Monday September 4, 1995

Labor unions in the '90s: 'It's time for a change'

Labor leaders see some positive signs for the union movement despite years of decline and the pressures of a changing economy.


Journal-Bulletin Washington Bureau


American unions are showing a little life this Labor Day: For the first time in a century there is an open challenge under way for the leadership of the AFL-CIO, the labor federation that represents most American union members.

All the same, the insurgents' leader, John Sweeney, president of the Service Employees International Union, has put this harsh view at the center of his campaign for the federation presidency: "In the eyes of many workers, the American labor movement is becoming irrelevant."

After forcing the incumbent president, Lane Kirkland, from office this summer, the two factions of challengers have adopted many of the same themes:

*It's time for a change.

*It's time to organize workers more aggressively.

*It's time for labor's voice to be heard clearly in national affairs.

At a roundtable discussion last Friday at the National Press Club, panelists representing unions, manufacturing and business journalism took a look at the future of organized labor.

While holding up the AFL-CIO leadership struggle as possible grounds for optimism, panelists at the conference also alluded to the familiar history of organized labor's decline.

Unions represented more than a third of the work force at their highwater mark in the early 1950s. The sometimes bloody organizing victories of the Depression put labor in a position to grow dramatically during the military-industrial boom of World War II.

The postwar prosperity, too, brought good times for labor. Burgeoning industries such as automobiles and airlines, along with rising demand for consumer goods, triggered a manufacturing expansion that more than offset the peacetime defense slowdown.

Today, the nation's 16 million union members constitute little more than 10 percent of the labor force. Of that number, thanks to aggressive organizing in the public sector, roughly half of union members today work for government at some level.

But union membership has plummeted in the metal trades and other heavy manufacturing with the wholesale loss of jobs to foreign competition and, more recently, the contraction of the weapons business - best seen locally in the shrinking membership of unions at Electric Boat's Groton, Conn., shipyard.

EB's non-union Quonset Point plant exemplifies two other factors in organized labor's decline: the success of corporations in recent decades in resisting unionization, along with increasing reliance on ever-more sophisticated machinery, such as the computer-guided tools that help shape the submarine hull-ring sections at Quonset Point and stuff them with fixtures.

Frank Swoboda, the moderator of the session and a labor reporter for the Washington Post, noted that automation has also come to the service sector, "once seen as the panacea" for unions seeking new labor pools from which to recruit members.

The new Republican majority in Congress, moreover, may further erode organized labor by revising such labor laws as the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires government contractors to pay the locally prevailing wage - often the union wage.

So far in the 104th Congress, though, the GOP has failed to focus much on labor's legislative canon, much less enact wholesale changes in it.

One key to labor's future is to beef up organizing drives - particularly among underrepresented low-wage workers and among employees of foreign and multinational firms that have set up shop in this country, argued Arthur A. Coia, the Providence-born president of the Laborers International Union of North America and one of the organizers of the challenge to Kirkland.

The 750,000-member Laborers, heavily oriented toward workers at the bottom of the wage ladder, has some success stories to make Coia's point. He told, for example, how several hundred, mostly Spanish-speaking workers at a poultry processing plant in North Carolina voted this summer to join his union.

Coia said that victory depended partly on the international's willingness to invest in a legal struggle against the efforts of plant management to block union organizers. And he said it depended on worker outrage at a management that charged employees for drinking water and required workers to get permission to use the toilet.

But Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia's delegate to Congress, said it takes money - the ability to swing "a big olive branch," as she put it - to mount such organizing drives and to make the kind of credible strike threat at the bargaining table that yields good contracts.

Michelle Amber, an editor for the Washington-based Daily Labor Report, said another hopeful trend is the rise in cooperation between labor and management evidenced in contracts that lock in such tools as worker membership on company boards of directors, and systematic solicitation of workers' ideas on productivity.

Like both factions in the AFL-CIO campaign, Friday's panelists all seemed to agree on labor's need for better communication with rank-and-file workers and for better public relations. "A lot of union members didn't even know that Lane Kirkland was president of the AFL-CIO," Amber said.

Panelists also seemed to agree that unions have a big potential role in the training of workers for the global marketplace.

But as if to underline how much energy labor spends these days on holding actions, the panelists put more time and spirit into the old squabble about such topics as permanent striker replacement and other longstanding legal issues than any other topic Friday.

They also omitted any mention of the problem of corruption in unions. The Laborers' Union has operated since February under an agreement with the Justice Department that requires it to take steps to purge corruption or face tougher government intervention.

The hotel and restaurant employees union also entered into an agreement recently that lets a federal board monitor it for possible organized crime

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