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Byline: Diane E. Lewis The Boston Globe

Suddenly, it seems, UNITE's union organizers are everywhere: rallying immigrant workers at a curtain factory in Everett, Mass., bemoaning the plight of laid-off tailors at Louis Boston, reducing talk show host Kathy Lee Gifford to tears over $47,000 owed to low-wage workers who produce Kathy Lee clothing.

A product of the merger of two old-line textile unions, the scrappy new organization is winning battles and raising hackles. And, in an age when union officials do most of their sparring in front of federal labor relations officers, UNITE's grass-roots organizing campaigns and decidedly impolite protests harken back to the civil rights movement and to an earlier era in the labor movement.

``A lot of unions are talking about organizing and constructing stronger alliances with community groups,'' said organizer Robin Clark. ``We're out there giving it a shot.''

Born in July 1995 when the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union joined forces, UNITE is swimming against some strong currents in the American economy.

Only 14.9 percent of the 1996 American work force claims membership in a union - down from 34.7 percent in 1954, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Add to this the fact that UNITE's core industries - textiles and apparel - have been hard hit by international competition, and the odds against expansion seem daunting.

UNITE is undaunted.

In the last year, the union credits its $10 million organizing drive with bringing in 10,000 previously unorganized workers. In addition, it has launched an anti-sweatshop campaign backed by the White House, played a key role in winning an increase in the minimum wage and staged a number of high-profile protests.

At the 13 million member AFL-CIO in Washington, D.C., organizing director Richard Bensinger noted recently that the union's aggressiveness and its skill at getting whole communities involved in its organizing campaigns is the kind of activism the labor movement could use more of these days.

``It's a little like the civil rights movement,'' Bensinger said of UNITE. ``They have strategists thinking about everything from upcoming shareholder meetings to electorate strategy and coalition building.''

To be sure, UNITE's newfound energy comes after years of retreat. Just 23 years ago, the two textile unions could boast a combined membership of 1.46 million; today, that number stands at 300,000. And despite some successes, observers say the union is struggling internally to consolidate the regional staffs and offices of two labor organizations with distinctly different personalities and approaches.

Nevertheless, noted Kate Brongenbrenner, director of labor education and research at Cornell University, ``This is a union that is organizing and bringing in new members against some terrific odds.''

For instance:

In Greensboro, N.C., this fall, more than 500 workers organized by UNITE won a contract at a Kmart distribution center. Under the agreement, workers are guaranteed pay increases ranging from 22 to 52 percent over the next two years. Workers began pushing for a union after learning that pay scales at the Greensboro warehouse were lower than at similar Kmart facilities in other communities.

As part of the union drive, UNITE formed an alliance with a group of ministers known as the Pulpit Forum, who helped with a boycott of Kmart by urging churchgoers to shop elsewhere. During one protest, union organizers, community residents and workers staged a sit-in which ended with the arrests of scores of protesters.

In New York, a campaign and investigation launched by UNITE and a local human rights group prompted the Labor Department to order a sweatshop owner to pay $47,000 in back wages to a group of garment workers. The employees, whose hourly pay was below the minimum wage, had routinely worked up to 60 hours per week without overtime pay.

The case garnered national attention when a tearful Kathy Lee Gifford offered to pay the workers after UNITE organizers marched to New York-based Seo Fashions with TV cameras in tow. The workers' employer, Kyung Seo, was producing apparel for Wal-Mart bearing the Kathy Lee label.

In Opelika, Ala., 70 percent of the 900 employees at Roadmaster, a manufacturer of exercise equipment, voted to join UNITE earlier this year. Workers began organizing after the company acquired another firm, laid off scores of Roadmaster employees and then rehired some of them, in some cases for $2 an hour less than they had earned before.

Observers attribute UNITE's resurgence to a pairing of strengths and weaknesses in the older unions. ACTWU has long been known for its grass-roots activism and work in the South but had few resources to expand beyond that base. The more staid ILGWU had not held its ground in a declining textile industry but had managed to hang on to considerable financial resources.

``ACTWU brought a tremendous commitment to organizing,'' said Tom Juravich, director of the labor relations and research center at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. ``The ILGWU, by contrast, was an urban union with a pretty big New York presence. Together, there is a vitality that the two unions did not have independently.''

UNITE has spent much of its first year organizing the unorganized: namely, the mostly Latino, European, Caribbean and poor southern African-Americans who labor in textile, chicken processing or chemical treatment plants for meager wages and no benefits.

``Their orientation toward lower-paid, badly exploited immigrant and poor workers is definitely a strong point,'' said Steve Early, a spokesman for the Communications Workers of America. ``They are very much alive and kicking down South.''

While the UNITE name suggests a unified operation, some of those close to the labor group say getting the merged unions to operate as a unit continues to be a struggle.

``The two unions are coming from two different places,'' said an organizer who requested anonymity. ``ACTWU is a union that acts up. Basically, the ILGWU is just trying to hold the line on wages and benefits: Don't create too much noise because the plant may shut down. Naturally, that has created tensions.''

Ronald Alman, an international vice president of UNITE and former ILGWU labor official, denies that there are problems or tensions between the two groups. ``That is so far from the truth it is not even funny.''
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Title Annotation:BUSINESS
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Oct 27, 1996

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