Unions Have Their Day

June 28, 1994|By ROBERT RENO

NEW YORK — The shellacking unions took on NAFTA last year could soon be avenged by passage of the most important piece of pro-labor legislation since the Wagner Act of 1935.

This is amazing since this is not 1935, union membership has been declining for more than a decade, we have a centrist presidency disposed to ingratiate itself with the business community and the Congress is heavily infested with ''new'' Democrats, old Republicans and Reaganite new Neanderthals. What gives?

Well, the Anti-Striker Replacement Act has already achieved clear majorities in both houses. And it will come to the floor of the Senate this summer with only the promise of a filibuster between it and final passage. It may take but a few compromises to win the 60 votes necessary to shut off the gaseous debate and get the measure signed.

The usual suspects are bellowing ludicrous warnings that the bill is an invitation to American workers to stage an immediate re-enactment of Paris in the Terror, enforced by an epidemic of strikes and the brutalization of their less militant comrades.

Given the current condition of organized labor and the global mobility of manufacturing, these are hardly realistic fears. There were only 35 major strikes in all the United States last year. There haven't been more than 100 strikes in any year since 1981. In 1979 there were 235 strikes. In 1974, 424.

One reason is the decline in union membership. Another is the wretched example Ronald Reagan set in 1981 by firing all the air-traffic controllers who had the temerity to strike in protest to working conditions of appalling stress. Another is increasing

global competition and the ease with which U.S. companies can transfer operations overseas.

Whatever the reasons, the results have not been very pretty. The decline of the unions and in the level of strike activity has moved in lockstep with stagnation of blue-collar wages, an explosion in individual wrongful-dismissal litigation by workers with no unions defend them, sharp declines in the percentage of companies offering pension and health-care benefits, the overall redistribution of income to the benefit of the wealthy, less job security and huge increases in part-time and temporary jobs as a percentage of total employment.

America with weakened unions is simply not a nicer place unless, of course, you are the CEO of a major corporation whose annual compensation has been rising obscenely over the last decade.

Miraculously, this seems to have sunk in with a majority in Congress, including more than a few members not normally to be found on the side of organized labor.

Even among a number of conservative economists, especially those who applaud labor's recent tendency toward greater cooperation with management on productivity issues, there is an increasing sense that the nation has lost something essential to social fairness -- something, well, American -- by tilting the industrial playing field too far to labor's disadvantage.

Besides, in an era where it is increasingly fashionable to disparage those who don't work -- even when there are no jobs for them -- it is finally occurring even to some of the cement heads in Congress that it would be nice for a change to do something decent for those who do.

Robert Reno is a columnist for Newsday.

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