We HAVE HAD a spate of reports and speeches documenting, bemoaning or celebrating the decline of the American labor movement. Friends and foes alike point to the absolute reduction in union membership during the '80s, the diminished clout of unions at the bargaining table or on the picket line and the lower esteem in which unions are held.
And yet, with a nod to Mark Twain, these obituaries seem a little premature. There is strong reason to believe that organized labor, in some form, will continue to play a major role in American economic and public life.
The reason is depressingly simple: Workers are still being exploited, and they will find that they will be forced to rely on their own devices to protect themselves. The public, the government and employers are not doing enough to provide workers with the security and the opportunities that are their right in a civilized society.
The so-called safety net which is supposed to protect workers and their families from the slings and arrows of life in an industrial society is full of holes. Inadequate provision of medical care is one example. But more striking -- and perhaps more painful -- is the question of occupational safety and health.
National standards for safety in the workplace were supposed to have been established two decades ago. And so, late last summer 27 workers lost their lives in a fire in a North Carolina poultry processing plant. Blocked exits; a lack of fire protection; poor, intimidated employees -- frightening were the parallels to the massively lethal 1911 fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. in New York's garment district.
That tragedy gave a strong impetus to labor organization in the garment industry and spurred major reforms in worker safety. And here we are eight decades later watching our workplaces become deathtraps. Something's wrong!
To a considerable degree, the people who died in the North Carolina factory did so because no one cared enough. Yell, "Naked aggression!" and the vast resources of a nation are deployed halfway around the world to protect the people of a small nation from the depredations of their brutal neighbor. But daily, naked aggression is committed by one group of Americans against another group of Americans, and the general response is feeble, at best.
So with respect to the workplace, what is all this talk about unions being irrelevant in the post-industrial era, the information age or whatever it is the slogan-makers call the time in which we live?
Yes, it's true that a good part of the workplace has been transformed -- often for the better. Computers, robots, electronic cottages, brains replacing brawn, all have become part of the world of work. But much has not changed. Millions of people still go off to dangerous, low-paying jobs with limited medical and pension benefits. And given the rapidity of technical change and the pressure of worldwide competition, even these less-than-adequate jobs are not assured. Unions still remain the best hope for those whom society pushes to the edge.
In recent years, the American labor movement has been an active supporter of democracy in Eastern Europe and Latin America. Today, millions of American workers are in need of industrial democracy -- to dust off an old term from the '20s and '30s. If they get it anywhere, it will be through the efforts of their unions.
Irvin Weintraub is associate professor of economics at Towson State University.