September 5, 1995
"Unions Can't Lock Out the Future -American Labor Preoccupied with Internal
Matters, Must Log On to the Information Age"
San Jose Mercury News
By Timothy Taylor
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AMERICAN union power has been going downhill for 40 years. After World War
II, when the U.S. government strongly encouraged the formation and growth of labor
unions as a method of accelerating military production, about 35 percent of the
U.S. workforce belonged to a union. Today, only 16 percent of all U.S. workers
belong; in private industry, the total is only 11 percent.
The one growth area for unions has been government; while only about 6 percent
of government workers belonged to unions back in 1960, that figure has now climbed
to 38 percent.
Sagging union membership in the United States is even more striking when contrasted
with other industrialized countries. As the table shows, the U.S. doesn't quite
have the lowest level of union membership; France and Spain hover a bit lower.
But in the United States, unions negotiating with individual companies are
the only form of collective bargaining over wages and work conditions, while France
and Spain also have a variety of other mechanisms, including national, regional,
sectoral and single-company agreements.
Since the late 1980s, for example, France has had economy-wide, multi-industry
negotiations to determine wage increases. When broader forms of collective bargaining
are considered, the United States ranks at the bottom of the industrialized world.
For some folks, this news is a combination of glad tidings and just desserts.
In their view, unions are nothing more than an entrenched and politicized leadership
that seeks to block modernization and change.
Surely, a few individual unions and union leaders do fit that caricature. But
the international comparisons show that such all-inclusive slurs on unions and
collective bargaining are wrong-headed.
After all, it hasn't exactly crippled the German economy to have double the
unionization rate of the United States - nor to have 90 percent of its workforce
covered by collective bargaining arrangements of some sort. The Japanese economy
has grown extremely fast with far more unionization than the United States. For
that matter, America in the 1950s combined far stronger unions and robust economic
In other countries, unions and collective bargaining are often given credit
for reducing conflict in the workplace and promoting consensus in society as a
whole. Moreover, strong unions and collective agreements can help workers embrace
training and modernization, because they have confidence that their interests
have been represented.
The key question is not whether unions are inevitably good or bad - an argument
that sheds more heat than light - but whether American unions are reinventing
themselves in ways that will benefit their members and society. This summer has
brought two major stories about the U.S. labor movement.
One is the proposal, announced at the end of July, to merge the autoworker,
steelworker and machinist unions. Mergers do expand the personal empire of top
leadership. But just as merging three money-losing companies can create only a
larger loss-maker, combining three declining unions doesn't do anything, in and
of itself, to strengthen the labor movement.
The other major labor story concerns the resignation of longtime AFL-CIO leader
Lane Kirkland. An election in October, between Kirkland protegee Thomas Donahue
and relative outsider John Sweeney (president of the Service Employees International
Union), will determine the new leader for the American labor movement. It's the
first significant split in the national labor leadership since the 1930s, which
tells something about how ossified big labor has become.
The two candidates are both calling for better union organizing and public
relations and motherhood and apple pie. They are less clear about what actual
policies the unions of tomorrow will advocate.
The most visible labor stand of the last few years has been a shrill opposition
to NAFTA, GATT and free trade. But America's workers aren't going to become better
off by sealing themselves off from the world, nor by denying Mexican or Chinese
workers a chance to sell their goods in American markets. Unions were strong supporters
of free trade until the mid-1960s; they should rediscover the wisdom of that stance.
There is no scarcity of issues where a thoughtful voice for American labor
could have considerable impact. How can the broadest group of American workers
use the new information and communication technologies to improve their productivity
and wages? How can workers have access to the training and retraining and advanced
capital equipment they need? How can society assure benefits like retirement,
health care, education, vacation and day care, in a world where many workers will
be switching between employers?
Combine these issues with the traditional labor concern for fair wages and
a safe workplace, and you might have a political and social movement that would
be at least as important as Ross Perot all by himself, even if not as central
as, say, the Scandinavian unions are in their countries.
But at least for this summer, the top levels of the American labor movement
seem preoccupied with internal matters, like mergers and elections, rather than
with the sort of creative thinking and outreach that could play such an important
role in shaping the 21st century workplace.
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