things we saw was that women workers were not organized. We worked on a campus where maintenance and security workers were unionized and had been unionized since the ’40s, and they were making good money and had much better benefits than we did as office workers. And so it became obvious that we needed to do something about our labor conditions and take our jobs seriously. We weren’t working for pocket money. We were workers who had full-time jobs, some of us supporting families, and we needed to do something serious about our jobs, and unionizing was getting serious about the job. We met tremendous opposition from the university. The university delayed our election by legally contesting our bargaining unit for years; they ran a vicious anti-union campaign. Even after we voted in the unit, they challenged ballots and delayed things for years. It was not a benevolent or an easy fight, and we had to go on strike for our first contract. So it was a very tough fight. But I still think I’m lucky that I came into the labor movement in that way, because we won a tremendous fight, and I realized it could be done even with a difficult employer.

The UAW had a history of industrial organizing, they actually brought white-collar workers into the union going way back.

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n+1: Did it feel unusual at the time to be organizing as white-collar workers?

Rosenstein: There weren’t a lot of precedents. But we felt that we were part of a movement because there were a lot of university office workers who were organizing at the time. We were very optimistic that we were breaking boundaries, and that we were going to be able to go on to organize tens of thousands of university workers, women workers, office workers, white-collar workers — that this was going to be something that other people would pick up. And it was very exciting.

There were other precedents. There were some other university workers and college workers who were organized in our own union, District 65. Publishing workers had organized originally into an independent association in the ’40s at HarperCollins — it was then called Harper & Row. And that unit survives to this day as part of Local 2110. Workers at the Museum of Modern Art organized in the late ’70s, and they too organized as an independent association. And you know it was all for the white-collar workers. So there was stuff that was happening.

And I think it was really a legacy owed to the civil rights movement and to the women’s movement that this happened.

n+1: The UAW is not primarily a white-collar union. Did you feel, or did people in the UAW feel, that there was an attitude toward organizing white-collar workers, or workers in so-called creative industries, that was different from organizing an auto-assembly line in Michigan? Are there different issues at work that organizers have to address differently?

Rosenstein: There are differences every place. There are huge differences within organizing what are broadly called white-collar workers. For instance, organizing adjunct faculty has completely different challenges from organizing office workers who work in a set place on a more set schedule. There might be just as much difference between organizing contingent faculty and office workers as there is between office workers and plant workers who work on an assembly line, just in terms of the schedule and the operations. And, I don’t know, workplaces are different, and you have to learn about what people do and what their workplaces are like, and that’s always a challenge. You can’t make assumptions.

An interesting fact about the UAW is there are a lot of white-collar workers in the UAW. We call them “Technical, Office, and Professional Workers” — that’s the division name. There are probably 50,000 workers in higher education, and maybe 100,000 white-collar workers generally. Partly because the UAW had a history of industrial organizing, they actually brought white-collar workers into the union going way back, you know, with the plants and the engineers. So there was a basis for it. But with District 65 in the ’70s and ’80s, there was organizing among other kinds of groups, colleges and universities, and the UAW was very attractive to us, because it had a progressive history: it had been taking really good stances on civil rights and on the women’s movement, and it has an appealing structure, because it provides for local unions and a great deal of autonomy for them. And it has a very good history on collective bargaining, fighting for very strong contracts, and on issues that would be important to anybody: good benefits, good wages, and other issues as well. I like to think that our union brought something as well to the table. We negotiated over issues that now are a little more common, but at the time were a little more cutting edge, like child-care benefits, domestic-partner health benefits. I like to think that we also established things that set a standard for collective bargaining.

n+1: This symposium is about so-called creative workplaces, especially magazines. Are there common challenges to organizing these places, or common issues that the workers face when you go into the shop?

Rosenstein: Often there are particulars that motivate a group of workers to try to organize. It might be in particular around something that happened, like a benefit cut or a change in management.

First of all, white-collar workers are struggling over basic issues like money and benefits, because people may work in offices, and they may work for very prestigious employers, but it doesn’t mean they’re being paid well. Publishing is terrible. It’s largely nonunion, and even in places where the employers are making huge amounts and have very prestigious companies, that doesn’t translate into much for workers, unless they manage to get to the very top of the organization. The salaries are really low. People may have come out with a really good education, but they have debt, student debt to pay off, and they can barely make ends meet. If you’re a publishing worker and you’re making from $25,000 to $30,000 a year, and you also have college loans to pay off, and you’re living in New York, it’s very unlikely that you can afford your own apartment; it’s very unlikely that you can have the money to go on vacation every year. A very basic existence is tough for people to meet. So those issues are extremely important to people.

