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September 4, 1989
"Unions Must Redefine Themselves to Prosper in U.S."
San Jose Mercury News
By Timothy Taylor
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CAN you name the current head of the AFL-CIO, the umbrella organization for four-fifths of the unionized workers in the country? When was the last time you remember seeing him quoted in the paper?

Well, his name is Lane Kirkland. According to the computerized Mercury News library, his name hasn't been mentioned anyplace in the paper during June, July or August. He was quoted in a total of four stories through the first eight months of 1989. And one of those stories was his defense of an AFL-CIO reception where female hostesses wore body tights and mesh tops, which is not exactly the sort of publicity one hopes for.

When unions do turn up in news stories, it seems the news is always bad for them. On July 27, for example, a group of American workers at a Nissan plant in Tennessee voted against joining the United Auto Workers by more than a two-to-one margin.

All the negative stories add up to a big trend. As the chart shows, the union share of the workforce has been declining since the 1950s, and is now back to Depression-era levels. The decline would be even sharper except for the rapid growth in public sector unions, like teachers, state and local employees, policemen, firefighters, and so on. One-third of all union members are now public employees.

Any number of plausible reasons have been advanced for the decline of unions. A few examples: The labor market has shifted away from men and manufacturing jobs -- the traditional strengths of unions -- and toward women and service jobs. As jobs have become more knowledge-intensive, many workers have become less replaceable, with less need for unions. The increasingly global economy has provided more non-union competition for jobs.

There is also an ironic thesis that unions are victims of their successes. Now that unions have prodded business into offering health insurance and pensions, and prodded government into laws about minimum wages and maximum hours, safe workplaces and Social Security, workers have less need for them.

But these explanations all share a common problem. If true, they should apply to other industrialized countries, since those countries have had similar economic changes.

However, unions in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden represent half or much more of the workforce, and the union share of employment in those countries has been stable or rising in the last couple of decades. In Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom, union density is between 25 percent and 50 percent of the workforce, and unions have been holding their own in the past few decades. The union share of the workforce has declined in Japan over the last couple of decades, but the decline there has been only about half of the U.S. decline.

Explaining why the United States has the lowest and most rapidly falling rate of unionization of any industrialized country, without using reasons that apply to other countries, is a delicate business. The best explanations are based in law and tradition.

In other countries, union power has been a powerful social movement that was a source of personal identification and political power. The effects of unions have been good and bad, but rarely negligible. But for reasons that run too deep in the American psyche for me to plumb, European-style union spirit has never caught on in this country. American union members fight for their own jobs, wages, and benefits, but they tend to leave crusading to others.

From this perspective, it makes sense that the two largest jumps in U.S. union power happened when the federal government encouraged workers directly. One jump was in the late 1930s, when the laws of the New Deal encouraged collective bargaining. The second jump was during World War II, when the federal government pushed unionization in plants devoted to military production.

The main reason for the decline in American unions is simply that the federal government stopped pushing them, workers had little ideological commitment to them, and corporations became more and more skilled at using labor laws to push back. Unlike unions in other countries, American unions have been unable to expand along with the private economy.

Outside of the public sector, American unions are clearly not offering workers enough reason to join up. The union movement has three possible directions to turn.

The first possibility is to keep going along in much the same way, hoping that employers behave badly enough so that workers retreat to unions. If unions choose this path, you can just extrapolate the downward curve of the chart to see where they are headed.

The second option is for unions to attempt a greater partnership with business -- and perhaps with government, too. I suspect some union leaders will like this idea, and it has happened in many European countries, but it makes me edgy.

I think unions function best as loyal opposition, rather than second-tier management. When unions do join up with management, it's generally to lobby for tax breaks to benefit their industry or protection from import competition, not for something in the broader public interest. A union may think it is fighting to get into a corporation's drawers, but end up in the company's pocket, instead.

The third option is for unions go on the offensive. Unions can be successful only if they give the best workers reasons to sign up. There are two ways to do that: help workers get the benefits they want, and help make workers more productive. Both steps require unions to show flexibility and inventiveness.

Back in the days when most union members were men supporting families, fighting for a single wage-and-benefits package for everyone made sense. Today, different workers need help with all sorts of different benefits, like child care and elder care, lower-interest credit cards and consumer discounts, health and auto insurance, legal aid and career counseling.

Simply demanding that companies provide all this to every employee is no answer at all. Unions should be the pioneers at figuring out schemes to give today's broad range of employees access to the particular fringe benefits each employee wants, at reasonable cost.

Back in the days when most union jobs were manual labor, it made some sense for unions to define every job closely and make sure that no one was forced into doing anyone else's work. Today, with technologies changing every few years, unions need to provide skilled workers who can change responsibilities over and over.

Some unions have already taken steps in this direction. Despite the setback in Tennessee, the United Auto Workers has focused in the past few years on making sure that its members will be retrained and relocated, not laid off, when technology changes. But too often in the past, unions have treated the need for flexibility and job-shifting as if it were maltreatment of workers.

Good unions have special expertise in what workers want, and whether they can afford it; in what workers do, and how to do it better. If the unions want to hear better news in the 1990s, they must develop and use that expertise to make it themselves.

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