This will not be a happy Labor Day for unions. Organized labor finds itself in the most severe straits of a generation. Union rolls are shrinking, especially in industries that are automating, importing parts from overseas or going overseas. Competition -from foreign companies is eating into domestic markets for steel, autos and many other products. Unemployment stays around 10 percent while many workers fear for their jobs or are required to make huge concessions.
In the mid-fifties, over a third of the nation’s workers were unionized; now it is less than a quarter. Accelerating this downward trend is the emergence of management consultants whose skill is to decertify unions or block industrial union drives. In addition, companies have learned that moving away from a union town to a non-union area of the country brings with it further tax and other benefits, compliments of the new community.
The decline of unions may cheer those people who blame organized labor for impeding the ability of U.S. companies to compete in the world economy. Those people should work in a steel mill, auto plant or coal mine for a week and see if they think they are overpaid. The overseas labor counter-parts of these workers are the ones who are underpaid and often mercilessly exposed to health and safety hazards. Yet the drumbeats continue in reactionary circles here -For American workers to be pushed down toward the level of foreign laborers.
Given these troubles, it is remarkable how limited and short-range are the demands of labor unions whose headquarters fill buildings around the White House in downtown Washington. They want a federal jobs program, job security, more protection from imports and law reform that will facilitate their organizing. Under Ronald Reagan they are unlikely to achieve any of these goals unless industry backs one of them—import restrictions. The companies have more of the cards than ever when the economy is in a recession. And company sponsored political action committees (PACs) are overwhelming labor PACs in the thrust for influence on Capitol Hill.
Some persons may think that this unequal struggle between organized labor and corporations has little effect on them as consumers, taxpayers or citizens. This is because they do not sufficiently appreciate the beneficial indirect effects on all Americans that flow from checking the excessive power of giant companies. Remove organized labor from a countervailing role and more than union workers suffer. Working conditions everywhere worsen, adequate health and injury insurance coverage suffers, consumer purchasing power declines, and, yes, social concerns for the poor, elderly and sick diminish as well.
Too often, however, unions have been their worst enemies. Corruption, rigged elections, narrow visions, little research, unenergetic union bureaucrats, poor attention rank and file rights and education have not been all that rare. When unionists like Tony Mazzocchi (Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers) and Mike Westfall (United Auto Workers) try to break forward ground for workers’ safety and economic policy, the union bosses decline to help.
Presently, the looming question in Washington’s union buildings is who and when to endorse a Democratic Presidential candidate. The best guess is that it will be Mondale. But then what? Suppose Mondale defeats Reagan. Is that enough for workers? Whether it is Reagan or Mondale, the multinationals will continue their squeeze strategies on workers everywhere. What is organized agenda toward these multinationals, their technology, their insensitivity and their political and economic grip on the country?
You won’t find much at the AFL-CIO where Lane Kirkland reigns. Sure, a little work is being done on workers shaping pension investment policy. A little attention is being given to bringing union communications technology out of the Nineteen Forties. But this supposedly gigantic labor federation, representing over 20 million workers, cannot put a -fraction of the heat, for example, on Reagan’s destruction of job safety programs as a handful of environmental groups have done vis-a-vis James Watt and Ann Burford regarding the public lands and the environment.
Unless organized broadens its base and’ horizon, unless its staff start working vigorously, unless young people can be inspired to work in the movement and unless the rank and file take more responsibilty for their unions away from the stagnant drip of their bureaucrats, American labor history may be written under the title “Company unions to company unions in two generations.”