Often in white-collar workplaces, promotional opportunity is a big issue — the ability to move up without moving out, without being subject to what everyone thinks is the norm now, which is that you have to keep changing jobs in order to move up. People want to have the ability to promote up, and they want to have promotional opportunities. Especially for younger people. Those are issues that come up a lot.

Obviously health care is important to everybody; I don’t think it matters what age group you are in. I always hear that’s a critical issue. I’m in negotiations now with the graduate students at NYU, and that’s such a key issue for people, to be able to have a health-care plan.

Some of the most educated and skilled people in our society are among the most exploited workers.

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n+1: One thing you hear a lot when organizing places like this is that people fear that a union will hurt the prestige of their work group, that it might hurt the camaraderie, whether it be a university or a magazine. Are those obstacles?

Rosenstein: Yeah, absolutely. That’s kind of the management, anti-union campaign, the management playbook. But people have really incorporated this generally, so that even without management, any boss, having to say it, people worry about it. That if the union comes in, it will disrupt the atmosphere, undermine collegiality. When we organized at NYU among graduate assistants, the university definitely used that to try to scare faculty.

Often people fear that they will be penalized for wanting a union. It’s not expressed in exactly that way. There’s a fear that management will retaliate against them for wanting a union, and sometimes they can’t bring themselves to admit that they’re concerned about retaliation, so it’s expressed as, “a union will create barriers.” Well, it shouldn’t, if your employer is open to collective bargaining. In fact, it should enhance communications. White-collar workers are often more concerned about having flexibility in the workplace; people value that. And we try to incorporate agreements that guarantee flexible hours or flexible rights into our collective ­bargaining, because that’s important. Employer campaigns in white-collar workplaces often include the threat that if a union comes you’ll lose all your flexibility.

n+1: In the 1950s there was an article in Harper’s — now unionized — by an anonymous union organizer, who wrote a piece called “Why White Collar Workers Can’t Be Organized.” He’s anonymous, it’s not clear what union he’s working for, but he’s been tasked with organizing white-collar workers, and he talks about the difficulties. One of the things he talks about is how in blue-collar industries, people tend to talk about themselves as belonging to a certain kind of industry rather than referring to the position they hold. So they’ll say, “I work in coal” or “I work in steel,” whereas white-collar workers refer to their skills: “I’m a stenographer,” “I’m a file clerk.” The other thing he mentions is that a certain kind of meritocratic ideal holds in white-collar workplaces. He says, “The great American dream still has a firmer hold on white collar workers than on blue collar workers” — at the same time that he feels that white-collar workers are among the most exploited workers in the US. And this is from 1957. I wonder if that sounds true to you in any sense, or whether that’s changed. Historically, excepting the public sector, the rates of union density in white-collar work have not been as high.

Rosenstein: Yeah, although I think in universities it’s a lot higher. Yes. Again, the employer playbook, which sometimes people just incorporate psychologically: the idea that somehow white-collar workers are more elite, specialized, unique, et cetera — I think there are lots of versions of that in anti-union campaigns now. But it doesn’t mean that people aren’t realizing that you can be exploited even with an extremely high level of education and skill, if you have no power.

It’s kind of absurd, the situation with adjuncts. Some of the most educated and skilled people in our society, who have PhDs in specialized areas, are among the most exploited workers, the worst off. No job security. No benefits, very low pay, not even security that keeps them from one year to another. Horrendous, truly horrendous conditions. Why? Because unless they organize, they have no power to change things, so their education and their skill — even though they’re needed by their employer — that’s not enough to translate into good conditions. Without unionizing, they don’t have the power to change those conditions. So, it’s really more about power than it is about skill or education or value to the employer. Those could be factors, if you organized to take power — they could be factors that you manipulate in your favor, but without having the power, you can’t change things, and you can’t guarantee that you will do well. Look what’s happened to doctors, because the power is all held by privately held insurance companies and hospitals and corporate power, and you have doctors who save lives — and who is more educated than a doctor? — and yet HMOs and insurance companies have been able to force doctors’ incomes way down.

n+1: You mention broad trends of degradation of working conditions in white-collar professions — publishing, professional careers, and universities. Do you see a bright future for unions?

Rosenstein:I do think there is more interest awakening among these groups of workers that things need to change, and they need to figure out ways to organize to do that. I think even in Occupy you saw some awareness of that among media workers and communication workers, and certainly in universities there’s a lot of organizing, a lot of potential organizing. But there are very serious obstacles that people face. The law is not really friendly to organizing, and there’s a tremendous right-wing attempt to crush organizing and unions, so it’s formidable opposition. But I think there’s a lot of motivation. People are not doing well and they want to try to find ways of doing better. So I think the potential’s out there.

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