ST. PAUL, MINNESOTA. — The United States now has the dubious distinction of being the most anti-union of all industrialized counties. The proportion of the private work force that bargains collectively with management has plummeted from 30 percent in the mid-1950s to 12 percent in l990.
At this rate, by the end of this decade, unions outside of the public sector will be little more than a memory.
Many Americans, counseled by much of the business community and the White House, might say, good riddance. No unions means higher productivity, more innovation, greater competitiveness. Right?
Wrong. ''The most competitive national economies,'' a recent Harvard Business Review article concludes, have ''far higher levels of unionization than in the United States.''
Our competitors know a good thing when they experience it. Among 17 major competitors the work force is becoming more, not less, unionized, rising on average from 48 percent in 1970 to 53 percent in 1987.
In these countries, unions are at the table when fundamental decisions affecting labor are made. It should comes as no surprise that the result is that workers are treated with a dignity that is downright un-American.
In Sweden, union stewards can close a plant they believe is unsafe. In the United States in 1989 alone, more than 3,600 workers filed appeals with the federal government for being fired for protesting unsafe working conditions.
Swedish managers may not lay off anyone without one month's notice, six months for employees over 45. The average blue-collar worker in this country in the late 1980s received only seven days' notice before losing his or her job; two days when not backed by a union.
German corporations with more than 1,000 employees must have an equal number of labor and management representatives on the board of directors. But suggest to American managers that even one worker representative be on their boards, and they go ballistic.
Employees at Pacific Enterprises, a utility holding company, own about 21 percent of the company's stock; board and officers own only 1.5 percent. Yet when the Utility Workers Union of America recently put up a candidate for one of 15 seats on the board, management spent $260,000 in a successful effort to defeat him.
CEO Richard Farman insists, ''I do not believe that a union leader can serve on the board without placing himself in the position of creating a conflict of interest.''
Most American managers treat labor not as a partner but as the enemy. The Congressional Office of Technology Assessment informs us that computers now monitor 10 million workers, often without their knowledge or permission.
Employers are now firing workers who are overweight, who smoke off duty or have high cholesterol levels. Two-thirds of all firms recently surveyed by the American Management Association test for drugs, ''even when there is no suspicion of drug use and no obvious case for testing,'' says Eric Greenberg, the association's research editor.
In countries where labor has power, it also has respect. And since more than 90 percent of us are workers, that respect spills over from the workplace to the entire society.
It is no accident that the United States, where labor has the least power, also is the only industrialized country lacking universal health insurance.
When labor has power, everyone has more leisure time. The average American worker spends 1,900 hours a year on the job. A German, Dutch or Danish employee works 160-to-175 fewer hours, the equivalent of four weeks less each year, yet has a standard of living at least as high as his or her American counterpart.
When labor has power, there is less, not more, violent confrontation with management. As St. Paul business consultant Ron Bosrock has pointed out, ''In the U.S., we measure lost time from strikes in days or weeks per year. Austria measures theirs in minutes per year.''
That America works better with unions is the message of a new book, ''Unions and Economic Competitiveness,'' by M. E. Sharpe. The upstate New York-based Corning Corp. is one company that seems to have taken this message to heart. Its 28 U.S. factories are converting to team-based production, in cooperation with the American Flint Glass Workers Union.
The company's new mission statement is appropriately entitled, ''A Partnership in the Workplace.'' It contains six ''essential values,'' among which are ''recognition of the rights of workers to participate in decisions that affect their working lives'' and ''a work environment free of arbitrary and authoritarian attitudes.''
Teamwork is already paying off at Corning. Defects are down. Profits are up.
In the 1980s, American business and government succeeded in virtually destroying the influence of workers in the work place and in society. Before we call that a victory, we would do well to reflect that, on the experience of other countries, high standards of living and competitive and innovative economies are not only compatible with, but are based on, worker power.
David Morris is a consultant who contributes a column to the St. Paul Pioneer Press.