The planned merger of the Steelworkers, Auto Workers and Machinists unions is the biggest-ever union consolidation in U.S. history, and union officials say it won't be the last.
After losing millions of members because of corporate consolidations and restructurings, Big Labor is fighting back by consolidating and restructuring itself, a move that is drawing even grudging admiration from union busters.
But as labor leaders, sounding strangely like corporate managers, began last week to laud the advantages of economies of scale, questions abounded.
Union members and analysts warned that the merger plan announced July 27 is probably not enough to revive a labor movement that has seen union membership drop from one-third to one-seventh of the U.S. work force.
Instead, they said, unions must follow through on plans to consolidate even further, and change their structure and tactics.
"Had businesses not all merged up, the unions would not have to," said Rodney Trump, president of the United Auto Workers Local 239, which represents the workers at the General Motors Corp. van plant in Baltimore.
The merger "makes a lot of sense. They can do things more efficiently and economically," said David Lipsky, dean of the School of Industrial Labor Relations at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
But a merger alone won't solve all the reasons for unions' decline, which include foreign competition, automation, the rise of smaller, nonunion companies and political opposition to the unions' own blunders, Mr. Lipsky said.
That's why unions are starting to make other changes, such as discussing pacts with overseas unions and attempting to win over American workers in traditionally unorganized -- and growing -- jobs such as security guards and taxi drivers, he said.
But Mr. Lipsky said he doesn't know whether the merger would lead to the fundamental changes needed to revive the labor movement.
"It is not clear whether you can take three unions that have had their troubles and really expect mira- cles" by joining them together, he said.
Indeed, consolidation alone has never been a cure for labor's problems.
In the last 40 years, there have been 133 union mergers. Over the same period, the number of union members in the United States has risen from 16.8 million to a high of 22.9 million members in 1979 and dropped back down to 16.8 million, even as the work force more than doubled from 50 million to 123 million.
But until last month, the biggest unions had remained separate, even though many leaders had long thought they ought to
Douglas Fraser, head of the UAW from 1977 to 1983, said last week that he had tried several times to merge other large unions, including the United Rubber Workers and the International Association of Machinists, into the UAW.
But the efforts were stymied by personality clashes, leaders' refusal to give up their jobs and unions' preoccupation with more immediate battles.
"That's why you have 84 unions instead of 15," said Mr. Fraser, now a professor at Wayne State University in Michigan.
"People are reluctant to give up their fiefdoms. . . . And we became so absorbed with the problems of the 1980s and concessionary agreements" that union leaders didn't pursue mergers they knew were badly needed.
"We cannot offer resources needed to protect against large employers with little unions," he said.
But by the time the leaders of the Machinists, Steelworkers and Auto Workers unions met at a dinner July 19 to explore a merger, the bleak trends they were facing made a compelling case.
Since the early 1970s, all three unions had seen their memberships drop nearly in half: The UAW from 1.5 million to 800,000, the International Association of Machinists from a 1 million peak to 500,000 and the United Steelworkers from 1.2 million members to 700,000, with virtually no prospect of rebuilding their core memberships.
U.S. automakers have drastically cut domestic jobs, closed plants, automated the remaining ones and shifted work to south of the border. Big Steel is competing with imports and nonunion minimills, and the Machinists declined along with the U.S. aerospace and defense industries.
Thus, over seven days of secret negotiations, the three labor leaders agreed their unions had to unite, and allowed a five-year period to work out the issues that had scuttled similar deals in the past.
The details will be discussed in meetings scheduled to start this week, union officials said. Already, union insiders say, several other unions have approached the three to discuss joining in the merger talks.
Although surprised and pleased by the sudden merger announcement, union members immediately called for further action.
The planned consolidation "is a great idea," said Mr. Trump, the local UAW leader. "A larger organization will be more efficient, have more influence, more clout."
zTC But, he added, because businesses are also expanding overseas and outsourcing more work to smaller shops, unions will have to follow those corporate trends too.