November 18, 2015
By Steven Wishnia
When Michael Goodwin applied for a job as an organizer at the Office and Professional Employees International Union in 1967, the union official who interviewed him told him, “Remember, son, you’ve got to organize to keep even.Goodwin, who is now OPEIU’s president, didn’t think much of that idea back then, but over the years, he’s “learned the truth of that.” When he took office in 1994, the union had 115,000 members, 80,000 in the U.S. and 35,000 in Canada.
Since that time, our U.S. side has grown to 105,000, and that’s because of organizing,” he says. What’s more, he adds, they probably had to organize 40,000 workers to achieve that net gain of 25,000, because technology has enabled office work such as bookkeeping to be done by far fewer employees. “If we didn’t organize new members, we wouldn’t have what we have,” Goodwin says. OPEIU’s organizing niche has been with workers who have not traditionally been union members, mostly professionals and people classified as independent contractors. Over the last 20 years, it’s organized podiatrists and helicopter pilots, taxi drivers in Las Vegas and Catholic-school teachers in New York.
To me, that’s the next labor movement,” Goodwin says. There are millions of professionals who are independent contractors, “and they’re all having trouble, because they’re all being abused.” Organizing helicopter pilots was relatively simple. They have the training and skills to fly an expensive and often risky aircraft, Goodwin says, so it was mainly a question of persuading them they could do better by acting collectively. Since they joined OPEIU in 1998, their average salary has risen from $35,000 a year to $150,000. Organizing independent contractors presents more difficult problems. They’re often scattered around, so they’re hard to reach, and they’re legally prohibited from forming unions. In some occupations, such as podiatrists, trying to set fees collectively could be considered an antitrust violation.OPEIU solves the first problem by going through professional associations. If people they’re trying to organize don’t have one, “the first thing we do if help them set up an association,” Goodwin says. They then ask the association to affiliate with the union, and work with it to advance its legislative agenda.
What can a union offer workers who can’t bargain collectively? Benefits and political leverage, Goodwin says. When podiatrists formed the First National Guild for Health Care Providers of the Lower Extremities in 1996, he says, “they recognized that the union could advance their profession and advance their legislative agenda better than they could” on their own. For example, Medicaid does not recognize podiatrists as physicians and thus does not pay them at the same rates as it does doctors, and New York State was one of six states that prohibited them from performing rear-ankle surgery. But in 2013, after a lobbying campaign by OPEIU and the state AFL-CIO, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill to repeal the surgery ban. Meanwhile, the national AFL-CIO passed a resolution supporting equal treatment for podiatrists under Medicaid. Those successes inspired podiatrists in New Jersey to join the union, Goodwin says. Even if barred from bargaining for better wages, unions can help members financially by providing benefits and services, using the power of collective purchasing to get them for less, Goodwin argues.
He waxes evangelistic about this, telling the story about how he got OPEIU members towing service from the American Automobile Association for $2.40 a year. The service normally costs $100 a year, he says, but he learned that providing it costs AAA only $1.80 per customer, because few people need it. So he offered to pay $2.40, a small fraction of the union’s $42.50 a month dues, and persuaded the company that with OPEIU’s 105,000 members, they’d make more than $60,000 a year profit on the deal. Any way I can improve your economics is good,” he says. “In the United States, there are hundreds of products that union members buy every day, and are being soaked. If we can deliver that to them, through a group purchase, I think we can bring tremendous value to those folks. So far, however, the labor movement has not adopted that practice, he says, although some unions are interested. Many workers, however, are wrongly classified as independent contractors. Taxi drivers in Tucson, Arizona, won a “major change” in October when the National Labor Relations Board ruled that they should be deemed employees because they depend on the company’s dispatching for fares.
OPEIU, which represents drivers in Las Vegas and San Diego, helped with the case, and a union election is now pending.The ruling won’t affect cabbies in New York, who mainly get fares from street hails, but will in cities where they can “prove the preponderance of work is directed by the company through a dispatch system,” Goodwin says.“We’re going to use this to organize cab drivers all across the country.”