Her uphill battle: unify workers as one voice

By Tom Zucco, Times Staff Writer
Published June 17, 2007

The numbers aren't good, because the numbers aren't there. Union membership dipped from 15.7 percent of the U.S. work force in 2005 to 15.4 percent last year. Florida unions dwindled from 5.4 to 5.2 percent.

Compare that to the mid 1950s, when 36 percent of American workers were unionized.

Into this battle for survival steps Cheryl Schroeder, 47, a pickup-driving, card-carrying optimist from Plant City.

Schroeder, who 22 years ago began filling in as an office manager for the Pasco County teachers' union, is now in her fourth year as executive director of the West Central Florida Federation of Labor. She's one of the highest-ranking female union officials in Florida, and the first to lead it.

That's unusual. Other than United Mine Workers organizer Mary "Mother" Jones, United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta and a few others, labor leaders have been men.

But in 2006, nearly half of all union members, or 6.7-million workers, were women.

"It was difficult when I first started as executive director, " Schroeder said. "I spent the first year convincing people I wasn't just here to answer the phone."

Still, the larger issue of declining membership remains, and Schroeder has an uphill climb. Florida has a big service-oriented work force, a lot of people working for low wages, and a business community that generally sees unions as unnecessary.

Schroeder had done organizing for the United Auto Workers in other states, but this job is different. The federation represents about 125, 000 workers in 85 labor unions in 12 west-central Florida counties. From ironworkers to teachers, Schroeder, who earns $52, 000 a year, wants them to speak with one voice.

Her latest cause: the Employee Free Choice Act, a proposed law that would add to the National Labor Relations Act by establishing stronger penalties for violation of employee rights when workers want to form a union. The measure passed the House and will be debated this week in the Senate. President Bush said he will veto it.

"What you see in Florida are unions that have work to do, but are up to the challenge, " Schroeder said. "This is a wonderful time for unions, because the middle class is shrinking. People are looking for answers."

Yes, she added, a woman in her position is rare.

"But every once in a while, " she said, "one of us slips in."