Unions must evolve to meet new realities

Things look rather bleak for American unions. President Clinton ordered American Airlines’ pilots back to work on Saturday just a few hours into a strike. Detroit newspaper workers ended a 20-month strike on Friday with an offer to give up their demands and return to work. Despite a multimillion dollar AFL-CIO ad campaign to support pro-labor Democrats in the 1996 election, the Republicans maintained majorities in Congress. Adjusted for inflation, wages for workers have decreased during the past 20 years. Union membership has spiraled downward since the 1950s, when 35 percent of the American work force was union-affiliated. Currently, the figure stands at just 14.5 percent.
With the conversion from an industrial to a service-based economy, America’s working and middle classes have changed dramatically. For collective bargaining to remain a viable force in the new economic environment, unions must recognize these changes and adjust their tactics accordingly.
Profits on Wall Street are soaring — the Dow Jones hit a record 7000 on Friday, marking the fastest 1000-point gain ever. But increased stock values carry a high price for American workers. A business’ boost on the stock market is often the result of streamlining production, downsizing the staff and hiring part-time or temporary workers. Flextime, telecommuting and an economy driven by technology have transformed the traditional workplace. For unions, this means working- and middle-class Americans are less likely to be employed in places conducive to organizing. Americans may be deeply cynical about their employers — see “Dilbert” — but it is increasingly rare for that cynicism to translate into collective bargaining.
Historically, management and labor have often had an adversarial relationship, but the groups held equal power in negotiation. After President Reagan’s union-busting actions and strong rhetoric supporting big business during the 1980s, collective bargaining suffered dramatically. With subsequent Right to Work state laws, plant closings and pro-business federal rulings, labor’s power has rapidly declined. This upset of the balance of power between labor and management limits how effectively unions can represent their members. But even with legislative setbacks, unless labor is able to change its pattern of organization and adjust to a changing working class, the most severe problems may come from within.
With over 13 million members, America’s largest union, the AFL-CIO, recently announced the organization’s plans to emphasize recruiting new members. Low-paying jobs that get little respect — such as manufacturing, shipping and meatpacking — were once labor’s backbone. Recent statements from the AFL-CIO indicate they still see manual laborers as their core. But today, those who could benefit the most from collective bargaining are in the groups that are hardest to organize. The working class is no longer concentrated in factory work. Traditional images of unions may mean workers not involved in manual labor do not see unions as potential representatives. If unions want to continue to be a voice for the working and middle class against the corporate structure, they need to recognize the changes in how American business operates and reach out to new groups of workers.