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"What does labor want? It wants the earth and the fullness thereof. There is nothing too precious, there is nothing too beautiful, too lofty, too ennobling unless it is within the scope and comprehension of labor's aspirations and wants.... We want more schoolhouses and less jails; more books and less arsenals; more learning and less vice; more constant work and less crime; more leisure and less greed; more justice and less revenge; in fact, more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures.... "
In the future, the Reagan-Bush era might well be remembered by labor unions as The Years from Hell.
As a result of decisions made over the past decade, the legal and organizing environment is the worst it has been for unions since 1935, when the National Labor Relations Act was passed.
Today, we have a more labor-friendly occupant in the Oval office, and labor adherents believe the change is none too soon. Unions have been steadily losing members over the past 20 years, as the rise of technology and white-collar service jobs have displaced unionized manufacturing employees. In the past decade, downsizings and consolidations have accelerated the falloff even more dramatically. America's labor unions have reached a critical point: If they continue to operate as they traditionally have for decades, their own ineptitude and irrelevancy will put the final nail in their coffin.
But don't sound the dirge yet. There are signs that some unions have rebounded with vigor and creativity, and, in the process, have been dealing with management in new ways.
Nevertheless, the climate for unions remains grim. Consider some government statistics. Current union membership stands at 15.8 percent of the employed American workforce--dropping to 11 percent among private-sector workers. In the mid-1950s, the heyday of American unions, the private sector membership reached 35 percent.
Union membership has fallen in tandem with downsizings, layoffs and consolidations in manufacturing, until some industrial union enrollments now stand at almost half what they were in the early 1970s. Machinists, for example, comprised 1 million members; they currently number 650,000. Auto worker membership peaked at 1.5 million; it now stands at 850,000. Steelworkers once numbered 1.4 million; current union enrollment stands at 700,000.
The collapsing economy after the overcapacity of the 1980s has contributed to the kind of job erosion in traditional industries that has not been kind to long-standing unions. robs have been phased out, never to return. Many companies shifted operations to the South and Southwest, areas historically not supportive of unions.
Particularly in the past five years, leaner companies have played an aggressive game in contract negotiations with their unions in order to allow management to wrest more productivity from fewer workers, to outsource effectively and to hire workers on temporary, "per project" bases. And, recently, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has issued rules that perceptively favor management, particularly those restricting on-site union organizing and permitting permanent replacement of striking workers.
These factors have eroded the most important leverage a union can claim: to represent its members effectively in matters of job security and wages. Yet, despite all the negatives, some American unions are applying new techniques in organizing (see box, page 12), negotiating and image building. They are showing surprising vitality--but their …